When Guy Debord of the Situationist International (SI) graffitied the slogan Never
Work! onto the walls of a Parisian street in 1953, he struck a blow in
solidarity with the radical current of left communism which locates the wage-labour
relation as the central pillar of capitalist relations and therefore the prime
locus of attack. It is, of course, a banality that we need to work in order
to produce for our basic needs. But what is at question here is the nature
of that work, for whom, and to what end? Useful work? Or useless toil? As Raoul
Vaneigem of the SI argued, every appeal for productivity comes from above: It
is not from productivity that a full life is to be expected, it
is not productivity that will produce an enthusiastic response
to economic needs.1 Never mind.
The aim of capital is not to produce useful products, or fully-rounded citizens;
the chief aim is to augment capital through an increase in profit in a perpetual
system of self-valorisation. The means of this valorisation is that peculiar
form of commodity: labour-power. Labour power, in contrast to fixed capital
(the means of production), creates surplus wealth for capital over
and beyond the immediate needs of the worker. This is the ABC of capitalist growth.
The drive to productivity and the concomitant tendency to force down wages
and conditions at every opportunity is thus clear from capitals perspective.
That work should be valorised universally comes then as no surprise. The recent
welfare reform proposals of the former Work and Pensions Secretary, James Purnell,
maintain that work is the best route out of poverty. As George Monbiot
has recently commented, the political value of any project that claims to produce
jobs, especially in times of recession, is given hyperbolic status. Yet, as
Monbiot goes on to argue, the employment figures attached to large projects
tend to be codswallop; the promise of jobs is routinely used to
justify anything and everything.2 Jobs,
even when they do arrive, are far from guarantors against poverty. As Louis
Wacquant in his recent study of advanced marginality has argued, it is a delusion to
think that bringing people back into the labour market will durably reduce
poverty: [t]his is because the wage-labour relation itself has become
a source of built-in insecurity and social instability at the bottom of the
revamped class structure.3 Wacquant
cites Wal-Mart, the largest US employer, as a prime example of endemic working
poverty. Wal-Mart pays its sales associates, the most common
company position, $13,861 (nearly $1,000 dollars under the federal poverty
line for a family of three); one half of its employees are not covered
by the companys medical plan. This ensures that thousands of Wal-Marts
staff must resort to welfare to meet their basic needs on a normative basis
(welfare which is effectively a state subsidy to disguise Wal-Marts pathetic
As the ever so faint spectre of Keynes re-emerges, Wacquant warns
against undue faith in national, social-democratic measures of reflation for
alleviating entrenched poverty: [i]t is high time for us to forsake the
untenable assumption that a large majority of the adults of advanced society
can or will see their basic needs met by lifelong formal employment (or by
the permanent employment of members of their households) in the commodified
economy.4 Wacquant also casts
doubt on the ability of the traditional trade unions to deal with the new conditions
of urban marginality which effectively cut off large sections of advanced urban
populations from macroeconomic trends:
the trade unions are strikingly
ill-suited to tackle issues that arise and spill beyond the conventional spheres
of regulated wage work.5 Michael
Hardt and Antonio Negri recently re-iterated this point:
trade unions are not able to represent the unemployed, the poor, or even the
mobile and flexible post-Fordist workers with short-term contracts.
old unions are divided according to the various products and tasks defined
in the heyday of production
these traditional divisions (or even newly
defined divisions) no longer make sense and merely serve as an obstacle.6 Moreover,
the trades unions narrow focus on issues relating to the workplace has
meant their renunciation of wider political demands, and deepened their isolation
from broader social movements.
Evidently, the drive to productivity and the valorisation of work is to be
expected from the point of view of capital. However, the question is how have
social-democratic institutions, nominally of the Left, come to be complicit
in the subjugation of labour through the mantra of productivity? After all,
socialism is not capitalism and the refusal of the wage-labour relation and
the struggle against alienation must be at the heart of all those theories
which seek an exit from capitalism.
The Advent of the Industrial Christ
... every image of the past that is not recognized by the present
as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.
Benjamins most significant disagreement with
social democracy was with its technocratic conformism which construed production
as beneficial to workers per se: [n]othing has corrupted the German
working class so much as the notion that it was moving with the current
there it was but a step to the illusion that the factory work which was supposed
to tend toward technological process constituted a political achievement.8 For
Benjamin, the Gotha Programme (which gathered together the two main wings of
the German socialist movement in 1875) merely resurrected the Protestant work
ethic in secular form by narrowly defining labour as the source of all wealth
and all culture. Indeed, the Social Democrat, Josef Dietzgen, echoed Lamartine,
the French writer, poet and politician, who had earlier proclaimed the advent
of the industrial Christ9 by
declaring: [t]he saviour of modern times is called work.10 Friedrich
Ebert, the Social Democrat turned war patriot, meanwhile declared that socialism means
working hard.11 Benjamin thought
this reverence of work without reference to its alienating effects was fallacy
and confusion. It amounted to a vulgar conception of labour and its proceeds
that privileged distribution over production while downplaying the fact that
labour-power was still bought and sold in the marketplace like any other commodity.
Benjamins critique of Social Democracy drew from Marxs evaluation
of the Gotha Programmes resolutions. For Marx, it was a profound mistake
to put the principal stress on distribution; on the potential of a fair distribution
of the products of labour through equal rights, as long as distribution
remained a concomitant feature of the exploitative mode of production itself.
In Marxs analysis, this half-hearted form of socialism merely borrowed
from technocratic forms of bourgeois political economy by treating distribution
as totally independent of production. This ideological manoeuvre was made possible
by disavowing the real relations of production under capitalism which rested
then, as they do now (albeit in historically contingent forms), on the ownership
and control of the means of production and the exploitation of labour-power
for surplus value (profit). The ideological cleavage of distribution from production
by the German socialist movement meant that the presentation of socialism would
tend to rest thereafter on the minimal question of distribution rather than
the maximal one of production: of reform rather than revolution. In 1875, Marx
could already comment: [a]fter the real relation has long been made clear,
why retrogress again?.12 The
question remains a potent one.
