Reflections on a Discussion about the Perspectives for Communism

Below, we respond to a discussion that has taken place on the Francophone internationalist discussion network between FM and RV, over the perspectives for communism. FM’s text criticizes the positions defended by RV, and is quite complicated. It raises a series of interesting issues, however, that merit debate. The thrust of the text is a critique of the “classical” position of a materialism basing itself on an historical evolution of modes of production, in contrast to a contradictory vision to that materialism, one leading to a negation of material, historical, conditions. It thus becomes an idealization of the disappearance of the social relations engendered by capitalism, a disappearance that would be due to the class struggle alone.

FM’s Text: Productive Forces, Progress, and Communism

The debate on progress, the productive forces, and the permanence of economic concepts in revolutionary theory is far from being just a matter of words. On the contrary, it comes down to the very way in which the class struggle, capitalism, the economy, communism, and revolution, are “thought.”

The development of the productive forces as the nexus [fil] of history

“Marx spoke of the improvement of man and of his world. [That is] the sole nexus in history. The present dangers must not lead us to deny the existence of that historical nexus.”
“The question of progress comes down to this other question: does history have a meaning?”
(RV at the discussion network meeting of March 9, 2007)

Communism is conceived as the normal condition of humankind, one whose establishment only awaited the means to satisfy human needs. The original scarcity, therefore, engendered the division of society into classes. History, then, is based on an inherent tendency to the development of the productive forces, a sort of pre-historic destiny, of an anthropological nature, linked to a definition of man and his relation to nature. And, that development of the productive forces would contain, in its outcome, the elimination of classes. The elimination of classes would, therefore, be programmed from their very appearance. This is teleology.

The development of the productive forces would be a trans-historical process, indicative of a dynamic succession of modes of production that would one after the other disappear. On that basis, there would be created an historical teleology of a process tending towards its goal [fin] via a destiny that presided over its very course, and that had its roots in a definition of human nature.

In effect, according to the sophistical progressivism of “programmaticism,” (1) within which RV’s positions – along with others – are inscribed, capitalism is progressive because it works towards its own destruction. It is a progressivism that has as its criterion, not the progress of capitalist development for itself, but that this development writes its own obituary. If one could, or it is still necessary, to support the development of capital, if the development of capital was, or is still affirmed, as progress, if it was, or still is, on the way to the revolution, it is because capitalism produces its own gravediggers.

Decadence and the productive forces

In positions defending a concept of “decadence,” like that of the ICC, decadence resides in the inability of capitalism to continue its progressive “mission” of the development of the productive forces. In heterodox positions defending decadence, like that of IP or the FOR (which RV seems to defend (2)), decadence would reside in the continued development of the productive forces in some sort of empty way, inasmuch as capitalism would already have reached, and surpassed, the level of development of the productive forces needed for the social transformation. In each case, capitalism would cease to be situated on the progressive line on which history had placed it at its origins, through its role of continuing to develop the productive forces; that development is a neutral tendency of which the modes of production that succeed one another in history are only the carriers, conforming first, in an ascendant phase, to their historical mission, then, in a decadent phase, opposing it.

The Productive Forces and the Role of the Proletariat in the Revolution

In objectivism the contradiction between the proletariat and capital is seen as an objective economic contradiction between productive forces and relations of production – a contradiction driving the proletariat to act. But the proletariat, even if it is considered to be part of the productive forces, is still understood to be outside the terms of the contradiction. The proletariat is a “being” constituted once and for all against capital, and is not a relation to capital.

The proletariat is seen, just like the bourgeoisie in its revolution, as the executor of a movement that subsumes it, a movement autonomous from the productive forces. It is charged with doing what capitalism cannot do: the free development of the productive forces. In the objectivist vision of programmaticism, the struggle of the proletariat only executes the sentence that capital has pronounced against itself, at the end of its development.

The communist revolution is understood in a way similar to that of the bourgeois revolution. It’s a matter of a class, having developed within an old mode of production, having gained power and strength in and by what it is in that mode of production, having achieved a certain control over its own existence, liberating its conditions of existence from the old society, and making itself autonomous from it. The revolution is the liberation of something fettered [bridé] in capitalism. Once unfettered, that something (labor, the productive forces) must, therefore, immediately do what it was prohibited from doing. It must in a transitional period resolve the problems left in suspense by capitalism. But, it’s not clear how it can pass beyond that transitional period. In the revolution, so conceived, by resolving a contradiction of capitalism, of which it is not one of the terms, but simply the best situated executor, the proletariat, far from disappearing, triumphs as a class of capitalism.

