Communism Without Workers
Communism Without Workers: An Anarcho-syndicalist Critique Of The Communisation Current
The communist, socialist, and Marxist movement has undergone a fundamental change since the late 1960s (as has the global capitalist system itself). While Stalinists, Trotskyists, and social democrats continue to hang around like a bad headache, much newer tenancies that claim to be innovative in theory and practice have cropped up to jockey for the position of interpreting communism through the modern capitalist system and it's adaptations since the late 20th century. Once such tenancy which has gained some intellectual fan fair is "communisation". Various things go under this label, but this discussion will focus on the the tradition of "ultra-left" Marxism this label is often used to describe. Since the uprisings of 1968 by workers across the world (especially in France) and their repression by capitalist forces and, shockingly (depending on how you look at it), leftist parties and governments, certain Marxism oriented activists and thinkers have tried to redraw the lines of struggle for a communist society.
These militants have gone back to Marx's theory of value to emphasize value (in Marx's sense) as a social relation at the base of capitalism, and taken a critical stance toward the leftist efforts of the past from Leninist, to Anarchist, to social democratic. The basis of this "communisation current" is threefold; a critique of capitalism along with a critique of the existing left, from which fallows "communisation", or the strategy purposed by the "communisation current" for achieving communism. We will address all of these in order to evaluate communisation's ability to really provide a winning strategy for attaining a communist society. We start from the conclusion that a communist society is not only desirable, but necessary. For this reason we shall define communism to generally outline the fundamental necessity of it's success.
For A Communist Society
Communism, as articulated by the 19th century workers' movement and dissident, libertarian strains of the workers' movement today, is a society without any coercive mechanisms of domination, without division of society into classes with different levels of wealth accumulation and economic power, and with the self-organization of producers who own the productive resources of society in common and manage the social product for social consumption that meets human needs. This communism is in complete opposition to the "communist" states which cropped up in the 20th century. For these regimes "communism" was a far off utopia that would one day be achieved through developing a national economy that could compete as part of the global capitalist system. These states erected state bureaucratic control of production and social life to extract what the laboring population produced. This product was sold by state firms in the national economy and the world market so that industry and the military could be invested in and developed. Effectively all these regimes created was the state accumulation of capital, or state-capitalism, under the authority of a bureaucratized Leninist party.
By contrast a communist society would abolish the accumulation of capital and production of things to be sold. Freely associated producers would create things that meet the needs of themselves and their community. Such a society is needed because societies build on class divisions, coercive institutions like the state, and domination of one group by another rely on the social marginalization of the vast majority of people. These societies, which we have lived in for the last 10 to 20 thousand years, keep the vast majority of us producing, thus expending our lives, for the enrichment of an elite stratum of rulers who live off of our subjugation. We are denied access to the vast resources we produce, psychologically terrorized by social and legal penalties on failure to comply with the system, and done bodily and psychological harm by those penalties (often times whether we step out of line, or not).
In capitalist society class relations take on the form of our freedom from our own means of subsistence. The major resources of our society are commodities that can only be bought and sold by those with the financial means to do so. The rest of us have nothing to sell but our physical and mental ability to work. Thus we agree, through "free" market transactions, to produce commodities that the owners of resources (capitalists) can sell on the market for a return that can be invested into more production and their own living as individuals. We get just enough of those proceeds back from the capitalist in order to buy the essentials for life in the modern world. Thus capitalism runs on our exploitation and domination, that is, the exploitation and domination of the working class.
The need for capitalists to constantly gain more and more revenue fuels their need to constantly expand production, so the natural world is constantly accumulated by capitalist production to create more and more masses of commodities. Thus from capitalism's birth in the industrial revolutions in Europe to now levels of pollution have consistently increased creating an era that might be called the "Anthropocene" characterized by human domination of the natural world. The problem is that the same natural world we are consuming also provides all of the resources we need to live. Thus capitalist society is paving the way for increasing natural disasters destroying our homes and livelihoods in addition to doing untold physical harm to our species as well ass the depletion of the species and resources we need to consume to survive.