The Law of Wages
Seemingly normal facts: that an individual has nothing to sell but his
labour power, that he must sell it to an enterprise to be able to live, that
everything is a commodity, that social relations revolve around exchange, are
the result of a long and violent process.
The basis of capitalism and wage-labour lie in pre-capitalist
forms of primitive accumulation, defined by Marx as nothing else than
the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production.14 This
transformation in the structure of servitude, from feudal to capitalist exploitation,
was no simple progression through homogenous empty time. The expropriation
of the immediate producers was accomplished, as Marx observed, with merciless
Vandalism, and inscribed in the annals of history in letters of
blood and fire. It is enough to cite the exploitation of gold and silver
of the Americas through slavery; the entombment of the aboriginal
population of Australia in mining operations; and the turning of Africa into
a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins15 to
intimate the rosy dawn of primitive accumulation in colonial settings.
Closer to home, the Enclosures of England16 and
the Clearances of Scotland17 are the
chief British markers of those violent rounds of primitive accumulation, where great
masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence
and hurled as free and unattached proletarians on the labour market.18
The capitalist system presupposes the separation of labourers from all
property by which they can realise their labour. Once divorced from the means
of production, the producer is immediately transformed into a wage-labourer and
their means of subsistence and production transformed into accumulated capital.
This then reproduces the original separation on a continually expanding scale: [i]t
cannot be otherwise in a mode of production in which the labourer exists to
satisfy the needs of the self-expansion of existing values, instead of, on
the contrary, material wealth existing to satisfy the needs of development
on the part of the labourer.19 Wealth
generated from past, dead labour (accumulated in the form of machines,
factories, new technologies of production) is set in motion by living labour
to accumulate more value, which is then invested in new branches, new machinery.
New technologies reduce necessary labour power and contribute to a reserve
army of labour which holds the pretensions of the prevailing labour force in
check: [t]he greater the social wealth, the functioning capital, the
extent and energy of its growth, and therefore, also the absolute mass of the
proletariat and the productiveness of its labour, the greater is the industrial
reserve army. The same causes which develop the expansive power of capital
develop also the labour power at its disposal.20 Higher
productivity on the part of the worker leads inversely to higher unemployment
and higher pauperisation rather than higher wages: [t]he higher the productiveness
of labour, the greater is the pressure of the labourers on the means of production,
the more precarious, therefore becomes their condition of existence.21
This inexorable fact of capitalism was what led Marx to argue for its supersession,
not merely its amelioration through social-democratic means. Reform under capitalism
can only ever be partial and piecemeal under a system whose raison dêtre is
the extraction of surplus value from labour by the owners of capital. This
essential system of squeezing is why the workplace has traditionally
been the scene of a constant silent war, of a perpetual struggle, of
pressure and counter-pressure.22 The
iron law of value precludes a diminution in the degree of exploitation of labour
and a rise in the price of wages that might seriously undermine the continual
reproduction, on an ever-enlarging scale, of the relations of capital.
Distribution or Production: Reform or Revolution
The means of this perpetual struggle between labour and capital
has of course been the subject of major discussion, and rifts, within the Left.
Crucially, the debate between Eduard Bernstein and Rosa Luxemburg at the end
of the 19th century marks a key juncture in the antagonistic relationship between
social democratic and revolutionary thought within socialism. Bernstein, Engels
literary executor and one of the most influential figures within reformist
Marxism, argued in a series of articles under the title The Problems of
Socialism (189798) that the final goal of socialism would
be achieved through capitalism, not through capitalisms destruction.
As rights were gradually won by workers, he argued, their cause for grievance
would be diminished and consequently so would the foundation and necessity
of revolution. For Bernstein, capitalism had overcome its crisis-prone tendencies
of boom and bust: the anarchy of the market, he argued, was being
re-constituted by the formation of new mechanisms within capitalism and by
social-democratic measures for higher wages. These tendencies proved to Bernstein
that the capitalist order was capable of reform through legal and parliamentary
Bernsteins ideas were of major significance for the future of the international
labour movement. At the turn of the century, the German Social Democratic Party
(SPD), of which Bernstein was a member, was the largest socialist organisation
in the world. His arguments represented the first time that opportunist currents
within the movement were given open theoretical expression. Yet for Luxemburg,
Bernsteins theory posited the opposition of the two moments of
the labour movement by emphasising minimum aims (immediate parliamentary
reforms) over maximum aims (the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism).
It tended to counsel the renunciation of the social transformation, the
final goal of Social Democracy, and, inversely, to make social reforms, which
are the means of the class struggle, into its end.23 Luxemburg
was not a priori opposed to social democracy;24 instead,
counter to Bernstein, she argued that there was an indissoluble tie between
social reforms and revolution, but that the struggle for reforms was only the means,
the social revolution the goal.
By treating the mode of exchange as independent of the mode of production,
Bernstein had fallen into one of the fundamental errors of bourgeois
Vulgar economy, too, tries to find the antidote against the ills of capitalism
in the phenomena of capitalism itself. Like Bernstein, it believes in the possibility of
regulating the capitalist economy. And, still in the manner of Bernstein, it
arrives in time at the desire to palliate the contradictions of capitalism,
that is, at the belief in the possibility of patching up the sores of capitalism.
In other words, it ends up with a reactionary and not a revolutionary program,
and thus in a utopia.26
For Luxemburg, Bernsteins theories led not to the realisation of a new socialist
world, but to the reform of capitalism not to the elimination of
capitalism, but to the desire for the attenuation of the abuses of capitalism.
The principal instruments for Bernsteins proposed reform of society were
the co-operatives and the trade unions; the first to increase wages and lessen
commercial profit, the second to do the same for industrial profit. Yet for
Luxemburg, co-operatives were merely a hybrid form of capitalism: small units
of socialised production remaining within capitalist exchange. They were coercively
obliged to take up the role of capitalist entrepreneurs in order to stand up
against their competitors in the market. The intensification of labour exploitation
of labour as commodity is concomitant. For Luxemburg, this contradiction
accounted for the usual failure of contemporary co-operatives. They either
became pure capitalist enterprises, or, if the workers interests continued
to predominate, ended by dissolving. Bernstein thought the failure of co-operatives
in England was due to a lack of discipline, but for Luxemburg this
language merely resurrected the authoritative axioms of the status quo, expressing nothing
else than the natural absolutist regime of capitalism.27
Trades unions, according to Bernstein, were another prime instrument in the struggle
of the rate of wages against the rate of profit.28 While
Luxemburg defended unions as an expression of working-class resistance to the
oppression of the capitalist economy, she also argued that they represented
only the organised defence of labour power against the attacks of profit.
