Jehu is a former co-blogger at Symptomatic Redness and blogs at Re: The People and at the Gonzo Times. While Jehu and I don’t always agree and I have been known to criticize his tone, I do find talking to him fascinating, and his close reading of Marx is penetrating, so my disagreements with him are often extremely instructive. He and I both worry about overly statist visions of Marxism as well as reification of the idea of consciousness, although we profoundly disagree on the degree of the role of Lenin in that development and the problems of the concessions of the World War 1 and the Russian Civil War in the problems that followed.
Skepoet: I have been following your occupy the Marxist academy, why do you think Marxist have split up in the English speaking world into fairly tiny sectarian groups made up students and then academics?
Jehu: I think the roots of this can be traced well back to what I hypothesize as “The Catastrophe”. Perhaps this catastrophe was inevitable, perhaps not, but it occurred.
Briefly stated, my still primitive hypothesis states that in Marx’s argument the struggle between the two great classes is a political struggle that took place mainly within the confines of 19th Century nation states. The various sections of the working class developed mostly side by side with each other within the larger context of the world market. While capital was always a mode of production bound up with the world market, and the labor market, based on this world market, always a global one, the political organization of the working class made use of the political structures available to it — which were necessarily limited to nation states.
While, from what I can determine, working class parties in the European sections gained some important victories, these victories were limited, local, victories, and were always vulnerable to the further development of the capitalist mode of production bound up with the world market, including, most important, the increasing rivalry between national capitals.
We are familiar with competition between national capitals, and even competition between capitals within individual countries. What we fail to grasp is that the very same law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall that generates increasing competition between capitals also generates competition within the working class. The law states capital will tend to an overaccumulation of capital which will itself produce a struggle among capitals over which capitals will be forced to cease functioning as capitals and which will continue to function as capitals. However, it also produces conflict within the working class, produced by the tendency toward an overpopulation of workers, over whose labor power will be employed and whose labor power will be condemned to the industrial reserve.
So the conflict within society at the turn of the 20th Century was nowhere near as simple as it is often presented in our conceptions. It was actually very complex and it was within this very complex situation that the working class movement suffered a series of profound shocks to its internal solidarity resulting from the triple catastrophes of the Great War, the Great Depression and World War II. I think we underestimate the impact these events had on the moral development of the working class movement. There were victories in Russia, China, etc. But even these victories were ultimately of the sort of limited, isolated, local events Marx predicted would dissolve under pressures of the world market.
The internal enemy to the solidarity of the working class has always been sectarianism. I believe these catastrophes spread confusion, demoralization and mystification within the working class over its own
S.: What do you think has sparked the sectarianism since the fall of the Soviet Union?
JEHU: I think there are several reasons for this. Marxists have a profound suspicion of the working class and any movement of that class that they cannot direct or subordinate to their alleged theoretical leadership. In part, this can be explained by historical events, but there is beyond this a pattern that cannot be dismissed by reference to these historical causes. It results from a completely idealist notion of social development that is persistent — a view Marx identified as the tendency of consciousness to imagine itself independent of material relations.
Within the various strands of Marxism, and, in particular, the Leninist strand, from which I came, the idea has predominated that the revolutionary potential of the working class movement depends on the political correctness of the vanguard forces leading the working class. This vanguard, it is said, is necessary because the working class is incapable of creating its own revolutionary theory. And why is this? According to Kautsky, who later went on to betray the working class movement in the Great War, science was the domain of the intellectual. This nonsense was imported into Russian Marxism by none other than Lenin himself, who later became an influential figure within the revolutionary opposition to revisionists like Kautsky. It has since infected both European Social-Democracy and Leninism.
In this view, the working class is not a revolutionary class in its own right, owing to its actual position in the mode of production — like its opposite, the capitalist class — but a class which has the potential to be revolutionary only if it is brought under the leadership of a theoretically correct vanguard. This view was significant within the working class movement even in Marx’s day and he struggled against it — not only against those who opposed him in the working class movement, but also others who claimed to be among his followers. This view continues to have popularity not simply because both trends within Marxism spread it within their ranks, but also because it is based on a rather simplistic understanding of the relation between critical ideas and practical critical activity.
