Chamsy el-Ojeili & Dylan Taylor. Rethinking Marxism. Volume 28, Issue 2. 2016.
From the late 1990s, and especially following the consolidation of the alternative globalization movement, a fast-thickening commentary has emerged around the reinvigoration of the radical Left. The multiple challenges to neoliberal globalization, the 2007 financial crisis and its aftermath, Latin American leftist electoral victories, the formation of a harder parliamentary Left in a number of countries (Greece and Spain, for instance)—all of this has found expression in the world of ideas with a minor publishing boom in works on socialism and anarchism, with the popular visibility of communist thinkers (most notably, Žižek, Badiou, and Negri) and with a refocusing of critique around capitalism and issues of class and inequality. It is fair to say that there is a rather widespread sense that, at the least, “the experience of defeat is beginning to be superseded” (Kouvelakis 2008, 37).
The present essay touches upon one part of this new structure of feeling, the apparent revival of left-communist ideas and emphases. We begin by setting out the coordinates of unity of this left-communist current. This mapping exercise provides the essential background to the remainder of the essay, where we turn to look closely at one figure within this tradition, the French thinker Gilles Dauvé (b. 1947; a.k.a. Jean Barrot). Dauvé has received relatively scant academic attention, though, in recent years, scholarly references to his work have been growing. We seek to address this neglect by setting out his work and arguing its relevance, as a distinctive, synthetic Marxian project, as of interest to those within the field of the history of emancipatory ideas, as of renewed relevance in the face of the aforementioned rise of a “new global Left” (Santos, 2006), and as crucial to the contemporary “communization literature.”
Treating the writings currently available in English, we begin with Dauvé’s early work, from 1969-79, of historical excavation and interpretation, which sought to bring together council communist, Bordigist, and situationist contentions into a unified communist perspective. We then explore a second moment in his work—from 1980 to the end of the 1990s—concurrent with and marked by the so-called “crisis of the Marxist imaginary.” Next, we examine a third moment in his work, again comprehensible in terms of a changing social climate, from the close of the 1990s to the present, a moment marked by the wearing out of “the end of history,” of “happy globalization,” and by the growth of this newer Left we have spoken of. Here, Dauvé engages in some important reconsiderations and clarifications, and he seeks to draw up a balance sheet of left results and prospects. Finally, we consider his influence on the development of communization literature—a vital contemporary strain of Far-Left thought. Dauvé’s unique intellectual odyssey should, we conclude, matter to us in a period of creative left reinvention and experimentation in which we are called upon to draw from the wide range of experience and wisdom bequeathed to us by our multiple socialist traditions (Badiou 2012; Beilharz 2009).
Considerations on Left Communism
Gilles Dauvé’s thought originates in left communism, an intellectual-political formation that constructively blends elements of Marxism and anarchism. This left-communist current contains a wealth of different subtraditions, including anarcho-communists and anarcho-syndicalists, council communists and Bordigists, situationists and impossibilists. When faced with such variety, it can be easier to define left communism negatively as a rejection of what might be called “socialist orthodoxy.” This term designates both the electoral road followed by social democrats in the West, which ended in “social capitalism,” and the Leninist revolutionary conquest of power pursued in the periphery and semiperiphery, which terminated in “state capitalism.” This socialist orthodoxy, for left communists, remained trapped within the horizons of capitalism (the law of value, money, private property, and class) and was inappropriately statist, substitutionist, and authoritarian.
In seeking to move beyond socialist orthodoxy, left communism pursued alternate lines of political thought, from which four broad themes can be extracted:
- Party and organization: Left communists frequently distinguished themselves from what they saw to be Lenin’s substitutionist strictures in What is to be Done?Rosa Luxemburg’s early insistence on the leading role of working-class self-organization was, for instance, often seen to offer a more productive line of argumentation. While holding a critical view of the party, left communists often formed party-like structures to undertake agitation, propaganda, education, and other types of political intervention.
- Communist consciousness: In attempting to escape socialist orthodoxy, left communists frequently underscored communist consciousness as deriving, above all, from material conditions, which might demand nothing more than “revolutionary waiting” from the communist intellectual. For others, such consciousness is to be created through education and/or the formation of a communist counterculture within the shell of the old society.
- Knowledge, power, and communism: Left communists rejected a socialist orthodoxy that emphasized the completeness of Marxism, of necessity, and of science and that prioritized communist intellectuals over the mass of people. In response, a wholly other set of emphases (will, morality, instinct) was sometimes introduced, along with a new attentiveness to culture (everyday life, art, sexuality, ideology, media, consumption) and various efforts at theoretical borrowings or rereadings (for instance, from Hegel).
