We Writhe; We Do Not Become
What becomes of communist theory once it is stripped of its prophetic and predictive vocation? In the following article, ex-Monsieur Dupont co-author Peter Harrison surveys various attitudes toward the practice of theoretical production, which he ultimately interprets as an understandable bucking or “writhing” against captivity that nevertheless has been stripped of its ability to imagine genuine emancipation.
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Are the struggles of civilized peoples across the world against our conditions the expression of the immanence of communism, a becoming that will establish peace and liberty for all, or are they the expression of a constant, repeated, and wholly noble resentment toward an inescapable situation that oppresses and dehumanizes us?
To Begin With
Karl Marx’s whole project was a scientific endeavor, and this was because he was a particularly intuitive and sensitive product of his time. The lasting legacy of his methodology was the raising of sociology and economics to the status of sciences. As Lenin remarked, the “idea of materialism in sociology was in–itself a stroke of genius.”1 And, as Isaiah Berlin confirms, he was, “the true father of modern economic history and, indeed, of modern sociology,” while noting that, “his achievements in this sphere are necessarily ignored in proportion as their effects have become part of the permanent background of civilized thought.”2 But he never realized how much magical thinking was smuggling itself into his discourse, and his science turned him into an old-style prophet who was able to back up his prophecy of communism with reference, not to God or the bible, but to empirically sourced data from the material world. He wrote:
“Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”
The above quote comes from a section of The German Ideology entitled ‘The Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook.’ In this work, written between 1845-6 and first published in 1932, Marx and Engels attempted to demolish the idealism that dominated German philosophy in favor of a materialist approach that understood human affairs as products of their particular eras and circumstances.
This is explained in the quote from Marx below. But before reading the quote it is useful to understand that by ‘German philosophy’ Marx is referring to the movement of ‘German Idealism’ in philosophy, represented in particular by Hegel’s development of the work of Kant, which itself was based upon Plato’s theory of ‘absolutes’ or ‘ideas.’ In order to fully grasp—two hundred years after these terms were properly in use—the notion of ‘German philosophy,’ or German Idealism (the German Ideology), it is useful to think of the word ‘Idealism’ as Idea-ism:
“In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises.”
When considering anything written by Marx, it is essential to keep in mind, as David Harvey stresses, that he “considered himself a scientist.” Harvey continues, “but his materialism is different from that of the natural scientists. It is historical.”3 Marx and Engels were trying to do for history and philosophy what the new empirical methods were doing in the study of the natural world. Engels provides us with further insight into the elements of Marx’s science:
“While natural science up to the end of the last century  was predominantly a collecting science, a science of finished things, in our century it is essentially a systematizing science, a science of the processes, of the origin and development of these things and of the interconnection which binds all these natural processes into one great whole… [so it is with] the Marxist conception of history [which derives its proof] from history itself. This conception, however, puts an end to philosophy in the realm of history, just as the dialectical conception of nature [‘a science of the processes’] makes all natural [traditional] philosophy both unnecessary and impossible. It is no longer a question anywhere of inventing interconnections from out of our brains, but of discovering them in the facts.”
The predictive element within science is central to its social utility. Science is only useful to the society it represents—our society—if it provides theories that can be proven in the real world. When Marx wrote the passage that begins this piece, he was not suggesting that communism was a possibility that might occur if all the right factors line up in the correct way. He was claiming that all the right factors would be forced to line up in the correct way at some point—because a proper analysis of historical and economic trends along with the circumstances of exploited human beings provided evidence of this inevitability. Two years later Marx and Engels put this prediction down on paper in the form of The Communist Manifesto:
“The essential condition for the existence, and for the sway of the bourgeois class, is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage labour. Wage labour rests exclusively on competition between the laborers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the laborers, due to competition, by their revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.”
In this passage are summarized the contradictions within society that spell the end of capitalism and the triumph of communism. The question is not if this will happen, but when. Of course, Marx lived in a different era to our own, even if both eras are capitalist, and even if the history of the 20th century has indicated to many that the struggle against capitalism is far more complex than one between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. But for modern Marxist/Marxian apologists to argue that Marx did not really mean the triumph of communism was inevitable, and/or to neglect the fact that Marx understood what he was doing as science, is either to betray or to unconsciously discard the theoretical bases of his whole endeavor.4
In order to understand the relation between empiricism and prediction, one can consider this formulation made by Albert Einstein, made in relation to his theories of relativity:
“But in addition to this most weighty group of theories, there is another group consisting of what I call theories of principle. These employ the analytic, not the synthetic method. Their starting–point and foundation are not hypothetical constituents, but empirically observed general properties of phenomena, principles from which mathematical formulae are deduced of such a kind that they apply to every case which presents itself. Thermodynamics, for instance, starting from the fact that perpetual motion never occurs in ordinary experience, attempts to deduce from this, by analytic processes, a theory which will apply in every case. The merit of constructive theories is their comprehensiveness, adaptability, and clarity, that of the theories of principle, their logical perfection, and the security of their foundation. The theory of relativity is a theory of principle. To understand it, the principles on which it rests must be grasped.”5
Of course, we are aware that Einstein’s theories, predictions, and principles have actually been proven correct: the splitting of the atom proved that mass is super-condensed energy, and that this energy can be released, or transformed, and used. What Marx was arguing, half a century before Einstein’s theories appeared, was that by using an analytical method in all disciplines, including history, economics, and the social sciences, scientists (or all thinkers) could literally change the world by sending it into a new direction… just as knowledge of ‘Boyle’s Law’ (the relationship between pressure and volume of a gas) was crucial to the development of the steam engine. Marx hoped that a ‘materialist conception of history’ would do the same thing for the social sciences (and it did to a certain extent, in that it is the basis of sociology at least, even if he envisaged it would do much more).