The sectarians have no conception of the working class as a revolutionary force in society in its own right (not by reason of the introduction of revolutionary ideas, but by reason of its direct practical everyday activity). This goes double when looking at capital itself as a revolutionary mode of production. Theory, to the extent it is even a factor here, is only significant as a more or less accurate reflection of the revolutionary motion of the working class itself — in almost all cases theory isn’t a significant factor in the social process at all. Theory can only disclose the laws of motion of capitalist society, it cannot change them. It is no more possible for Marxist theory to change or affect the laws of motion of capitalist society than it is for the neoclassical theory of the fascist state or central bank authorities to change those laws. This implies that if the working class were not of itself a revolutionary force no amount of theory could transform their movement into a revolutionary movement.
The adoration of theory above even the practical activity of society seems hardened into the ossified thinking of most Marxists at this point. The collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the current collapse of European Social-Democracy is a profound blow to this world-view. But, paradoxically, these collapses have only the effect of spurring stupid Marxists to double-down both on their pessimistic view of the working class movement and their adoration of critical theory. They seek to explain these failures not with reference to unfolding of the capitalist laws of motion but with reference to failures of one or another ideology.
In fact, Russian Marxists from the very beginning never imagined a revolution could succeed in one or a few countries within the world market — and no one looking at the Russian revolution in 1917 had any hope for its prospects in isolation from the world market. The communist movement of society was always understood to be a movement bound up with the world market and not in opposition to it. To now argue the failures of these revolutions, or the equally disastrous failure of European social-democracy, results from bad theory is the worst kind of stupidity. Of course they failed — no one in their right mind believed they would survive as long as they did!
Today we have a number of silly sectarian Marxists who think the problem facing the working class is one of theory and that the objective of the moment is theoretical self-clarification. They look at movements like the Tea Party and the Occupy movement superficially — and, indeed, on the surface there are only flaws in these movements. Having stupidly examined these movements in the fashion of bourgeois pundits — that is, only as they immediately present themselves to us as mere political movements — they arrive at the opinion these movements do not measure up to Marxist standards as revolutionary movements. Just as Marx argued regarding the bourgeois economist, Marxist nowadays do no more than “interpret, systematise and defend in doctrinaire fashion the conceptions of the agents of bourgeois production who are entrapped in bourgeois production relations.”
Since, in almost every case, the movement of the working class is shrouded in mystification resulting from its practical divisions, the Marxist, who never moves beyond these silly divisions, but instead takes them to be absolute, can say nothing about this movement beyond the most simple-minded punditry typical of Sunday morning talking heads. If, as a practical matter, the Occupy movement is preoccupied with the “one percent versus the ninety-nine percent”, we only learn from the Marxist that this view must lead to reformism, since it ignores the capitalist “system”. If, as a practical matter, the Tea Party is preoccupied with fascist state expenditures and deficits, we only learn from the Marxist that this view serve only the Koch Brothers. In no case can a Marxist explain why the very same process appears to one section of the working class as the domination of a tiny minority, yet to another section as the domination of the state.
It is no less true for the working class, than it is for the capitalist class, that it is entrapped in bourgeois production relations. The point of theory is not to constantly berate the working class for these limitations but to understand how the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production is expressed precisely in these limitations and despite them. The difference between the two classes is this: whereas the capitalist class overcomes the obstacles arising from the capitalist mode of production in a fashion that reestablishes them on a still greater scale, the working class alone has the potential to abolish them entirely. Even where these two classes begin a the same point — e.g., their hostility to the fascist state — the position of the capitalist class must lead it to resolve its own hostility in a way that places politics in its path once again. On the other hand, the working class alone, owing to its position in the capitalist mode of production, has the capacity to abolish the state. Superficially the antagonism of the working class to the fascist state appears entirely of the same sort as the antagonism of the capitalist class to this state. A deeper examination of the situation, however, reveals two entirely different revolutionary potentials. Marxist haven’t a clue to this.
