Wildcat 86, spring 2010

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Can Anyone Say Communism?

Crisis and criticism

The political practice of the relation between crisis and criticism is communism. Crisis is not illness in contrast to an allegedly normal trajectory, but sudden change in the course of an illness – that is what the word used to mean in medicine. It does not always bring opportunity, but it is the moment of danger. However it is not about reaching the end of the tunnel in order to keep going on the same tracks again, but about interrupting the old routine and taking a different pathway.

The arrogance of victors

The defeat of workers’ struggles in the past 40 years and the outcome of the Cold War have filled the victors with arrogance. By equating modernity with freedom, democracy and human rights, Western civilization can pretend to be the perfection of history. The allegedly unconditional character of its political values is inseparable from the missionary export of democracy and human rights, the political assertion of the victors’ understanding of history.

Still terrified by the specter of communism, the »victors« are destroying what the workers’ movement has fought for, as well as the constitutional state under the rule of law itself, although it was so close to their heart during the struggle against »totalitarianism«. Their fear diffuses into the whole society and creates a paranoid world built on danger/security (bird and swine flu, Frontex [European border security agency]…).

But when the arrogant destroy the constitutional state and attack the welfare state, it is not the mission of communists to defend those things. Instead we have to confront the »victors« with the real power which has forced them and still forces them to act in panic against their own institutions. This power has a tradition and a name.

Can anyone say class struggle?

The European social democrats are at the end. They were only ever administering the collective rights won by the working class, and now, as these rights are under attack, this administrative role is at its end as well. To prevent authoritarian decline they would have had to encourage class struggle. Instead they have propagated an unlikely social reconciliation. Those who want to abandon class struggle to the bloody last century need not wonder at the authoritarian regression of the constitutional state.

1. What the hell is water?

Two young fishes meet an older fish. He greets them and says: »Well boys, how’s the water?« The two swim on, then one turns to the other and asks: »What the hell is water?«
We are not interested so much in who the old fish was, but in his question! The naturalisation of the capitalist mode of production turns the present into an ahistoric illusion, so that the search for change – after communism – becomes unthinkable. In order to lay new foundations for revolutionary politics, we need a different understanding of history, we have to comprehend it as a political category.

There is a communist history that does not belong to the archives; several generations have repeatedly tried to interrupt the course of capitalist modernity in order to let a different history begin. We must preserve this possibility by understanding the past as unfinished, from the Spartacist uprising to Müntzer’s peasants. In the capitalist configuration, this struggle is called communism and is related to the name »Marx«. But because his problems are still our own, we must always take into account what is still unredeemed since these beginnings.

2. Defining communism

Stalinism justified the most brutal deeds of capitalist accumulation as steps towards building up socialism. Social democracy turned Marx’s dictum in the »German Ideology« about communism as the »real movement which abolishes the present state of things« into Bernstein’s version: »there is no aim, the movement is everything.« Communism as an ideal, as something that is aimed for but can never be made real.

Stalinists and Social Democrats have had the same philosophy of history along the lines of progress and the development of the forces of production. This understanding, shared by the fascist technocracies, lives on in the eurocentric definition of history considering nine tenths of the world as remnants. The postmodern world-view is a pure product of modernity. The way it juxtaposes phases – forms of peasant slavery next to high tech production – explains nothing, but obscures and misappropriates the fact that these phases were synchronised violently by the world market.

The postmodern juxtaposition of a diversity of in-different historical phases only leaves a single difference: that between »modernity« and »postmodernity«. But this spatialisation of time is only the inversion of the temporalisation of space. Postmodernity puts the different historical phases next to each other spatially and reproduces only their appearance, while modernity puts the different historical phases into a hierarchy derived from its own temporality, and into conflict with each other.