There is another interesting thing to note here. Einstein writes: “The theory of relativity is a theory of principle. To understand it, the principles on which it rests must be grasped.” Marx and Engels first laid out the principles of communist revolution in The Communist Manifesto, which were based on their social and economic theories. Of course, they both had a passion for equality and freedom for humankind, but what they claimed to discover was that this ‘hope’ could be physically extrapolated from the data of human experience and turned into a law: their discovery signaled that it wasn’t any longer merely a utopian ideal (an idea to force upon the world, or as Gilles Dauvé put it, “an ideal to be realized”—more on this below). After the Manifesto was published, Marx set about writing down the data on which its theory rested, and the work on Capital was begun. The volumes of Capital were intended to lay out the facts of modern society necessary to grasp the inevitability of communism.6 Marx shifted his philosophical (and economic, historical, and social) enquiries from the traditional arenas of Platonic absolutes and German Idealism to the burgeoning domain of the scientific method, and he urged other thinkers to follow his lead.
Not all revolutionaries of Marx’s time were swept up in the mechanisms of the scientific method. Mikhail Bakunin, for example — although he considered the first volume of Capital to be unique in containing “an analysis so profound, so luminous, so scientific, so decisive, and if I can express it thus, so merciless an expose of the formation of bourgeois capital and the systematic and cruel exploitation that capital continues exercising over the work of the proletariat”7 — objected to the scientific certainty of Marx’s attitude. He wrote:
“As soon as an official truth is pronounced – having been scientifically discovered by this great brainy head laboring all alone – a truth proclaimed and imposed on the whole world from the summit of the Marxist Sinai, why discuss anything?”8
Where Marx’s scientific prediction was based on the empirical data, Bakunin relied instead on hope and, equally importantly, doubt. For this reason, Bakunin’s hope could never be translated into a concrete prediction or written as a prophetic certainty. The hope that he had in the lower classes’ potential to overthrow tyranny and exploitation was just that; it was not a prediction of a certain endpoint relayed to humanity either through an interpretation either of the word of God (as had previously been done by millenarian prophets), or of historical forces.
Since he refused to reshape his utopian visions through a rubric of science as Marx and Engels did, Bakunin’s arguments, on almost any topic, could therefore be discounted by them as ‘unscientific.’ Many of Bakunin’s objections—such as the one that questioned the proposed Marxian relationship between town and country—could therefore be written off by Marx as ‘schoolboy drivel.’ Forced collectivization and the extermination of the ‘kulaks,’ of course, proved Bakunin correct.9
The Ghost in the Present
How is the conception of ‘the real movement’ understood today? Bruno Bosteels, a scholar of Maoist philosopher, Alain Badiou, noted in 2014 that “the central passage which is repeated like a mantra not only in [my] book but also in almost every contribution to the volumes that have resulted from ‘The Idea of Communism’ conferences so far” are the lines from Marx concerning “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things” 10. In 2010, Badiou himself stated that, “We know today that all emancipatory politics must put an end to the model of the party, or of multiple parties, in order to affirm a politics ‘without party”.11 Four years later, he went on to claim:
“Let me tell you this: capitalism is a totally artificial social system. We’re still faced with the alternative established by Marx: communism or barbarism. Currently, barbarism is very dominant. But awareness of its pathological aspect is also making progress. The progress is slow and invisible, but entirely real. I am one of the philosophers of this hidden progress.”12
Opposition to capitalism is understood here as a “progress,” for which we can usefully substitute the word ‘becoming’. Of course, Badiou is not saying that there is an interminable, repeating, struggle against the conditions of our lives; what he is saying is that there is an actual process happening in society that will lead to the overcoming of these conditions, and he regards himself as a reporter and helper of this process.
In similar vein, Gilles Dauvé and the group Théorie Communiste have transformed the concept of ‘the real movement’ into the theory of ‘communization.’ Essentially, these theorists maintain that if there is going to be a revolution that obliterates capitalism then it has to happen ‘at once’, through practical daily-life measures, with no ‘transitional program’, and it must not be mediated by leaders or ‘parties’.13 In the 1972 text, Eclipse and Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement, Dauvé established the conceptual basis for communization through a reformulation of Marx’s conception of the ‘real movement’:
“Communism is not an ideal to be realized: it already exists, not as a society, but as an effort, a task to prepare for. It is the movement which tries to abolish the conditions of life determined by wage-labor, and it will abolish them by revolution. The discussion of communism is not academic. It is not a debate about what will be done tomorrow. It is an integral part of a whole series of immediate and distant tasks, among which discussion is only one aspect, an attempt to achieve theoretical understanding.”14
For Dauvé, then, Badiou’s “hidden progress” is not really hidden, and it may not even be a “progress.” Communism is something that exists as a response to the prevailing conditions. Still, the implication of this now-classic paragraph—which is essentially a rewording of Marx’s original statement on ‘the real movement’—is that this ‘effort’ against our conditions will establish communism. Therefore, in the implication, it must have some kind of ‘progressive’ element. However, as I shall demonstrate below, perhaps Dauvé did not quite mean this.