Trade unions, however, were not able to execute an economic offensive against
profit. The activity of unions, she argued: does not take place in the
blue of the sky. It takes place within the well-defined framework of the law
of wages. The law of wages is not shattered but applied by trade-union activity.29 Luxemburg
argued that the workers share was inevitably reduced by the growth of the productivity
of labour. These objective capitalist conditions transformed the activity of
trade unions, subject to successive cycles of boom and bust, into a sort
of labour of Sisyphus.30 Bernsteins
theory that capitalism had resolved its inner contradictions was of course
mercilessly exposed in the global Depression of the 1930s, not to mention the
Trade unions and co-operatives, without challenging the mode of production,
provide the economic support for a theory of revisionism. Luxemburgs
critique lambasted Bernsteins regression to idealist forms of social
justice31 and his attempts to constrain
socialist struggle within the field of distribution: [a]gain and again,
Bernstein refers to socialism as an effort towards a just, juster, and
still more just mode of distribution.32 This
problematic tendency in trade unions became clearer with time. In 1948, the
Dutch communist and advocate of workers councils, Anton Pannekoek, concisely
summarised the role of trade unions as an indispensable function of
capitalism: [b]y the power of the unions capitalism is normalized; a
certain norm of exploitation is universally established. A norm of wages, allowing
for the most modest life exigencies, so that the workers are not driven again
and again into hunger revolts, is necessary for uninterrupted production.
products of the workers fight, kept up by their pains and efforts, trade unions
are at the same time organs of capitalist society.33
Bernstein and the German and international socialist movement were indelibly
shaped by Engels famous preface to Marxs Class Struggles in
France (1895). Evaluating the French Revolution of 1848, Engels argued
that belief in an imminent socialist revolution had become obsolete: revolutionary
street fighting had been superseded by parliamentary tactics as the most effective
means to socialist change. The text represents a classical documentation
of the opinions prevailing in German social democracy at the time, and the
tactics Engels expounded went on to dominate German social democracy, in Luxemburgs
phrase, in everything that it did and in everything that it left undone.34 In
1918, Luxemburg, battling against reformist social-democratic tendencies in
Germany, argued that the preface represented the chief document of the
proclamation of the parliamentarism-only tactic.35 For
Luxemburg this was the beginning of ersatz Marxism, the official Marxism
of social democracy an ideology which has provided an illusory unity
to the socialist movement ever since.
What remained hidden in this seismic shift of socialist tactics was the fact
that the preface was written by Engels under the direct pressure of the SPD
parliamentary delegation. The delegation pressed Engels, who lived abroad and
had to rely on their assurances, to write the preface, arguing that it was
essential to save the German labor movement from anarchist and allegedly adventurist
deviations. Engels died the same year he wrote the preface, and with him went
his protestations at the revision of the document, whose most radical passages
were doctored to appease the Reichstag which was then considering a new anti-socialist
law.36 With Engels buried and Marx
long departed, the theoretical leadership of the international socialist movement
passed over to the social democrat, Karl Kautsky, who still proclaimed revolutionary
Marxism even as he led the way on a reformist path. Luxemburg had already come
into conflict with Kautsky when he suppressed her insurrectionary article on
mass strikes for the sake of party unity and parliamentary grace. Her critique
was typically direct: Marxism [under Kautskys leadership] became
a cloak for all the hesitations, for all the turnings-away from the actual
revolutionary class struggle, for every halfway measure which condemned German
Social Democracy, the labor movement in general, and also the trade unions,
to vegetate within the framework and on the terrain of capitalist society without
any serious attempt to shake or throw that society out of gear.37 With
Engels text wielded with biblical status, Kautsky, [t]he official
guardian of the temple of Marxism, attempted to neuter the revolutionary
movement in the name of Marxist orthodoxy. For Luxemburg, the craven capitulation
of the German social-democratic movement in the face of German Imperialism
in 1914 for short-term political gain was the inevitable result of Kautskys
Luxembergs critique of both Bernstein and Kautskys social-democractic
vision found favour with George Lukács in his early writings. Both attacked scientific Marxism
for starting from the assumption that society progresses mechanically and teleologically,
and for imagining a definite point of time, external to and unconnected with
the class struggle, in which the class struggle would be won. For Lukács,
the a-historical view of vulgar Marxism, preoccupied with the isolated facts of
the specialist and reified disciplines of bourgeois political economy, lost
the active dialectical side of Marxs thought wherein theory and
action, subject and history could be realised in praxis. Instead, the scientific
view preached a contemplative, still ideological faith in scientific progress:
a theory of evolution without revolution; of natural development without
conflict. Drawing productively from Marxs analysis of commodity fetishism,
Lukács argued that the scientific view had been seduced by the fetishistic
character of economic forms under capitalism. Such forms isolated the various
interacting elements of capitalist relations and masked the contradictory and
hierarchical relations between men which lay behind the processes of
production: the reification of all human relations, the constant expansion
and extension of the division of labour which subjects the process of production
to an abstract, rational analysis, without regard to the human potentialities
and abilities of the immediate producers.39 For
Marx, these formal objective conditions, if understood subjectively and in
their totality by the working class, would provide the conditions for
their eventual emancipation. Far from a static or objective scientific account
of history, Marxs theory, famously given expression in the eleven Theses
on Feuerbach, was an endlessly relevant call to engagement: [t]he
philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is
to change it.40
Beyond the economic fatalism that has always been intimately bound up with
the social-democratic project, and which has always left it to arrive on the
scene of struggle too late, Rosa Luxemburg saw in the early days of the Russian
revolution, especially in the explosion of mass strikes, direct democracy and
the formation of soviets (workers councils), the will to power of socialism.41 While
Kautsky declared the conditions for revolution unripe, Luxemburg
viewed the unbridled radicalism of the Russian workers as an exemplary example,
evidence that the masses do not exist to be schoolmastered.42 Yet
even as she extolled the power of the soviets for crippling Tsarism and for
the transformation of all existing class relationships, as early as 1918 Luxemberg
condemned the Bolshevik Party for its suppression of direct democracy and the
will of the soviets. Despite the Bolshevik Partys public condemnation
of social democracy it would adopt, in crude and distorted form, many of the
major flaws of the scientific determinism so typical of orthodox Marxism. Luxemburg,
murdered by order of the German Social Democratic Party, would not live to
see the results.