Objectivism and Class Consciousness

In objectivist theories, the intervention of the proletariat arises from a development [prise de] of consciousness. The subjectivity of the proletariat arises from the objectivity of the conditions to which it is subjected. By contrast, if one thinks that the proletariat, as a pole of the contradiction of the capitalist mode of production, coincides in its existence and its practice with the historic course of its contradiction with capital – itself a development of the mode of production – then the problem of the development of consciousness determining the class struggle disappears.

De-objectivation of the World

The activity of the proletariat against capital is a practical de-objectivation of the world in which human activity moves; a de-objectivation of all the social labor accumulated within capital, in which this latter, as a social relation, is necessarily an object. After capital has disenchanted the world, the proletariat de-objectifies it. It takes capital to produce those extravagant notions of activity-in-itself, products-in-themselves, or conditions of activity. The communist revolution constitutes a break with all the determinations of the economy. The social immediacy of the individual is the end of that separation between individual activity and social activity, which had made man into an objective being in the relationship between his individuality and his sociality. It is not objectivity in itself that is in question, the fact that the being of man is an objective being, but the separation between individual activity and social activity, which constitutes objectivity in the economy, in the mediation between individual and social activity, and defines human activity as labor.

As a manifestation of self, activity is free because it bears within it its own goal, production is self-production by each individual in the community. In communism, all relations are relations between individuals whose singularities constitute the reality of their relations.

Is that to say that there will no longer be production in the sense that the term has had until now? Clearly no. But to begin from production as such, leads nowhere. It is just as absurd to conceive of communism as an organization of production, which can infallibly only lead us to an abstract equalization of activities, as to conceive it as a pure inter-subjective relation in which humans would produce, but almost by hiding that fact, shamefully, and above all without doing so expressly. In both cases, in wanting to speak of communism, you end up speaking about capital, because you have not understood it. In the first case, you only understand it as a social relation, and not as a socially necessarily objectified relation, to the point where you only change the “forms” while preserving the necessary objectivation of the social relations. In the second case, you have not understood it as a social relation having the social reproduction of individuals as its outcome; you have only seen it as an effect of its necessary productive objectivation, such that you end up wanting to reach the point where human activity has its proper end [fin] in suppressing objectivation.


April 26, 2007

Our viewpoint

FM’s text sees the action of the proletariat as determined by the conditions of the development of capitalism, denying the significance of the development of consciousness as a determining factor. He links up, then, with the positions developed by Theorie Communiste. We will not respond on the bases of RV’s positions, but rather will just clarify our own theoretical evolution. We reject the concept of decadence, as articulated by the ICC, as well as the mechanistic determinism of certain currents claiming the patrimony of Marxism. Similarly, we do not share the position of those who claim that fundamental changes within capitalism came to an end by the second half of the 19th century, thereby establishing a kind of socio-economic invariance, clearing the way for a static understanding of history, where the proletariat could never appear as an historical subject. The proletariat, and its party, is thereby reduced to employing tactics to adapt to the advances of capital. The proletariat is seen as essentially “trade-unionist,” unable to develop a class understanding of events. It must always make a tactical front with the bourgeoisie. By contrast, we believe, with Rosa Luxemburg, that if the proletariat does not intervene in a radical and revolutionary way by destroying capitalism, capitalism will necessarily lead us into barbarism.

To pose the question of communism as FM does, demands that the question of determinism be raised, as well as that of the contradictory relation between capital and the working class.

It is clear that capital entails the development of the productive forces, the accumulation of social wealth, in its most pure and abstract form. While previous modes of production were based on the production of objects of utility, use-values, of which only a surplus was exchanged amongst producers, capitalism has led to the penetration of exchange within the very process of production, labor-power being exchanged for a wage, and has made exchange-value, and its universal form, money, the goal of production, the absolute criterion of wealth, the new God on earth. Under capitalism, human relations dissolve into value relations, but while the capitalists derive power and wealth and make themselves into the agents of capital, the wage-worker “lives” this dissolution as a loss, an alienation of self, a form of slavery. This is an ongoing historical process, which has taken different forms linked to the actual development of the relations of production. Globalization constitutes such a major change in form, and has had an undeniable impact on the development of the class struggle. The penetration of the law of value into every pore of society is another significant change. Finally, ideology too plays an enormous role, as in the case of the ongoing “anti-terrorist” campaigns in which the populace is enveloped, and which we must continue to denounce.

The question that needs to be asked is whether on can reduce history to a simple deduction from, or emanation of, the economy. History is not a matter of pure chance; but it is also not regulated by some kind of pre-determined and inflexible necessity. As a whole, overall, says Marx, history follows a certain course, a general development, in which the consciousness and will of individuals play only a relatively modest role, at least up until now. The finally decisive, the fundamental, process, is the development of the material productive and social forces. It is occurs in stages, through all sorts of detours and complications. The great historical phases succeed one another following an order that can be comprehended, because each one prepares the way for the next, though not intentionally. There is a “law” [un constat] a “law” of the succession of modes of production, of societal evolution. Interpreting that “law” as a basis for an eschatological vision of history is a step that we will not take. Understanding the historical progress of “democracy” as an advance towards communism is an idea that we do not defend.