3. Time-strata

Marx’s encounter with the Russian Narodniki and his last anthropological studies reveal a problem. The four drafts of the famous letter to Vera Zasulich ask two questions essential for understanding the world market and a form of politics corresponding to it. Anyone ignoring these questions continues in the tradition of official Marxism, which regarded these letters as palpable signs of »the decline of Marx’s scholarly abilities«.1 The capitalist mode of production integrates different forms of production, but without an understanding of value this relation remains incomprehensible.

Violent integration into the world market shakes up existing social relations and historical formations; however these cannot be understood as stages on a linear measure of historical progress, but only as layered time-strata: »as in geological formations, these historical forms contain a whole series of primary, secondary, tertiary types, etc.«2 If historical forms are not placed in temporal sequence of progress from past to the present, but are ordered as »geological formations«, in which what has been exists next to the present, the common presence of different historic phases on one surface becomes thinkable.

Once the perspective of historical Flatland is abandoned, the different pathways become visible. Not because the different historical phases are independent of each other, but on the contrary because they are synchronised by force and resist this synchronisation. The Russian Narodniki such as Chernyshevsky, held in esteem by Marx, had no romantic nostalgia for the old forms of peasant community. They were looking for the possibility of historical leaps: Russia does not have to go through the »dissolution of the Russian peasants’ communities«, if the different situations, the »geological strata« lying next to each other, fertilize each other.

4. Leaps in time and anachronisms

In the first half of the 20th century, Ernst Bloch used the image of the multiverse to think about capitalist dissimultaneities, which were treated as remnants by Marxism and became the fuel of National Socialism. Marx in his late work had already started to grasp historical phases in a new way in response to the failure of the Paris Commune and the 19th century model of revolution, which conceived the proletarian revolution as a continuation of the progress manifest in the bourgeois revolution. There is no nostalgia or romanticism in his remarks about »primitive communities«.

A return to the ancient community is neither possible nor an aim. Common property was tied to land cultivated with a rigid division of labor. According to Marx, in a »higher economic formation of society« property is not transferred to the whole society or even to the state, nor even to all existing societies together! They are not owners, only possessors of the earth. Humans as its beneficiaries »have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations«.3

Bequeathing it in an improved way is only possible because communism starts from state-of-the-art objectified labour, both in regard to its productive and its destructive potential. Communism is opposed to the capitalist mode of production in every aspect.

5. Decency

«When communist artisans associate with one another, theory, propaganda, etc., is their first end. But at the same time, as a result of this association, they acquire a new need – the need for society – and what appears as a means becomes an end. In this practical process the most splendid results are to be observed whenever French socialist workers are seen together. Such things as smoking, drinking, eating, etc., are no longer means of contact or means that bring them together. Company, association, and conversation, which again has society as its end, are enough for them; the brotherhood of man is no mere phrase with them, but a fact of life…«4

The means as an aim. A communist ethics of the common is connected with an anti-teleology of history.

The association, the common practice of struggling workers is communist anticipation. The essence of the relationships contained in this practice is already understood as the goal that is aimed for. Stalinism was the opposite of communist decency. The personality cult still living on in the enthusiasm for strong leaders justifies the cruelties committed today with the future implementation of the realm of freedom.

A political organisation that attributes a leading role to a single person and acts politically with the sole purpose of making itself known postpones »Communism« to a future that can never be reached. What is the difference between a leader who decides which militant can be sacrificed during a political operation, and the fascist party official or the foreman who decides which worker has to clean a tank contaminated with poisonous gas?

Revolutionary practice cannot be judged according to any external criterion, neither that of a future to be realised nor that of a world to be destroyed. It must be inherent to the practice itself, as in the »most splendid results of the French socialist ouvriers« referred to by Marx. Happiness is no »mere booty, which falls to the victor«, it is already »present in class struggle«.5 This communist anticipation puts into question what exists: the rule of the victors and every one of their present or past victories. Following Hegel6, we grasp this anticipation as communist decency.

