Supplementary note on the structure of the argument

The following note is an annex to the text “The Period of Transition and its Dissenters” published in RP04. It is an attempt to analyse the structure of the arguments being advanced by the communisateurs. The text in RP04 only mentioned briefly their theory of the death of programmatism and their view of the impossibility of a struggle by the working class to defend its interests in the present stage of capitalism. These positions lead them to view attempts to construct a party of the working class or workers councils as utopian, since in their view they are not based on social reality. Hence they dismiss left communism as atavistic and irrelevant. The logical route to these conclusions is examined below.

Premises and conclusions

The communisateurs’ argument appears to be based on the following 3 premises:

  • Capitalism’s subordination, or subsumption, of the labour process has changed from a formal subsumption to a real one. The periodisation of this change is disputed but the tendency as a whole agree that we now live in an era of real subsumption.
  • A consequence of this is that the productive working class, namely the section producing surplus value, is becoming less relevant, or even irrelevant, in the labour to capital relationship[1]. Real subsumption, which is characterised by the extraction of relative surplus value leads to increases in productivity and the expulsion of workers from the production process. This leads to an absolute decrease in the numbers of workers in production. (They see this as being the case even in China[2].) It further leads to a relative surplus population[3] who are maintained by capitalism instead of being used to valorise and expand capital.
  • A result of 2 is that the working class as a whole is increasingly becoming unable to reproduce itself. They see this occurring in the metropolitan and peripheral countries.

From these 3 premises they conclude that:

  • The working class can no longer affirm itself as a class within capitalist social relations because of its weakened position as outlined in premise 2. It cannot therefore fight successfully for its class interests within capitalist social relations.
  • The struggle to implement a programme of fighting for these interests within capitalism and finally capturing power is therefore dead. This they call the death of programmatism*[4]*. Both programmes for reforms and programmes for taking power and using power for instituting a transitional period are utopian as the material basis for these programmes no longer exists. This basis no longer exists because of the decreased weight of the productive working class. As a corollary to this, party building and councilist politics are utopian and irrelevant today.
  • The change to real subsumption makes the only feasible struggle the struggle to abolish the working class as a class, i.e. revolutionary struggle to abolish capitalist production relations and immediately introduce communism. This they call communisation. They argue that the present state of capitalism, as in the premises above, a fight for class interests cannot be a means of superseding capitalism. Communisation is consequently the only possible struggle in today’s world for superseding capitalism.

Examination of the conclusions

The problem is how can a class that exists within the capitalist social relation act to overthrow that relationship when that relationship is the very basis of its existence. Classes can only struggle within the historical situations in which they find themselves. However, the struggle to defend material interests can lead to a revolutionary struggle when it becomes clear that there is no way these interests can be defended in existing productive and social relations. The aim of left communism is, after all, to channel struggles for immediate class interests into the struggle for the overthrow of capitalist production relations. The revolutionary consciousness to carry out such a transformation will be the outcome of a long period of desperate and ultimately unsuccessful struggles for class interests within capitalist social relations. This is surely the meaning of the 3rd thesis on Feuerbach quoted RP04.

The communisateurs see the struggle over wages conditions and benefits as no longer the locus of contestation of the working class and capital. This struggle has become recuperated and hopeless because of the total domination of capital over production and social relations. These changes have made the struggle of the working class to abolish itself and install immediate communist relations of production as the only possible struggle today. They see the genesis of such a struggle in such events as strikes which involve destruction of the means of production, as in Bangladesh, the struggle for redundancy payments which amount to a rejection of wage labour, revolts in the banlieues etc.

The future revolutionary struggle will they conclude be entirely different from those in the past. End Notes 1 informs us that:

We have nothing to learn from the failures of past revolutions.”[5]

They further tell us that:

“The working class must no longer embrace its class character as what it is.”[6]

Yet they admit that the working class has no position in society apart from its class relation. How could it step outside this? A man cannot jump over his shadow!

Only in the revolutionary period can the working class act to overthrow the labour/capital relation. Only when the relation becomes questioned in practice can its destruction be posited and the consciousness necessary for such a revolutionary change arise.

So how do we get from where we are now to a revolutionary situation? Surely only through struggles for objectives within capitalism and this amounts to defending the position of the working class within capitalism, which I take to be no different from affirming this position. Such struggles must continue until the system breaks down. At this stage the revolutionary programme will be required. Consequently it is false to argue that programmatism is dead.

Hence the key conclusion from the 3 premises appears incorrect.

We need, therefore, to examine the premises from which this conclusion arises. Is the change from formal to real domination actually as the communisateurs have claimed?

Examination of the premises

Where Marx speaks of formal subordination in Capital Volume 1 he is speaking of the very early development of capitalism.

“The class of labourers which arose in the latter half of the 14th century … Master and workmen stood close together socially. The subordination of labour to capital was only formal – i.e. the mode of production in itself has as yet no specific capitalist character.”[7]

In the “Results of the direct production process” Marx is clearer about what subsumption in general means and what formal subsumption in particular means. A labour process is the process of human interaction with nature whereby mankind produces what it needs to survive. (I.e. it is a process which produces the means of subsistence, a material process.) The actual social relations which subsume this material process, could be primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism or communism. In the initial stages of capitalist development peasant agriculture, handicraft manufacture in the guilds etc. were taken over by capitalism. The peasant becomes a wage worker on a larger farm and the farmer becomes a capitalist organising the peasant’s labour, the master craftsman becomes a capitalist in relation to his journeyman, the slave owner becomes a capitalist in relation to his freed slaves who become workers. The material process of production is not initially changed, all that is changed is the social relation. This is the formal subsumption of labour under capital.