- State, democracy, postcapitalist life: In rejecting socialist orthodoxy (as statist and substitutionist), left communists often turned to the potential found in popular forms of self-organization. Workers’ councils, revolutionary unions, and federated communes of locality were seen to embody direct democracy and to offer a critique in action of alienated notions of representation.
While left communism is a complex body of thought that evades easy explication, the four broad themes above provide a means of orientating our discussion of Dauvé.
A quick listing of some of the central figures found within three initial generations of left communism offers a sense of just how varied this tradition is. Here we might include such diverse thinkers as Henriette Roland Holst (1869-1952), Herman Gorter (1863-1927), Gustav Landauer (1870-1919), Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919), Anton Pannekoek (1873-1960), Rudolph Rocker (1873-1958), Otto Rühle (1874-1943), Karl Korsch (1886-1961), Amadeo Bordiga (1889-1970), Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), C. L. R. James (1901-89), Paul Mattick (1904-81), Maximillian Rubel (1905-96), Murray Bookchin (1921-2006), Cornelius Castoriadis (1922-97), Guy Debord (1931-94), Antonio Negri (1933-), and Jacques Camatte (1935-).
Dauvé belongs to a subsequent (fourth) late New-Left generation of left communists that includes Takis Fotopoulos (1940-), Harry Cleaver (1944-), John Holloway (1947-), Michael Albert (1947-), and Franco Berardi (1948-). This generation was politicized in the 1960s or 1970s, persisted through a long period of defeat and neoliberal restoration, and is at the forefront of the apparent contemporary reopening of left-communist history. Dauvé is one of the lesser-known (at least in academic circles) thinkers of this generation, yet his pioneering, synthetic work, we contend, has much to offer students of left thought and action.
Syntheses on the Far Left: Early Work, 1969-79
In Dauvé’s early work, between 1969 and 1979, we see him taking stock of and attempting to synthesize elements of the historic Far Left. Along the way, he develops a critique of both social democracy and Leninism. In particular, Dauvé attempts a critical combination of the German and Italian Left, with emphases drawn from more recent left groups such as Socialism or Barbarism (SoB) and the Situationist International (SI).
The history of the German Left, argues Dauvé in a work coauthored with Denis Authier, remains a vital source for communist thought. In step with the first problematic outlined in the preceding section, a critical position is assumed against substitutionist organizational structures. Crucial here is the rejection of trade unionism and the critique of parliament and the party form as well as opposition against what Pannekoek called the “deadly power of nationalism” (Dauvé and Authier 1976). Unions are charged with facilitating the integration and management of the working class within capitalism. The party form is scorned as a “mediation” standing between the proletariat and communism (Barrot and Martin 1974, 9). Any position external to popular organizational forms risks distorting or betraying the vital impulse driving communist struggles.
The German Left presents a break with the heritage of the “official Marxism” of socialist orthodoxy, which is seen to perpetuate the logics of capitalist development. German social democracy, for instance, is considered to be confined to the “planification” of private property (Dauvé and Authier 1976; Barrot and Martin 1974). At this point, Dauvé reads the statism of Marxist orthodoxy as the expression of a particular phase of capitalism, a position informed by contemporary interest in the so-called sixth unpublished chapter of Capital in which Marx makes a distinction between phases of formal and real subsumption. In the period of formal subsumption, the state fulfilled certain progressive functions, but in the subsequent moment of “real subsumption,” which is equated with the generalization of large-scale industry at some point after 1871, the state became unvaryingly counterrevolutionary (Barrot 2010). We will return to these notions later in our discussion of communization.
The antiparliamentary and anti-trade-unionist significations of the German Left are deemed crucially important to opposition against what Dauvé calls “Kautskyism-Leninism” (Barrot 1977). Here we see Dauvé developing the left-communist critique of substitutionism. Leninism, he argues, is a “by-product of Kautskyism” (1), denying working-class power and prioritizing the party in the achievement of socialism. The deep meaning of Bolshevism, Dauvé charges, is a “complete fusion with state capital, administered by a totalitarian bureaucracy” (3). Leninism is understood as a technique for enclosing the masses and as an ideology justifying bureaucracy and maintaining capitalism. Dauvé explains this Kautskyism-Leninism as characteristic of a period of the working-class movement during which the historical conditions for communism were not yet ripe and in which the capitalist mode of production had not yet fully encompassed the entire globe. In these circumstances, the Bolsheviks found themselves forced to fulfill the tasks of the bourgeois revolution (Barrot 1977; Barrot and Martin 1974). The outcome of this, Dauvé argues, was “state capitalism” (Barrot 2005), a designation of Soviet society commonly made by the non-Bolshevik Left. Against the Kautskyist-Leninist worship and elevation—in short, “fetishization”—of the party, which denies the working class its capacity for original creation, Dauvé champions the persistent feature of the German Left: its insistence, after Marx, on communism as working-class self-emancipation (Barrot 1977; Dauvé and Authier 1976).