The Changes

The hesitation about interpreting the changes at issue is not difficult to understand, especially because the Marxist thesis that has aroused the most objections and criticism is that the “forms of consciousness” more or less directly depend on the “material base.” The mode of production of material life conditions the processes of social, political, and intellectual, life in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being; it is their social being that determines their consciousness. However, we must not forget that, for Marx, if men are entangled in social “relations” that they have not consciously willed, they nonetheless “produce their own existence.” They pursue a goal, and in realizing it, they also attain another: for example, they create social relations that they have not first conceived. The fact that our thinking could be conditioned by something other than itself has not been easy to acknowledge since the Renaissance. Of course, all these elements risk being seen as humanist for those who remain committed to a strictly determinist interpretation of Marx. Our approach will have a definite impact on our understanding of class struggles and the development of class consciousness. Capitalism is a system that, although preserving the same bases (exploitation, extraction of surplus-value), modifies certain aspects of its own mode of existence. But, those modifications do not bring about a change in its nature. Moreover, there exists no inevitability leading capitalism to a revolutionary change resulting in communism. The only certain perspective that capitalism offers is barbarism.

That said, there does exist a necessity for revolutionary change if one wants to prevent the catastrophe of barbarism. That necessity is nothing other than that of general “social” needs and interests. The first in importance of such needs, and the most compelling, are “material,” in particular when masses of humans are at the limits of their very survival. This is not a matter of some “external” necessity;” on the contrary, it is due to the internal pressure of vital needs. This necessity is not so much “mechanical” as vital: it is rooted in the very order of existence. It activates exploited and oppressed classes, just as it does ruling classes. The latter, to keep power, must reproduce the existing social relations (exploitative relations, property relations, etc.) It is from that complex of vital needs on the part of both sorts of classes that the class struggles that mark history arise, sometimes latent and muffled, sometimes erupting into crises and revolutions when the most threatened social groups have no other possibility but the recourse to violence.

This claim that social, political, and ideological, life is conditioned by necessities of a vital order is not new. Materialists have propounded it, above in thinking about vital individual needs. Marx enlarged and modified what might be understood by “material” needs, seeing them as socio-historical needs that vary from one class to another, and depending on the given epoch.

IP has displaced the analysis onto the social plane. There exists close, necessary, link, and inter-dependence, between determinant social needs and determinant social relations (division of labor, property relations, etc.). A type of social relations defines a mode of production. For a whole historical period, those social relations are dominant: they define the social classes, despite a great individual and historical variability. For IP, it’s a matter of investigating the prospects for revolution, taking into account its “necessity,” so understood. How are the above concepts to be wielded? The materialist conception as we understand it is a vision of the material conditions for the transformative action and activity of man, making possible freedom from class subjugation. It is impossible to link such an understanding to the notion of determinism. What’s at stake is a freedom to act, and not a determined necessity; freedom as an affirmation and realization of self, as a liberation from any class constraint. That entails the free development [épanouissement] of the individual, and not his/her absorption into an indeterminate whole.

Communism is so conceived as a social emanation at the service of the individual, as a conscious and free undertaking. It is the possibility to create something completely new. It has nothing to do with determinism or with concepts often presented as the indispensable basis of a scientific pseudo-Marxism, with is allusions to “economic law”[loi] and “historical necessity.” Communism is just a possibility, one closely linked to the degree and forms of capitalist development at a given historical moment, but not dependent on that degree. No quantitative threshold makes communism impossible or more possible, let alone absolutely necessary [indispensable]. Marx limited himself to asserting that “material” conditions were determinant up to his own time, but he added that such would not always be the case. And that “determination” was a global one: the material conditions of social life would be decisive, in a complex of other causes, overall, those of the division of society into various castes, order, and classes. Those same material conditions of existence of society would shape, more or less indirectly, the diverse spheres of human activity and thinking. And, those material conditions changed historically, as a function of a given socio-economic context. Their necessity is historical, and they are not immutable.

