It is now more than five years since the start of the financial crisis with no sign of respite from austerity and increasing insecurity. Neither the old left of unions and parties or the newer social movements of protest and direct action seem to be up to the task of offering a way forward. In the search for new road maps to navigate crisis and the possibilities of life beyond capitalism, the concept of ‘communisation’ has become an increasing focus of discussion.
The word itself has been around since the early days of the communist movement. The English utopian Goodwyn Barmby, credited with the being the first person to use the term communist in the English language, wrote a text as early as 1841 entitled ‘The Outlines of Communism, Associality and Communisation’. He conceived of the four ages of humanity as being ‘ ‘Paradisation, Barbarization, Civilization and Communisation’, while his wife and collaborator Catherine Barmby anticipated current debates about gender with early feminist interventions arguing for communisation as a solution to women’s subordination (Goodwyn Barmby is discussed in Peter Linebaugh, ‘Meandering on the semantical-historical paths of communism and commons’, The Commoner, December 2010).
The Barmbys’ use of the term to describe the process of the creation of a communist society is not a million miles away from its current usage, but it has acquired a more specific set of meanings since the early 1970s when elements of the French ‘ultra-left’ began deploying it as a way of critiquing traditional conceptions of revolution. Communism has often been conceived of by both Marxists and anarchists as a future state of society to be achieved in the distant future long after the messy business of revolution has been sorted out. For advocates of communisation on the other hand, capitalism can only be abolished by the immediate creation of different relations between people, such as the free distribution of goods and the creation of ‘communal, moneyless, profitless, Stateless, forms of life. The process will take time to be completed, but it will start at the beginning of the revolution, which will not create the preconditions of communism: it will create communism’ (Gilles Dauvé & Karl Nesic, ‘Communisation’, 2011).
Today this broad notion of communisation is used in various different ways, but arguably there are two main poles in current debates – albeit with many shades in between.
There is what might be termed a ‘voluntarist’ conception of communisation associated with people influenced by the Tiqqun journal and publications attributed to ‘The Invisible Committee’ such as ‘The Call’ (2004) and ‘The Coming Insurrection’ (2007). It is voluntarist because there is an emphasis on people choosing to take sides and fleeing capitalist society – ‘The Call’ talks of ‘desertion’ and ‘secession’ - in order to create networks and spaces such as communes characterised by ‘acts of communisation, of making common such-and-such space, such-and-such machine, such-and-such knowledge’ (‘The Call’).
This notion has been criticised for the fallacy of proposing an emerging alternative society within a capitalist world by the other main proponents of the communisation hypothesis. What I would term the ‘structuralist’ inflexion of communisation is particularly associated with the French language journal Theorie Communiste (TC). More recently its ideas have been elaborated and extended in discussions with like-minded groups including the English language Endnotes and the Swedish journal Riff Raff. Together these collectives have recently collaborated to produce ‘Sic – an international journal of communisation’ (issue number one was published in 2011).
I term this approach as ‘structuralist’ because there is much more emphasis on how the possibility of communisation arises from the structural contradictions of a particular stage of capitalism. They talk of ‘The historical production of the revolution’ and ‘Communisation as the historical product of the capital-labour contradiction’ (Woland, ‘The historical production of the revolution of the current period’, 2010).
At the heart of this contradiction is the fact that capitalism is increasingly unable to guarantee social reproduction, unlike in the past when it largely did so through the wage. While wage labour is of course exploitative, in the second half of the 20th century increasing numbers of people in many parts of the world were able to reproduce themselves reasonably securely through their wages. Not just a subsistence existence, but for many a material standard of life better than subaltern classes at any point in history. In Europe and America for instance the typical car worker by the 1970s could afford a house (whether they owned or rented it), a car, domestic appliances (TV, washing machine) and a holiday in the sun. The direct wage was supplemented by an increasing ‘social wage’ of pensions, health services, unemployment benefits and so on.
In response to the crisis of profitability in the 1970s, capitalism has restructured itself. The old notion of a ‘job for life’ has been scrapped. For many, access to a ‘living wage’ is sporadic and precarious. Increasing numbers are being deemed surplus to requirements as capitalism pursues its unreachable utopia of wealth creation without the need for a proletariat. At the same time the social safety net is being progressively eroded. For TC and others the possibility of a revolutionary rupture is created by this unfolding contradiction – in order to survive with a life worth living, those dependent upon wage labour must come into conflict with capitalism.
