Communism: some thoughts on the concept and practice
Presented at the expensive conference on the Idea of communism in London, March 2009. Translation by Arianna Bove
At the basis of historical materialism lies the claim that history is the history of class struggle. When the historical materialist investigates class struggle, she does so through the critique of political economy. The critique concludes that the meaning of the history of class struggle is communism, ‘the real movement which abolishes the present state of things' (Marx, The German Ideology). It is a case of being inside this movement.
People often object to this claim that it is an expression of a philosophy of history. But I think the political meaning of critique should not be mistaken for a historical telos. In history the productive forces normally produce the social relations and institutions that contain and dominate them: this is evident in all historical determinations. So why would anyone regard as historical illusion, political ideology or metaphysical nonsense the possibility of subverting this situation and freeing the productive forces from the command of capitalist relations of production (following the meaning of class struggle in operation)? We will try to demonstrate that the opposite is the case.
1) Communists assume that history is always the history of class struggle.
For some this position is untenable because history is determined and now so totally dominated by capital that such an assumption is ineffectual and unverifiable.
But they forget that capital is always a relation of power [force], that whilst it might be able to organise a solid and overbearing hegemony, this hegemony is always the function of a particular command inside a power relation. Neither the concept of capital nor its historical variants would exist in the absence of a proletariat who, whilst being exploited by capital, is always the living labour that produces it. Class struggle is the power relation expressed between the boss and the worker: this relation invests exploitation and capitalist command and is established in the institutions that organise the production and circulation of profit.
Others who claim that history cannot simply be reduced [traced back] to class struggle assume the permanent [persistance/existance] subsistence of a 'use-value'. They qualify this as the value of labour power or as the value of nature and of the environmental surroundings of human labour. This assumption is not only radically inadequate as an explanation of capitalist development, but is also certainly wrong as a description of the current form of capitalism.
Capital has conquered and enveloped the entire life-world, its hegemony is global. There is no room for narodniki! Class struggle develops here, ‘from the premises now in existence', not under different circumstances: class relations are founded on these historical determinations ( historical determinism ) and the new production of subjectivity (of the boss and worker alike).
Firstly, it is of interest to note that there is no longer an 'outside' in this context, and that struggle (not only struggle, but the substance of subjects in struggle) is now totally 'inside'; there is no longer any semblance or reflection of 'use-value'. We are completely immersed in the world of 'exchange-value' and its brutal and ferocious reality.
Historical materialism explains how and why exchange value is so central to class struggle: 'In bourgeois society, the worker e.g. stands there purely without objectivity, subjectively; but the thing which stands opposite him has now become the true community [ das wahre Gemeinwesen ]', which the proletariat 'tries to make a meal of, and which makes a meal of him' (Marx, Grundrisse, Notebook V, trans. by M. Nicolaus, London: Pelican, 1973, p.496).
Yes, but in this alternative appropriation – that of the capitalists against that of the workers - capital definitely appears as a relation. Communism begins to take shape when the proletarian takes it as her objective to re-appropriate the Gemeinwesen , the community, to turn it into the order of a new society.
Therefore exchange value is very important, it is the common social reality, built and secured so that it can no longer be traced back to the simple circulation of labour, money and even capital. It is surplus value turned into profit, accumulated profit, rent from land and estates, fixed capital, finance, the accumulation of primary sources, machines and devices productive on earth and then launched into space, communication networks, and - finally and especially - money, the great common paradigm: '[Money] is itself the community [ Gemeinwesen ] and can tolerate none other standing above it' (Marx, Grundrisse, Notebook II, p. 223). Here lies the historical determination. Exchange value is already given in a common form. As Gemeinwesen . It's here, it's the world, there is nothing else or other, no outside.
Take for instance the example of finance: who could conceive of doing without money in the form of finance? Money has become the common land where once the Heimat [Homeland] lay, the consistency of populations at the end of the 'Gothic period', when possession was organised into commons . Those commons and that land are now exchange value in the hands of capitalists. If we want this land back, we reclaim it in the conditions we find it in: at the apex of capitalist appropriation, soiled by exchange value; under no illusions of purity and innocence.
