Rising out of the radical Marxist French millieu and events of 1968 to criticize global capitalism and encourage revolution in theory and practice, From Crisis to Communisation places libertarian communist theory in historical and contemporary context. Communisation means something quite straightforward: a revolution that starts to change social relations immediately. The concept was born out of a specific period, and this book investigates how people personally and collectively experienced the crises of the 1960s and 1970s. The notion is now developing in the maelstrom of a new crisis, among other reasons because of its ecological dimension, that has the scope and magnitude of a crisis of civilization. This is not a book that glorifies existing struggles as if their present accumulation was enough to result in revolution. Radical theory is meaningful if it addresses this question: how can proletarian resistance to exploitation and dispossession achieve more than aggravate the crisis? How can it reshape the world?
About the Author
Gilles Dauvé has worked as a translator and teacher. He is the author of Eclipse and Re-emergence of the Communist Movement and essays and books on the Russian, German, and Spanish revolutions. His texts What Is Situationism? and Fascism/Anti-Fascism (written as Jean Barrot) have led a legendary existence in the samizdat pamphlet underground.
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§ 1: Back to the 1960s–70s
Let's start with a hard fact: in the 1960s and '70s, the proletarians did not cross the Rubicon.
Fordism had reached its zenith at the same time as it intensified work and as dissatisfaction about consumer society started to grow. That double cause resulted in the combination of worker unrest and a critique of daily life, which launched a long proletarian wave.
When the movement lost its critical edge, its manifold aspects turned into fragmented piecemeal transformations. The workplace became the scene of a neo-unionism, albeit with little new union creation. Armed violence disconnected itself from social disturbances. Women's action withdrew into feminism. The critique of the party led to the launching of grouplets, and the critique of vanguardism ended in rank-and-filism. Rebellious marginality got integrated into acceptable street culture. The critique of daily life gave birth to alternativism and cyberindividualism. Instead of anti-imperialist and antimilitary actions, the 2003 Iraq War coincided with the heyday of consensual pacifism.
This was no novelty: revolutionary failures unleash reaction and recuperation.
The big turn lay elsewhere: no radical grassroots organisation was born out of this worldwide storm, even in countries which were at the peak of the movement, and those organisations that emerged were short-lived, or merged with former organisations, unions usually. The Argentine Cordobazo popular uprising of 1969 did not create large sustainable organisations, and neither did the widespread worker insubordination and street rioting in the mid-1970s in Italy. New bodies or breakaway unions spring up all the time, with little foothold in the working class.
This major change went rather unnoticed at the time and still is.
All previous unrest or insurrectionary periods had resulted in the creation of new forms, whether party, union, or autonomous body. In the West and in Japan, since the demise of the Spanish Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) in 1937, no far-left party with strongholds in the workplace has been founded and has managed to fight on. Nothing comparable to early twentieth-century social democracy, Stalinist parties, or the 1930s CIO. Syriza is just about capable of moderating unrest in Greece: it proves incapable of putting forth a platform alternative to mainstream bourgeois politics.
One of the main reasons for this is the lack of intermediate demands capable of gathering mass support in the working class, as universal suffrage, the eight-hour day, union rights, labour laws, and paid holidays had done before World War II. Whatever the causes, this meant the real end of the worker movement as we had known it. Its later decline, under the combined pressures of unemployment, deindustrialisation and repression, as exemplified by the English miners' defeat in 1984–85, was a dramatic yet secondary matter.
The absence of any serious attempt to create new, permanent grassroots organisations is all the more striking considering that one of the main features of the period was the persistent effort to achieve autonomy. Though party and union bureaucrats were still able to mediate between labour and capital, they came under criticism and sometimes attack as they had not been since the German Unionen after 1918. Only a minority rejected bureaucracy, institutions, and authority, but it was a militant minority, usually the initiators of strikes and riots, and not just in Western Europe or the United States.
Unlike post-1917, there was no attempt to seize political power or to take over the workplace. Factory occupation was the bother of a fraction of the labour force, often the union activists, and in Italy quite a few occupiers preferred to sleep at home.
Politically, nobody expected a truly different policy from a socialist or popular government if it came to power. Since then, the traditional platform of the left (to make the poor richer, and the potent less powerful) has lost credibility and at best is seen as the least-bad option on offer. The communist parties have gone social democrat and the leftists look like what the CPs used to be — minus Stalinism.
Traditional solutions seemed outmoded. Cooperation and self-management were and are only implemented when the bosses leave, seen for example on a large scale in Portugal in 1974–75 and on a smaller scale in Argentina after 2001.
On the other hand, while the "old" worker movement has not given itself new forms, there are no radical programmes either: nothing like the 1919 German Unionen, no worker councils with the prospect of taking over and managing production.