The possibility of a crisis in which money no longer works is a real one and as in Argentina in 2001 would immediately pose the question of how else to produce and distribute the necessities of life. In shifting the focus from communism as a distant future ideal state to immediate practical activity, the notion of communisation can help us to think about what could happen in the event of such a scenario. The specifics of exactly how human beings will meet each others needs beyond the horizon of the market are rarely considered, but doing so might be very fruitful.
The problem with much communisation theory though is that it often seems to assume that under pressure of events, large scale efforts at communisation are inevitable even if their success is not guaranteed. For instance Bruno Astarian argues that ‘When the capitalist crisis breaks out, the proletariat is forced to rise up in order to find another social form capable of restoring its socialization and immediate reproduction’ (Bruno Astarian, ‘Crisis activity and communisation’, 2010).
At present, however, it is difficult to point to examples of communisation in practice, at least beyond outbreaks of looting or the short term occupation of public space. As Benjamin Noys observes in his recent overview, the old movement might be in crisis but ‘the emergence of an alternative ‘“real movement” is hard to detect to say the least’ (B.Noys ‘The Fabric of Struggles’ in ‘Communisation and its Discontents: Contestation, Critique, and Contemporary Struggles’, 2011).
Communisation must remain a hypothesis, but surely so must the possibility of other outcomes in the heat of crisis – including a rise in populist nationalism, racism and/or religious fundamentalism, incorporating elements of a reactionary ‘anti-capitalism’. The crisis years have seen plenty of uprisings, but also upsurges of reaction on the streets. In Greece for instance, the neo-nazi Golden Dawn has increased its support and there have been attacks on migrants. In Libya, sub-Saharan Africans were targeted by insurgents against the Gaddafi regime. There have been riots against minority groups in the Assam area of India (where Muslim migrants were targeted) and in Bangladesh (where Buddhists were targeted).
Marcel Stoetzler’s critique of John Holloway’s ‘Change the world without taking power’ could also be applied to much of the communisation current: ‘there are anti-capitalist screams and cracks that are not at all, and cannot even potentially become, communist: there are reactionary, anti-emancipatory forms of anti-capitalism, and as these were decisive factors in the catastrophic history of the twentieth century, their theoretical reflection needs to be more than a critical afterthought; it needs to be central’ (‘On the possibility that the revolution that will end capitalism might fail to usher in communism’, Journal of Classical Sociology, 2012). Along with Holloway and much of autonomist marxism, would be communisers often seem to suffer ‘from a lack of a theory of fascism’.
For the authors of The Call, a rhetorical exaggeration of the extent of the horrors of the present gives the impression that things can hardly get much worse. Since we are already living with ‘the catastrophe’, ‘the disaster’, ‘the desert’, ‘the world civil war’, presumably fascism would be just be more of the same. Of course they are right that war, terror and repression are happening now, but there is a world of difference between this and their generalised application in genocide. They also tend to casually equate banality with barbarism – among the horrors they decry is ‘the suburban sprawl of Florida, where the misery lies precisely in the fact that no one seems to feel it’ (never mind, the pro-revolutionaries can ‘feel it’ on your behalf). As for much of the post-situtationist ultra-left, the qualitative difference between boredom and Buchenwald is left unexplored.
Others in the pro-communisation camp are more reflective on possible mutations of capitalist society. In Sic no. 1, B.L. ponders that ‘The revolution itself could push the capitalist mode of production to develop in an unforeseeable manner, from the resurrection of slavery to self-management’ (‘The suspended step of communisation’, 2011). Presumably fascism is one such possibility, but generally the main danger posited by communisation theorists is some kind of radical democratic self-management that reintroduces capitalism through the back door.
The ultra left and fascism
Unfortunately the historic ultra left does not offer many useful tools for understanding fascism and similar movements. By the ‘ultra left’ I mean those currents that trace their origins to the various groups that broke with the mainstream Communist International in the 1920s, including the ‘council communists’ and ‘left communists’ in Germany, Italy and elsewhere. In the 1960s and 70s newer groups emerged that combined ideas from these currents with elements derived from the Situationist International, Socialisme ou Barbarie and others. I am well aware that the term ‘ultra-left’ has rarely been used as a self-designation by such groups, and that there have always been huge differences within this milieu. Nevertheless I will use it as a catch-all term to designate a political area quite distinct from Trostkyism, Stalinism and anarchism.
