The French Ultra-left

The ultraleft, and particularly the ultraleft which draws from the French tendencies, has been extremely influential on my own thinking about revolution, class, history, and the left. Primarily Dauve has expressed for me processes latent in struggles I’ve participated in and intuitions I’ve had. Being a non-marxist critical of elements in the anarchist movement, I wanted to introduce anarchists to some of the concepts in the french ultraleft in hopes of broadening exposure and debate. I intended to be inclusive of a broader spectrum of thinkers (theorie communiste, Camatte, krisis, etc), but ended up only having the space and energy to touch of the tendency Dauve is a part of.

Communization and the immanence of communism as a present movement

The conception of revolution common to all left currents tends to that of the historical rupture, the day when men with guns show up, stuff gets taken over, and something new gets pronounce. There’s difference on the how long it takes, who does it, what means are used, etc., but that generally is the framework. In a sense even interstitial revolution, withdrawing from capital, gradualism, etc., fit the same framework on a slower time scale. These theories merely regionalize the rupture. 

A contribution of the ultraleft is a rejection of this concept of revolution, instead understanding revolution as a process of communization already present as a process within the proletariat. 

"Communism is not a set of measures to be put into practice after the seizure of power. It is a movement which already exists, not as a mode of production (there can be no communist island within capitalist society), but as a tendency which originates in real needs." Dauve, Eclipse and Remergence of the Communist Movement

This is to say that communism is a movement arising from the conditions of existence of the proletariat that has within it, elements of the abolition of capital and class itself including the proletariat. Unlike many, Dauve doesn’t allow the state or proletariat to survive the revolution (for good historical reasons), but rather than utopian speculation about how post-revolutionary society could operate, we find communism already growing within the conditions that breed capitalisms end. 

"Communism does not even know what value is. The point is not that one fine day a large number of people start to destroy value and profit. All past revolutionary movements were able to bring society to a standstill, and waited for something to come out of this universal stoppage. Communization, on the contrary, will circulate goods without money, open the gate isolating a factory from its neighbourhood, close down another factory where the work process is too alienating to be technically improved, do away with school as a specialized place which cuts off learning from doing for 15 odd years, pull down walls that force people to imprison themselves in 3-room family units – in short, it will tend to break all separations." Ibid

This conception, in contrast to the idea of the disruption and destruction of capital, is that communism arises from a process of communication the creation of new forms of social relationships which emerge from the antagonistic struggles of the proletariat against capital. 

"The mechanism of the communist revolution is a product of struggles. Their development leads to a time when society forces all individuals whom it leaves with no other perspective to establish new social relations. If a number of social struggles now seem to come to nothing, it is because their only possible continuation would be communism, whatever those who take part in them may now think. Even when workers are just making demands they often come to a point when there is no other solution but a violent clash with the State and its assistants, the unions. In that case, armed struggle and insurrection imply the application of a social programme, and the use of the economy as a weapon (see above, on the proletariat). The military aspect, as important as it may be, depends on the social content of the struggle. To be able to defeat its enemies on a military level, the proletariat – whatever its consciousness – transforms society in a communist way." Ibid

This is the inverse of how many think of revolution, in fact the justification for a transitional period. Dauve lays out the challenge that the inability to defeat capital and the state is the defeat of the revolution, and likewise a revolution is the defeat of the capital of which the military component is merely an expression. This interplay between illusory revolution (the left masquerading as liberators) is an ongoing theme in ultraleft writing, which allows us to step back and more objectively consider the role of self-proclaimed liberatory movements, which in contradiction end up saving capitalism. 

"The communist revolution is the continuation as well as the surpassing of present social movements. Discussions of communism usually start from an erroneous standpoint: they deal with the question of what people will do after the revolution. They never connect communism with what is going on at the moment when the discussion is going on. There is a complete rupture: first one makes the revolution, then communism. In fact communism is the continuation of real needs which are now already at work, but which cannot lead anywhere, which cannot be satisfied, because the present situation forbids it. Today there are numerous communist gestures and attitudes which express not only a refusal of the present world, but most of all an effort to build a new one. In so far as these do not succeed, one sees only their limits, only the tendency and not its possible continuation (the function of "extremist" groups is precisely to present these limits as the aims of the movement, and to strengthen them)." Ibid

Aufheben, responding to and agreeing in part with Theorie Communiste, draws out these conclusions concerning theory. The left is obsessed with nostalgia. Famed heros who supposedly had it all right (makhno, trotsky, lenin, bordiga, malcolm x, whoever) but were defeated by trickery or the peasantry or whoever. But considered from the above perspective, communism as an immanent movement of the proletariat, these notions are tossed aside.