Sectarianism among Marxists will not be addressed until every Marxist organization is dissolved and these elements integrate themselves into the working class once and for all.
S: What role does class consciousness play?
J: Ain’t that an awkward question for Marxists? Marxists have made so many predictions about the inevitability of the social revolution only to be dismayed by lack of evidence for sufficient consciousness among the working class for precisely this sort of revolution. Ha!
The obvious conclusion to be drawn from this lack of class consciousness among the working class is that the class is not a political class — but this conclusion is so over the heads of our sectarians they can’t even grasp what it means to be an essentially non-political class. But let’s think about this: was it necessary for the capitalist to acquire a theory of the capitalist mode of production and its inner laws prior to his assertion of his political interests? Did it require decades or even centuries of patient political education by a theoretically advanced vanguard party among the burghers before they were ready to seize political power and re-fashion society in the image of capital? The answer to these questions show the difficulty in establishing class consciousness as the precondition for social revolution.
The working class is not a political class in any sense of that term — it is a quintessentially economic social organism. No amount of patient political work and socialist education among the working class will transform it from an economic organism into a political organism. Theoretically, this is already obvious since Marx wrote that it was a class with no particular interest to assert. Every political class is tied to a particular interest — this is the definition of politics itself: an attempt by some class or another to raise its particular interest to the status of the general interest. Without a particular interest to assert against the community, what purpose is served by politics for the working class? The purpose is obvious: every other class in society asserts its particular interest against labor — which is to say, in bourgeois society all politics is more or less the imposition of particular interests over and against the working class.
Now, let’s think about this logically. How is this possible in a state that more less is composed almost entirely of the working class? In all the advanced nations the working class amounts to 90% or more of the population. This means the rule of capital fundamentally coexists with the suffrage of the working class majority in almost all nations — a circumstance that would be impossible for even one day if this majority had the capacity to acquire a political consciousness in the fashion of the burghers or previous ruling classes. Moreover, in the German Ideology, Marx sets an astonishingly high (actually, politically, it is impossible) standard for the rule of the working class: this rule has to be accomplished all at once and together in an association that must itself be a universal one within the world market, where the freedom of each member of this association and their free development is the necessary condition for the association of its members.
The social revolution is essentially anti-political — i.e., economic — in nature, and it is expressed in the forcible conversion of the state into a mere economic mechanism for management of the social process of production. As Marx put it, the communist movement of society — i.e., the movement of the working class, of the social producer — is essentially economic, the material production of the working class’s own association.
Class, that is, “political”, consciousness does not figure in this material production process at all.
Precisely because the working class is inherently an anti-political class Marx comes to the conclusion that the working class come into conflict with the state and will be compelled to overthrow it. I think it is important to understand that what is represented in the political activity of the working class is not its class interest, but its class divisions. This is completely unlike the capitalist class, where its existence as a class is politically expressed in what it has in common. To put this another way, in its political activity the working class expresses the material insufficiency of its present mode of association. If you look behind the law of value, which imposes its will over the entire capitalist mode of production, this law turns out to be nothing more than the material economic activity of the social laborers appearing as if it were a natural law imposed on the activity of the capitalist class.
S: What do you think is the case of the Marxist focus on the state in the last century and a half?
J: I can think of four areas where the focus on the state after the death of Marx and Engels have hurt Marxism and contributed to its marginalization or impotence.
First, Marxists’ focus on the state is a focus on the illusory community rather than the actual community that exists. Even if we assume the proletariat is capable of achieving something akin to a political or class consciousness along the lines of the bourgeois class, the effort directed toward achieving such class consciousness is misguided precisely because it misdirects the class’s attention from what it has already achieved in materially creating an actual community of social producers.
Second, if my interpretation of Marx’s theory is correct, the focus on the state and political action precisely focuses on the very arena in which the proletariat suffers a disadvantage against the other classes in society. If, in fact, the working class is incapable of articulating its own interests in political terms, it must be the plaything of the politically articulate classes in any struggle for state power. This implies we are fighting on the enemy’s terrain every time we raise political demands that do not include abolition of the state and politics itself or advance this effort.