Jacques Camatte is rare amongst adherents of the ultra-left in recognising that ‘The people on the left in the 20s and 30s did not really want to take into account of and analyze the ideas put forward by the Nazi movement and related currents, and this was in spite of the fact that many of their number were ultimately to suffer under Nazi repression. Generally speaking, there was no serious attempt to appreciate the originality or otherwise of what was coming’ (‘Echoes of the Past’, 1980).
In the 1920s and 30s, many on the German left including the KAPD (Communist Workers Party of Germany) and its successor factions held to a version of final crisis theory, believing that capitalism was on the verge of a collapse that would precipitate revolution. With this perspective, which was shared by the Stalinized Communist Party, the later rise of Nazism was often seen as an ephemeral phenomenon that would soon be swept aside in the showdown between capital and labour. Even the council communist Pannekoek, who criticised ‘final crisis theory’, seemed to believe as late as 1934 that the main obstacles to revolution were the leftist illusions of the working class: ‘It appears to be a contradiction that the present crisis, deeper and more devastating than any previous one, has not shown signs of the awakening of the proletarian revolution. But the removal of old illusions is its first great task: on the one hand, the illusion of making capitalism bearable by means of reforms obtained through Social Democratic parliamentary politics and trade union action and, on the other, the illusion that capitalism can be overthrown in assault under the leadership of a revolution-bringing Communist Party’ (Anton Pannekoek, The theory of the collapse of capitalism, 1934).
During the post-war period, revolutionaries faced ruling classes in Europe, US and USSR that sought to legitimise their position by stressing their anti-fascist credentials. There were various strategies available to combat this ideology, including observing that these ‘anti-fascist’ regimes had in fact dealt happily with Hitler when it suited them, and had allowed pro-nazi industrialists, police and military officers to remain in position after the war. But some on the ultra-left went further and sought to downplay the specific horrors of the Holocaust as just capitalist business as usual.
In 1960 the French Bordigist journal Programme Communiste published the notorious article ‘Auschwitz, or the Great Alibi’ which suggested that the mass murder of Jews was not the result of anti-Semitism but simply a moment in the eradication of the petit-bourgeoisie as a result of the ‘irresistible advance of the concentration of capital’. Seemingly they were killed ‘not because they were Jews, but because they were ejected by the production process’. Obviously this is empirically nonsense, Jews of all classes were killed not just those who could be characterised as ‘petit bourgeois’. But it also whitewashed the murderers as simply following the logic of accumulation, perhaps even against their wishes: ‘German capitalism resigned itself with difficulty to murder pure and simple’.
Significantly the article was republished as a pamphlet in 1970 by a group around the Paris ultra-left bookshop La Vielle Taupe. For some in that scene, notably Pierre Guillaume, this was the start of a journey towards fully fledged Holocaust denial. In the early 1980s, Guillaume came to the defence of Robert Faurisson, a French writer who claimed that the gas chambers were a hoax. He was not alone. Ultra-left group Guerre Sociale, which included Dominque Blanc, published a poster entitled ‘Qui est la juif?’ (Who is the Jew?) which compared the treatment of Faurisson with the fate of the Jews. After the dissolution of that milieu Guillaume went on to become a prominent publisher of revisionist literature – a ‘négationniste’ to use the French term.
Interestingly it was in this very milieu that the current notion of communisation first emerged: ‘It is not sure who first used the word… To the best of our knowledge, it was Dominique Blanc: orally in the years 1972-74… Whoever coined the word, the idea was being circulated at the time in the small milieu round the bookshop La Vieille Taupe (‘Old Mole”, 1965-72). Since the May 68 events, the bookseller, Pierre Guillaume, ex-Socialisme ou Barbarie and ex-Pouvoir Ouvrier member, but also for a while close to G. Debord (who himself was a member of S. ou B. in 1960-61), had been consistently putting forward the idea of revolution as a communising process’ (Gilles Dauvé et Karl Nesic, Communisation, 2011).
It is certainly not my view that the notion of communisation is fatally tainted by its association with the likes of Guillaume and Blanc, nor that everybody in that early communisation milieu can be tarred for all time with the revisionist/negationist brush. For instance Dauvé has been unequivocal that ‘Nazi Germany deliberately killed millions of Jews and a lot of them in gas chambers. These are historical facts’; he contributed to a detailed critical account of the Faurisson episode in the journal La Banquise in 1983 – ‘Le roman de nos origins’ (translated into English as ‘Re-collecting our past’).
