The following review considers the positions taken by the new web journal Insurgent Notes. While there is much with which we agree in this new publication, we must disagree with some of the theoretical conclusions of the project. As such, we have chosen to focus our analysis on two articles: The editorial “Presenting Insurgent Notes” and the article by Loren Goldner “The Historical Moment that Produced us.”
Readers of Internationalist Perspective are advised to read the full issue and to respond to both IN and to this review. We also hope Insurgent Notes will reply to our comments.
In a world where what is called ‘communism’ is often in reality merely state-capitalism, the appearance of a journal that defines its goal as the abolition of value production is a positive thing. Insurgent Notes, which debuted in the summer of 2010, is a new web-based publication which comes from a similar perspective to that of Internationalist Perspective, and like us, Insurgent Notes defines communism as the abolition of wage labour and value production. As a result, the appearance of Insurgent Notes should be welcomed; however, while we agree with Insurgent Notes in many areas, we find it necessary to address and criticize several of the points it collectively endorses.
In the lead article of the first issue, “Presenting Insurgent Notes,” Insurgent Notes indicates that while, for now, it exists only as an electronic publication; this is not its ultimate goal. Through the establishment of study groups and the development of networks, it seeks to become a political organization which will develop theory and intervene practically, participating in mass struggles and even regrouping with other pro-revolutionary groups and individuals. We of IP welcome this perspective. The participants of Insurgent Notes share our basic world view and understand that revolution means the destruction of the value-form. The initiative to start a review and to build a network to publicize and discuss their ideas can bring a real enrichment to the pro-revolutionary debate and praxis. The alternative is to become just one more sect, sitting on its positions like a hen on its eggs, but Insurgent Notes states very clearly that this is the opposite of what it wants.
We agree. IP has long argued for the need for a renaissance of Marxism, and of the urgency to discuss and debate openly within the pro-revolutionary milieu. In 2009, in response to the ongoing economic crisis, we issued an open letter to the pro-revolutionary milieu for increased debate, discussion and even cooperation rather than simply defending our own little sandboxes; but if this is the aim, how then to achieve the result?
Insurgent Notes argue that they launched their project because “we have found no place for ourselves in any existing grouping.” This is of course their right, but since there are many already existing groups which have the same stated goals as Insurgent Notes, the question arises: why begin something new instead of joining forces with an existing attempt to do the same? There may well be good reasons (and we will outline some of our differences with IN, in the present review), but the editorial doesn’t provide specific answers to this question. IN does make reference to Marx and Engels, who didn’t waste their time on sectarian debates in the ebb following the defeats of 1848, but IN adds that we’re not in a period of ebb today, which seems to contradict the thrust of that argument. (It should also be noted that Marx was not altogether shy of polemic.)
It is possible that the decision for a separate organization is a political one. In the opening passages of its editorial declaration, Insurgent Notes offers a ten point “minimal program of agreement.” Much of the program is uncontroversial especially the insistence on the commitment to the abolition of wage labour. Many of the positions advocated are shared by IP, but we also think that the points have a vagueness about them with which we cannot agree. For example, while IN rejects the “socialist” states as a “model for the kind of society we wish to build”, they don’t explicitly refer to these states as capitalist ones. Likewise, while IN rightly rejects the existing Social-Democratic and Communist parties as well as the still-existing Trotskyist and Maoist parties, the former are described as capitalist organizations, but the latter are not. And in an eyebrow raiser, Trotskyism is even described as “the serious continuity” of the Bolshevik tradition unlike Maoism . They reject ‘anti-imperialism’ and ‘capturing the unions’ but neither practice is referred to as pro-capitalist strategies.
IN might well consider these comments the kind of sectarian hairsplitting they wish to avoid, feeling instead that some degree of looseness is unavoidable in order not to turn-off people who may not be clear on the class nature of these political manifestations but are nevertheless clear on the goal we are all working for. However, some in IN might analyze them differently. That is the case for at least one participant, S. Artesian, who ardently defended the ‘Cuban revolution’ in a debate on the internet-list ‘Meltdown III’ earlier this year. For us, however, vagueness is not a virtue.