Third, while focus on the state leads us to fight our battles on the enemy’s terrain, it also means we neglect our own terrain, which is the Law of Value. If I am right about this law, it is the unconscious expression of the working class’s own material activity expressed in the form of a law determining the events within the entire capitalist mode of production bound up with the world market. Even unconsciously, the working class has already achieved determinate influence of its circumstances. The focus on political action redirects our attention to what Marx called the estranged outward appearances of this determinate influence as they appear in the limited realm of political-economy, i.e., as they appear to individuals who are no more than agents of bourgeois production, and who, subsumed entirely in bourgeois production relations, can no more than vaguely comprehend its logic.
Fourth, focus on the state carries the inherent danger that we accomplish no more than to reproduce the division of labor, rather than abolish it. Along with this, the focus on the state only serves to reproduce the mystified forms of bourgeois relations of production by preserving the split between the state and civil society. Our job is to theoretically clarify this relation, not add to its mystification, yet Marxists seem intent on promoting precisely such mystification when they hold to such nonsense as fascist state fiscal and monetary policy — essentially spreading the illusion among the working class that this parasitic body, the state, can produce “economic growth” through financial pyramid schemes.
By focusing on the state and bourgeois political action, Marxists have done great injury to the cause of the working class. Despite this injury, however, the victory of the social producer remains inevitable. In the end, all that these insignificant Marxist sects have accomplished is to render themselves ever more marginal to this unfolding process.
Marxists have to understand capitalist crises do not provoke working class action, it is precisely the reverse: working class practical critical activity, social labor, produces capitalist crises. It is this social labor that generates the crisis, and represents the unconscious attempt by the proletariat to throw off the outmoded relations of production of the capitalist mode. Once we grasp this, it is possible to see that the performance of the working class has been anything but “disappointing” — in fact, it has been quite thrilling in this regard. Our job is to merely bring this understanding to the working class regarding the effect of its own material actions.
S.: You seem to have been channeling something about the liberal revolutions that I have been thinking about, which is that liberal revolutions are revolutionary first steps as they do empower massive section of the population, but they so far have not transcended a statist-capitalist form? Why do you think that is? Or do you think this is too narrow of a framework?
Part of the problem can be conceptualized by comparing the situation of the individual producer to that of the social producer. Of course, this is an historical oversimplification, but I will risk that in order to highlight our problem. The individual producer doesn’t experience crises, overaccumulation of capital, nor unemployment, because her labor is directly regulated by her needs. These needs exist as empirically comprehensible requirements that make themselves felt immediately to her through her senses. Because of this, there is a direct connection between her needs and her activity. For the social laborer it is otherwise: her needs are only met indirectly through her own activity, and directly only by the activity of the community of social producers as a whole. This arrangement is incredibly more productive, of course, which is why it comes to dominate production, but it comes at the cost of a widening division between the needs of the individual and her immediate activity. The more social production advances in breadth and complexity, the more tenuous the connection between the activities of the community of social producers and their needs as individuals becomes. By the time we get to bourgeois society, the connection between the activity of the laborer and her needs as an individual has been entirely lost. In fact, we now find her activity develops only in antagonism with her needs as an individual. Rather than satisfying her individual needs through her activity, this activity develops at the expense of her needs.
There is no mechanism to bridge what has now become a growing chasm between the activity of the individual and her material needs. No amount of planning, no market mechanism, no matter how perfected beforehand in the minds of social reformers, no amount of political intervention in the form of regulation, social safety nets, or public expenditures, and no growth in this activity, can bring the activity of the social producers into line with their needs as individuals. It is no longer a matter of how this activity is organized, but the activity itself, labor, that has become entirely antagonistic to the needs of the individual. The antagonism between the needs of the individual as an individual and her activity, labor, is the problem that can only be resolved by the communist movement of society.