Still it would be misleading to see this episode as just a case of individual pathology, as Endnotes seem to do in their overview of this current: ‘For reasons only really known to himself, Pierre Guillaume became a prominent defender of Faurisson and managed to attract several affiliates of La Vielle Taupe and La Guerre Sociale (notably Dominique Blanc) to his cause’ (Bring out your dead, Endnotes 1, 2008)
The strength of the historic ultra-left in all its forms has been its refusal to support capitalist currents of any kind – no ‘critical support’ for social democratic politicians , no defending Stalinist police states, no cheerleading for national liberation dictatorships in waiting. It has correctly argued that misery, exploitation and war continue under the guise of ‘socialism’, anti-fascism and democracy as well under fascism and military rule.
There is though a permanent danger with this position of seeing all forms of capitalist rule as identical, and of misunderstanding everything that happens under capitalism as simply determined by the logic of accumulation without reference to any other historical or political factors. At the fringes, perhaps this fuels a temptation to be receptive to ideas like Holocaust revisionism that conveniently eradicate evidence of the specific horrors of National Socialism and therefore shore up the position that there was no real difference between Hitler and any other capitalist politician. Of course, Hitler ruled in the interest of German capital, crushing anti-capitalist opposition and providing slave labour for the likes of Daimler-Benz and BMW. But the Shoah was an unprecedented and unique episode of industrialised racist extermination that can hardly be explained simply by economics.
Crisis and reaction
I doubt that many communisation theorists would deny the possibility of capital generating murderous, racist or even genocidal measures to head off the alternative of revolution. But the issue isn’t just how the state and capital might respond under threat, but how the very dynamic of social antagonism and crisis might give rise to fascism or some 21st century version from below.
If it is true that capitalism’s inability to guarantee social reproduction can only prompt various kinds of collective attempts to secure a life worth living, there is no immediate reason why these attempts should take an expansive, internationalist direction. The historical experience would suggest that it is just likely that many people could fall back on some kind of limited national, religious, racial or extended family/clan identity and seek to secure the survival and reproduction of their self-defined group – if necessary at the expense of others.
We can see traces of this today in the popular support in many countries for tighter immigration controls, at the heart of which in its working class version lies a demand to protect the position of workers in historically more affluent countries from the impact of destitution elsewhere, even if the price paid by others is detention centres and the deaths on the high seas of migrants taking risks to get round border controls.
One possible outcome of crisis is a kind of plunder-state in which capital effectively throws one part of the population to the wolves to ensure its survival, suspending the normal rules of property to enable the looting of the resources and personal effects of marginalised communities. Arguably that is partly how the Nazis secured the support of many Germans of all classes. The thesis of Goetz Aly’s ‘Hitler’s People’s State: Robbery, Racial War and National Socialism’ (2005) is precisely that many German people, including proletarians, were able to materially benefit from the plunder of the Jews and other minorities.
Interestingly this is acknowledged by the Berlin-based pro-communisers The Friends of the Classless Society who argue that ‘As indisputable as it may be that the fascist state initially took aim at the workers movement, it is undoubtedly so that it was able to extend its mass base to the working class. As racially privileged supervisors of millions of slave laborers, as the foot soldiers of the German war of annihilation, as the beneficiaries of “Aryanization”, a considerable portion of the German proletariat was absorbed into the national community’ (‘28 Theses on Class Society’, Kosmoprolet, No. 1, 2007).
And however capitalist National Socialist rule may have been it also drew some of its support from an ‘anti-capitalist’ sentiment, as Camatte realized: ‘’Nazism proposed a community, the Volksgemeinschaft, to all the people uprooted and expropriated by the movement of capital’ (though it is perhaps more accurate to say that it offered this only to some of the people!). This notion of ‘community as Gemeinschaft, the grouping together of people possessing a particular identity and having certain roots.. their domain of exclusive being, engendering apartness and exclusion of others’ (‘Echoes of the Past’) is by no means confined to 1930s Germany.
Another possibility is an extension beyond a state-managed plunder towards localised insurrectionary movements with a racist dimension. Even some of the great movements of the past celebrated by revolutionaries today sometimes had some of this flavour - during the English Peasants revolt of 1381, the rebels specifically targeted aliens, with at least 40 Flemings being beheaded, while the ‘Gordon riots’ of 1780 featured attacks on the London Irish prompted by anti-Catholic sentiment. If more modern revolutionary movements have generally avoided this, mass participation in ethnically-based massacres in the past 25 years in the ex-Yugoslavia and Rwanda suggests that this is always a possibility.