The notion of ‘the real movement’ was referred to, but not referenced, in Eclipse. The term receives a similar presentation in Situationist International texts (by Raoul Vaneigem, for example) which suggests it formed a clearly understood axiom in radical left French circles in the 1960s and 1970s.15 It was in Dauvé’s essay in Eclipse that the notion of ‘the real movement’—at least for many others—became the underpinning image, or assumption, for his newly articulated concept of communization.16 In 2000, Dauvé indicated that communization theory emerged from within the perspectives of the Situationist International but the real debt, as I see it, is to the perspectives developed by Socialisme ou Barbarie after WWII.17
In 1959, Cornelius Castoriadis of Socialisme ou Barbarie wrote:
“There is no ‘proof’ of the inevitable collapse of the system of exploitation. There is even less ‘truth’ in the possibility of socialism being established by a theoretical elaboration operating outside the concrete content created by the historic and everyday activity of the proletariat. The proletariat develops on its own toward socialism—otherwise there would be no prospect for socialism. The objective conditions for this development are given by capitalist society itself. But these conditions only establish the context and define the problems the proletariat will encounter in its struggle; they are a long way from determining the content of its answers to these problems. Its responses are a creation of the proletariat, for this class takes up the objective elements of the situation and at the same time transforms them, thereby opening up a previously unknown and unsuspected field of action and objective possibilities. The content of socialism is precisely this creative activity on the part of the masses that no theory ever could or ever will be able to anticipate. Marx could not have anticipated the Commune (not as an event but as a form of social organization) nor Lenin the Soviets, nor could either of them have anticipated workers’ management.”18
In this passage, one can discern the same sentiments, the same theoretical bases, as those expressed by Gilles Dauvé and Théorie Communiste.19 One can also see how the ‘objective’, ‘scientific’ element of justification is retained—“the proletariat develops on its own toward socialism, otherwise there would be no prospect for socialism”—despite it now being suggested (contra Marx himself, of course) that there is no ‘proof’ of the inevitability of communism.20 A careful reader will observe a prevarication here. It is worth stressing that putting the word proof in quote marks indicates that while the proof cannot be demonstrated at this time, it does not mean that the inevitability of communism doesn’t actually exist.
“Die wirkliche Bewegung”
In the original German, the sentence, “We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things,” is “Wir nennen Kommunismus die wirkliche Bewegung, welche den jetzigen Zustand aufhebt.”21
Marx was a philosopher and a scientist, and he wrote very carefully. The term ‘real movement’ here does not simply imply a ‘true’ or ‘genuine’ social movement of the peoples. The term is related explicitly to his notions of ‘species being,’ Gemeinwesen22, and a development in history that has ignited a ‘real movement’ within humans, as the social beings that they are, against their conditions.
It is here that one should dispense with the term ‘real movement’, and replace it with ‘concrete becoming.’
The immanence of communism is not an evolution of the species, and it has not been immanent since the dawn of time. It is a becoming that was initiated at the time capitalism emerged as the dominant social system, because capitalism created the very contradictions that would lead both to its destruction, and its replacement by communism (capitalism simultaneously exacerbates the alienation of human beings while materially returning them to their social essence). And to emphasize that this becoming is related to the material world and not to the world of ideas, Marx stresses—italicizes—the word wirkliche. The sentence, therefore, is better understood conceptually by translating it into English as: “We call communism the concrete becoming that abolishes the current conditions.”
A Theory of Theory
What is the vocation of communist theory today? The group Théorie Communiste state that an aspect of the ‘communizing current’ consists of a recognition “that all permanent organization of the class, all organization prior to struggles and persisting beyond them, is nowadays confronted by failure” and that “Communization is not a program to be applied, nor even something that we can already describe, but the ways to it are to be explored and this exploration must be international.”23 There are two things, I think, happening in these statements. The first is a kind of caution reflected in uncertainty and prevarication: they do not want to appear ridiculous, that is, anarchist, by coming across as naïve or ‘idealistic,’, while also wanting to separate themselves from any residue of the old workers’ movement. The second is a stated commitment to theorize ‘struggles’ so that “ways to it [communization]” are revealed and elaborated. For them “theoretical production24, of course, is itself part of the ‘communizing current.’ Since the old workers’ movement is now deceased, they claim to seek new theory in the examination of ‘international struggles,’ and this new exploration is implicitly defined as materialist and scientific, rather than idealist.
And there is a deeper contradiction, or confusion: there is the problem that theory, even in their terms, always arrives after the event (after the experiment, after the review of the data; if it comes before then it is ‘descending,’ as Marx wrote, ‘from heaven’) Why, we might ask, do they insist in the importance of studying struggles, if these studies are not written in an attempt to form ‘theories of principle’? On the one hand, they state that their written contributions explore “ways to” communization; on the other hand, they insist that whatever they might come up with is “not a program to be applied.” Is Théorie Communiste’s written work ‘simply’ journalism, or a way of trying to transmit ‘inspiration’ to readers? But journalism is always objectively encouraging or discouraging readers to follow particular lines of thought: all journalism is propaganda. And any political leaflet that connects viscerally, poetically, or intellectually to a cause is also attempting to inspire, that is, propagandize. So, what is it, exactly, that Théorie Communiste consider they are doing?
In Marx and Einstein’s terms, and in the methodology of the scientific method, theory cannot be arrived at prior to empirical endeavor, but once it is formed, a theory can be used to predict future possibilities or phenomenon. Through mathematics, Einstein worked out that there was immense power within matter, and this set others on a study of how to access that power. For his part, Marx worked out that the historical contradictions within capitalism created a class of people that would fulfill the inevitable destiny of establishing communism by overcoming capitalism, and this set others on a study of how to nurture or access that power. In other words, prediction has always been the backbone of empiricism. Yet Théorie Communiste appear to have taken out that backbone, content instead merely with ‘looking’. As they see it, any truly ‘communizing’ initiatives will never be helped by theory, for as they write, all organization prior to, or post, struggle, is “confronted by failure.” Any ‘help’ an existing theory could give would, therefore, be deleterious. The conclusion, it would seem, is that theorizing about the potentials of struggles is at best pointless and at worst counterproductive.25 But is not all theory a kind of permanence? To use theory to inform a practice, or strategy, is to rely on a permanent organization of ideas.26 What is the point of “theoretical production” if it is not to inform future practice? In their own terms, are not theorists such as Théorie Communiste counterrevolutionary?