So, it is no longer a question of “How is labor to be organized?”; “How is labor to be accounted for?”; “By what mechanism is labor to be regulated?”; or “How can labor be made more satisfying to the producer, less damaging to the environment, more equal, or less stultifying?” These questions are political questions. The problem is simple and straightforward: “How is labor itself to be abolished!” And this is the question on which the entirety of the social relations of bourgeois society, and bourgeois society itself must come to an impasse, because, for bourgeois society, labor is the premise of all social relations, while for the laborer, it has become increasingly intolerable and self-destructive.
Separated as they are from the daily life of the working class, the Marxist academy can only express this impasse in a limited, purely theoretical or philosophical, fashion. Kliman’s bumbling examination of the Critique of the Gotha Program shows there is a profound unclarity within Marxism on the problem raised by Marx of the relation between the economic structure of society and “right”. It is an unclarity over the objective of the communist movement of society: the abolition of labor, not its mere reorganization. If we presuppose a “class conscious” working class — to use that completely misleading phrase — this only means the social producers have acquired a common recognition that labor itself must be abolished and have taken this
abolition as the immediate objective of their activity.
If the communist movement of society results from an empirical event, it means this same community of producers has already prepared for this abolition in advance through its unconscious material activity, i.e., that labor now exists in the form that makes its immediate abolition both possible and necessary. In the latter case, as Moishe Postone explained almost two decades ago to these simpletons, for the abolition of labor to be both possible and necessary it must first appear in the form of wholly superfluous labor time, of an unnecessary expenditure of social labor that exceeds the requirements of society directly and indirectly. It is just this growing unnecessary expenditure of labor time that has been marked by writers like Chris Harman, Kevin Carson, Michael Kidron, and also, according to Harman, by Moseley, Shaikh and Tonak, and Simon Mohun. None of them, however, seem to have made the connection between their empirical evidence and Postone’s argument.
In the democratic republic all political interests in society are only interests asserted against the labor of the working class. On the other hand, the abolition of labor itself can only appear as the aim of the working class. However, since this class has no particular interest to assert on its own behalf, is not a political organism, and cannot act politically as a class, as a practical matter the demand for the abolition of labor must appear simultaneously as a demand for the abolition of the state — for the replacement of this democracy by a universal association of the producers.
I think the whole of the communist movement of society consists essentially of the conversion of labor time into free time for the laborers. And the only measure of progress in this movement is conversion of the mass of superfluous labor time that has thus far accrued within society into time away from labor for the mass of the laborers. The battle over hours of labor is, just as Marx stated, the modest Magna Charta of the working class and the working class’s own association begins only where the working day ends. The working class can be said to conscious of itself as a class only when it has acquired a consciousness of the importance of work time reduction and made this its immediate objective.
S.: So this would make communism and post-workerism almost the same thing?
J.: I will have to think about this more, but I can see your connection between my argument and post-workerism. I have been reading up on Autonomism, Workerism and Post-Workerism interpretations of Marx’s theory. I had never heard of “post-workerism” until you raised this, but after looking at some articles on the theory, I could see the similarities, and @tvissia reminded me he made a similar comment about Tronti’s work several months ago.
So am I an autonomist without knowing it? I think I need to figure this out. I read Alberto Toscano’s “Chronicles of Insurrection: Tronti, Negri and the Subject of Antagonism”. According to Toscano, post-workerism can be best understood within concepts of “political subjectivity”, “antagonism” and “insurrection”. Toscano writes autonomism “postulates the increasing immanence of struggles, as based on the Marxian thesis of real subsumption, together with the intensification of the political autonomy or separation of the working class.”
If this is correct then I cannot be an autonomist, because, I think, the working class as a class cannot have political autonomy from capital. I think what is unique about the class is that among all classes in society it is incapable of having an independent political expression. This understanding, as I explained, rests on Marx’s theory in the German Ideology, where Marx states the working class has no particular interest to assert. I think it is impossible to understand communism as a movement of society without understanding this: the working class is anti-political. I think the working class is incapable of expressing a class (political) consciousness and its political action is always a bourgeois political action. I think this is already contained in the assumption of what political or class consciousness means: No class can become conscious without seeking to conquer state power. However, every Marxist writer I know assumes the working class is led precisely to do the opposite: break the state power.