If the German Left is crucially important as the modern center of the revolutionary wave of 1917-21, Dauvé is nevertheless critical of the influence it received from a second tradition: the Italian Left, associated with the name Amadeo Bordiga. Bordiga, the first head of the Italian Communist Party, is a tremendously important but still marginal figure in the history of communism. Bordiga took a strongly materialist line on revolutionary action and consciousness, held to an abstentionist position on electoral participation, developed a radical critique of democracy, and later articulated a criticism of the Bolshevization of the International as well as an analysis of the capitalist character of the social formation emerging from the Russian Revolution (Bordiga 1977; Buick 1987; Cammett 1967; Craver 1966; Davidson 1977; Fiori 1970; ICC 1992; van der Linden 2007).
In this Bordigist vein, Dauvé rejects the German Left’s tendency to fetishize democracy and the council form. On the issue of democracy, Dauvé follows Bordiga (2003) in critiquing the individualist premises of democracy and the fetishism of majorities (as against the often crucial role of active minorities) and agrees with the assertion that democracy and dictatorship mix and intermingle, that democracy and fascism have been similarly destructive as forms of the management of capital (Barrot 2005, 2010; Barrot and Martin 1974, 120). Democracy is read by Dauvé as an important weapon of capital, as a “screen used parallel to the most savage dictatorship” (Barrot 2010). We will return shortly to this controversial assertion. In similarly Bordigist fashion, democracy is opposed to the communist reestablishment of “the human community” (Barrot and Martin 1974, 8), and Dauvé insists upon the communal, anti-individualist premises of communism. Communism is here designated as antipolitical, as the end of politics, neither dictatorial nor democratic but communal. Communism signifies the rediscovery of community against a world of commodities that has become an autonomous force (51).
From our current historical vantage point, Dauvé’s argument might be read as leaning toward an “end-of-politics” argument like the one that was persistently raised in the post-1970s liberal onslaught against socialist ideas. Chantal Mouffe (2013), for example, in response to this end-of-politics line, has argued that conflict is an inescapable feature of social life: politics is the negotiation of conflicts, and to believe that politics can be transcended is not only naive but dangerous. But Dauvé was not blind to the inevitability of conflict in any properly hypothesized communist society: “Communism organizes its material life on the basis of the confrontation and interplay of needs—which does not exclude conflicts and even some form of violence. Men will not turn into angels: why should they?” (Barrot and Martin 1974, 34).
Crucially bound up with this critique of democracy and the underscoring of communism as communal being is Dauvé’s already mentioned opposition to the German Left’s fetishization of the council form and the tendency to equate socialism with workers’ self-management (Barrot and Martin 1974). Dauvé here contends that communism is not a continuation of capitalism in a more efficient, rational form—it is not a problem of organization or of “workers’ power”—but is a matter of the transformation of society, by which he underscores (once more following Bordiga) the importance of content over form (47-50). A crucial part of this critique is Dauvé’s argument about the necessity to move beyond the glorification of the proletarian condition—workerism—and to instead seek its destruction (Barrot 2010; Barrot and Martin 1974; Dauvé 2004). Dauvé is critical of Pannekoek—and of later council communists, such as the Group of International Communists (GIK)—who posit a communism in which value continues to function (Barrot and Martin 1974). In these ways the German Left and their descendants, Dauvé argues, shared too much ground with Lenin.
Drawing, in related fashion, on Bordiga’s critique of “really existing socialism” as a bourgeois revolution marked by wage labor, market exchange, and money (Buick 1987; Camatte 2006) and influenced by Bordiga’s radical materialism—which indicates that “[c]ommunism is not a programme” but “the product of real needs and living conditions” (Barrot and Martin 1974, 17, 40)—Dauvé is nevertheless critical of the fetishism of the party form within the Italian Left. Bordiga held that the party was the future “social brain” of communist society and was thus essential in the transition from capitalism (Buick 1987, 128; Bordiga 1977). Bordiga’s major failing here, for Dauvé, was his inability to break from the Kautskyist-Leninist program of organization (Barrot and Martin 1974, 129).