Then and now, grassroots activity is local and basis-centred. Party-builders are derided: Lenin's democratic centralism is out, autonomy is the "in thing." Ex-Trots claim to be bottom-up. Call has more readers than What Is to Be Done? No more parties: this is the age of associations, info kiosks, networks, NGOs ...
Meanwhile, the bourgeois hold the fort and are strong enough to make people believe that there is no such thing as a bourgeoisie anymore, that the big social divide is no longer between classes, only between rich and poor — a gap that can be bridged by a slow trickle-down process (liberal option), or by a fair sharing of riches (reformist option). Parliamentary democracy is mocked but still finds the means to fill in the political vacuum. As is plain to see, no far-reaching reform is on the way and nowhere is society on the verge of any kind of revolution.
In sum, radical critique is left with more negative than positive certainties.
§ 2: Three Steps to Capitalist Dominion
Step One was the containment and repression of the 1960s and '70s upsurge in the street and the workplace.
Without this, there would have been no Step Two: the reimposition of work and reshuffling of capital, or in economists' terms business reengineering.
Step Three complemented One and Two by a flourish of theories according to which work was becoming inessential and the capital/labour relation no longer central. Class (and class struggle) had ceased to be a basic concept. If there was to be social change, it would not oppose the working class to a ruling bourgeoisie, but a shoreless popular whole to an anonymous shapeless domination. As in ballroom dancing, all three steps were concomitant: the popularity of the supposedly new social critique was and remains a by-product of the double process of proletarian defeat plus capitalist reorganisation.
To understand how capitalism regained the upper hand forty years ago, and has managed to keep it since, partial explanations are not enough:
The worker bureaucracy, this century-old enemy of radicalism, contained the surge because the proletarians allowed it. However infuriating this sounds to believers in worker pure class identity, union and party leadership only stifles proletarian autonomy when the rank and file limits itself to collective bargaining, even with militant and sometimes violent means.
Protest and unrest were not drowned in the flow of consumerism. True, contemporary individual objects (from the personal computer of the 1980s to current smartphone) have "recuperated" the demand for freedom typical of the 1960s and '70s. But consumer habits were in full bloom when the radical tide of that period happened, so they are not enough to prevent social unrest. Presenting consumption as a determinant is mistaking an effect for a cause. Capitalism is not run by supermarket shopping but by production for value and value accumulation. Indeed, a sign of capitalist victory is its ability to picture itself as a "consumer society." (A side effect is the description of over-consumption as responsible for ecological disasters present and future, implying that the culprit is none other than you and me.)
Modern capitalist is no "abstainer," and even labour is invited to buy. But mass consumption is always ruled by the "iron law" of accumulation, and the affluent society has poverty in its midst. About 15 percent of the German population live below the poverty threshold (60 percent of the average net income) in the "richest" European country.
Volumes have being written about the shift from a managerial to a shareholder capitalism. However true that is, managers and shareholders alike are driven by cost-benefit ratio, return on investment, viz. profitability. Managers came to the fore in the first half of the twentieth century when private ownership proved inadequate to promote business and deal with organised labour. And in the last decades of the century, shareholder power asserted itself only after worker insubordination had been squelched.
Equally misleading is the explanation of the working debacle by foreign cost-cutting competition. This is forgetting that Mexican, Philippine, Chinese, and Romanian businessmen did not force their way into North American, Japanese, and West European markets. Outsourcing was initiated by the then dominant national bourgeoisies after they had checked labour rebellion. Nowadays most of downsizing in the old industrial metropolises is due not to goods being manufactured in Asia but to productivity rises in Western and Japanese factories which need less labour to produce more.
Another fashionable school of thought insists on the new spirit of capitalism, which is said to have traded the hierarchical Fordist structure for a network-based organisation founded on team management, employee initiative and work autonomy. With a condescending look down upon blue-collar workers unable to see beyond their machine tools and assembly lines, sociologists explain how crafty bosses recuperated the 1968 "artistic critique" of alienation and authority. The twenty-first century factory would be a place where labour is controlled by appealing to creativity, mobility, training, multitasking, and individual self-empowerment.
This is valid as long as one forgets the difference between management textbooks and life on the shop floor, between ideology and reality. The modern factory is authoritarian, and neo-Taylorism dominates the emerging countries. But above all and once again, law and order had first to be reintroduced in the workplace and in the street before new management techniques could be introduced and forced upon labour.