The Russian Tragedy
The mirage of Leninism today has no basis outside the various Trotskyist
tendencies, where the conflation of the proletarian subject with a hierarchical
organisation grounded in ideology has stolidly survived all the evidence of that
conflations real consequences.
Despite Alexander Berkmans initial euphoria at
being placed in the epicenter of potentially the most significant fact
in the whole known history of mankind,44 his
analysis upon leaving Russia was that the revolution had already been done
to death by an authoritarian, dictatorial Bolshevik Party. Like Luxemburg,
Berkman saw the significance of the Russian Revolution in the movement that
lay behind the slogan All Power to the Soviets! For Berkman, the
initial power of the revolution lay in the unity of the revolutionary forces
against the provisional, reformist Kerensky government. Bolsheviks, Anarchists,
the left of the Social Revolutionary Party, revolutionary emigrants, and freed
political prisoners had all worked together leading up to October 1917 to achieve
a revolutionary goal: [t]hey took possession of the land, the factories,
mines, mills, and the tools of production. They got rid of the more hated and
dangerous representatives of government and authority. In their grand revolutionary
outburst they destroyed every form of political and economic oppression.45 Immediately
after the revolution, as a means to establish direct democracy and workers control
over the means of production, the organised labour movement formed shop and
factory committees co-ordinated by the soviets.
Berkman, however, would soon watch in horror as the Bolshevik Party declared
the autonomy of the shop committees superfluous, filled the labour unions with
its own representatives, and banned all public press except Bolshevik publications.
Under Bolshevik authority the workers would now be bound by the industrial,
scientific principles of productivity, with the shop committees subjected to
the ideology of the ruling party. The hoped-for dictatorship of the
proletariat over the bourgeoisie had swiftly moved under Bolshevik rule to
a dictatorship over the proletariat. The soviets fate under the
Party was sealed: [a]ll who interpreted the Social Revolution as, primarily,
the self-determination of the masses, the introduction of free, non-governmental
Communism they are henceforth doomed to persecution.46 The
brief era of direct democracy was soon crushed under the weight of bureaucratic
authority: [t]he peoples Soviets are transformed into sections
of the Ruling Party; the Soviet institutions become soulless offices, mere
transmitters of the will of the center to the periphery.47
Under the New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1921, which encouraged private enterprise
to trade for profit, the position of the worker was returned to that of the
worker under capitalism: [t]he city worker today, under the new economic
policy, is in exactly the same position as in any other capitalistic country.
worker is paid wages, and must pay for his necessities as in any country.48 The
conditions experienced by the Russian worker replicated the workers fate
under other capitalist regimes of private ownership: [s]hops, mines,
factories and mills have already been leased to capitalists. Labour demands
have a tendency to curtail profits; they interfere with the orderly processes of
business. And as for strikes, they handicap production, paralyse industry.
Shall not the interests of Capital and Labour be declared solidaric in Bolshevik
Russia?.49 To cement these policies,
the 10th Congress of the Communist Party of Russia in 1921 put a decisive veto
on workers opposition when the demand to turn the management of the industries
over to the proletariat was officially outlawed. The outcome of these authoritarian
policies was seen in the infamous crushing of the Kronstadt rebellion by the
Red Army and later in the rise of Stalin: [h]ere with us or out
there with a gun in your hand but not as an opposition. We have had
enough of opposition.50
Berkman was not alone in his analysis. As early as 1920 in his World Revolution
and Communist Tactics, Anton Pannekoek argued from within the communist
movement that the Russian state had developed into state capitalism. The suppression
of direct democracy and the soviets in the name of scientific Marxism led to
a system of production which Pannekoek, with the benefit of hindsight in 1948,
articulated quite precisely: [t]he system of production developed in
Russia is State Socialism. It is organized production with the state as universal
employer, master of the entire production apparatus. The workers are master
of the means of production no more than under Western capitalism. They receive
their wages and are exploited by the State as the only mammoth capitalist.
So the name State capitalism can be applied with precisely the same meaning.51 In
Guy Debords later phrase, the Russian bureaucracy resolved itself into a
substitute ruling class for the market economy.52
For Debord, Lenin was simply a faithful Kautskyist who applied orthodox Marxism
to the prevailing conditions in Russia. This ideology, asserting that its whole
truth resided in objective economic progress overseen by the ideological representatives
of the working class, could only ever reflect the specialisation and
division of labour inherent within the Party hierarchy: [i]n consequence
the speciality of the profession in question became that of total science
management.53 By usurping
the name of revolution for a system of workers exploitation, Leninism
and Bolshevism made the name of communism an object of hatred and aversion
among workers and foes alike. For Debord, the moment when Bolshevism triumphed
for itself marks the inauguration of the modern spectacle, the point at which
a false banner of working-class opposition was advanced. It was the moment
when an image of the working class arose in radical opposition
to the working class itself.54 The
unity that Lenin demanded masked the class divisions and alienating working
conditions on which the capitalist mode of production is based: [w]hat
obliges the producers to participate in the construction of the world is also
what separates them from it.
What pushes for greater rationality is
also what nourishes the irrationality of hierarchical exploitation and repression.
What creates societys abstract power also creates its concrete unfreedom.55
To the detriment of the working class, the orthodox Marxist line in its Bolshevik
form held sway over the international labour movement up until the early 1950s,
until the mutinous rebellions against Russian bureaucracy in East Berlin56 and
Hungary57 helped put the questions
of alienation and wage-labour, which lay at the heart of the production process,
back on the agenda of class struggle.
Workerism And The Return Of Class Agency
From the working-class point of view, political struggle is that which
tends consciously to place in crisis the economic mechanism of capitalist development.