The third central tradition that Dauvé draws from is the work of the Situationist International. On the one hand, Dauvé is highly critical of aspects of the SI. In particular, he rejects the SI’s SoB-influenced councilism (Barrot 1991). He also takes issue with the idealism of the notion of spectacle, claiming that it “falls short” of Marx and Engels on ideology, being bereft of an analysis of capital (or the state, for that matter) and remaining at the level of circulation (consumption) and consciousness rather than examining production (value). And finally, Dauvé denounces the tendency of certain situationist emphases toward a “reformism of everyday life” (Barrot 1991, 25). This criticism is directed above all at the wing of situationist thought most clearly expressed by Vaneigem (1983), where the SI overestimates the possibilities of living otherwise within the capitalist present, giving a moralistic and ultimately fruitless appeal to an impossible communist “art of living,” to radical subjectivity and desire (Barrot 1991; Dauvé 2000, 2005a). On the other hand, the SI is important in what Dauvé later glosses as its “unitary critique” of all social relations, insisting on the transformation of everyday life as a whole (Dauvé 2000, 2005a).
A last note here—to which we will return—is that the vision of communism emerging from this work is one centered on what Dauvé calls “communization.” Set against social democracy and Leninism, and against the workerist ideology of the councilist Left, communization signifies the immediate, communal self-movement of workers against exchange value and the state: the destruction rather than management of capital and violent struggle against the state (Barrot and Martin 1974, 7, 13, 105).
The Crisis of Marxism, 1980-99
We want to consider next a second moment in Dauvé’s work, running between 1980 and the later part of the 1990s and coinciding with what has been called “the crisis of Marxism.” That is, this moment coincides with “the demoralization and retreat” of French Marxism, the wider diminishing of the antisystemic movements, the reinvigoration of liberalism and the neoliberal countermovement—expressed in ascendant themes of human rights and antitotalitarianism—and the general “suspension” of utopianism (Anderson 2004; Badiou 2007, 2008, 2011; Keucheyan 2013; Wallerstein 1990). In this period, Dauvé continues his work of synthesis and explication, attached to small left groups and the periodicals La Banquise (“ice flow”) in 1983-6 and Le Brise Glace (“ice breaker”) in 1988-90.
In this period we see Dauvé further developing his unique communist synthesis of Far-Left thought—with particular emphasis upon German and Italian Left traditions. The currents feeding into this synthesis are treated with great lucidity and economy in a lengthy 1983 piece in La Banquise, “The Story of Our Origins” (Dauvé 2005a). Here Bordiga and the Italian Left are praised for showing “that the proletariat was more than just a producer who fights to end his poverty,” for their antimarket, antimoney orientation to socialism, and for getting “back in touch with utopia.” The German-Dutch Left is meanwhile commended for articulating themes of proletarian autonomy and for rejecting parliamentarism, trade unionism, and national fronts. Likewise, the Invariance group and the SI are lauded for identifying the capitalist invasion of the totality of life after World War II and for their expression of communism as the transformation of the whole of life. Elsewhere, Dauvé continues this critique of democracy and of the antifascist distinction between democracy and dictatorship (Barrot 1992; Dauvé 1998a, 1998b; Le Brise-Glace 2009). Notably, Dauvé criticizes the extension of human-rights discourses, drawing on Marx’s critique of the language of rights (for instance, in On the Jewish Question) and the Bordigist emphasis of anti-individualism and antidemocracy and of communism as “the human community.”
In a more situationist vein, a cowritten text from 1983, For a World Without Moral Order, sees Dauvé and his fellow authors attempt a “revolutionary anthropology,” calling for a movement beyond all moral barriers and for unlimited variation in sexuality and sensuality. This is variously set against humanism, rights discourses, a “hands-off” ethic of privatization, the commodification of sexuality, obsessive sexual self-examination, and the fetishization of the body (Dauvé 2008a). Here we see Dauvé exploring the outer reaches of the left-communist problematic of knowledge, power, and communism: everyday life, instincts, and sexuality are seen as possible avenues through which to pursue deep social change.
A contentious line of thought opened by Dauvé and his associates in this period explores the dialectical interplay of fascism and democracy.7 Dauvé, in a Bordigist vein, rejects the distinction between democracy and dictatorship (Barrot 1992). The argument runs that dictatorship and democracy are but two forms of the management of capital, that capital periodically and inevitably turns to dictatorship (dictatorship as a tendency of capital), that in a number of cases (including Italy and Germany) democracy prepared the way for fascism, and that the camps belong to the capitalist world—that is, Auschwitz needs to be put back into history as one among many “normal” massacres of capitalism (Barrot 1992; Dauvé 1998a, 1998b; Le Brise-Glace 2009; Troploin 2009), with other instances we could point to being the massacres of indigenous peoples in the primitive stage of accumulation in the Americas or the bloody liquidation of communists in Indonesia in the 1970s. Antifascism, it is argued, mystifies these realities, setting up instead a false choice between democracy and dictatorship. “Democracy” is a cloak used to shroud the systemic violence of capitalist relations of production. It also screens the overt violence carried out in the periphery and semiperiphery as conducted in accord with the material interests (and foreign policy initiatives) of Western countries. Both democracy and fascism are violent, but one is more overt than the other. One engages in spectacular violence that seeks to intimidate while the other’s violence is latent, slow, structural violence whose existence within the democratic society is completely disavowed. The two forms are, moreover, frequently tied intimately together: examples are the democratic route to fascism or the complicity of democratic nations in fascistic violence elsewhere. The antifascism of the nouveaux philosophes (prominent figures in this school being Bernard-Henri Lévy and André Glucksmann) can thus be seen as complicit in obfuscating the interconnectedness of democracy and dictatorship. The horrific legacy of fascism and the specter of its return are used in what Žižek (2002) calls a “prohibition on thinking” beyond liberal democracy. For such reasons, Dauvé provocatively suggests, antifascism is the “worst product” of fascism (Barrot 1992, 9).