At this point, it is worth returning to the implications of what Castoriadis wrote above. In his view, theory cannot be abstracted from events. If future events cannot be anticipated or shaped by ‘theorists’, this is because the “creative activity” of “the masses” is independent of theory, and therefore eternally separated from all theoretical writing. It would appear that Théorie Communiste have, instead, and despite their differences, followed Dauvé into a kind of abstraction in which they read the future from ‘struggles’ in the same way that a tasseomancer reads the future from the tea leaves in a cup.27
But, to be fair to Théorie Communiste, not even Castoriadis had worked out the implications of what he himself had written. This, from 1964, sounds just like the project of Théorie Communiste:
“But these ideas [of ‘a socialist revolution’] run the risk of remaining empty abstractions, pretexts for sermons or for a blind and spasmodic activism, if we do not strive to understand how society’s divisions are concretely being realized at the present hour, how this society functions, what forms of reaction and struggle labouring people adopt against the ruling strata and their system, what new kinds of revolutionary activity, related to people’s concrete existence and struggle in society and to a coherent and lucid view of the world, are possible under these conditions.”28
In 1959, Castoriadis—unwittingly one must presume—consigned the theorists of revolution to the dustbin, only to put them firmly back in their desired place in 1964, the same place that Théorie Communiste has set aside for itself.
Of course, there are other groups and tendencies that share this view of revolutionary theory and theorists. For example, Endnotes, Riff–Raff, Blaumachen, Aufheben, Přátelé komunizace, Chuăng, Kommunisierung, Research and Destroy, Il Lato Cattivo, Ill Will, Cured Quail, Echanges et Mouvement, and, of course, Troploin (Dauvé), among others. In these groups and individuals – who lean more toward Marx than Bakunin—the predictive power of science is the last leaf on their empirical tree. Their sociology is the last, cautious, remnant of Marx’s empirical endeavor—an endeavor meant to demonstrate that communizing, as a becoming, is actually already in existence (as a verb) and is inevitable as a new social order (that is, as a noun). These days, ‘struggles’ are the things to be observed, and theory is what is written about them, with the presumed hope that these writings will aid future struggle. But perhaps what is written, as Théorie Communiste themselves indicate, “after the event”—that which might become theory or is viewed as a possible a route to theory—is a husk, a residue, a mould which, if fed back into future events—the future ‘creative activity of the masses,’ as Castoriadis wrote—would only have the effect of poisoning those events?
An Indeterminate Totality
These reflexive lacunae were mirrored in a recent article by Endnotes, in which the premise of ‘the real movement’ was questioned, but not rejected.29 In 2011, Endnotes wrote confidently, if mystically: “Communization is a movement at the level of the totality, through which that totality is abolished.”30 By contrast, in “We Unhappy Few” (2019), they express the concern that “a notion of the real movement can, it seems, mean (and justify) anything, everything and nothing.”31
Confidence in the reality of the presumed movement toward communism appears to be showing cracks. And this is, I would argue, the result of two factors butting together. The first being that those who still adhere to the ‘real movement’ as a prediction, a prophecy, a certainty, an inevitability, are attempting to demonstrate that theirs remains an objective, or scientific—as opposed to an idealist—perspective. The second being a significant misunderstanding of what Marx was trying to achieve with his materialist conception of history, i.e., something shaped by the newly scientific era he lived in.
As I see it, to stay true to Marx and his materialism (essential if one is to avoid being tarred with the idealistic anarchist brush) requires we understand the ‘real movement’—or ‘the concrete becoming’—as something that is inevitable, because it is an empirical prediction and therefore that it is already here as a material fact. It is not that Marx was saying that he could predict just how the ‘real movement’ would appear, or make itself known in every or, indeed, any instance; he was only saying that it would appear, because the data told him so. Through this empirical certainty, Dauvé, for example, is able to write (see above) that communism “already exists, not as a society, but as an effort, a task to prepare for”—which lends to communism the same status in existence that the power of an atom had for Einstein (see above) before it was practically proved to the world through nuclear fission.
The group who publish the online journal Ill Will have also recently taken up the term ‘the real movement’, but they assign it a quite different meaning. For Ill Will, ‘the real movement’ denotes all unmediated expressions of resistance to things as they are:
“In an effort to think through this summer’s events, some of us have begun distinguishing for ourselves between two apparently distinct faces of the movement: the “social movement”, and something that, for lack of a better term, we’ve just started calling the “real movement”. On the one hand, there is the “protest” side of things, with all of its constituted left political organizations, ritualized marches, leaders on megaphones, self-appointed police (or ‘marshalls’), etc. What we call the “social movement” is the spontaneous tendency to translate antagonism or social conflict into demands, dialogue, peaceful disobedience, consciousness raising, etc. Even where this leads, in some special cases, to more radical forms of action, such as crowd self–defense or the occasional vandalism against state property, it does so in the mode of “pressure politics” aimed at influencing policy shifts such as ‘defunding’, etc. By contrast, we use the term “real movement” as a shorthand to name all those features of rebellion that bypass representation, discourse, and dialogue, and instead pursue the antagonism with the state and capital directly, even physically, if you will.”
As they continue:
“[W]ith the ‘real movement’ we are dealing with a non-hegemonic form of antagonism that awaits permission from no one, pays credence to no authorities beyond its own perception of what to do and what makes sense, and generally does not understand itself as engaged in an appeal to civil society or as a nascent sovereign power.”
This formulation of the term abandons the prediction of the inevitability of communism in favor of an affirmation of the radical potential of social resistances that are not immediately co–opted by political organizations or individuals. This is, of course the exact same thing that Castoriadis, Dauvé, Badiou, and Théorie Communiste value and are interested in, only without inserting the mystical notion that simply because such unmediated struggles do exist they are the proof that communism is on its way. Ill Will have, therefore, abandoned the materialism of Marx and returned to the idealism of Bakunin: they still want communism and they still think it is possible, but not inevitable. As a result, they are not beholden to the mysticism—the religious dogma that relied on ‘science’—that Marx set in motion.