Tronti was a key figure within the strand of Italian
Marxism known as Operaismo (workerism) that emerged in the early
1960s as a response to the conservatism of the Italian Communist Party (PCI).
Franco Piperno, associated with Operaismo, captured the general perception
of the PCI within the movement when he identified the Party as: the working
class articulation of capitalist social organization.59 As
opposed to the term workerism in its narrow sense (evoking the
industrial proletariat at the expense of other social groups), Operaismo was
concerned with the heterogeneous, ever-changing dynamic of class composition in
contrast to the eternal, unchanging working-class subject of the Party. As
its most famous proponent, Antonio Negri, noted, Operaismo was initiated as
an attempt to reply politically to the crisis of the Italian labour movement
in the 1950s in the aftermath of World War II. For many workers after
their prominent role in the struggles against Mussolini and the Wermacht the
future held out the promise of socialism, or, at the very least, major improvements
in work conditions and pay alongside more participation in the production process.
Yet Palmiro Togliatti, the leader of the PCI, had other ideas. Above all, Togliatti
sought a programme to unite the broad mass of people against the group of capitalists
yoked to fascism. The decisive arena for political gains, according to Togliatti,
was in formal, parliamentary politics where accommodation with other groups
was deemed a necessity. The quest for these political objectives, within the
Constituent Assembly and the Constitution, led inexorably to the subordination
of working-class antagonism and the struggle for fundamental economic change.60
Togliatti, saw productivity as the path to Italys salvation: the
resumption of economic growth within the framework of private ownership would
ensure the construction of a strong democracy. As the [t]rue
children of the Comintern, the PCI were willing to concede shop-floor
organisation for unitary economic reconstruction through the restoration
of the managerial prerogative within the factories. Hostage to nationalist
ideology and private forms of management technique, the PCI facilitated the
extraction of high levels of exploitation from the workers by placing labour
discipline and productivity at the top of their agenda. As one Fiat worker
put it when Togliatti and Christian Democrat leader De Gaspari came to visit
his factory: [t]hey both argued exactly the same thing; the need to save
Weve got to work hard because Italys on her
knees, weve been bombarded by the Americans
but dont worry
because if we produce, if we work hard, in a year or two well all be
So the PCI militants inside the factory set themselves the political
task of producing to save the national economy, and the workers were left
without a party.61
Such compromise had predictable results. In 1947, the historic left was expelled
from the De Gaspari government and an intense regime of accumulation was established
based on production for international markets, underpinned by low wages, low
costs and high productivity. Workplace organisers, disorientated and disillusioned
by PCI policy, were mercilessly attacked as Italian capital sought labour docility
through the disciplinary law of value. This was the context for the development
of autonomist Marxism, which in its most militant sense expressed itself as
a radical new rationality counter-posed to the objective occult
rationality of modern productive processes. Raniero Panzieris The
Capitalist Use of Machinery: Marx versus the Objectivists62 written
in the early 1960s, was, according to Sandro Maccini, the first demystifying
analysis of technological rationality63 produced
by an Italian Marxist. Against the ruling PCI, Panzieri argued that the struggle
for socialism must come from below in the form of total democracy.
New class formations were required in the economic sphere, the real source
of power, so that the democratic road would not become either
a belated adherence to reformism, or simply a cover for a dogmatic conception
of socialism.64 Union work, he
said, had devoted itself for too long to political questions with a capital
P whilst ignoring the reality of changing work conditions.
Togliatti, and others within the CPI, following the outline of orthodox Marxism,
had led the Italian left to believe that productivity and technological progress
somehow stood apart from class antagonism. Instead of accepting the reigning
production relations as ultimately rational, beneficial and eternal, however,
Panzieri, returned in earnest to Marx (an unusual step at that time for a Marxist)
to theorize machinery as accumulated dead labour, fully determined
by capital which utilised technological development to further the exploitation
and subordination of living labour.65 Elements
of the Italian left, in thrall to social democracy, were obsessed by the productivist
idea that technology could liberate humankind from the limitations of environment
and surroundings. But for Panzieri, these elements passed over the crucial
question of the ownership of the workplace and the role mechanisation and automation
played in increasing the authoritarian structure of factory management and
Panzieri, criticised the Leninist belief that socialist planning was entirely
neutral and that science and technique were socially disinterested forces.
Instead, for Panzieri, planning was a form of social despotism which
hid the social relationships of domination and exploitation behind the language
of bourgeois political economy. Denied of this understanding by a blind ideological
adherence to scientific Marxism, the consequence of Lenins policies in
the USSR was, for Panzieri, the repetition of capitalist forms in the
relations of production both at the factory level and at the level of overall
social production.66 The autonomists great
contribution to debates around the negation of capitalism was to re-instate,
after decades of suppression in the name of productivity, the idea of alienation and
antagonism at the heart of the production process, positing a radical rupture
from the golden chains of the wage-labor relation in Italy and
beyond. News also travelled from abroad. In the aftermath of May 68 in
France, Massimo Cacciari would state that liberation from labour, not
merely the liberation of labour, had become the key aim of revolutionary
politics. When young Renault workers in France, during May 68, demanded
a minimum wage of 1000 francs per month (an exorbitant and impossible demand),
Bologna and Daghini saw that the demand, which threatened to blow up the
labour market, was symptomatic of a desire on behalf of the workers, to
negate their own figure as producers.67 The strategy
of refusal first posited by Mario Tronti in 1965 was now a widespread
Forward to a communist society without capital or
10 May Group, 1968
When Rene Resiel of the Enragés put forward his demands at
the student occupation of the Sorbonne University in 1968 the
abolition of class society, wage-labour, the spectacle, and survival he
gave voice to the theory of the Situationist International and its radical
critique of everything. Against the reasonable demands put forward by the emissaries
of social democracy, the SI and their followers exhibited the greatest of contempt
for the pseudo thinkers of details and the maximum disrespect for
all those who would attempt to find a concord with capital within the left
parties. The unacceptable demand became the chief tool of breaking with
all the dead generations of the past. Work, for so long the ABC of social-democratic
thinking, duly came in for a kicking. In 1967, Raoul Vaneigem declared his
opposition to the wage-labour relation thus: every call for productivity
under the conditions chosen by capitalist and Soviet economics is a call to
slavery.68 With work the
punishment for poverty widely defined as hard labour,
society as a racket, and trade unionists as cops,69 Vaneigem
argued that every appeal for productivity is always an appeal from above at
the behest of the commodity. In the post-scarcity era, the alleged
imperative of production under the former imperative of survival was no longer
valid: from now on people want to live, not just survive.70
The role of the SI in May 68 is deeply disputed, but it is clear that
the theory of the spectacle, associated first and foremost with Debord, held
considerable sway. Debords writing, which reworked the ideas of Hegel,
Marx and Lukács, among many others, borrowed deeply from Marxs
concept of commodity fetishism, whereby in the production and exchange of commodities
the relations between people assume the form of relations between
things. In this he returned to early Lukács who had engaged in a
similar project in the late 1910s. In order to produce commodities for exchange,
the workers labour and what they produce come to dominate their life.