While the equation of democracy and dictatorship may appear needlessly provocative at first blush, to pursue such lines of thought in a period of liberal triumphalism is to fight to keep alternative paths open. It is to acknowledge that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds. Dauvé here alludes to the shallow equivalence of communism → totalitarianism ← fascism. The contentious nature of Dauvé’s work in this period can be read as indicative of the problems faced by a radical Left trying to find its bearings in a time of retreat (see Badiou 2001).
In sum, through arguing for democracy’s confluence with fascism, Dauvé attempts to open a line of attack against triumphal liberal democratic parliamentarianism. Further, with his call for a “revolutionary anthropology,” Dauvé searches for a subjective basis on which the Left might find purchase for ongoing struggles. While the results of his thought in this period are not always convincing, Dauvé’s work is notable for having kept open a space for communist thought, and as will be shown in the communization section below, it provides influential themes for later writers and activists.
A New Global Left: Alternative Globalization, 1999-Present
We identify a third major period in Dauvé’s work, running from the end of the 1990s until the present—a period marked by the return of a more assertive left politics, the formation of what Santos (2006) has called a new global Left. This is reflected in Dauvé’s work—much of which takes place under the umbrella of the small group Troploin (“to go too far”)—in an increased output and in some important reconsiderations and clarifications.
In terms of reconsiderations, Dauvé seeks to distance himself from Marxist determinism. Dauvé (2007, 2011) particularly takes aim at the notion of laws of history, at progressivism, and at the tendency for Marxism to become an ideology of development. For instance, Dauvé (2014b) writes, “Marx’s late vision remained hampered by capitalist pictures of the future.” One expression of this reorientation is that Dauvé (2007) questions his previous explanation of the state-capitalist path of the Soviet Union as a case of “unripe historical conditions”—the contention that because of underdevelopment the Bolsheviks were forced to undertake the tasks of the bourgeois revolution. Dauvé also pauses over his earlier Bordigist-materialist belief in the relatively straightforward connection between impoverishment, crisis, and revolutionary action, and he explicitly warns of the dangers of catastrophist, capitalist decadence modes of theorizing (Troploin 2009, 2011). And significantly for the previously discussed controversy around democracy and dictatorship, Dauvé, while still holding to his resolute critique of democracy (Dauvé 2008b; Troploin 2009), also says that “nobody can seriously equate democracy and dictatorship, nor democracy and fascism” (Troploin 2009), and he admits that “no big capitalist reform is pre-determined” (Troploin 2010).
Dauvé also appears to reach out to other traditions in light of their influence within antiglobalization. First, there appears to be a softening toward anarchism, although Dauvé criticizes anarchism (rather one-sidedly) as tending to emphasize history as an eternal struggle between freedom and authority rather than focusing on class and exploitation (Dauvé 2007, 2011, 2005; Troploin 2009). Second, Dauvé appears to integrate Italy in the 1970s and elements of Italian autonomism into his thinking, declaring Italy in the 1970s the most advanced of the rebellions in the period in that—in the radical questioning of work combined with a thoroughgoing critique of parties and unions—we find tendencies seeking to supersede rather than preserve and glorify the proletarian condition, even if this questioning often ended up confined to the limiting problematic of “autonomy” (Dauvé 2014a; Dauvé and Nesic 2013; Troploin 2009, 2011).
Regarding shifts in capitalism, Dauvé emphasizes—against the Italian autonomists and their tendency to discover breaks and shifts at every turn, a tendency expressed more recently in Hardt and Negri’s trilogy (immaterial labor, the multitude, empire, and biopower, for example)—the continuities, despite changes, issuing from capital’s counteroffensive over the past three to four decades. That is, Dauvé acknowledges the “wearing out” of certain elements of postwar capitalism in the period from 1968-77 (declining productivity gains, consumer saturation, growing refusal, falling profits) as well as certain transformations after the mid 1970s (such as unemployment, diversified consumption, privatization, the casualization and decomposition of the working class, and the blurring of separations between industry, banking, trade, and insurance; see Troploin 2009, 2010). But he insists that the essentials of capitalism have remained in place. Service workers were a majority even in Marx’s day, and productive work is still at the center of capitalism; the technologically deterministic and globalization-centered interpretations of today miss the extent to which these shifts are, above all, comprehensible as part of a bourgeois counteroffensive (Dauvé 2005b, 2011; Troploin 2010). Dauvé also insists, against the autonomist-influenced John Holloway and others, that the state is not withering away and must be violently confronted rather than bypassed (Troploin 2009).