To escape this nightmare, our only option is a free and equal society based on common ownership and free association, communism. Thus we as workers and oppressed people must find a way, a strategy, to achieve communism. This involves understanding our enemy (capitalism) and charting a path of action to achieving our goal (communism). The second requirement for strategy leads to a third requirement, critiquing ineffective communist strategies. Below is an evaluation of the "communisation" current as a critique of capitalism, critique of the existing anti-capitalist movement, and strategy for achieving communism, wholly described as a "communist strategy".
The Value Form
The communisation critique of capitalism is one which focuses on Marx's concept of "the value form", the idea that value is composed of the ability of a product to be a commodity that gains it's commodity status through being exchangeable for a certain amount of money. From this, "communisers" argue that "value" is not simply an economic unit of measurement, but a full social relation. It requires a chain of relations in which people produce a product and then exchange it, making production subordinate to the transfer of product for payment. Since the exchange of value is the basis of capitalism, the communisers argue that the key to overcoming capitalism is overcoming value.
If value is not overcome, then human relations will be subordinate to the capitalist logic of exchange. Instead of producing through their own free efforts to meet their needs people will be forced to carry out their own exploitation, producing and transferring value because production is subordinate to the value form. This means that communism must first and for most be an effort to abolish the value form. Taking over production and having workers' control, or an economy nationalized by a communist party lead state won't do, because neither of these necessarily entail the abolition of value.
It is indeed true that value is a social relation which subordinates human labor to the production of marketable commodities. But honing in on it as the locus of capitalism ignores that there are many more, just as important mechanisms which perpetuate capitalism's existence. For instance, commodities can only be commodities, and thus be imbued with "value", if they are the property of those who have gained the rights to them in market transactions. If the commodity is not upheld as my property, then I can not receive it, nor exchange it. There also needs to be a mechanism that enforces this property claim on a social scale. This mechanism needs to have control of weapons and top down coercive institutions in order to enforce property relations for the whole society, i.e., there needs to be a capitalist state. There also needs to be a class which finances this state and employs it to maintain control of property relations and production in the society, i.e. a capitalist ruling class.
Because communisers hone in on value, as the locus of capitalism, they conceive of getting rid of capitalism and instituting communism as a matter of "negating" the value form. This leads to their fallacious critique of modern left and communist tenancies and their efforts to abolish capitalism. We will hone in on two of the these critiques in particular, the communisation critiques of Stalinism and and of class struggle Anarchism.
You Forgot To Abolish The Value Form!
This part of our discussion will be based heavily on "When Insurrections Die", by the premier communisation theorist Giles Dauve, as well as his other work; "Eclipse and Reemergence of The Communist Movement". In these works Dauve argues that in the Stalinist case (e.g. the Russian Revolution for example) the party took over the means of production through the state and in the Anarchist case (specifically the Spanish Revolution of 1936) the workers took control of production under worker self-management, but in neither case was the value form, and thus capitalism, abolished. Instead the value form came be administered either by a Leninist party, or Anarchist labor unions.
State-capitalism under the communist states, and the joining of the counterrevolutionary capitalist republican government by the Anarchist CNT and FAI labor unions were thus the logical result of the failure to go beyond the value form. Today Leninists and Anarchists, in advocating seizure of state power, or seizure of the means of production, have forgotten to learn from history. In so doing they continue the leftist failure to hone in on the locus of capitalist relations. These arguments about the existing left made by Dauve are generally echoed by the rest of the communisers. After all, if failing to abolish the value form as the first task of the revolution means failing to abolish capitalism, then what you will get, simply, is more capitalism. However, this critique, being rooted in the communiser critique of capitalism, is inherently limited and analytically flawed.