A deeper interpretation stressed the interiorisation of capital. The '68 rebels wanted to be free but, as they did not question capitalism, they were granted capitalist freedom. Since the failure of (bureaucratic) socialism with a human face, we would now live as humans with a capitalist face and mind: what Jacques Camatte called the anthropomorphosis of capital, which allegedly succeeds in remodelling us and creating a permanent addictive behaviour, where hyperactivity is in fact a passive compulsion to buy and consume. This vision has the merit of emphasising how capitalism feeds on human reality: capitalism is a vampire ... that perpetuates its victims. But that illustrates a weakness as much as its triumph. What is most striking is rather capital's inability to take any shape and form: such a plastic system cannot become human and natural, and only does so by destroying the human and natural substance it lives off. Capitalist artificiality seems limitless until limits reassert themselves, in the exploitation of labour (who rebels) as in the waste of resources (which finally hinders profitability). Humans will not become virtual. Online life is fascinating, a fascinating myth: neither world nor society can be completely spectacularised.
All these interpretations share a common misbelief: we would now be living under anew capitalism. According to its theorists, society has moved away from a factory-based economy toward a knowledge economy, communication is production, we are all worker-producers, exploitation is domination (and vice versa).
One may wonder how immaterial an Amazon warehouse or a container ship is.
What these theories really want to demonstrate is that this completely "new" capitalism is hardly capitalist anymore, since capital is diluted into social power mechanisms, every one of which comes under critical study, all of them except the one that structures the whole: wage-labour. There may be work left but no working class, rather a floating jobless population. As for a bourgeoisie, it is scarcely mentioned: the days of cosmopolitan jetsetting nomad finance oligarchs leave no room for such a simplistic notion as class. The wielders of economic power are everywhere and nowhere, the argument runs, so there is no bourgeois class anymore. Every critique is welcome, except the one that says there is a capital/labour relation embodied in two groups called "classes": that's old fashioned Marxism, dead and buried under the ruins of the Berlin Wall.
This was the mind-set alongside and against which the communisation concept was born.
§ 3: Excursus
The points made in this book derive from personal and collective experience, and there is no way of telling this story without telling our own. What we experienced was an example among others: we do not set ourselves as an example. This starting point will only come as a surprise to those who think it possible to negate their subjectivity and to consider communist theory (and themselves with it) as a pure and simple "product of class struggle."
3.1: Back to '68
A few words are useful on one of the small milieus that took part in the May–June '68 events and strike: Left Communists, libertarian communists, readers of the Situationist International (SI), anarchists ... Some had been members of Pouvoir Ouvrier (Worker Power, a split from Socialisme ou Barbarie when this group casted off Marxism and class). One of the guys later involved in the RATP (Paris public transport) committee had thought of joining the SI or Socialisme ou Barbarie and finally preferred to stay out of both. This is not the place for a Situationist narrative, so let's just recall the link between the SI and SoB: Debord was a member of SoB for a year in 1960–61, and it was SoB which brought the worker councils theme to the SI. Fredy Perlman, active in the Citroën committee, had been critical of American academia and mainstream left, experienced Yugoslav socialism, and written on commodity fetishism. Members of the GLAT, another group in the German Left tradition, were also involved in the events we will retell. Most participants, however, did not belong to any formal gathering. They may have called themselves revolutionaries but were certainly not professional ones.
What brought them together and enabled them to "naturally" connect with radical workers was their opposition to party and union bureaucracy, not as a bad leadership that ought to be replaced by a good one, but as something utterly antagonistic to worker interests and human emancipation. They also obviously regarded so-called socialist countries as capitalist. This may sound banal over twenty years after the collapse of the USSR, but it was not at a time when the vast majority of leftists supported some variant of Russian, Chinese, Cuban, Vietnamese, or Yugoslav socialism.
As an illustration of the extent and limit of our understanding, I could mention the pamphlet that I wrote on the Russian revolution, published a couple of months before May '68. Its purpose was to prove how the Russian proletariat had tried and failed to seize production and society into their own hands after 1917, before the Bolshevik party became the new exploiting class. Such a councilist interpretation fitted in with the theoretical framework common to our milieu: worker management extended to self-management of daily life (this last point demonstrating the influence of the SI).
3.2: The General Strike, an Eye-Opener
Mid-May '68, a small worker minority, sometimes no more than a handful but often among the initiators of the strike in their plant, realised their inability to avoid union (usually the Communist Party–led General Confederation of Labor) control over the strike. The only way for them to link with similar minorities was to step outside the workplace and go to occupied public buildings to meet like-minded people. Quite a few workers (young ones, particularly) would leave the factory to go and see "the students" (lots of whom never were university students), often to no avail, sometimes with a positive encounter. For two months, the Censier faculty in Paris (at the southern end of the Latin Quarter) was to be one of those meeting places that served as a coordinating organ for unelected but representative informal worker delegates (some from huge factories): a worker autonomy in search of itself. That experience was similar to others elsewhere and later, in Italy after 1969 for example, or in the Spanish assembly movement in the late '70s.