The really significant changes of the past few decades, Dauvé contends, are largely ideological. First, we have seen the disappearance of classism and worker identity with no symbolic replacement for the figure of the worker yet emerging (Dauvé 2005b). Part of this entails the “fall of work as an idol,” a positive transformation for Dauvé (2005b). But this is also intimately bound up with a second major ideological change, what Dauvé calls the arrival of a “dreamless capitalism” (Troploin 2010). What we have, today, Dauvé charges, is a loss of faith in the future of an utterly different world, along with the collapse of tradition and the old unifying ideologies (industrialism, third-worldism, say?), and with fragmentation into multiple demands and “archaic conservatisms” around region, religion, and ethnicity (Dauvé 2005b; Dauvé and Nesic 2007; Dauvé, Nesic, and Carasso 2005; Troploin 2010). Dauvé’s balance sheet of the present, overall, has a very pessimistic cast to it: “Capitalism and barbarism: that’s our near future” (Dauvé, Nesic, and Carasso 2005), and, “More digging for the old mole” (Troploin 2010).
This comes despite Dauvé’s acknowledgment of an increase in contestation today, following the rise of the alternative globalization movement (Troploin 2010). Dauvé’s main criticism of this more recent left political activity is, as previously indicated, that it remains defensive and confined within the problematic of “autonomy” (Dauvé 2007, 2008b, 2014a; Dauvé and Nesic 2013; Troploin 2009, 2010, 2011). On this score, Dauvé contends that we are at a point of consensus today about the value of autonomy—with peer assessment in education, power sharing, horizontalism, education and empowerment, and so on—made visible from the spontaneism of councilist groups in the 1960s to contemporary counterhegemonic organizations such as Indymedia (Dauvé 2014a).
There is value here in following Dauvé’s critique of autonomy in combination with his recognition of the need to confront the state: autonomous spaces in core states tend to be tenuous occupations of areas temporarily evacuated by capitalist enterprise. While functioning as a performative critique of capitalism and offering interesting examples of alternative organizational forms, the glorification of autonomism when not linked to a wider movement capable of challenging state power becomes a rather limited exercise. In turning to the periphery/semiperiphery, the Zapatistas may offer an example of a successful autonomous community (Holloway 2010), but their success was possible due to the Mexican state’s tenuous hold on power in rural Chiapas and due to preexisting deep communal ties among the indigenous population. The extent to which autonomous spaces can be developed and held long term—let alone form the basis for ongoing communist struggles—in developed capitalist economies overseen by strong states is highly debatable.
Dauvé and Communization
While autonomy/self-organizing is indispensable, it is not enough for Dauvé (2014a) when measured against his restated vision of socialism as communization. This is worth some discussion, as the term has been taken up more recently in academic (Mansoor, Marcus, and Saulding 2012; Noys 2012, 2013; Smith 2013) and left activist (Cunningham 2009; Endnotes 2008b) circles. Communization has in addition been associated with discussions of the political significance of the Occupy movement and with the work of the journal Tiqqun and the notorious French group the Invisible Committee, authors of the influential tract The Coming Insurrection, also spawning an international journal for communization, Sic, and an eponymous journal from the Endnotes group.
Dauvé is positioned as a central figure in the development of the communization current. For instance, Endnotes (2008a) devoted their inaugural 2008 issue to the debate conducted between Dauvé/Dauvé and Nesic/Troploin and Théorie Communiste as to “how to theorise the history and actuality of class struggle and revolution in the capitalist epoch.” And in Benjamin Noys’s (2012) edited collection, Communization and its Discontents, Dauvé is a frequent point of reference.
As mentioned previously, the notion of communization has been used by Dauvé from the mid 1970s and is taken from French neo-Bordigist circles. As an idea, communization stems from a synthesis of the German and Italian Left with situationism (Barrot and Martin 2005; Dauvé and Martin 1997; Troploin 2009, 2010, 2011). Dauvé himself deployed the term in the text “Capitalism and Communism,” arguing that “communism is not as an ideal to be realized: it already exists, not as a society, but as an effort, a task to prepare for” (Barrot and Martin 1974, 17). This notion of the immediacy of communism within struggle, and the assertion that communization “will tend to break all separation” (36), along with other themes from Dauvé’s work, appears throughout contemporary communization literature. Dauvé is a vital living connection between left communism and the communization current.