"Communism is the attempt to express the real movement; but the real movement is not fully present until it is successful; thus communist theory is only partial – an aspiration – and the theoretical work is never quite finished. It is taken forward by advances in the class struggle and the reflection on this. Put another way, theory does not take the point of view of the totality but of the aspiration to the totality. It is inadequate and unhistorical to assume that the ultra-left had the right ideas but that they simply lost out to the wrong ones, and on this basis to assert its critique of trade unions and leftist political parties when the opportunity occurs." Communist Theory Beyond the Ultra-Left

Objections to economic reductionism

Refreshingly Dauve rejects the marxist notion that flies in the face of common sense. Marx’s 19th century structuralism and reductionism is not soft pedaled or re-read ala a sacred text into the truth. Likewise Dauve believes in historical indeterminancy, that revolution is not inevitable and that history has no linear march.

"The “economy” surely does not explain power. Profit-making strictly speaking does not account for (local or world) wars. A similar socio-economic “infrastructure” can coexist with very different and opposed political forms." A Contribution to the Critique of Political Autonomy

Theorie Communiste believes in a stronger periodization typical of the ultra-left, which tries to find a historico-materialist basis arising from distinct periods for contemporary struggles. There’s a whole debate on this that I won’t get into

"With exploitation as contradiction between the classes we understand their particularisation as particularisation of the community , and therefore as being simultaneously their reciprocal implication. This then signifies: the impossibility of the affirmation of the proletariat, the contradiction between the proletariat and capital as history, the critique of all theories of the revolutionary nature of the proletariat as a definitive essence buried or masked by the reproduction of the totality (the self-presupposition of capital). We have historicized the contradiction, and therefore revolution and communism and not just their circumstances. Revolution and communism are produced historically through the cycles of struggle that mark time in the march of the unfolding contradiction." Theorie Communiste

The Unity of form, content, and function

Perhaps a unique contribution of the ultraleft is the notion of content and form in theory and the implications of neglecting these concepts in our understanding of struggle. It is essentially a negative critique about the left ignoring content over form (calling for direct democracy independent of the content… which reaffirms capital) or ignorning form over content (leninist authoritarianism-cum taylorist capitalism). 

"Revolution has, but is not a problem of organization. All theories of "workers’ government" or "workers’ power" only propose alternative solutions to the crisis of capital. Revolution is first of all a transformation of society, i.e., of what constitutes relations among people, and between people and their means of life. Organizational problems and "leaders" are secondary: they depend on what the revolution achieves. This applies as much to the start of the communist revolution as to the functioning of the society which arises out of it. Revolution will not happen on the day when 51% of the workers become revolutionary; and it will not begin by setting up a decision-making apparatus. It is precisely capitalism that perpetually deals with problems of management and leadership. The organizational form of the communist revolution, as of any social movement, depends on its content. The way the party, the organization of the revolution, constitutes itself and acts, depends on the tasks to be realized." Eclipse and Remergence of the Communist Movement

"Unions and workers’ parties offer their services to wage workers in exchange for recognition and support, including financial support. Extreme-left groups pretend to offer the waged a better defence of their interests than the union and party bureaucrats who they consider to be too moderate. In exchange they demand even less : approval, however half-hearted, for their programme. Interventionists or libertarians, all see the same solution to the continuity between proletariat and communism — they conceive the content of communism as being outside the proletariat. Not seeing the intrinsic relation between proletariat and revolution — except that it is the former which makes the latter — they are obliged to introduce a programme." Dauve, The Story of our Origins

Dauve has something, which once uttered seems so obvious its bizarre that no one says it. Insurrections fail because workers are not at that moment revolutionary (in content). Though obvious, it is no mere assertion. Ignoring content obscures this point. Capital and the state must be reproduced to exist. Without that reproduction, they die. This is the crux of the whole revolutionary problem, the preparedness of the working class to make communist society itself. Dauve has a whole article dedicated to this issue

"Caught in pincers between the SPD and the CIO — the two forms of the counter-revolution born out of workers’ struggles — the German Left had to oppose itself to both of them. But it had difficulty in seeing that the IWW would have disappeared or become a reformist organisation. As an autonomous workers’ organisation, the IWW retrospectively displayed all the virtues. But it is not enough for a structure to be workerist and anti-bureaucratic for it to be revolutionary. That depends on what it does. If it takes part in trade union activities it becomes what the trade unions are. Thus the German Left was also mistaken about the nature of the CNT. Nevertheless, overall it showed that it’s too superficial to only take account of the trade unions, and that it is the reformist activity of workers themselves which maintains organised, openly counter-revolutionary, reformism."

It is refreshing to see such a thorough going statement of anarchism, which goes beyond the bumbling of marx and engels around issues of the state and the transition.

"However, one can foresee that a movement of communisation, that destroys the State, undermines the social base of the enemy, and spreads under the effect of the irresistible appeal arousing the birth of new social relations between men, will bond together the revolutionary camp far better than any power which, while waiting to conquer the world before communising it, would behave no differently than… a State."