“Subsumption is on the basis of the existing labour process which was there before its subsumption under capital.”[8]

Initially the changes which follow are ones of scale of production, more workers bigger premises or farms, and/or extension of the length of time the worker works. Formal subsumption is characterised by the extraction of absolute surplus value. Under real subsumption capital transforms the nature of the labour process and its real conditions. Productivity is increased through mechanisation, more efficient organisation of labour etc.

“Real subsumption is developed in all forms which develop relative surplus value as distinct from absolute.”[9]

It appears from this text that in Marx’s view formal subsumption was complete in the distant past; certainly by the mid-19th century. The assumption of real subsumption underlies his entire critique of political economy in Capital. If this is the sense in which Marx uses the term then there has clearly been no change in the system’s subsumption of the production process in 1900, 1945, 1974 or 1995, to quote the communisateurs’ various dates. The communisateurs are therefore using Marx’s term in a completely different sense. The importance of this distinction between formal and real subsumption in Marx’s own estimation is also questionable. Why was the “Results of the direct production process” omitted from the final text of Capital by Marx if it was a key concept?

The categories of absolute and relative surplus value to which formal and real subsumption are linked, are, however, key concepts and fully developed in Capital. But it should be noted that the identity cannot be used the other way round for formal subsumption. Extraction of absolute surplus value does not mean that the labour process is formally subsumed. Today extraction of both absolute and relative surplus value from the proletariat are occurring all over the world all the time and it cannot be said that formal subsumption of any pre-capitalist labour process exists.

In addition it needs to be pointed out that conversion of the peasantry and petit bourgeoisie into members of the proletariat is not a process of formal subsumption. When these strata are destroyed by the process of capitalist accumulation and competition their members are converted into workers in a capitalism characterised by the extraction of relative surplus value. That is to say a capitalism where the subsumption is real.

The arguments the communisateurs have amongst themselves about periodisation shows the difficulty of making use of the formal/real subsumption distinction and also its elasticity. It is true that the structure of the global economy is changing due to the reduction of the relative weight of the peasantry and petit bourgeoisie. This is something dealt with extensively in Marx’s critique of capital. It is also something that Marxism has always attempted to analyse and to draw out the resulting political implications. It is key, for example, to understanding the defeats of 1871 and 1917 to 1921. Such an analysis is, in fact, a more material basis for periodisation than the formal/real subsumption, but this is not the argument the communisateurs are advancing.

Premise 1 above therefore appears incorrect. The subsumption of the labour process has not been through an essential change in the period since 1900.

Premise 2 is completely contrary to Marxist theory. If it is indeed true there can be no hope of revolution. The production of surplus value will remain key to capitalism’s survival as long as it exists. The withdrawal of labour, the consequent removal of surplus value and the non-valorisation of capital, is the only lever which will prise apart the foundations of the system and bring about its collapse.

To see the productive working class as becoming less relevant, or irrelevant, in the struggle against capital is simply incorrect. It is key in this struggle and other layers of the class, such as the unemployed or the lumpenproletariat will inevitably look to the productive workers for a lead in the struggle against capital. If this does not happen all struggles will fail. The theory of the reduced relevance of the productive working class appears to be leading to the positions of Marcuse and Adorno, who gave up on the working class as the revolutionary subject, and looked for other revolutionary social forces, e.g. students, blacks, gays, the dispossessed lumpenproletariat etc. as the new revolutionary subject.

Premise 3, is, I think, correct. It results from the expulsion of productive workers from the process of production which in turn is a result of the falling rate of profit. This makes the valorisation of capital increasingly difficult as the decrease in productive workers tends to decrease the total surplus value extracted from the global working class. For the working class it results in a reduction in the aggregate wage paid to the world’s workers. In addition the reduction in available surplus value leads the bourgeoisie to decrease the social wage used for maintaining the unemployed and pensioners, providing healthcare for the sick and a host of other social programmes. This relentless reduction in the living conditions of the global working class may, indeed, lead to a revolutionary struggle, but the key motor force in this struggle will be the productive working class.



[1] “Employment is less and less the point of reference it had been in the post-war period …For many work has become a partial and temporary complement of unemployment.” Leon de Mattis Also, Calvaire, “We abandon the theory of the revolutionary subject. The revolutionary movement cannot take account of the ghost of the proletariat ...” "Les limites de l’autonomie. La recomposition du mouvement révolutionnaire" (2ème partie), 10 septembre 2004, ‘Calvaire’ Quoted in “Beaucoup de bruit pour rien - Le courant "communisateur"?! Un nouveau réformisme” M. Olivier.

[2] See End Notes No. 2

[3] They are the unemployed, the reserve army of labour, who survive through state handouts via social security. Like the Roman proletariat they survive through state handouts and are kept in subjection by spectacles like, football, Olympics etc.

[4] “The form which gave a subjective existence to the working class for a century and a half – i.e. the workers’ movement – has collapsed. Parties, unions and left-wing associations are now “citizen” or “democratic” parties, etc., with an ideology borrowed from the French Revolution.” Leon de Mattis

[5] End Notes No 1 page 4

[6] See End Notes “What are we to do?”

[7] See Marx Capital Volume 1 Chapter 28,

[8] See Marx “Results of the direct production process”

[9] See Marx “Results of the direct production process”

Tuesday, October 7, 2014