A Communist Critique of a Schmaltzy Critique of Communisation

by cominsitu


Romantic Fiction: Notes on Krul’s critique of Endnotes

by ENDNOTES on FEBRUARY 17, 2014 (thenorthstar.info)

Over at the North Star, Matthijs Krul has written an interesting critique of Endnotes.[1] We don’t typically bother with individual “responses to critics”, but in this case the entanglement of stimulating thoughts with a series of errors demanded at least an attempt to tease the two apart in a few quick, critical notes. Krul has really written a critique, not of Endnotes, but rather, of what he takes so-called “communisation theory” to be about. On the basis of a rather weak grasp of the textual evidence, Endnotes is treated in this article as a sort of sounding board for Krul’s assumptions about this ersatz conceptual construct.[2]

So, we’ll start with a word of caution about “communisation theory”: while we’ve spoken at times of “communist theory”, Endnotes has never promoted or claimed to represent a singular “communisation theory”. This coinage of others has perhaps been a useful shorthand; it has also played a role in bundling some sprawling debates into a compact, movable good that can be readily exchanged on the market of theory fads (a sort of indie alternative to the major label Badious and Zizeks). But if one really wants to make a serious critique of so-called communisation theory it is of course necessary to pay close attention to specific texts, to the unfolding of certain debates, and to the ways in which this term cannot ultimately designate a single, unified position at all. As we’ll see, Krul evidently hasn’t paid such attention to his object, and thus the more interesting thoughts that are present in his text suffer from their entwinement with fundamental errors of interpretation. Yet, especially where Krul’s points overlap with those of other critics, they aren’t all reducible to mere subjective mistakes — there are no doubt some real issues flagged here which demand further consideration. On these points, we’re thankful to Krul for raising them in the context of an attempted sympathetic critique.

Krul’s most remarkable error occurs in the opening paragraph, in his first attempt to describe the basic “contributions” of Endnotes and “communisation theory” more broadly. Krul claims that we attribute the historic defeat of the 20th Century workers’ movement to its failure “to understand the abolition of classes required to abolish the value form”. Here Krul attributes toEndnotes something we’ve criticised in others since the beginning of this project: namely, the sort of “standpoint of critique” that is particularly prominent in the thread of value critique that runs from the German New Left. According to this standpoint, the problem of the revolutionary movements of the 20th Century was that — alas — they didn’t understand value theory. “So much the worse for your theory”, would be a legitimate response to such claims. We refer Krul to the introduction to our first issue:

When we address the question of [the failures of these revolutions] we cannot resort to ‘what if’ counterfactuals — blaming the defeat of revolutionary movements on everything (leaders, forms of organisations, wrong ideas, unripe conditions) other than the movements themselves in their determinate content.[3]

… and to ‘Communisation and Value-Form Theory’, from Endnotes 2:

. . . the radical “way out” implied by value-form theory may be determined by the historical evolution of the capital–labour relation itself, rather than being the product of an ahistorically correct consciousness, free-floating scientific point of view or perspective of critique [ . . . ] “communisation” is not what communism and the revolution “always really was or as it always should have been.”

Far from endorsing the anachronism of such a “standpoint of critique”, the debate in which Endnotes was forged — and which is presented in Endnotes 1 — was specifically about the historicity of the horizon of revolution. Is communism some invariant truth of the working class, capitalism or humanity? Or is the way in which the question of the revolutionary overcoming of the capitalist mode of production is posed specific to particular historical moments? On these matters at least, we’ve always sided with Théorie Communiste against what Krul would term the “romanticism” of the ultra-left: the failures of the 20th Century revolutions are not ultimately attributable to bad ideas, lapses of the will, betrayals, mistaken strategies etc. At play in those upheavals were notions of revolution, communism, etc. entirely appropriate to the moment, which was defined in particular by the ascendence of an industrial working class which could quite plausibly project itself as the future of the human race. The pedantry of value critics and their ilk obviously has little purchase on such things. The very concept of “communisation” as we’ve used it has always been a sort of conceptual marker for new, historically-specific ways in which we can begin thinking about communist revolution on the basis of present conditions, which frees us from the need to incessantly sift through the wrongs and rights of 20th Century communism. Criticising Endnotes — or indeed anyone vaguely sympathetic to Théorie Communiste — for reading the revolutions of the 20th Century anachronistically, as if they merely lacked our ideas, is rather like criticising Nietzsche for his Christian faith.