In the original use of the term, ‘the real movement’, there is no endless return of revolt, for example, that might one day result in communism. There is only a concrete becoming: communism will happen because it cannot not happen. This is the difference between Marx and Bakunin: Marx believed that communism was inevitable—and he used his empirical observations to back up his claim—while Bakunin did not.
My assumption so far has been that Dauvé and Théorie Communiste believe in ‘the real movement’ in the Marxian sense, as opposed to the Ill Will sense. In fact, things are not so clear with Dauvé. In many places, he appears much closer to the sense of the term used by Ill Will. When one reads through the debate reproduced in the first issue of the Endnotes Journal (2008), it becomes apparent that Dauvé does not insert the Marxian conceptualisation of ‘the real movement’—inevitability__—_into communization, whereas _Théorie Communiste continue to do so. Endnotes offers a useful summary of the differences between the two presentations of communization as follows:
“Thus for Troploin [Dauvé], communism as communization is an ever–present (if at times submerged) possibility, one which, even if there is no guarantee that it will be realised, is an invariant in the capitalist epoch. By contrast, for TC, communization is the specific form which the communist revolution must take in the current cycle of struggle. In distinction from Troploin, then, TC are able to self–reflexively ground their conception of communization in an understanding of capitalist history as cycles of struggle.”32
If Dauvé views communization as a “possibility,” then communism itself is only a possibility. Théorie Communiste, in contrast, appear to be arguing that communization is the particular form that communist revolution will (“must”) take in any particular capitalist era. As they write:
“Does that mean that the revolution and communization are now the only future? Again this is a question without meaning, without reality. The only inevitability is the class struggle though which we can only conceive of the revolution of this cycle of struggle, and not as a collapse of capital leaving a space open, but as an historically specific practice of the proletariat in the crisis of this period of capital… The outcome of the struggle is never given beforehand. It is self–evident that revolution cannot be reduced to a sum of its conditions, because it is an overcoming and not a fulfillment.”33
In this passage, Théorie Communiste are seemingly attempting to keep their empirical predictive powder dry. They refuse to answer in simple and honest terms the question put by Dauvé when he writes:
“Who could argue that communism is bound to happen? The communist revolution is not the ultimate stage of capitalism.”34
A Concrete Becoming or an Endless Return?
Is it not the case that, when we compare life in civilization to life outside of it, the former has been beset by endless cycles of revolt since its first emergence, whereas the latter has not? If we are to take the study of revolt seriously, should we not compare a social system that encourages and facilitates revolt, even though it doesn’t mean to, with a social system in which there is none? Instead, revolutionaries tend to simply write off the ‘savages’35—the ‘primitives’—of the past and the present day… because they present an obstacle to the revolutionary narrative, in exactly the same way that they do for the narratives of people such as Bolsonaro and Modi 36. Both narratives are part of the sermon of civilization and are therefore—unequivocally—settler narratives.37
We are all products and functions of the society we are born into, irrespective of which one it happens to be. As Jacques Camatte has eloquently pointed out, ‘humanity’ is domesticated by capital.38 As he further observes, if we fight against capital, we only make it stronger, which logically indicates that we are products and functions of capital. I happen to believe this is correct. Yet, whereas Camatte draws the conclusion that “we must leave this world” by withdrawing from it, I am convinced that, if we are products and functions of our society as he appears to argue, we could only ever recreate the society we intended to leave.39 If we fight it, we make it stronger; if we ‘leave it,’ we bring it with us.
Wherever there has been a revolution, not only has the State has become stronger (England, France, Russia, China, Cuba, etc.), but the exploitation of the working classes has been intensified, become more brutal and more efficient. Similarly, has not every attempt to escape from capital or the State, or things as they are, every sect, or movement that has gone somewhere else to found a new world—from the Vikings who escaped the burgeoning power of Harald Finehair’s expanding kingdom by settling in Iceland, to the tragedy of Jonestown—merely carried the sickness with them?
We cannot fight our way out of civilization, neither can we escape from it—it is written into us. A community garden in the middle of a housing project is not an escape, but merely a temporary and quiet reprieve, yet neither is a Thoreauvian house in the woods, or a Buddhist hermit cabin up in the Zhongnan mountains. We cannot choose to become someone else. People can become radically different, but this cannot be a function of their choosing.40 Over time, a hermit in the mountains might be transformed a little, but the transformation will be something different to what was intended. Even if it could be said that a hermit has escaped civilization, it should be recalled that humans, as Marx stressed, are not human without each other. In any event, such an endeavor cannot be turned into a strategy for a mass of people.
Having witnessed, as everyone had, the immense tragedies and murderous farces of the first half of the 20th century, Albert Camus argued, to the chagrin of Sartre, in favor of rebellion—that is, an opposition to all forms of dictatorship—as opposed to revolution. In his view, “instead of killing and dying in order to produce the being that we are not, we have to live and let live in order to create what we are”:
“The revolutionary is simultaneously a rebel or he [sic] is not a revolutionary, but a policeman, or a bureaucrat, who turns against rebellion. But there is absolutely no progress from one attitude to the other, but co-existence and endlessly increasing contradiction. Every revolutionary ends by becoming either an oppressor or a heretic. In the […] universe that they have chosen, rebellion and revolution end in the same dilemma: either police rule or insanity.”41
Camus is here mining the same seam that Jean-Jacques Rousseau had exposed two centuries earlier, namely, that we are stuck in this world, and that we have to make the best of it. In Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality, he lays out his analysis of civilization as a society of centripetal dependence from which we cannot escape. Then, in The Social Contract, he outlines how we can try to keep governments as ‘accountable’ as possible (he was never the bloodthirsty revolutionary Robespierre cast him as).