This has implications for the question of contradiction. Limiting it to the mechanism of economic contradiction alone, to a formula for mathematically determining the threshold for resistance on the part of the working class, entails denying the movement of contradiction, which does not just pertain to the prospects for valorization, but includes the opposition between living labor and accumulation. That implies a refusal to be an object, the recognition of a conscious pole as the expression of a negation, the strike – as an outward expression of the negation of alienated labor. It is that movement of contradiction that makes possible the overcoming [dépassement] of labor, to action, to solidarity, to the consciousness that there is another possibility. The possibility of the transformation of labor into a different activity is possessed by the worker outside of his/her labor, of which he has been dispossessed, from which she is alienated; outside of the commodities, the means of production, the value, that “belongs” to the capitalist, and which has made capital into the effective reality. Labor must be seen, then, as a simple possibility dependent on the contingent reality of capital, controlled by the owners of capital. None of the above excludes chance [hazard], which must certainly be taken into account. So, historical possibility can be a conjuncture of several factors, a combination of various causes, a meshing of more or less accidental circumstances.

Several questions arise concerning what is designated as the “classical” vision of Marxism. For FM, the proletariat is only revolutionary in its material situation, which opposes it to capital. Thus, paradoxically, FM ends up denying any objectivity to the social relation of class, and he liquidates the very subjective relationship making possible the identification and position bringing about the negation. One then passes from a perspective in which the proletariat finds in itself – confronted by capital – its own capacity to produce communism, to a perspective in which that capacity is only acquired as an internal movement of what it makes possible to abolish, as opposed to the triumph of one of the terms under the from of its generalization. FM persists in an economist and determinist schema, although he speaks of history. In a sense, he denies the factor of change that traverses the history of humanity, and forgets – while paying lip service to what has been forgotten – the importance of the factor of consciousness. Indeed, he slips into a determinist structuralism.

For the proletariat to achieve self-consciousness, it must comprehend society in its totality, that is to say, that society is a social relation between individuals, within the terms of a particular relationship between them: worker or employer. Class consciousness is complex, because it can only be formulated in terms of a totality. Yet there is a contradiction between the idea of totality and the historical, momentary, character of the consciousness of that totality. Consciousness grasps something in relation to a global, historical, situation, but at the same time, inasmuch as it arises at a given moment in that situation, it is – by definition – transitory [passagère] with respect to the historical essence of the social movement. From that perspective, it misses the goal that it seeks (to grasp the historical totality), but at the same time it leads to objectives of social development hitherto unknown to that consciousness. Class consciousness is something that develops, and because it can arise, is potentially present. It is a determinant unconsciousness conforming to a class, to its historical and social situation, which leads Marx to say (apropos the unconscious of the individual: “what he does not know, he still says”): “they do not know it, but they do it.” What makes possible the existence of this “unconscious” or “pre-conscious,” is the place that the individual has in society, and which leads him/her to the perception of that very historical and social situation. It is therefore what is perceived from his/her place in the structural relations of society. It is therefore in itself the expression of the objective economic structure and of the social relations that it entails. We come back to the dialectic: the time-bound consciousness contains, in itself, the consciousness of the totality.

Man is objectified. He must be de-objectified. An idealist vision. But that does not make it possible to grasp all the snares that man, or the proletarian, encounters. Moreover, it does not specify the limits to that objectification. It simply eliminates the ideological problem, alienation and the process of reification.

The Marxist conception, that IP defends, is the following. A certain degree of the development of the productive forces entails social relations that correspond to them. All other institutions (property relations, right, political relations, forms of government, ideologies) must adapt to them, based on a complex set of inter-dependence. The economic base of society has a “material” character in the broadest sense; it also includes the geographical territory and its natural resources, as well as all the arrangements, instruments, and means, elaborated by humankind. That economic “base” – with its corresponding “superstructures” – pre-exists as a given, as the materials, that the next generation finds already there. That permits a theorization of the possibilities contained within the labor of the worker, from the moment that capital has become autonomous. We have here a dynamic vision, shaping whether things are possible or not.

That raises another question – to which we can only point here -- that of the technological revolution in the historical process. Technological changes have a profound impact, and provoke crises. It is that process, according to Marx, that makes the freedom from economic exploitation possible. It’s an historical possibility dependent on technological innovations.

It is clear that, for Marx, just as men “make” events [circonstances], so events make men. That is what we can define as real possibility or freedom.



1. “ Programmaticism” does not reside in the fact itself that the proletariat acts as a class in capitalism, but in the specific historical form and content of its contradiction with capital, which at a given moment confers on this class, as a class, a programmatic content (a worker’s community, class affirmation, liberation from labor, period of transition, objectivism, liberation of the productive forces, etc.)

2. “[…] the technological means of production and communication that would make it possible to master and reverse the situation [‘the world sunk in a condition of generalized disaster’] are developing as never before, without the situation resolving itself …. This is only one particularly glaring expression of the intensification of the fundamental contradiction between the social and political relations that regulate social life, on the one hand, and the development of the productive forces, on the other. The perpetuation of the old capitalist relations fetters and denatures the development of the [productive] forces that produce the means by which society lives.” RV, “On the Necessity for the Development of the Productive Forces.”

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