Firstly, this isn't how the actual history played out. It isn't true that that what lead to the triumph of capitalism over the revolutionary efforts of the 20th century was specifically ignoring the value form. The Bolsheviks had a specific political attitude in terms of how to carry out the struggle for communism which was later shared by the communist parties that came to power outside Russia. Far from it being the case that state-capitalism was the result of failing to consider the abolition of the value form, in the case of the communist regimes, the leaders explicitly thought that state-capitalism was the first step to communism. In his work "State and Revolution", a work that is objectively his most anti-state, even there he argues that socialism is a matter of setting up state controlled capitalist industries like the war time economy of Germany, or the US postal service. In Stalinist Russia Marx's capital was purposefully augmented to remove the beginning which focused on the commodity, out of the specific fear that people would apply it's analysis to the economy of the USSR. All the way up to Khrushchev the preoccupation of Soviet leaders was catching up to the economic development of the west through the state owned economy. In China the hundred flowers campaign of open criticism was squashed right after it's participants began to articulate that the communist state owned the Chinese economy and existed as a power above the workers. In Cuba the first major policies carried out by Castro and Che were reforms drawn up by the capitalist Batista regime that came before it.
A political situation in which the revolutionary masses did not take possession of the means of production and social functions themselves meant that the Leninist career revolutionaries were left to do so. These Leninists, far from simply being unaware of the value form, actively thought that the development of a certain type of capitalism was the requirement for their social project. The idea that Leninism was blind to the value form simply doesn't cut it as an explanation of the historical failure of Leninist theory and practice. So what about Anarchism?
The communiser analysis of the 1936 revolution ignores that the CNT-FAI was "libertarian communist", meaning that, although it wasn't expressed in these terms, effectively the Anarchist movement wanted to replace the value form with self-managed production to meet human needs. When workers took over production and towns in the initial July uprising, they organized it to provide for social use rather than for commodities to sell. Many of the agricultural collectives that were established either replaced commodity exchange with labor vouchers, or direct cooperative distribution of the social product. What doomed the 1936 experiment was twofold. The leading Anarchists of the CNT-FAI union movement were paranoid that the Fascist counterrevolution was going to close in on them. They were given the opportunity to join the liberal republican state and in making this decision they ignored the process of rank and file control through mass assembly. This allowed them to abandon the project of Libertarian Communism for the hallow "anti-fascist" struggle carried out by the republic. This meant that the CNT-FAI leadership took power out of the hands of the working class Anarchist movement and worked for the republic's program of replacing worker self-management with state-capitalism. Once gain, far from the value form being the critical factor it was the political failure of leading Anarchists in making peace with counterrevolution that was the main issue.
The wider implication of this flawed historical analysis is that the communisation critique of modern Leninism and Anarchism is inaccurate. Leninists are explicitly for state-capitalism as they always have been and the vast majority of class struggle Anarchists are for replacing the value form with Libertarian/Anarchist communism. Whatever problem's these tenancies possess, being blind to the value form is not one of them. So what is the communiser strategy that is extrapolated from the communiser critique of existing leftism? What are it's problems?
Since, according to the communisers, what failed last time was seizing the means of production, or political power, the communist movement needs to go in a new direction. Instead of developing a political program based on working class conquest of power the working class must spontaneously, and immediately, undue capitalist society. Instead of taking over the means of production, or political power, the working class must act against it's status as the working class. It must immediately rebel against the capitalist state and private property, it must start producing things to meet human need and owning the means of production in common.
By doing this, it is held, the working class undermines the basic social relations of capitalist society, thus proactively preventing the reproduction of the capitalist system. In negating capitalist society, new communist relations are affirmed, put into place to generate the basis for a communist society. This approach is not completely wrongheaded. It is completely true that taking political power through the state does nothing to hinder the capitalist mode of production. In fact, whoever is in charge of a state in capitalist society must keep that state afloat in the global capitalist economy and geopolitical order. Stalinist state-capitalism and the betrayals of would be reformist/electoral socialists prove this. Communisation moves in the right direction by criticizing the left's historic obsession with using state power to change society and arguing for a communism that is in fact a revolt against the state.