I have argued elsewhere that—even if it commits atrocities—the State itself is neither ontologically good nor evil, although its arrival or emergence is always the result of bad luck. The State is a managerial solution to the problem of a large population.42 The central lesson of the Russian Revolution—for ‘revolutionaries’—was that mass society has to be managed. As such, life in a State or civilization is always and forever unsatisfactory and our appropriate response to such a condition is resentment.43 Such resentment fuels resistances and rebellions, and all manner of revolt against our condition. Our resentment begins as soon as we are born, when we find ourselves inexplicably thrust into a world, represented primarily by our parents, that is pedagogical and anti-human, a world that does not trust us and, as Jacques Camatte insightfully insists, denies our “naturalness.”44 Of course, treating children this way is necessary not only for the reproduction of mass—and therefore inevitably hierarchical and exploitative—society, but for their own survival in it. In their teenage years, when they first gain some physical and intellectual autonomy, the build-up of this resentment is often expressed through ‘teenage rebellion’.45
To believe in the ‘real movement’—the concrete becoming—is either to state that we think communism is inevitable, because there is an historically material development (becoming), initiated by capitalism, in the human being that is forcing it towards communism, or else it is to use the phrase in a ‘secular’ way, obscuring its religious insistence on inevitability. Either way, the production of texts points to the same abstraction I mentioned earlier. To maintain the veneer of scientific credibility, ‘struggles’ must be examined, as Castoriadis argued, under what might be termed a ‘real movement’ lens: we look for signs, in the endless cycle of revolts, for the germ of world revolution, and then we try to participate, or try to demonstrate our usefulness to the cause of the higher goal by writing about these apparent signs. In this way, whether we understand what Marx meant by ‘the real movement’ or not, we all become lutteomancers: people who search for the promise of a new world in ‘struggles’—just as tasseomancers make predictions from the tea leaves in a cup. And in so doing we enter a mystical realm in which our revolutionary conviction—the one thing shared by Marx and Bakunin—orbits the planet like a Russell’s Teapot.
Lutteomancy, whether it is performed by those who prophesy communism or those who simply want communism is, therefore, the name I would propose for the ‘production of revolutionary theory’ today. Is theory meant to inform future practise and show us the truth that should be revealed in the future, as in the form of a ‘theory of principle’? If not, how can it avoid being locked into a perpetual past, or wind up as a form of journalism, or propaganda?
Theory, in the sense that revolutionaries use it, is not what it claims to be. As my own research elsewhere indicates, writing emerged from accountancy in trade and the organization of people within States.46 As Claude Lévi-Strauss observes:
“If my hypothesis is correct, the primary function of writing, as a means of communication, is to facilitate the enslavement of other human beings. The use of writing for disinterested ends, and with a view to satisfactions of the mind in the fields either of science or the arts, is a secondary result of its invention—and may even be no more than a way of reinforcing, justifying, or dissimulating its primary function.”47
Theory, then, like all writing, it is an expression of money or power, or potential oppression. Why write this article then? Well, firstly, if I really knew why I was writing this—or doing anything at all—then I would be in possession of some kind of impossible consciousness, far above anything that a brain and nervous system is capable of. No, that is wrong. Humans believe in the possibility of a higher consciousness, or are at least tempted by the idea, because their consciousness, as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche suggested, is a “superficial and falsifying” consciousness, consisting of categorizing and classifying the world, a process requiring a focus that excludes other truths.48 This is why humans can build cities and write sonnets, and it is why those outside of civilization refuse this ‘ability’—which they regard as a curse.
Is Lévi-Strauss correct? Am I attempting, dear reader, to enslave you? All writing is oppressive, and a mark of the tyranny we accept and inflict. To write is an expression of that writhing movement we all make under the condition of existing within a State and civilization, but we should recognize the danger internal to the writing. Instead of actually living, something eternally denied, we attempt to work something out that on every level cannot be worked out, indeed, this effort may only help build new tyrannies and put new masters in place. I, we, continue to writhe—we can do nothing else—until the air stops entering our lungs and our bodies fall still.
There is indeed a real movement in civilized society, but it is just that, a movement, or a reflex—a resentful individual and social writhing—not a becoming. It is a persistent, natural, and eminently noble resentment—a constant, or recurring, emotional, physical and intellectual discourse between the exploited and the terms of their exploitation. It is not a becoming. It is not an evolution towards a better world. It is the abiding condition of we who exist in civilization—a form of society from which, once established, there is no escape. But we should tread carefully, as this resentment can so easily be transformed into elitism, authoritarianism (terror), dishonesty, and self-pity (or a Christ–like suffering) if it is not balanced by humor, kindness, and self-deprecation, and a strong sense that the civilized world we are trapped within is deeply absurd.
–Peter Harrison, December 2020
This article is adapted from part of an unpublished work, “Prophecy in the Revolutionary Tradition.” The author wishes to thank the editors at Ill Will for significantly improving the piece through copyediting and a myriad of astute suggestions.