Commodity relations take on a mysterious force: the products of labour are
turned against the worker, appearing now as an autonomous, alienating power,
a social hieroglyphic which elides the human labour that produced
the commodity. While Marx concentrated on alienation within production, asserting
that at least the worker had access to non-alienated relations outside of work,
the SI argued that the restless expansionism of capitalism and its need to
secure new markets had extended commodity relations, and thus alienation, into
all areas of social experience. No longer a mere adjunct to production, consumption
is integral to the circulation of commodities, the accumulation of capital,
and the survival of the economic system. For Debord, extending Marxs
original thesis beyond production, modern society had produced The Society
of the Spectacle, a vast accumulation of spectacles and
a concrete inversion of life which created a social relationship between people
mediated by images. The SI project embodied a refusal to co-operate with this
logic of commodity exchange and a radical negation of the capitalist relations
that reproduce the abstract, alienating equivalence of the spectacle.71
Much of the language, tactics and expressions of the events of May 68
seemed to affirm the theories of the SI: [t]hat the increasing modernization
of capitalism entails the proletarianisation of an ever-widening portion of
the population; and that as the world of commodities extends its power to all
aspects of life, it produces everywhere an extension and deepening of the forces
that negate it.72 The first signs
of what was to come emerged from the student milieu of Strasbourg University
in November 1966, when students in collaboration with the SI produced Of
Student Poverty Considered in its Economic, Political, Psychological, Sexual,
and Particularly Intellectual Aspects, and a Modest Proposal for its Remedy.
The pamphlet, which should be essential reading for the student of today, ridiculed
student privileges and the illusory forms of rebellion adopted as specialised roles within
the milieu. Students must understand one thing, the pamphlet declared:
are no special student interests in revolution. Revolution will
be made by all the victims of encroaching repression and the tyranny
of the market.73 Hastily translated
into more than ten languages, the pamphlet encouraged widespread discussion
of Situationist analysis. The publication of Guy Debords The Society
of the Spectacle and Raoul Vanegeims The Revolution of Everyday
Life in 1967 further intensified these discussions. New student agitations
persisted throughout the first half of the year including the formation of Enragés and
the Mouvement du 22 Mars, two groups which would have a significant
impact on the May events. Yet far from being a mere student revolt, the May
events sustained a general wildcat strike of ten million workers alongside
a critical position that encompassed every aspect of capitalist life.
In terms of the economic and political analysis of orthodox Marxism, the events
were simply unthinkable, yet the general wildcat strike, with three weeks of
action, brought the country to a halt. On 19 May, The Observer called
the revolution a total onslaught on modern industrial society.
It went on to describe the contemporary conditions: [i]n a staggering
end to a staggering week, the commanding heights of the French economy are
falling to the workers. All over France a calm, obedient, irresistible wave
of working-class power is engulfing factories, dockyards, mines, railway depots,
bus garages, postal sorting offices. Trains, mail, air-flights are virtually
at a standstill. Production lines in chemicals, steel, metalworking, textiles,
shipbuilding and a score of industries are ground to a halt.
baffled and impotent manager is being held prisoner in his own carpeted office.74 Rene
Vienets highly subjective Enragés and Situationists in the
Occupation Movement, France, May 68 left the best general account
of the events from a Situationist perspective:
Everyday life, suddenly rediscovered, became the center of all possible conquests.
People who had always worked in the now-occupied offices declared that they
could no longer live as before, not even a little better than before.
time stopped. Without any trains, metro, cars, or work the strikers recaptured
the time so sadly lost in factories, on motorways, in front of the TV. People
strolled, dreamed, learned how to live. Desires began to become, little by
The May 68 events presented impossible demands irreducible to higher
wages or the details of workplace organisation. The radical critique of existing
capitalist relations was evidenced throughout the events: e.g. the Schlumberger
factory workers who stated that their demands had nothing to do with
wages before going on strike for the highly exploited workers at the
nearby Danone factory. Similarly, the workers at the FNAC chain of stores declared: [w]e,
the workers of the FNAC stores, have gone on strike not for the satisfaction
of our particular demands but to participate in a movement of ten million intellectual
and manual workers.
We are taking part in this movement (which is not
about quantitative demands) because ten million workers dont stop work
at the same time for a pay rise of F6.30 or 100 centimes, but to challenge
the legitimacy of the whole leadership of the country and all the structures
of society.76 The Censier worker-student
Action Committee likewise declared: [i]ts not a case of demanding
more of this or more of that. Its a case of demanding something else
In this way the totality of demands will appear,
and their incalculable number will produce the evidence that the capitalist
regime cannot really satisfy the least of them.77 In
a strident document signed by Some postmen (usurping beautifully
the status of roles endemic to the specialized division of labour
under capitalism) the postmen stated with exemplary simplicity that, open
struggle against the ruling class would be the condition of their emancipation: [t]he
renowned participation that power can afford us is in fact only integration
into its system of exploitation. We have fuck all to do with helping them with
The reaction to all this revolutionary activity by the established unions is
shrouded in infamy. Vienet succinctly described the trade-union counter-offensive: [t]he
trade-union strategy had a single goal: to defeat the strike. In order to do
this the unions, with a long strike-breaking tradition, set out to reduce a
vast general strike to a series of isolated strikes at the individual enterprise
the union leadership assumed the task of reducing the entire movement
to a program of strictly professional demands.79 The
Communist Partys trade union, the biggest in France, meanwhile played
the heaviest counter-revolutionary role in the May events: [i]t was precisely
because the CGT had the most powerful organization and could administer the
largest dose of illusions that it appeared all the more obviously as the major
enemy of the strike.80 While
the workers, six million by 20 May, soon to be ten million, voted for a perpetuation
of the general wildcat strike and the occupation of the factories, the leadership
of the CFDT and CGT, the main union organisations in France, were agreed on
the basic social-democratic principle of the necessity for negotiations with
state and management.