Censier was not the only contact point for rebel proletarians, but was one of the very few that was able to organise common action against the bosses and police, and to counteract union power to some extent. The workers who came to Censier were not looking for people of good will ready to organise them or help them organise themselves. They needed neither masters nor servants, neither teachers nor disciples. They wanted to act with others (workers and non-workers) as equals. Sociologically speaking, Censier was certainly one of the most "worker" loci in '68, albeit one where workerism was the least present. We did not try to level with the proles; we spoke to whoever was level with us.(Continues…)
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Table of Contents
Communisation and my Discontent 1
Chapter 1 Legacy 3
§ 1 Back to the 1960s-70s 3
§ 2 Three Steps to Capitalist Dominion 6
§ 3 Excursus 9
3.1 Back to '68 9
3.2 The General Strike, an Eye-Opener 10
3.3 Maturation 13
3.4 Portugal and Poland: Inextricable Problem and Solution 15
Chapter 2 Birth of a Notion 17
§ 1 End of Classism 17
1.1 Classism in Crisis 17
1.2 Class Out of Fashion 18
1.3 The All-inclusive Class 20
1.4 From Class to Individuals 22
§ 2 Facing the Conundrum 23
§ 3 The Common Good 25
§ 4 Adieu to Disappointment and Spleen 27
§ 5 In a Nutshell 29
§ 6 If It's That Simple, Why …? 30
§ 7 The Word 33
Chapter 3 Work Undone 35
Road Work Unreal 35
§ 1 Working Substance 36
1.1 Work Is Class 37
1.2 Work Reduces Every Activity to a Common Substance 38
1.3 Wage-Labour Turns Work into a Commodity 38
1.4 Work Is Separation 39
1.5 Work Is Productivity and Accountancy 40
1.6 Work Is Reducing Everything to a Minimum of Time 40
1.7 Under the Rule of Work 43
§ 2 Neither Work nor Economy 44
2.1 Production Is Not Economy 44
2.2 Communism as Activity 46
Chapter 4 Crisis of Civilisation 51
§ 1 Why "Civilisation"? 51
§ 2 A European Civil War 53
§ 3 How Capitalism Globalised Its Crisis of the 1960s and '70s 57
§ 4 Neoliberalism Fallacy 61
§ 5 Wages, Price, and Profit 62
§ 6 The Impossibility of Reducing Everything to Time 66
§ 7 Shareholder Capitalism 67
§ 8 A Class Out of Joint 69
§ 9 The Money God That Fails 71
§ 10 Quantifying the Qualitative 72
§ 11 Forbidden Planet? 74
§ 12 No Capitalist Self-Reform 77
§ 13 Deadlock 79
§ 14 No "Creative Destruction"… Yet 81
§ 15 Social Reproduction, So Far… 84
Chapter 5 Trouble in Class 87
§ 1 Resistance 87
1.1 The Autonomy Paradox 87
3.2 Autonomy/Communisation 89
1.3 Labour Movement Resurgence 90
1.4 Proletarian Drive and Bourgeois Outcome 92
§ 2 Going Beyond Class? 94
2.1 Occupy/Transform 94
2.2 Radical-Reformist Complication 97
§ 3 Communism as Ideology 98
§ 4 The Improbable Art of Crisis Assessment 99
§ 5 No Revolutionary Subject without Subjectivity 101
Chapter 6 Creative Insurrection 103
§ 1 An Anti-work and Anti-proletarian Insurrection? 103
1.1 Self-Critique of Work 103
1.2 Anti-proletarian Acts 105
§ 2 From Work to Activity? 106
§ 3 How Will Communisation Satisfy People's Basic Needs? 110
§ 4 Abundance v. Scarcity? 114
§ 5 A World without Money? 116
§ 6 Parasitic Activities? 120
§ 7 Too Late to Save the Planet? 122
§ 8 Daily Life Changes or Big Issues? 123
§ 9 From Worker to After-Dinner Critic? 126
§ 10 What about Gender? 130
§ 11 What about Violence? 135
§ 12 Who Would Be the Communisers? 138
§ 13 Reaching the Tipping Point? 141
§ 14 How Relevant Is This Questions and Answers List? 144
Chapter 7 A Veritable Split 147
§ 1 Polemics 147
§ 2 It Takes More Than a Step Aside 148
§ 3 Decoupling Proletarian from Worker 150
3.1 The Two-Stage Postulate 151
3.2 What Worker Identity? 153
3.3 The Great Simplifier 158
3.4 The Ratchet Effect 160
3.5 "I Bring You Good Tidings" 161
§ 4 Crossover Identity Politics 162
§ 5 The Proletariat as a Contradiction 166