1. V.I. Lenin, ‘What The Friends of the People Are, Part 1,’ 1894, Marxists Internet Archive.↰
2. Isaiah Berlin, Karl Marx, PUP, 1978. Pages 147–8.↰
3. David Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital, Verso, 2010. Page 197.↰
4. This is explored in more detail, particularly with reference to the interpretation made by G. A. Cohen, in Prophecy in The Revolutionary Tradition, unpublished.↰
5. Albert Einstein, ‘Time, Space and Gravitation,’ in The London Times, Nov. 28, 1919, can be found online. By referring to the analytic/synthetic distinction Einstein is affirming his empiricism. In semantics the distinction is portrayed by these kinds of sentences: ‘dentists are doctors’ (analytical) vs ‘dentists are wealthy’ (synthetic). In the same way, for example, Marx might say that the overthrow of capitalism is inevitable due to certain contradictions in its dynamic, but would not say that that capitalism needs to be abolished because it is evil—even if he points out that aspects of it are terrible and inhumane.↰
6. See Ernest Mandel, ‘Introduction’, in Karl Marx, Capital Volume 3, David Fernbach (trans.), Penguin, 1991: “While these volumes contain a tremendous amount of intellectual and moral dynamite aimed at bourgeois society and its prevailing ideology—with all that these entail for human beings, above all for workers—they give no precise indication of the way in which the system’s inner contradictions prepare the ground for its final and inevitable downfall.” Pages 9-10. Mandel was a leading Trotskyist, and it is significant to note that both Lenin and Trotsky abandoned Marx’s thesis of inevitability, while thinkers such as Luxemburg and Pannekoek did not—this is explored further in Prophecy in the Revolutionary Tradition.↰
7. Mikhail Bakunin, The Capitalist System, (no date), Marxists Internet Archive (MIA). Footnote 2.↰
8. Bakunin, On the International Workingmen’s Association and Karl Marx, 1872, MIA.↰
9. The repeating of Marx’s ‘obstacle of the peasantry’ by Théorie Communiste is explored in The Freedom of Things: An Ethnology of Control, P. Harrison, TSI Press, 2017, Pages 128–130. See also fn 13, on page 205–6.↰
10. Bruno Bosteels, ‘Preface to the Korean Translation of The Actuality of Communism,’ 2014, can be found on the Academia website, individuals can join for free. ‘The Idea of Communism’ conferences were initiated by Slavoj Žižek, Badiou, and others to explore the notions in Badiou’s book, L’hypothèse communiste, 2009.↰
11. Badiou, A. 2010, The Communist Hypothesis, David Macey and Steve Corcoran (trans.), Verso. Page 155. The passage continues directly with an expression of distaste for anarchism: “…and yet at the same time without lapsing into the figure of anarchism, which has never been anything else than the vain critique, or the double, or the shadow, of the communist parties, just as the black flag is only the double or the shadow of the red flag.” ↰
12. Badiou, interviewed in 2014. Transcript: ‘Creative Nonfiction: A Lecture Performance by Alain Badiou,’ 2015, at leapleapleap website. For Badiou, materialism is “an assault philosophy” (A. Badiou, Theory of the Subject, Bruno Bosteels (trans.), Continuum, 2009/1982, p185). And for there to be an ‘event’ there must be an ‘intervention’ which alters the situation or causes a ‘rupture’—therefore, Badiou’s claim to be a ‘philosopher of this hidden progress’ could also be regarded being a claim to be a philosopher of the ‘intervention.’ This fits well with his Maoism, and with his notorious invasions of Deleuze’s lectures (he called Deleuze “an enemy of the people”) in the late 1970s. See, François Dosse, Intersecting Lives, Deborah Glassman (trans.), CUP, 2010 (2007), pages 365–8.↰
13. In ‘Communization in the Present Tense,’ TC write: “communization is nothing other than communist measures taken as simple measures of struggle by the proletariat against capital” (p53, original emphases), but in the same text, unwittingly it would seem, they spell out why leaders, experts, and ‘parties’ will definitely emerge even in a ‘communizing’ revolution in a passage that calls for “the dictatorship [through “armed struggle” and “overcoming the conflicts” between different elements of society, for example, employed/unemployed, rural/city, etc] of the social movement of communization.” See TC, ‘Communization in the Present Tense,’ (Endnotes, trans.) in Communization and its Discontents: Contestation, Critique, and Contemporary Struggles, Benjamin Noys (ed), Minor Compositions, 2011. Pages 55–58. ↰
14. Gilles Dauvé and François Martin, 2015 , Eclipse and Re–emergence of the Communist Movement, PM Press, Oakland, CA. Page 7.↰
15. For Vaneigem’s use of the term ‘the real movement,’ see ‘Basic Banalities (II),’ 1963, in SI Anthology, Page 122. Also, see ‘Notes on the SIs Direction,’ 1970, and ‘Several Precise Points,’ 1970, that can be found at the NOT BORED! Website.↰
16. Dauvé and Martin, p30, and page 23ff.↰
17. See ‘Back to the SI,’ at the Troploin website.↰
18. Cornelius Castoriadis/Paul Cardan, ‘Proletariat and Organisation,’ Socialisme ou Barbarie, 27 and 28, 1959, in Socialisme ou Barbarie: an Anthology, a translation of the French book (published by Acratie, 2007), available at NOT BORED! Pages 328-9.↰
19. Their writings are easily available online. I will come to the differences between Dauvé and TC in due course.↰
20. In 1952, Amadeo Bordiga referred to Marxist “modernizers” (like S. ou B.) who rejected the explicitly predictive power of Marxism as worse than Stalinists and the bourgeoisie. See Amadeo Bordiga, ‘The Historical “Invariance” of Marxism: Presentation to the International Communist Party,’ 1952, Libcom website. See also the note on Cohen above. ↰
21. The quote is from the first part of The German Ideology, ‘The Contrast of Materialist and Idealist Perspectives,’ and can be found online in German at MLwerke. ↰
22. For an exploration of Marx’s notion of the social human being, see “The Gemeinwesen Has Always Been Here: An Engagement with the Ideas of Jacques Camatte”, available online at Ill Will, Il Covile, and NonCopyriot.↰
23. See ‘Meeting: Revue Internationale pour la Communisation (2003–2008),’ on the Libcom website.↰
24. See ‘Théorie Communiste,’ ‘an Introduction for the young Lyonnaise,’ 2014, on the Libcom website. See also the footnote below.↰