The result of these meetings, triumphantly produced by Seguy, the leader of
the CGT, on 27 May at the rebellious Renault-Billancourt factory was the Grenelle
agreement, concluded by the timeworn social-democratic triumvirate: the
unions, the government and the employers. The agreement would raise wages 7%
and lift the legally guaranteed minimum wage from 2.22 to 3 francs. The days
lost in the strike would not be paid until they were made up in overtime. Given
that [a] higher percentage of French workers than ever before, across
every sector and in every region of the country, had been on strike for the
longest time in French history,81 the
poverty of the gains agreed by the union leaders was dwarfed by
the scale of the movement. The workers knowing full well that such benefits would
be taken back in kind with imminent price rises82 famously
rained down insults on Seguy and rejected the agreement. The unions learned
their lesson. The refusal of the agreement was met with an acceleration of
integration by the CGT: rigged ballots, false information (e.g. informing individual
railway stations that the other stations had gone back to work), prevention
of secondary picketing, and organised train delays which prevented workers solidarity.
By these methods, and acting in collusion with the hated national riot police
(CRS), the CGT were able to bring about the resumption of work almost everywhere.
Ultimately, the CGT and the CFDT proved themselves perfect instruments for
the integration of the working class into the capitalist system of exploitation.
For Vienet, the future for the radical left would now involve an unequivocal
fight against the reformism of its own unions. He criticised many of the groups
in May 68 for remaining entrenched in their own stale ideology, drawing
proud experience from past working-class defeats and the traditions of the dead
generations: [t]hey seemed to perceive nothing new in the occupation
movement. They had seen it all before. They were blasé. Their knowing
discouragement looked forward to nothing but defeat, so that they could publish
the consequences as they had so often done before.83 Yet
May 68 for all that it was defeated, astounded almost everyone by its
very existence in modern capitalist conditions. That the unthinkable took place
at all suggests that it can take place again.
the revolutionary organisation must learn that it can no longer combat
alienation by means of alienated forms of struggle.
Capitals response to the show of strength by
working-class organizations in the sixties and early seventies marked a shift
to what has broadly been termed post-fordist or flexible modes
of accumulation, a shift characterised by increasingly flexible labour processes
and markets, intensified geographical mobility of capital flows, rapid shifts
in consumption practices, and the erosion/destruction of Fordist-Keynesian
modes of labour regulation and control. Beyond a few notable exceptions such
as the miners strike, the working-class in the advanced capitalist countries
has been in disarray ever since, even if struggles elsewhere, in South America,
India, and China for instance suggest that global capital might meet its nemesis
in an ever-expanding global proletariat. But if the fight over the global workplace
is not just to become, in Panzieris expression, either a belated
adherence to reformism, or simply a cover for a dogmatic conception of socialism,
then we might do well to return to, and update, Rosa Luxemburg, who brilliantly
theorised the inexorable destruction immanent to capitalisms incessant
drive for self-expansion, and whose intense opposition to reformist compromise
suggests a pro-revolutionary, fiercely anti-capitalist alternative to contemporary
In her speech to the Founding Congress of the Communist Party of Germany (Spartacus
League) in December 1918, Rosa Luxemburg argued that the Erfurt Program, the
founding document of the Second International, authored by Karl Kautsky
in 1891, had imprisoned German Social Democracy within a hopelessly reformist
paradigm. By placing immediate minimum aims (parliamentary reform) in the tactical
foreground, while relegating maximum gains (the revolutionary overthrow of
capitalism) to the misty realms of a utopian future, the Erfurt Program created
a new dichotomy within the movement. The tactics of piecemeal attrition were
now opposed to the overthrow of capitalism; and minimum and maximum
aims were presented in separate, distinct realms instead of combined in a productive
dialectical tension. By defining themselves in direct opposition to the Erfurt
Program, Luxemburg and the Spartacus League expressed their profound disagreement
with the strategies of the dominant reformist German Social Democratic movement: [f]or
us there is no minimal and no maximal program; socialism is one and the same
thing: this is the minimum we have to realize today.85
This tension, between minimum and maximum demands, falsely separated in the
Erfurt Program of 1891, suggests a theoretical stratagem that might avoid the
illusory hopes of reformist practice, while circumventing the isolating, and
isolated, ghetto of more radical than thou Puritanism. Raoul Vanegeims
advice to those seeking a way out of capitalism, prior to May 68, offers
a way of understanding which acknowledges that none of us are born radical,
that solidarity will be central to any mass movement, while at the same
time challenging the stasis of purely reformist measures: it is impossible
to go wrong so long as we never forget that the only proper treatment for ourselves
and for others is to make ever more radical demands.86 One
such demand, if we are really serious about an exit from capitalism, should
return us to the continuing resonance of Guy Debords salutary statement: Never
1. Vaneigem, R, The Revolution of Everyday Life, Rebel
Press, 1994, p.55.
2. Monbiot, G, Snow jobs. http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2008/04/01/snow-jobs/
3. Wacquant, L, Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Study of Advanced Marginality,
Polity Press, 2008, p.251.
4. Ibid, p.253.
5. Ibid, p.246
6. Hardt, M, Negri, A, Multitude, Penguin, 2006, p.136.
7. Benjamin, W, Illuminations, Pimlico, 1990, p.247.
8. Ibid, p.250.
9. Cited in Benjamin, W, The Arcades Project, The Belknap Press of Harvard
University Press, p.123.