Even a racialized partial communisation is conceivable, in which one part of the community establishes internal relations of equality and sharing of resources while simultaneously ‘ethnically cleansing’ people defined as outsiders. Such a vision is, for instance, promulgated by the thankfully marginal ‘National Anarchist’ scene with its call for racially pure village communities to replace capitalism and the state. To quote Stoetzler again ‘why should not a racial, super-hierarchical, anti-Semitic, ‘national-socialist’ post-capitalism emerge out of the chaos? Even today there are more than enough ‘left-wing fascists’, ‘autonomous nationalists’, and so on, around, whose dream is exactly that, and their chances are not so bad. In their world, Hitler is guilty of having sold out the national-socialist revolution to ‘the Jews’ and ‘the system’. If the rest of us underestimate the possibility of their victory out of a residual belief that it is somehow written into the DNA of world history that after capitalism things can only get better, we do so at our own peril…properly anti-capitalist fascists might emerge and prevail over pro-capitalist fascists in a situation when capitalism is on its last leg, and in any case, many people who look for an efficient force to get rid of liberalism-capitalism (and either subscribe to, or don’t really object very much to, such things as anti-Semitism, racism, sexism) will give them the benefit of the doubt, as was the case previously (Fascists often also have very reasonable soup kitchens.)’ .
For much of the historic ultra-left this was not really an issue, as their determinist ‘Marxist’ position imbued the working class with a revolutionary destiny. The highly dubious ‘Auschwitz, or the Great Alibi’ text articulated this very clearly: ‘It sometimes happens that the workers themselves give themselves over to racism. This happens when, threatened with massive unemployment, they attempt to concentrate it on certain groups: Italians, Poles or other “filthy foreigners,” “dirty Arabs,” “n*ggers,” etc. But in the proletariat these impulses only occur at the worst moments of demoralization, and don’t last. As soon as it enters into struggle the proletariat clearly and concretely sees its enemy: it is a homogeneous class with an historical perspective and mission’.
Today it is hard to be so straight-forwardly optimistic. Communisation resulting in a classless society is only one of the possibilities on the horizon, and those who advocate it need to reflect more on some of the other potential outcomes and how to avoid them. The Communist Manifesto (1848) talks of the alternatives of ‘a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or…in the common ruin of the contending classes’. Rosa Luxemburg, after Engels, talked of the choice between socialism or barbarism. The ‘ruin’ and ‘barbarism’ which they referred to was not simply the continuation of capitalism as we know it, but a breakdown of society into a state of all-engulfing war and terror.
It may be true that no localized racist or nationalist ‘anti-capitalism’ could create a lasting alternative to capitalism – social reproduction today cannot retreat from a global human society. Astarian is not alone among the pro-communisers in assuming that any such contradictions can only be temporary diversions on the road to a better future: ‘When the counterrevolutionary proletarian alternatives have demonstrated their ineffectiveness by failing to deliver the economic salvation of the proletariat, communisation will bring about the leap towards the non-economy’ (Communisation As a Way Out of the Crisis, 2007). But the last hundred years, and indeed much of human history, suggests that in times of crisis the road forward can be terminally blocked by desperate inter-communal violence and the spiral of massacres and reprisals – or when one group is particularly marginalized, massacres without even the fear of reprisals.
Countering this possibility does not mean signing up to some state/media/celebrity ‘anti fascist’ popular front, but it does mean being permanently aware of the potential for even apparently radical, insurgent movements to take a terrible direction. It also means challenging potential manifestations of this at every turn within the real movements around us, whether it be the emergence of nationalist anti-migrant sentiments in workplace struggles (e.g. ‘British jobs for British workers’) or rebranded anti-Semitic notions of saving the ‘real economy’ from ‘cosmopolitan’ money lenders (e.g. the dubious ‘moneyless’ notions of the ‘Zeitgeist Movement’ on the fringes of the Occupy actions).
To take refuge in a world view in which only communisation or the continuation of the status quo is taken seriously is to deny the range of historical options and ultimately to deny human agency with all its positive and negative potential.
Note: I have not included full links to all articles cited; all can be readily found online, most via http://libcom.org/