Rather than seeking to establish its particular interest as the general interest of society, which is the essence of political consciousness, the working class seeks only to dissolve all particular interests imposed on it as a class, i.e., to abolish the state. The position of autonomism is not just, as Toscano argues, paradoxical, it is an oxymoron. This, of course, does not in the least prohibit it from being an accurate reflection of the process if the process itself is a contradiction. In such a case, the contradiction doesn’t lie in the theory of autonomism, but in the material processes of social production itself. It may be simply that this anti-political content must, of necessity, have a political expression or appearance. The feature of capitalism most Marxists point to in their argument is its inherently totalitarian, or totalizing, character. For the anti-political nature of the working class to appear at all within this totalization, it must appear as a political position. However, if we take this appearance for the content we are no more capable of grasping its revolutionary essence than political-economy.
In his paper, Toscano quotes a worker, Nanni Balestrini, who cannot understand why anyone would want to celebrate May Day. Why would anyone want to celebrate work or a workers day? What I find interesting about this quote is that, obviously, May Day does not “celebrate work”, but celebrates a victory in the working class’s struggle for a reduction of hours of labor. What began as a celebration of a victory marking a step toward the abolition of labor became, over time, redefined as the celebration of the thing to be abolished, labor. But what is equally interesting about the quote is that the worker quoted, while apparently ignorant of this history, recognizes the idiocy of celebrating wage slavery. Even without realizing it, the worker reestablishes the original significance of the day. The question for me is why “May Day” appears in the worker’s statement both directly as a negative and indirectly as a positive expression. What is significant here is not simply that “May Day” begins as a celebration of a step toward the abolition of labor but later appears as a celebration of labor itself that is rejected by the worker, but that this may provide a clue to the social process of production as a whole. This social process begins with the activity of the worker, appears as the activity of capital, and leads inevitably to its rejection by the worker. The worker is, in effect, rejecting her own activity, but this rejection is leveled against this activity insofar as it appears as an attribute of capital.
The question raised by the autonomist critique is whether the activity of the worker must appear as an attribute of capital. If it can appear as the activity of the worker in her own right, in opposition to capital, Marx’s theory is fundamentally flawed, I think. Marx’s theory states the activity of the workers in its own right can only appear as a universal activity of associated individuals. If this activity does not acquire a universal character from the beginning, the worker merely acts as her own capitalist. The capitalist mode of production appears as the necessary form of the worker’s activity, because the worker’s activity does not appear directly in its universally associated form. This activity is capital no matter what legal definition is given to it: state property or private, individual property or cooperative. And it is capital no matter its personification: nomenklatura, state bureaucracy, industrial enterprise management or worker-owned cooperative.
Anne Jaclard makes this argument in the paper I mentioned earlier. She says production remained essentially capitalistic even if workers rather than corporate managers served as managers. However, she does not offer an explanation for why this is true, except to offer that the law of value continues to operate: “There cannot be socialism in one country, much less in a single cooperative or network of cooperatives.” This is the original understanding of Marx’s theory, but what Jaclard doesn’t explain is why capitalism, the world market and the law of value continue to exist despite cooperative forms, even if these forms predominate the whole of production. It is because social labor can only exist as a totality, as a universal mode of production consistent with its instrument, the total capital. This implies the totalitarian character of the capitalist mode of production itself is just this activity of the social laborer creating her necessary material preconditions.
To put this in a less abstract form, social labor can only exist as a totality, but it can only become a totality through the activity of a form that is not itself total but must tend toward totality, that is itself totalizing. To use Marx’s terminology, ‘the historical mission of capital’ is to create the material preconditions for this totality. As a material reality, therefore, social labor exists nowhere except as a tendency of the capitalist mode of production toward absolute development of the productive forces. In theory we can propose the communist movement of society as a thing independent of capital, but as an empirical activity it is capital. The fact this communist movement exists empirically as capital, but theoretically as something independent of capital argues against the autonomist project.
S.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
J.: Ha! I think I have committed to enough heresies for the moment. Thank you very much for taking the time to force me respond to some very important questions.