When Spinoza told us that in the Hebrew state in the year of the jubilee all debts were written off and the equality of citizens restored, or when Machiavelli insisted on the fact that the agrarian laws gave new life to Roman Republic because the plebs' re-appropriation of the land also renewed the democratic process, they were holding onto the illusion that it was possible to go back to nature and democracy (Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourse on Livy , Book I, Chapter 27, London: Penguin, p. 99; Benedict de Spinoza, A Theological-Political Treatise , Chapter XVII, p. 230) .
But for us determining the liberation of the labour force and being communists demands the re-appropriaton of a common reality that is neither original nor democratically desirable, but rather something that stands opposed to us as power after we have reproduced it with effort and blood.
But let us not be discouraged. As Gramsci taught us in his reading of class struggle, historical materialism proposes to grasp the continuous metamorphosis or rather the anthropology of the character of the worker through different experiences of the proletarian use of technologies and capitalist social organisation.
This introduces a new question, because as the worker changes herself in struggle, she imposes a real metamorphosis on capital. If there are epochs or cycles of struggle, their ontological consistency is measured against this anthropological basis. No nature, identity, gender or race can resist this movement of transformation and historical metamorphosis of the relationship between capital and workers. The multitudes are shaped and always re-qualified by this dynamics. This is also valid for the definition of time in class struggle. When class struggle appears as the production and transformation of subjectivity, the revolutionary process assumes a long-term temporality, an ontological accumulation of counter-power, the 'optimism' of the material force of proletarian 'reason', the desire that becomes solidarity, the love that is always rational, and following Spinoza, the related 'pessimism of the will'. ' Caution !', he said, when the passions are mobilised towards the construction of political structures of freedom. Our guide is not the aleatory emergence of rebellions, these divine sparks of hope that can carve paths of light into the night, but the constant and critical effort and work of organisation, the calculated risk of insurrection. Philosophical imagination can give colour to the real but cannot replace the effort of history-making: the event is always a result, never a starting point.
2) Being communists means being against the State. The State is the force that organises, always normally yet always exceptionally, the relations that constitute capital and discipline the conflicts between capitalists and the proletarian labour force.
This being against the state is directed against all the modes of organisation of private property and the private ownership of the means of production, as well as the private exploitation of labour power and the private control of capitals' circulation. But it also against the public , that is, the state and national configurations of all these operations of alienation of the power [potenza] of labour.
Being communist entails the recognition that the public is a form of alienation and exploitation of labour - of common labour, in our case. So what is the public? As the great Rousseau said, the public is the enemy of private property, what 'belongs [itself] to nobody' (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Second Discourse on the Origin of Inequality ). But it is just sophism to attribute to the State what actually belongs to everyone. The State says: 'The common does not belong to you, despite the fact that you made it, produced it in common, and invented it and organised it as common'. The State's manumission of the common, i.e. what we all produced and thus belongs to us, will go under the name of management, delegation and representation ... the implacable beauty of public pragmatism.
Therefore communism is the enemy of socialism because socialism is the classical form of this second model of alienation of proletarian power [potenza], which also requires a distorted organisation of the production of its subjectivity. The perversions of 'real socialism' have neutralised a century of class struggle and dispelled all the illusions of the philosophy of history. It is interesting to see how 'real socialism', despite initiating massive processes of collectivisation, never questioned the disciplines of command, be they juridical, political or pertaining to the human sciences. The institutional structure of socialism and its political polarities was produced by an ideology that arbitrarily opposed private to public - whilst these, following Rousseau, overlap one another - and sanctified a ruling class whose functions of command reproduced the ones of the capitalist elité whilst they claimed to be self-elected 'vanguards'!
Being against the State means, first of all, expressing the desire and ability to manage the entire system of production, including the division of labour and the accumulation and redistribution of wealth, in a radically democratic way - as a 'democracy of all'.