However, this vagueness in positions is countered by an emphasis on the necessity of program; not program in the Bordigist sense of a rigid schema imposed on a pliant reality, but of a practical plan, which has to be articulated in advance by a vanguard of the working class for the revolution to succeed. Insurgent Notes criticizes Lenin and rejects any Leninist paradigm, but key elements are the same. This point is clear in the editorial’s reference to the Argentine piqueteros. Implicit in the article is the idea that that revolution would have been possible in Argentina in 2001, if only the piqueteros had had a program, if only somebody would have suggested to them what were the next steps to take.
In a key sentence, IN says that “…no force was prepared to take the crucial next step and reorganize production on a working-class basis.” No doubt, we can agree that the force that ought to have taken that next step was the working class, but the implication in the article and with the emphasis on a program is that it suggests that if the piquerteros had had a program they would have been successful. This is merely wishful thinking. IN seeks to go beyond theorizing and develop practical strategies too. In Goldner’s article, he maintains, “without a ‘programmatically-armed’ militant stratum…without a concrete idea of ‘another social project’ (to use a certain language) the movement melts away.” The article ends with “a program for the ‘first hundred days’ of a successful proletarian revolution in key countries, and hopefully throughout the world in short order.” This attempt to think and speak more concretely about revolution deserves applause. It encourages us to think in practical terms about the revolutionary process, to help make its possibility more visible. Abstract goals are not enough.
However, the problem implicit in this perspective, and in the list itself, is that it implies a capitalist world more or less intact that is taken over -politically defeated- by the working class, after which the sensible measures Goldner suggests can be applied. As if, over the course of struggling against and defeating capitalism, commodity-production and distribution would not be attacked and destroyed and reconstructed, so that, after the victory, we would need a vanguard to tell us that we need things such as “free health and dental care” (point 12) or “a global shortening of the work week” (point 16).
While disagreeing on other matters, we agree with the so-called “Communisateurs” that the schematic view of revolution as a conquest of political power, followed by the social and economic transformation of society, must be rejected. If and when the class struggle becomes revolutionary, it becomes a process of practical de-commodification, of the destruction of capitalism, and of construction outside the value-form.
Goldner is careful to add that his belief in a program-advocating vanguard “is not to deny the often important and creative role of ‘spontaneity’ in the early, ascendant phase when the movement seems to go from strength to strength.” He’s right to put spontaneity between quotation marks because what really is meant is the praxis of mass struggles not directed by parties or unions, which involves spontaneous acts but also thinking, discussion, preparation, new ways of collective decision making. Goldner limits its role to the ascendant phases of struggles which is correct because the very fact that a struggle becomes descendant itself results from the fact that the so-called spontaneity, this collective energy, begins to ebb. The question is whether a vanguard advocating the right steps can at that point change the tide. While nothing can be ruled out, the historical evidence is not persuasive.
What causes this energy to wane? In Goldner’s view, it is the lack of a program. We think that the absence of revolution in Argentina was not solely due to lack of ideas about what practical steps to take. There will be no revolution as long as the working class has its head wrapped in nationalism and more generally in a value-form defined outlook on the world. We should not confuse a (temporary) weakening of the ruling class with strength on our side. There was as yet no revolutionary situation in Argentina, and no program-armed vanguard could have changed this.
In the 1950s, Socialisme ou Barbarie leader Cornelius Castoriadis sought Anton Pannekoek’s opinion about what a revolutionary group could do in the event of an impending Stalinist coup. Castoriadis was of the opinion that it would be advisable for a revolutionary group to launch its own coup for the good of the revolution; Pannekoek argued that without the involvement of the working class, the Stalinists might just as well have taken power. The result would be the same.