Communisation's error is in it's attempt to break with working class power and workers' control. While any "transition" that includes administering capitalist relations would simply lead to more capitalism, rebelling against capitalism and organizing new relations won't cut it on their own. There needs to be a social force that can transform society itself. The state needs to be toppled, production needs to be brought under collective control, and production itself needs to be retooled for it's new purpose of serving human needs. The only force that can accomplish this is the organized working class, taking over production and the functions of society. The immediate negation of the working class as a class under capitalism is not possible, the working class needs to leverage it's collective strength as the largest class in capitalist society and fulfill it's interest as the exploited class in capitalist society in creating a non-exploitative social formation. This is part of the error with fixating on the value form.
If the value form by itself was what reproduced capitalism then workers simply rebelling against commodity production and work would be sufficient to abolish capitalist society. As mentioned above there are many entrenched mechanisms that support the value form. In this sense, what is needed is actually to go back to the theory and practice of working class self-organization and workers' control. There is no communist project without the working class as the agent of revolutionary change. There have been many attempts at a communism without the working class. As mentioned above there was the Leninist project of having disciplined revolutionaries instate communism from above as well as the social democratic project of elected officials implementing the new society on a piecemeal basis. Both of these simply lead back to capitalism as the communisers have pointed out. The Anarchist Murray Bookchin also tried to ignore the working class as the agent of revolutionary change. Bookchin thought that a communal movement for social justice with oppressed minority groups as the agent of change could abolish capitalism. His theory never cought on, likely because it was just another version of a sectarian tenancy of anti-capitalist movements to separate the struggles of marginalized identity groups and the working class which had been fundamentally challenged by the uprisings of 1968. Bookchin tried to go back to an old mode of thought at a time when it was being actively resisted. Like Bookchin the communisers are trying to separate the communist project from working class power, and like all other attempts to do this, it will either be met with little success, or lead straight back to capitalism. It should be no surprise then that "communisation" is much more of a theoretical "current" than an existing movement.
Communisation is well intentioned in that it attempts to rethink the communist movement in terms of the modern situation in global capitalist society. Unfortunately, it's insular theory that puts a hyper-focus on theorizing about the value form inherently limits its potential for actually bringing about a communist society. In attempting to rethink communism what the communisers have effectively done is disregard the basic element of the communist project (working class power and workers' control) and hand wave about some kind of new, nihilistic strategy that is designed to not really be a strategy in the first place. When communisers outline what it is they "want to do", i.e., how they want to achieve a communist society, such as "Communisation" by Troploin and "Communisation As A Way Out Of Crisis" by Bruno A., all that they seem to be able to come up with is a vague idea of an insurrectionary movement against capitalism that seeks to implement communist relations.
They say that workers can rise up against the state, build communities based on common ownership that negate commodity production, and organize relations in a non-class dominated way. This directly avoids the crucial question of what social force is actually going to take production, the natural environment, and the management of society out of the hands of the capitalist class and the capitalist state, and transform those things to eliminate class society, the value form, and capitalist production. Unfortunately for the communisers the old ideas of workers' power and workers' self-management can't be done away with. This brings us to the importance of the old, but continuing theory and practice known as "Anarcho-syndicalism".
As I have outlined elsewhere Anarcho-syndicalism is the synthesis of the traditions of revolutionary unionism and Anarchism (in Bakunin's words "Stateless Socialism"). It advocates the organization of the working class through self-managed labor unions to fight for the rights of workers and eventually, once critical strength is built, topple the state and bring production, the earth, and social affairs under the control of the collective producers, all through the collective force of the working class and those oppressed by the capitalist world system. Communisers typically object to Anarcho-syndicalism, as shown above, on the basis that worker control doesn't necessarily = communism. Workers could take control of production, but leave capitalist relations of producing commodities to be sold in tact, thus only accomplishing the self-management of capitalism, rather than it's replacement by communism.