6. Civil war as normality

«The capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser when he tries to make the working-day as long as possible, and to make, whenever possible, two working-days out of one. On the other hand, the peculiar nature of the commodity sold implies a limit to its consumption by the purchaser, and the labourer maintains his right as seller when he wishes to reduce the working-day to one of definite normal duration. There is here, therefore, an antinomy, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges. Between equal rights force decides. Hence is it that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working-day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e., the working-class.«7

There is an important change of perspective here. At first the struggle around the workday is seen from the viewpoint of the law: equal legal subjects, in a symmetrical relation to each other, buy and sell labour power as a commodity. Everyone attempts to sell their commodity as expensively and to buy it as cheaply as possible. Because the injustice is covered up by the law. That is precisely its function.

Descending into the sites of production, however, »we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but ― a hiding.«8 The prose of Capital changes: the neutrality of the law gives way to the »neutrality« of the factory inspectors’ reports. Marx strings together quotations from those reports, adding comments straight from capital’s chambers of horrors: vampires and werewolves are roaming everywhere.

The descent into the sites of production shows that class struggle is not simply about more money: it is a life and death struggle – not only for physical survival, but for a real life.

The relations of production can be seen as they really are: as asymmetrical relations. If a subject sells its labour power, it has sold its life, the right to use its own body and mind. The asymmetry is unveiled as the true relation covered by the law. The law can be seen as what it really is: civil war. Except that the »history of capitalist production« cannot be overcome by winning this civil war.

There is no »just wage«; the only thing that can be seen as just is the destruction of the wage relation itself, i.e. destruction of the entire »civil war« fought constantly between the classes. The proletarian is not simply excluded and demanding to be integrated into a new order: rather, because he does not want to be a proletarian any longer, he must destroy the order that turns human beings into proletarians.

7. State, law, class

Nothing has corrupted the (German) working class more than the idea of being able to swim with the tide, i.e. with progress. Walter Benjamin articulated this thought at a time of terrible danger, when National Socialism, Social Democracy and Stalinism worked for the liquidation of communist class struggle in a joint effort.

Actually the idea of progress is directly opposed to that of communism. Most of all it produces the false idea that better working conditions, warranted social rights and collective working contracts could emerge from the struggles for certain rights, i.e. from the »natural development« of the civilisation of the law. It is the idea that the capitalist mode of production cannot be overcome once and for all, but can be tamed and civilised gradually. But only when the class as a collective subject with the right to use violence9 enters the stage can social and collective rights be set against the normality of the capitalist mode of production, that is, against the atomisation accompanying individual rights and negotiations.

The working class is the only subject that has fought successfully for the right to use violence parallel to the state and opposed to it: the right to strike. In this scenario, the state is not the executive committee of one class, it is opposed to class struggle per se. The state may very well also find it necessary to defend the interests of the proletariat or parts of the bourgeoisie against other interests.

As the modern state only relates to atomised legal subjects, it opposes every form of collective rights and recuperates the right to use violence, which was seized and turned against it by the working class, as soon as possible. Against this backdrop, astonishment at the authoritarian implosion of the constitutional state can be compared to the astonishment of the fish who is asked about the temperature of the water and says: »What the hell is water?«

Exactly: it is hell. The juridification sought in struggles for recognition of particular claims brings about the depoliticisation of the social and of the rule of violence, a rule that cannot be opposed democratically.

8. Machines and knowledge

«Capital’s ceaseless striving towards the general form of wealth drives labour beyond the limits of its natural paltriness, and thus creates the material elements for the development of the rich individuality which is as all-sided in its production as in its consumption…«10

In this way the capitalist mode of production builds the base for the social individual, a new social formation and a new anthropology.

In the Fragment on Machines, Marx tried to elaborate a dictionary for communism. The »social individual« and the »social brain«(Gesellschaftliches Hirn, often translated as ‘general intellect’) are products of the present mode of production, but also point beyond it. With the expression »social brain«, Marx refers to a potentiality of the whole knowledge of the whole species: the brain is no longer the content of one single head. The current crisis of all branches of knowledge and of the whole education system is a symptom of this process, through which knowledge takes on an increasingly social character. Today in seafaring a different kind of know-how is necessary than in the old days.