In what follows, we briefly explore some of these links. As argued by Troploin (2011), “A revolution is only communist if it changes all social relationships into communist relationships.” This process begins at the very start of a revolutionary sequence. It aims to destroy wage labor, the proletariat itself as proletariat, and the state, all at once (see also Théorie Communiste 2011; Noys 2012). Communism is an activity rather than a set of institutions or a singular event (Troploin 2011).
An important starting point, which echoes the third theme of left communism noted above, concerns the role of theory. As Dauvé has long argued, any group of “revolutionary workers must try to find a theoretical basis for its action” (Dauvé and Martin 1997, 67)—a sentiment continued in contemporary communization literature (see Endnotes 2012; Théorie Communiste 2011).
A leading theoretical emphasis, already touched upon earlier, draws on Marx’s distinction between “formal” and “real” stages of subsumption. The shift from formal to real subsumption (in which capital subsumes existing forms of production) can be used for historical periodization. That the contemporary period is one of real subsumption requires the generation of new forms of struggle. Affirmations of workers and “workers’ power” are to be abandoned (Noys 2012) in favor of other terrains: “Capital has invaded life … to such an extent that our objective can only be the social fabric” (Barrot and Martin 1974, 13).
What would such an objective entail? Communization involves overcoming the separation real subsumption has imposed upon human relations. As Dauvé has long argued, communism involves “the destruction of enterprises as separate units and therefore of the law of value: not in order to socialize profit, but to circulate goods … without the mediation of value” (Barrot and Martin 1974, 35). Communization overcomes the isolation characterizing different spheres of social life: “In short, it will tend to break all separations” (36). As argued by Leon de Mattis (2011, 26), communization will “get rid of all the mediations which, at present, serve society by linking individuals among them: money, the state, value, classes, etc.”
The rejection of mediation within social life extends to a rejection of any mediating bodies within the field of struggles (see the Invisible Committee 2015). Such an impulse corresponds with the left-communist critique/rejection of the party, unions, and parliamentary structures as carried forward by Dauvé in favor of the immediacy of workers’ self-emancipation. In the contemporary communization literature, attention is frequently turned toward riots, occupations, and insurrections as expressions of this impulse (Invisible Committee 2009; Endnotes 2013).
“Democracy” is also often denounced as a form of mediation. As explored above, Dauvé has long been critical of democracy’s historical record in relation to fascism. More recently he has argued that “democracy is not to be denounced or smashed, but superseded.” Communism opposes democracy, he asserts, because “communism is anti-state.” Further, communism is argued to be the means by which “fraternal social relations” (fluid organization) can be realized. Democracy imposes procedures and institutions that block such relations (Dauvé 2008b).
Like Dauvé, the Invisible Committee does not restrict its critique of democracy to the state form. It denounces the exercise of “direct democracy” within general assemblies (à la Occupy) as a practice for “worriers” who are concerned a situation might get out of hand: “If democrats must structure the situation … it is because they have no trust in it. And if they don’t trust the situation, that is because at bottom they don’t trust themselves” (Invisible Committee 2015, 64; see also de Mattis 2011). Democracy, it is argued, obstructs the immediate fluid dimension of struggles, sapping them of strength.
This emphasis upon immediacy, the rejection of mediating structures, means communization has no program: “Communization has little positive advice to give us about particular, immediate practice in the here and now … What advice it can give is primarily negative: the social forms implicated in the reproduction of class relations will not be instruments of the revolution, since they are part of what has to be abolished” (Endnotes 2012, 28). There is then no plan for a “transitional period” on the way to communism. Rather, communization produces communism through struggle.
The celebration of prefigurative forms of politics is thus viewed with suspicion: real subsumption is such that “communist enclaves” cannot be constructed in the here and now. As argued by Endnotes (2012), communism has no positive existence prior to a revolutionary situation. In this is a continuation of Dauvé’s critique of autonomy, as explored above. While often characterized as advocating prefigurative politics (Noys 2012), the Invisible Committee (2015) argues that there is no point in trying to carve out an isolated territory in the pursuit of some imagined autonomy. Rather, struggles must link with one another, overflowing immediate territorial boundaries.
How might action be approached? Answer: let your instincts lead. In step with Troploin’s (2011) call for an “anthropological revolution,” the Invisible Committee (2009, 16) proclaims, “It’s with an entire anthropology that we are at war. With the very idea of man.” The restricted, calculating, rational Homo economicus is confronted by a different order of human: Homo communitas—instinctual, feeling, joyful. Again, the Invisible Committee (2015, 16): “Strategic intelligence comes from the heart and not the brain.” Insurrection is intuitive; it spreads by resonance; like music, it has a rhythm.