In our view, the role of pro-revolutionary groups and publications like IN or the broad working class vanguard that Goldner hopes will emerge, should not be so focused on giving advice on what to do. What they have specifically to offer are the results of their theoretical work, their insight into the stakes of conflicts which arise independently from what they do or don’t. That doesn’t mean that they should refrain from advocating practical proposals on what to do. Pro-revolutionaries, both as individuals and as organizations will participate enthusiastically in future mass struggles, in the spontaneous acts as well as the thinking, discussion, and preparation of new ways of collective decision-making. Of course we will defend steps to take and denounce others. That’s not the point. The point is to understand that it will take a lot more to get to a revolutionary situation than broad dissatisfaction with the existing state of things, and one national bourgeoisie in disarray. It will take longer, harder and broader struggles that lead to a much greater disorganization of capitalism and a great deal more visibility of the possibility of abolishing its fundamental structures: value, abstract labour, wages, the commodity form, money. We hope to be of use in those struggles. In the meantime, we should avoid wishful thinking, imagining that revolutionary situations are just around the corner, fetishizing “the program” as the missing secret ingredient for success.
There is one final point that we wish to discuss, the evolution of capitalism. In his overview of capitalism’s evolution leading to what is at stake today and the 100 day-program, Goldner pays very little attention to the changes within the capitalist mode of production itself, especially over the past half century, to the production and circulation of value, and how this affects both the way in which capitalism rules and subjectifies the working class, and the maturation of the potential for revolution. He briefly mentions the transition from formal to real domination, which he claims began in 1870 and ended in 1940.
Here we mean the process through which the formal domination of capital over the immediate process of production and the circulation of commodities has been transformed into the real domination of capital over every facet of production and circulation, but has also extended to every pore of social and cultural life, especially that of the collective worker. This has been realized through technology, whose development is driven by the hunt for surplus profit. It is a war of conquest by the value-form, not only over the labour process, but over all social processes which capitalism before controlled only formally, from the outside. Surely this conquest began before 1870, a starting point which would exclude the whole so-called industrial revolution. And surely, it did not end in 1940, when information-technology was still to come.
In regard to the changes in the mode of production since the 1970’s, Goldner attributes them to a single cause: the need for capitalism to weaken the position of the working class after the wave of class struggle of the 60’s and early 70’s. We agree that this was an important factor (see for example our articles on post-Fordism ), but it certainly wasn’t the only one. In fact, these changes occurred in the first place because the transition to real domination continues and because the thirst for profit impelled capitalism towards them. A conjunction of factors created post-Fordism, and reducing them to the goal of weakening the working class only, means ignoring changes in the production and circulation of value that would have occurred anyway.
These changes must be understood in order to realistically assess the contradictions and perspectives of capitalism, in order to grasp both how the exploited class is subjectified and where the potential arises to break the stranglehold of capital and the value-form.
In this sense, Goldner’s framework seems implicitly Luxemburgist: Capitalism grows on the destruction of pre-capitalist societies, then turns inwards and self-cannibalizes, which he sees, in orthodox ‘historical materialist’ fashion, perfectly mirrored in culture. He writes: “Just as capitalism, through primitive accumulation, had always lived in part off the looting and destruction of pre-capitalist social formations, so had bourgeois culture in its ascendant centuries lived off pre-capitalist cultural strata (e.g. its mimetic relationship to the European aristocracy). As capital turned inward on itself, the self-cannibalization of its social reproductive base since the late 1970s was echoed with eerie concision in the self-cannibalization of its once-emancipatory culture”
When this culture was emancipatory, and how – since it reflected first looting and then self-cannibalization -- is not explained. Again, such a view is too narrow. There is more taking place in the ascendancy of capitalism than primitive accumulation. Nor can the history of the last 30 years be reduced to self-cannibalization. And nor is culture a mere reflection of these trends. It’s true that the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class but, as many others have remarked, it doesn’t mean they are the only ones.
We have chosen to focus on points of disagreement in these notes, but we hope that any harshness in our tone will not be misconstrued. We have tried to focus on what we see are critical points for pro-revolutionaries, and we note that we have more similarities than differences with IN; there is also much in these texts that we can unreservedly agree with and that is very well formulated. We wish them well, and we wish to see future debates between us.
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