This is true, for instance around the world there are a large number of "cooperative enterprises". These are capitalist firms that are owned collectively by their workers rather than share holders who hire boards of directors. These pose essentially no challenge to the capitalist system since, despite being worker controlled, they still have to make profits in the capitalist economy and compete with the other firms. However, Anarcho-syndicalists are not blind to this. For this reason Anarcho-syndicalists are strong proponents of "libertarian communism".
According to the theory of libertarian communism the revolutionary unions that organized the social revolution against capitalism would complete it by transforming into the networked structures of democratic assembly and delegation through which producers, consumers, and communities commonly organize production and social affairs. Production is done cooperatively by freely associated producers to meet their needs. There is no "value", or commodity production because things are now exclusively produced to be distributed on the basis of people's need for them. Thus communism is achieved through Anarcho-syndicalism.
Of coarse we can't just repeat the old Anarcho-syndicalist movement since it failed to achieve a communist society. This, actually, means that developing a new Anarcho-syndicalist movement that can accomplish this goal is more important than ever. Anarcho-syndicalism is theoretically equipped to bring us a communist society in the basic ways that communisation is not. Communisation is an interesting theoretical quandary, but it offers essentially nothing in the way of actually making a better world. We need concrete strategies for achieving the new world, and communization disregards this reality to offer up half baked ideas about the "immediate negation of class society". In other words, not out with the old, but in with the renewed.
I was once influenced by the ideas of the "communisation current", so this critique has been a long time coming for me. It's point is not to belittle the theorists and activists of communisation (though of Dauve specifically I have a less than positive assessment of personal character). It's only point is to show the limitations of communisation and point out that while it may have useful ideas, it is not fit to bringing about a social revolution and communist society in the real world.
For Communism:Wage Labor and Capital, K. Marx, The Modern World System As A Capitalist World Economy: Production, Surplus Value, and Polarization, Immanuel Wallerstein, World Systems Analysis: An Introduction, Marx, Marxism-Leninism, And Socialist Experiences In The Modern World System, I. Wallerstein, State-Capitalism: The Wages System Under New Management, Buick & Crump, Capitalism and The Destruction Of Life On Earth, R. Smith
The Value Form: Eclipse and Reemergence Of The Communist Movement, Dauve & Martin, When Insurrections Die, Dauve, Notes On The New Housing Question, Ednotes, Private Property, Exclusion, and The State, Junge Linke, Wage Labor and Capital, K. Marx, Capital Vol. 1, K. Marx
You Forgot To Abolish The Value Form!: Eclipse and Reemergence Of The Communist Movement, Dauve & Martin, When Insurrections Die, Dauve, Marx, Marxism-Leninism, And Socialist Experiences In The Modern World System, I. Wallerstein, State-Capitalism: The Wages System Under New Management, Buick & Crump, Anarcho-syndicalism In The 20th Century, V. Damier, The Evolution Of Anarcho-syndicalism, R. Rocker, Anarcho-syndicalism: Theory and Practice
Communisation: Eclipse and Reemergence Of The Communist Movement, Dauve & Martin, Endnotes 1, Communisation, Troploin, Communisation As A Way Out Of Crises, Bruno A., The Ghost Of Anarcho-syndicalism, Bookchin, Anarchism Without The Working Class, Price, Murray Bookchin, Vissions Of A New Society [Interview]
Conclusion: Anarcho-syndicalism Theory and Practice, R. Rocker, Libertarian Communism, Issac Puente, Communism and Anarchy, P. Kropotkin, Stateless Socialism: Anarchism, M. Bakunin, Statutes Of The International Workers' Association, On Exchange, Joseph D., Anarcho-syndicalism In The 20th Century, Damier