Here it is worth providing new definitions. Historical materialism is also an 'immanentism of subjectivity'. It declares that not only there is no 'outside' to the world we live in, but also that 'from inside' this world the workers, citizens and all subjects are ever-present elements of singular resistance and moments in the construction of a different form of common living.
They are present even when the most grievous and dreariest historical lull is suffocating us. Multitude is a class concept and the singularities that compose it are always nuclei of resistance in the relation of subjugation imposed by capital. The singular obeys because he must do so and cannot do otherwise, but always as a resistance, there, inside the power relation. The breaking of this relation is always a possibility, just as much as the maintenance of the relation of command. Here, outside of any philosophy of history, inside this common phenomenology, we perceive how central and essential the possible indignation against power, its order and abuses and the refusal of wage labour (and/or of labour subjected to the end of reproducing capitalist society) are to the formation of another model of society and the extent to which they point to the present virtuality [virtual presence] of a different order, another prospect of life. These push towards rupture, and can do so because the rupture that is always possible can become real, or rather necessary (and we will come back to the characters of this rupture). There can be revolution.
The insistence on indignation, refusal and rebellion must be able to translate into constituent power . The struggle against the State and against all of the constitutions that organise and represent it must also contain the ability to produce new power by means of new knowledge. You can never grip a lightening bolt with bare hands, only the multitude, the history of rebelling class struggle, can do so. But the relation between the historical circumstances and the production of subjectivity keeps changing. As we said earlier, this is one of the realms of development of this continuous metamorphosis of the anthropology of the worker. The technical composition of the labour force is in constant motion and corresponds to an always adequate, and different, production of subjectivity. This is a political composition that must find concrete forms of expression and desire for revolution in its present circumstances.
The production of subjectivity and new political composition can also anticipate the historical and social conditions in which the revolutionary process is constructed, but there is always a dialectical link between the material determination and the revolutionary tension of collective desire: an elastic band that might snap but remains itself. As Lenin said, dual power is always short-lived, rebel power must hold back the time of history in subjective anticipation (the pushing forward of subjectivity). Constituent power is the key to anticipating and realising revolutionary will against the State.
In traditional State theory, anarchy and dictatorship are the opposite extremes of all possible forms of sovereign command, but when we speak of communist democracy against the State, we do not do so on the grounds of a possible mediation between anarchy and dictatorship., on the contrary. We propose the overcoming of this alternative because revolutionary struggle not only has no outside but the inside that it defines knows a subversive power, that is, a 'below' that is opposed to the 'above' of sovereignty. Communist being is realised from this 'below', from the turning of constituent desires into expressions of power and alternative contents. So there can also be a revolution, as Gramsci taught, 'against Das Kapital '.
3) Being communists means building a new world where the exploitation of capital and subjection to the State are eliminated. Starting from our present circumstances, realistically, from the historical determinations that characterise our current condition, how do we move forward towards the realisation of communism?
First of all, let us say that this determinism can be broken and overcome only by building a force that is superior to that of those in command. But how do we do that? As we said, political rupture seems necessary once indignation, refusal, resistance and struggle have produced a constituent power that wants to realise itself. Only force makes this move forward, this constituent rupture possible. From strikes, industrial sabotage, the breaking and piracy of systems of domination, migrant flight and mobility to riots, insurrections, and the concrete configurations of an alternative power: these are the first recognisable figures of a collective revolutionary will.
This shift is fundamental - communist imagination is exalted in the moment of rupture. Higher wages against labour exploitation, universal income against the financial crisis, a democracy of all against dictatorship: these are the outcomes of a history that produces constituent will. But this is not enough; even if the cause is insufficient it does not make it less necessary, less sine qua non . It is not enough because there is no revolution without organisation, just as the exaltation of the event was not enough, the resorting to myth, or the mystic reference to the bareness of bodies, to a threshold of poverty opposed to the ubiquity of oppression - none of this is enough because there still is no rational design that invests and involves the movements of rupture with the power of organisation.