Much of it is objectified in electronic devices and nautical documents; nobody could do this on his own. Although many people despise »all that technology« and want a »simple life«, nobody would seriously exchange the collective knowledge of today for that of a sailor from antiquity. The objectification of knowledge by now reaches the realm of the humanities and social sciences. The individual possibly appears to be more ignorant in the current relations of production than a graduate from the past century.

But when you do not look only at individuals and individual brains, things look different. From the viewpoint of the whole of society, knowledge has not withered but expanded. What is romantically mourned as a loss of culture really is a step towards the production of culturally individualised subjectivity in global social knowledge. There is more of this information in the form of objectified knowledge, and more people can gain access to it that twenty years ago.

Culturally a young person from Singapore, Milan or Taiwan today is closer to one from Tokyo, New York or Paris than an inhabitant of the South of Germany was to someone from the North of the country fifty years ago. But this objectified knowledge must be newly appropriated, otherwise it remains an expression of capitalist rule and produces misery instead of wealth.

Analysis of the new forms of production and knowledge must therefore at the same time be a critique of the sciences. Every serious reflection on alternatives to capitalism must take the global level into view, indeed it must take it as its starting point. Nationalist or regionalist decouplings such as Keynesianism and »free money« are in fact impossible. Historically, Keynesianism was the heyday of technocratic development politics from above, a conscious strategy for the destruction of grassroots initiatives, which could only be brought to a halt by the class struggles of the 1960s.11 Theories of free money have an affinity to antisemitic »crisis theories«.

9. World market / global working class

The music is global today! During the crisis at the beginning of the 1990s, Karl Heinz Roth elaborated this with his theses on proletarianisation: living conditions are levelling globally, and at the same time class opposites and social inequality are getting sharper.12 Today this has become obvious. For the first time, the main direction of class struggle is no longer towards development; the Communist Parties have become obsolete.13

For the first time, the global working class is able to criticise capitalist progress and in so doing really to put communism – not the »construction of socialism« – on the agenda. And for the first time a the impact of a capitalist economic crisis on a global working class is simultaneous everywhere.14

10. Communism

Only the working class that exits from capital can solve the current problems of mankind. The problems of technology, hunger, the destruction of nature etc. can only be tackled by starting from global productive cooperation. The reappropriation of the incredible masses of reified labour and the inversion of productive cooperation show the way. We must defend Benjamin against the common flattening of his theses on history: not only did he regard the class as the only possible »subject of historical insight«, but together with Marx he also refuted the basic blockheadedness of social democracy, which already worshipped work as the »source of all wealth and all culture« in the Gotha programme.15 Communism is the abolition of work. Accumulation for its own sake and (imposition of) work become free activity.


1 See H. Wasa, Marx and revolutionary Russia, in: T. Shanin (Hg.), Late Marx and the Russian Road. Marx and »the peripheries of capitalism«, New York, Monthly Review Press, 1983, p.42.

2 Marx: Letter To Vera Zasulich, MECW, Volume 24, p.346.

3Capital III., p.911.

4Marx: Economic & PhilosophManuscripts of 1844 p.19

5Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History

6Hegel: »Ethical life is the idea of freedom…«. In: Philosophy of Right.

7Marx, Capital I, Chapter 10.

8Marx, Capital I, Chapter 6.

9M.Tomba, Another kind of Gewalt: Beyond Law. Re-Reading Walter Benjamin, in: Historical Materialism 17

(2009), S. 126–144.

10Marx, Grundrisse.

11 See Gabriel Kolko: Main Currents of American History, 1984

12Karl Heinz Roth, Die Wiederkehr der Proletarität, 1994

13See Loren Goldner: Communism is the material human community, http://home.earthlink.net/˜lrgoldner/bordiga.html

14See Wildcat 82, Beyond the Peasant Internationale

15See Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History

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