10. Benjamin, W, Illuminations, Pimlico, 1990, p.250.
11. Debord, G, The Society of the Spectacle, Zone Books, p.67.
12. Ibid, p.616.
13. Dauve, G and Martin, F, The Eclipse and Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement,
(Revised Edition), Antagonism Press, 1997, p.18.
14. McLellan, D, ed, Primitive Accumulation, in, Karl Marx:
Selected Writings, Oxford University Press, 2001, p.522.
15. Ibid, p.376.
16. See, e.g, Thompson, E.P, The Making of the English Working Class, p.233-259.
17. See, e.g, Prebble, J, The Highland Clearances, Penguin.
18. Mclellan, D, ed, see above, p.365.
19. Mclellan, D, ed, The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation,
in, Karl Marx: Selected Writings, Oxford University Press, 2001,
20. Ibid, p.519.
21. Ibid, p.520.
22. Pannekoek, A, Workers Councils, AK Press, 2003, p.8
23. Anderson, K, and Hudis, P, (eds), The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, Social Reform
or Revolution, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2004, p.129.
24. The terms meaning has shifted over the years to a reformist definition,
but for Luxemburg it approximated something closer to current definitions of direct democracy.
25. Ibid, p.149.
26. Ibid, p.145.
This revised version of Social Reform of Revolution from 1908,
includes the critical chapter 5, Co-operatives, Unions, Democracy,
which is absent from the original draft of 1899 featured in The Rosa
Luxemburg Reader cited above.
31. The old war horse on which the reformers of the earth have rocked
for ages, Luxemburg, R, Ibid.
33. Pannekoek, A, Workers Councils, AK Press, 2003, p.61.
34. Luxemburg, R, Our Program and the Political Situation (1918),
36. Ibid. At this time, Rosa Luxemburg did not know the full details of the
falsification of the document. These only came to light later on. It
was not Engels who wrote the seemingly revisionist views cited here. The Party
leaders, arguing that because the Reichstag was considering passage of a new
anti-socialist law it would be dangerous to give them grounds to attack Social
Democracy, eliminated all the passages in the Preface which seemed too radical.
Engels protested, but died before any changes could be made.
38. See Luxemburgs The Junius Pamphlet (The Crisis in German
39. Ibid, p.6.
40. Mclellan, D, ed, Theses of Feuerbach, in, Karl Marx: Selected
Writings, Oxford University Press, 2001, p.171.173..
41. Anderson, K, and Hudis, P, (eds), The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, The Russian
Revolution, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2004, p.310.
42. Ibid, Introduction, p.12.
43. Debord, G, The Society of the Spectacle, Zone Books, p.80
44. Berkman, A Russian Tragedy, Phoenix Press, p.14. Berkmans
account of his arrival, in fact, exhibits an almost religious faith in the
possibilities for world transformation that the revolution seemed to open up.
45. Ibid, p.36.
46. Ibid, p.45.
47. Ibid, p.40.
48. Ibid, p.29.
49. Ibid, p.31.
50. Cited in, Debord, G, The Society of the Spectacle, Zone Books,
51. Pannekoek, A, Workers Councils, AK Press, 2003, p.78
52. Debord, G, The Society of the Spectacle, Zone Books, p.72
53. Ibid, p.68.
54. Debord, G, The Society of the Spectacle, Zone Books, p.69
55. Ibid, p.46.
56. Benno Sorels account is related by Hardt and Negri in Multitude,
Penguin, 2006: ...he emphasizes that the most important demand of the
factory worker was to abolish the production quotas and destroy the structural
order of command over labour in the factories. Socialism, after all, is not
57. See for example, Anderson, A, Hungary 56, co-published by Active
Distribution, AK Press, Phoenix Press.
58. Cited in, Debord, G, The Society of the Spectacle, Zone Books,
59. Ibid, p.117.
60. This section on workerism and post-war Italy is broadly drawn from Wrights
account in Storming Heaven.
61. Ibid, p.10. Original citation in Partridge, H, Italys Fiat
in Turin in the 1950s, in Nichols, T (ed) Capital and Labour:
A Marxist Primer, (London: Fontana).
63. Citation, Ibid, p.45.
64. Ibid, p.18.
65. Marx put the argument very well in his General Law of Capitalist
Accumulation: The law of capitalist accumulation, metamorphosed
by economists into a pretended law of Nature, in reality merely states that
the very nature of accumulation excludes every diminution of in the degree
of the exploitation of labour, and every rise in the price of labour, which
could seriously imperil the continual reproduction of, on an ever expanding
scale, the capitalist relation. It cannot be otherwise in a mode of production
in which the labourer exists to satisfy the needs of self expansion of existing
values, instead of, on the contrary, material wealth existing to satisfy the
needs of development on the part of the labourer. McLellan, D, Karl
Marx: Selected Writings, Oxford University Press, p.515-521.
66. Cited in Wright, S, Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle
in Italian Autonomist Marxism, Pluto Press, p.45.
67. Ibid, p.115.
68. Vaneigem, R, The Revolution of Everyday Life, Rebel Press,
69. Untitled tract by the Vandalist Committee of Public Safety, April 68. See
Vienet, R, The Enrages and Situationists in the Occup[ation Movement,
France, May 68, Rebel Press, p.127.
70. Vaneigem, R, The Revolution of Everyday Life, Rebel Press,
71. This section is more or less freely appropriated from Sadie Plants
excellent overview of the Situationsit International. See, Plant, S, The
Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age,
72. Vienet, R, The Enrages and Situationists in the Occupation Movement,
France, May 68, Rebel Press, p.71.
73. Cited in, Plant, S, The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International
in a Postmodern Age, Routledge, p.94.
74. Cited in, Ibid, p.98.
75. Ibid, p.77.
76. Ibid, p.151.
77. Ibid, p.150-151.
78. Ibid, p.152.
79. Ibid, p.62.
80. Ibid, p.85.
81. Ross, K, May 68 and its Afterlives, The University of
Chicago Press, p.68.
82. Vienet, R, The Enrages and Situationists in the Occupation Movement,
France, May 68, Rebel Press, p.92.
83. Ibid, p.105.
85. Luxemburg, R, Our Program and the Political Situation (1918),
86. Vaneigem, R, The Revolution of Everyday Life, Rebel Press,