As Spinoza wrote: “ Cupiditas, quae ex ratione oritur, excessum habere nequit ” [Desire which springs from reason cannot be excessive] (Spinoza, Ethics , Part IV, Proposition LXI, New York: Dover Publications, 1959, p. 229), which thus prohibits any definition of desire that arrests itself [censors itself] with (supposedly objective) limits. What I mean to say is that when we think about and experiment with this framework, no teleology or philosophy of history is at play, only a collective desire that, with force, builds up its organised surplus throughout the entire aleatory process of struggles: the surplus of communism in relation to the dull repetition of the history of exploitation. To this end, communism is closer to us today (which doesn't mean that it's around the corner) because the surplus labour extracted from labour power - as it changes with the cognitive metamorphosis - is only with difficulty translated and turned into that surplus value that the capitalist organises into profit. Cognitive labour is terribly indigestible to capital.
But, as some tell us, there is no evidence to claim that the relation between subjective excess and the communist project is given through the subversive and insurrectional movements of the multitude. This is true. But we would respond that historical materialism and the immanence of the revolutionary project show us a subject that goes against capital and a multitude of singularities that organises into anti-capitalist power [forza], not formally, as a party, a mature and accomplished organisation, but, by virtue of its existence, as a resistance that is stronger and better articulated the more the multitude is a whole of singular institutions in itself. The latter include forms of life, struggle, economic and union organisation, strikes, the rupture of social processes of exploitation, experiences of re-appropriation, and nodes of resistance. At times they win in great clashes on issues that are central to the capitalist organisation of society, at other times they lose, though always keeping levels of antagonism that function as residues in new modes of subjectivation.
The multitude is a group of institutions that takes on different political compositions time after time and in relation to the shades and vicissitudes of power relations. They are more than the elements of technical composition of the proletariat, and more than the aleatory and/or conjunctural organisations of the oppressed: they are actual moments of political recomposition and coagulates of the subversive production of communist subjectivity. Cupiditates ! (TR: Passions, longings, desires, eagerness!) Instances of these are different and diversified relations between the expressions of a desire for emancipation (wage labour, social movements, political expressions) and the demand of political and/or economic reform.
From the standpoint of contemporary biopolitical society, the relation between reform and revolution is different from that of industrial societies. The transformation that has intervened is substantial and can easily be verified by an analysis of the generalisation of the methods of governance in the exercise of sovereignty, in the current weakening of the classical forms of government. The flows, pressures and alterations of governance relations in post-industrial societies show a new terrain where the collision between movements and governments unfolds with alternate outcomes. But they always all reveal the multiplication of assets for the struggle and organisation of reform proposals and subversive tensions that give shape to and internally articulate the multitude. Here we start glimpsing the new institutions of the common .
This process is set off from below. It is a movement that is affirmed with force. Rather than dialectics, what describes it is its will to affirmation. It is not teleological, unless we charge the materialist theory and subversive practice of Machiavelli with ethical and historical finalism. Instead, the multitude is immersed in a process of transition , that started when 'one divided into two', when, as we said earlier, it is difficult to turn the surplus labour of the cognitive proletariat into profit and the latter reveals itself as revolutionary surplus [excess]. Rather than a transition from one stage or mode of production to another, this is a change that unfolds inside the multitude itself, it exposes and acts on the web that links the anthropological metamorphoses of subjects to the changes of society and politics, and thus to the possibility of communist emancipation. The society we live in has been really and fully subsumed in capital. We call this command capitalist biopower . But if biopower is the product of the activity of capital even when its hegemony is global, this still needs to be based on a relation: the capital relation, always contradictory and possibly antagonistic, placed inside the biopolitical realm where life itself is put to work and all of its aspects are invested by power; but also where resistance is manifest and the proletariat is present in all of the figures where social labour is realised; where cognitive labour power expresses the excess of value and the multitude is formed. This multitude is not disarmed, because all of these processes that traverse it also describe its institutional articulations and accretion of resistance and subjective emergences.