To fall in step with others is to have an “encounter.” The encounter, the instinctive coming together of those in revolt, drives communization. It is an activity and not a program, a coming together in immediate struggles rather than in organizations (parties, unions…). That it is an intensity of feeling indicates the importance of the dimension of everyday life for communization. Attentiveness to how we organize the realm of the everyday, when transferred to insurrection, should be enough, contends the Invisible Committee (2015), to dissolve “the sterile distinction between spontaneity and organization.” To not intuit the organization inherent to “spontaneous” actions is to be blind to the real force immanent in life, which can only be perceived in motion.
Such an emphasis upon the subjective dimension of revolt—“Either you get it or you don’t”—indicates a paradoxical elitist streak running through the communization literature. There is an invisible vanguard, on the cutting edge of insurrection, who are the true bearers of revolution. The rest of us are left at an organizational impasse. What of the capacity of populist movements for carrying forward change (Laclau 2007)? The “silent majority” never appears. There are only those who revolt and the forces they oppose. As suggested by Toscano (2012), there is a fatal neglect of a more Gramscian approach of building communist capacities and an alternative culture before the revolution.
To continue with Toscano (2012), the theoretical coherence and purity that characterize most communization literature are seen to render it practically irrelevant; there is a “debilitating” lack of strategic reflection. We are left with voluntarism and a tragic fatalism with no revolutionary practice ever measuring up to the pure reality of enacted communization. This latter charge is the one most applicable to Dauvé, who admits his “nothing but revolution” attitude on this question (Troploin 2009). The absence of a theory of transition stands out as a particular problem, leaving us with “a valorization of only fleeting moments of revolt” (Noys 2012, 14). Perhaps one of the biggest problems is the absence of a nuanced account of the state. The practical readings of the state provided by Gramsci or, more recently, Poulantzas (1980) are absent.
Faced with such critiques, what are we to make of the communization literature and, by extension, of Dauvé? When read alongside renewed considerations of the role “a party of the Left” might play (Bosteels 2011; Dean 2012), the current of thought running from left communism, through Dauvé, and into the communization literature provides an important check. To seek to develop an enduring political-organizational form while simultaneously maintaining a sensitivity to the checkered history of the party (and other mediating bodies and processes) is, today, vital. Struggle must take account of “the full social fabric,” be wary of mediation, and be attuned to the nuances and encounters of everyday life. Such is the “common sense” of the early twenty-first century Left. The separation of the party from “the people,” the hollowing out of the Soviets, the bureaucratization of “socialist orthodoxy” and its complicity with capital, its containment within parliamentary channels in the core—these are perhaps the left failures of the twentieth century. To agree with such an assessment, to seriously engage in the lines of critique offered by the communization literature, should not preclude a reconsideration of the role of the party today; rather, it creates a productive tension. The position of openness, of ontological uncertainty, that comes with embracing this tension is, we suggest, some inoculation against the viruses that infected so many within the ranks of yesterday’s Left.
A final word or two is in order as to why Gilles Dauvé might matter to those within the critical human sciences. First, Dauvé is stimulating on grounds purely of the history of ideas. Dauvé, that is, has engaged in novel synthesizing work, playing a leading role in forging a unique Marxian current built from important but still relatively neglected traditions across the Far Left—most notably, the German/Dutch Left and the Bordigist tradition. Second, this synthesis has certain affinities with the rather surprisingly popular communist positions developed more recently by Hardt and Negri and by Alain Badiou—for instance, popular self-emancipation, rejection of state and capital—despite emerging from quite different places. Third, and at another level, Dauvé’s trajectory can be interpreted as running parallel to that of the European Left more generally, from the flowering of imaginative and emancipatory Leftist currents in the 1960s and 1970s to the retreat from utopia of the 1980s and much of the 1990s to a reinvigoration of the Left beginning in the late 1990s, after “the end of history” and “happy globalization” (Outhwaite and Ray 2005, 19). The recent—admittedly, rather modest—awakening of interest in his work is, we believe, some signal of the emerging new global Left. This global Left has important resonances with an older Far Left to which Dauvé belongs, which unsettled the historical divide between Marxism and anarchism, which attempted to chart an alternative socialist path from both social democracy and Leninism, and which sought a socialism that would emerge from below, distant from parliamentary and vanguard party politics (Pinta and Berry 2012). All of this, we think, makes Gilles Dauvé, this figure of the vanishing anthropological type, the Far-Left “extremist” pamphleteer, worthy of serious attention from those working in the history of ideas, from Marxist to anarchist to autonomist scholars. Dauvé has persistently sought to shed light on our neglected communist traditions, and the tradition he has been instrumental in forging is equally worthy of illumination.