25. In Eclipse, p7, Dauvé wrote: “The communist revolution, like every other revolution, is the product of real needs and living conditions. The problem is to shed light on an existing historical movement.” Why does light need to be shed upon this movement except for ‘journalistic’ purposes? Why, indeed, is this a “problem”? On the other hand, won’t any written intervention, if anyone involved actually reads it, only serve to hinder or thwart this “existing movement”?↰
26. I do not refer here to the concept of ‘praxis,’ which requires another discussion. Henri Lefebvre writes: “All praxis is situated in history; it is a creator of history,” Metaphilosophy, D. Fernbach (trans.), Verso, 2016 (2000), p7. In this sense we are all products and functions of our society, therefore whatever I or TC write is contained, trapped, within ‘our world’ – none of us can truly introduce an idea from another society (outside of capitalism), as if from another planet. In this way all our ideas ‘serve’ our society. Therefore, the question is what do we think we are trying to achieve, or may achieve, by writing theory? ↰
27. Tasse is ‘cup’ in French, and a mancer is someone who divines, or foretells, the future by magical, or supernatural, means.↰
28. Castoriadis, ‘Recommencing the Revolution,’ 1964, in Socialisme ou Barbarie: an Anthology, page 400.↰
29. Fascinatingly, in a recent article, published after my piece was written (this footnote being a last minute addition to the text), Endnotes reaffirm their prophetic perspective, and write of ‘reading the runes’: “The revolution of the 21st century must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content. Thus the task for a contemporary science of the species is to once more read the runes of our times, in order to understand how the non-movements themselves reveal the anti-formistic tendency of our period, and how, in their confusion, we can identify the eclipse of the social forms that we call capital, state and class. Since communism is the real non-movement that abolishes these social forms, we say to the masses who confront our tottering order — avanti barbari! — onward barbarians.” (I am always curious, by-the-way, as to just what is meant by ‘the masses.’)↰
30. Endnotes, ‘What Are We to Do?’ in Communization and its Discontents: Contestation, Critique, and Contemporary Struggles, Benjamin Noys (ed), Minor Compositions, 2011. Page 28.↰
31. Endnotes, Issue 5, 2019, page 29. Available online.↰
32. Endnotes, ‘Afterword,’ Endnotes Issue 1, 2008 (all articles available online).↰
33. Théorie Communiste, ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ Endnotes Issue 1, 2008.↰
34. Gilles Dauvé and Karl Nesic, ‘Love of Labour? Love of Labour Lost…,’ Endnotes Issue 1, 2008.↰
35. See The Gemeinwesen Has Always Been Here. ↰
36. Both Modi and Bolsonaro claim repeatedly that ‘the savages’ need to be educated and brought up to civilized standards. Of course, their narratives are more explicit, but the internal dynamic of homogeneity within both narratives is shared.↰
37. This claim is extremely important, and central to my theses elsewhere on the State and revolutionary politics.↰
38. He too fails to consider those outside of civilisation.↰
39. Giorgio Agamben’s conception of ‘destituent power’ appears to be a combative form of ‘leaving the world.’ It is important to note that Camatte’s policy of ‘inversion’ (leaving the world) eschews all ‘enmity,’ including, as he writes, “riots (uprisings, revolutions).” See, Revue Invariance, definition of ‘inversion’ in the Glossaire. ↰
40. This idea is fully articulated in the story of the Narcisse Pelletier – a fifteen–year–old French sailor shipwrecked off the coast of Australia in the 19th century, who became an Uutaalnganu warrior – in The Freedom of Things: An Ethnology of Control. The notion is also touched upon throughout the book.↰
41. Albert Camus, The Rebel, Anthony Bower (trans.), Penguin, 1982. Pages 215 and 218.↰
42. For a detailed exploration see The Gemeinwesen Has Always Been Here, and The Freedom of Things.↰
43. The use of the word ‘resentment’ here should not in any way whatsoever be confused with the term ressentiment as used by Nietzsche in On the Genealogy of Morality.↰
44. Camatte has written extensively on this in his website, Revue Invariance. A good overview is in his article, Inimitié et extinction, 2019. For an exploration of why pedagogy is harmful for humans and why our society is deeply pedagogical, see The Freedom of Things: An Ethnology of Control, and ‘Adani and the Purpose of Education,’ January 2020, on the CounterPunch website.↰
45. For why population size necessitates a managerial solution to the organisation of society see The Freedom of Things, The Gemeinwesen Has Always Been Here, and ‘The Last Humans’ April 2020, CounterPunch. Camatte argues that once ‘we have left this world’ “it will take a few thousand years for the number of human beings to reach between 250 and 500 million—which was probably the population before the great separation from nature caused by the agricultural revolution—and which will allow all forms of life to thrive,” from Instauration du risque d’extinction, fn 14, April 2020, Revue Invariance, (my translation). Any forced reduction in population size would, of course, be horrific and evil (as well as pointless), and this is another part of why escaping civilization is impossible.↰
46. The Freedom of Things, p5. Also: Denise Schmandt–Besserat, 2006, How Writing Came About, University of Texas Press; James Scott, 2009, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, Yale University Press, pages 228, 388n23; Elman Service, 1975, Origins of the State and Civilization: The Process of Cultural Evolution, Norton, New York, p7; Thomas Suddendorf, 2013, The Gap: The Science Of What Separates Us From Other Animals, Basic Books, New York, p270–1.↰
47. Claude Lévi–Strauss, 1961 (1955), Tristes Tropiques, John Russell (trans.), Criterion, p 292.↰
48. See Paul Katsafanas, 2018 (2016), The Nietzschean Self, Chapter 3. Also, Virginia Woolf, The Waves, 1931: “Louis, wild-eyed but severe, in his attic, in his office, has formed unalterable conclusions upon the true nature of what is to be known,” and, “Let a man get up and say, ‘Behold, this is the truth,’ and I instantly perceive a sandy cat filching a piece of fish in the background. Look, you have forgotten the cat, I say.” (Vintage Classics edition, pages 156 and 133, respectively.)↰