As we said, the multitude is a totality of desires and trajectories of resistance, struggle and constituent power. We also add that it is a whole made of institutions. Communism is possible because it already exists in this transition, not as an end, but as a condition, it is the development of singularities, the experimentation of this construction and - in the constant wave of power relations - it is tension, tendency and metamorphosis.
4) What is a communist ethics? As we have seen, it is an ethics of struggle against the State because it moves from the indignation towards subjection and the refusal of exploitation. On the node of indignation and refusal lies the second element of the definition of a communist ethics, which is that of militance and the common construction of struggle against exclusion and poverty, alienation and exploitation.
These two elements (struggle and common militance) already open onto a new plane: that of a whole of singularities that, withdrawing from solitude, work to make themselves multitude - a multitude that looks for the common against privacy. Does this mean to achieve a democracy? For almost three centuries we have conceived of democracy as the administration of the public good, the institutionalisation of the state appropriation of the common. If we seek democracy today, we need to radically rethink it as the common management of the common. This management entails a redefinition of (cosmopolitan) space and (constituent) temporality. It is no longer the case of defining the form of a social contract where everything is everyone's and thus belongs to no one: everything, as it is produced by everyone, belongs to all.
This shift will only occur in the name of organisation. The whole history of the communist movements regarded the issue of organisation as fundamental, because organisation is a collective-being-against, a principle of institution, and thus the very essence of making-multitude. The facts of the crisis of neo-liberalism, the cultures of individualism, the natural refusal of solitude of human beings who are born and grow up in society, the recognition that solitude is death, manifest themselves as an organisation of resistance against the new reduction to solitude that, in individualist morality, capital tries to re-impose upon subjects.
The first three elements of a communist ethics are: revolt against the State, common militance, and production of institutions. Clearly these are traversed by two fundamental passions: the passion that pushes from natural neediness and economic poverty towards a power of labour and science freed from capital's command; and the passion of love that from the refusal of solitude leads to the political constitution of the common (unsurprisingly religion, bourgeois aesthetics and all new age ideologies try to recuperate, mystify and neutralise these passions). By coming together, developing new forms of common coexistence in resistance and organisation the constituent power of communism is invented. This concept of constituent power has nothing to do with the constitutional structures that capital and its State have organised. At this point, the power [potenza] of labour power, the invention of the multitude and the constituent expression of the proletariat on the one hand and capitalist power, the disciplinary arrogance of the bourgeoisie and the repressive vocation of the State on the other are not homologous. Because the constituent ethics of communism runs much deeper and invests the biopolitical dimension of historical reproduction, and as class struggle makes historical being, it is now going to spread inside the determinations of our age onto the whole set of biopolitical dispositifs. Here communist ethics touches upon the great issues of life (and of death) and takes on the character of great dignity when it appears as the generous and creative articulation of the power [potenza] of the poor and the common desire for love, equality and solidarity.
We have now come to the point where the idea of a practice of 'use-value' re-emerges. This use-value is no longer outside but inside the history made by struggles. It is no longer a remembrance of nature or the reflection of a presumed origin, nor an instance in time or an event of perception, but an expression, a language and a practice.
Finally, under no circumstances is it an identity, a reflection on the concrete characters assumed as the point of the insertion in a universal, but a mixture, a communal, multitudinal, hybrid and mongrel construction, the overcoming of everything that was otherwise known as identity in the dark centuries that precede us. The man emerging out of this ethics is a multicoloured Orpheus, a poverty that history returns to us as wealth rather than origin, as desire to-come rather than misery. This is the new use-value: the common . Our existence signals a series of common conditions that we keep wanting to emancipate by withdrawing them from capitalist alienation and State command. Use-value is the newly acquired form of the technical composition of labour, as well as the common political dispositif that lies at the foundation of the practices of constitution of the world in history. The new use-value consists in these dispositifs of the common that are opening up new paths for the organisation of struggle and the forces of destruction of capitalist command and exploitation.