Yet Dauve does make one error. I’m not sure if this is a matter of translation, strange use of "content" or if it is throughout Dauve’s thought, but he fails to notice the difference between content (qualities, character, etc) and function (perhaps more closely tied to form, though not identicle with form or content). This has political consequences, but I don’t deal with that here.

"In both cases, the form — the organisation of workers — was put before its content — the function of this organisation." Ibid

Critique of Democracy and educationist approaches

"Leninism is haunted by the seizure of power, anarchism by its obsessive fear. As a reply to authority and dictatorship, anarchism stands for the collective versus leadership, bottom v. up, horizontal v. vertical, commune v. government, decentralization v. centralization, self-management v. top management, local community v. mass electorate: a plurality of true democracies instead of a false one, and ultimately the State will be destroyed by universalized democracy. Lots of small scale production and living units will be dynamic enough to get together without any of them alienating its autonomy. Like the polis of Ancient times, the modern metropolis falls prey to oligarchic tendencies: myriads of federated co-ops, collectives and districts will be able to run themselves, and thus remain democratic. If power is split between millions of elements, it becomes harmless.

We won’t solve the problem of power by spreading little bits of it everywhere."

This is correct, and interestingly is a critique of anarchism, normally anarchism launches at others. That is that it lacks a critique of power. Another way of saying this, and this is the thrust of the article, that the politics of autonomy prioritizes the structure of democracy over the content (with some semantics thrown in about superceding the concept of democracy rooted in capitalism). 

"Opinion is a set of (individual or group) ideas about the world. Representative democracy wishes each of us to form his ideas on his own, and only afterwards to compare them to other persons’ ideas. Direct democracy prefers a collective making of ideas. But both think the only way to free thought is to be correctly educated or even better, self-taught, this self being here again preferably collective."

This attitude is pervasive, and leads radicals to self-conceptualizing their work as education and that the problem with workers is that they have the wrong ideas. Leninists, anarchists, and activists alike share this bed, and continually put themselves forward as the torch bearers of truth. 

"Many radicals believe in the equation
autonomy + anti-State violence = revolutionary movement
and see it vindicated for instance in the Oaxaca protracted insurrection. While this event is one of the strongest outbursts of proletarian activity in the recent years, it demonstrates that autonomous violence is necessary and insufficient. A revolutionary movement is more than a liberated area or a hundred liberated areas. It develops by fighting public and private repression, as well as by starting to change the material basis of social relationship. No self-managed street fighting and grassroots district solidarity, however indispensable they are, inevitably contain the acts and the intentions that bring about such a change. So it’s the nature of the change we’ve got to insist upon: creating a world without money, without commodity exchange, without labour being bought and sold, without firms as competing poles of value accumulation, without work as separate from the rest of our activities, without a State, without a specialized political sphere supposedly cut off from our social relationships… In other words, a revolution that is born out of a common refusal to submit, out of the hope to get to a point of no return where people transform themselves and gain a sense of their own power as they transform reality." Ibid

The nature of change is the crux of our task, and without that component, our politics because a hollow worship of assemblies, councils, and self-management. It seems like a cruel fate for the life of struggle to resolve into the worship of dead forms of living fights, but that’s the product of a left wholly alienated from the experiences and struggles of a living class. 

Theorie Communiste too points out how the concept of autonomy is one rooted in capitalism, and in trying to project it into classless society, thereby mixes up reaction against domination and the products of a liberated existence.

"We can only speak of auto-nomy if the working class is capable of relating to itself against capital and finding in this relationship to itself the basis of and the capacity for its affirmation as dominant class. Autonomy supposes that the definition of the working class is not a relation but is inherent to it. It was a question of the formalisation of what we are in present society as basis for the new society, which is to be constructed as the liberation of what we are." Self Organization is the first act of the revolution, it then becomes an obstacle to be overcome

They see the disappearance of autonomy as being a hallmark of communization of society, though not going so far as to say autonomy is reactionary alltogether.

"If autonomy disappears as a perspective, it is because the revolution can no longer have any other content than the communisation of society, which means for the proletariat its own abolition. With such a content, it becomes inappropriate to talk of autonomy and it is unlikely that such a programme would entail what is commonly understood as "autonomous organisation". The proletariat can only be revolutionary by recognising itself as a class, and it recognises itself as such in every conflict and even more so in a context where its existence as a class is the situation that it has to confront in the reproduction of capital. We should not mistake the content of this "recognition". To recognise itself as a class won’t be a "return to itself" but a total extroversion through its self-recognition as a category of the capitalist mode of production. What we are as a class is immediately nothing other than our relation to capital. This "recognition" will in fact be a practical knowledge, in the conflict, not of the class for itself, but of capital." Self Organization


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