So much for our supposed “error theory of history”. Krul thinks he has found another sort of error at work in Endnotes: a claim that capitalism involves a “category error” due to its being based on “ontological cleavages”. Krul apparently thinks ontology is all about ideas:

to see capitalism as primarily based on ontological cleavages, and only analytically subsequently mediated by value and the state and all the ‘real abstractions’, is a curious approach — one which indeed suggests capitalism as a category error that has (by accident?) arisen in history

to see the ‘real movement’ as a movement of free will against determination through categories is to see the problem at the level of ontology, of the ‘ontological cleavages’ mentioned — in other words, at the level of ideas

The constitutive separations at the heart of the capitalist mode of production, to which we refer with the term “ontological cleavages”, are in no sense “errors”, nor are they a matter of mere ideas. On the contrary, they are the necessary presuppositions and outcomes of determinate, historically-specific social processes. An ontological cleavage that is fundamental for capitalism is the separation of human beings from the land, and thus from long-established modes of access to means of production and subsistence. This separation was sometimes a literal expropriation of land from peasant smallholders. But it was often a change in social relations that did not require physical eviction; instead new relations came into being via the charging of ground rents. While basic social transformations, such as this one, may have an ideal aspect, they are obviously in no sense a matter of errors, category mistakes or mere ideas.

It seems likely Krul derives this odd reading in part from a careless skim of our account of the evolution of the concept of “subsumption”, in which we note its shift from a purely logical/philosophical category (to which epistemological questions of “error” may well be relevant) to a social one, in its transmission from Kant to Hegel to Marx. A certain sense of the perverse marks Marx’s contribution here: there is something perverse about the objective idealities of the capitalist mode of production — about the way capital can present itself as the “truth” of the labour process, exchange-value as the truth of use-value and so on. But these are not merely epistemological matters which might be corrected with greater knowledge; on the contrary, they’re given by the real, socially-objective qualities of the social forms themselves.

Krul slides confusedly between this claim that we see a constitutive “error” at the heart of capitalism (which makes it all about ideas), and the formerly discussed claim that we read the revolutionary movements of the 20th Century in terms of such faulty ideas. Krul’s “error theory” leads him to throw around some distinctly inapposite critical platitudes:

Whether or not Stalin was wrong about value theory, and whether or not Trotsky was a ‘productivist’ and a whip of working class discipline is really neither here nor there. The pattern of the 20th century, however much an ‘age of extremes’, is far too uniform and independent of the will and motives of the individuals concerned to depend on a category mistake or an inadequate understanding of real subsumption. If Stalin had been able to read Dauvé, this would not have mattered.

(Custard pie projectile flies wide of mark and hits unfortunate passer-by. . .)

Krul’s text is structured around this double notion of “error” which, as we’ve seen, is easily refuted in both senses. Onto this creaking structure he bolts various other artefacts of critical inattention. For example:

1) Krul criticises Endnotes for claiming that “the previous communist movements, insofar as they were based on the workers’ movement, had no concept of ‘rupture’” despite the fact that the very text he is discussing here (“Spontaneity, Mediation, Rupture”) makes exactly this point against Théorie Communiste, before going on to detail Bordiga’s concept of rupture:

According to Théorie Communiste, the revolutionaries of an earlier era did not have a concept of rupture. They supposedly saw revolution as a matter of struggles “growing over”, that is, of struggles extending themselves across society and intensifying towards a tipping point, when they would spill over into a revolution. In the course of the twentieth century, many theories of this kind were proposed (the term itself apparently comes from Trotsky, but the idea is more common among autonomists). However, those sorts of theories were not very common. Most revolutionaries, including Trotsky, drew their own distinction between revolt and rupture.

2) Krul claims that for Endnotes communisation “can happen anytime and anywhere and can never be foreseen”. We’ve never made, or even implied, this claim. Indeed, it runs directlycounter to our conception.[4] On the contrary, communisation is of course utterly impossible in quotidian capitalist conditions; it could only ever even be approached in the context of vastly generalised social unrest, under very particular circumstances.

3) Krul claims that we make a question-begging, circular argument by holding that “the revolution must abolish capitalism’s mediations, and the only place it can be achieved is where capitalism’s mediations are abolished”. Presenting revolution in these terms is not a matter of argument, it’s a matter of definition. All definitions look circular and question-begging if read as arguments: try making an argument of “bachelors are unmarried men”.

4) Krul holds that Endnotes rejects “the use of any of the mediating structures, whether physical (as in logistics) or mental (as in mediating categories) that exist under capitalism, for communisation or the socialist future”. But what we actually reject outright are the specific social forms that are inextricable from capitalist social relations of production. It’s a moot point how the negation of these particular social forms might relate to physical infrastructure or mental categories. In one of the very texts that Krul discusses we specifically state that many mediations would survive capitalism.[5]

It would be gratuitous to add to this already long list the various other errors in Krul’s text. So we’ll spare our sympathetic critic, and turn instead to some more interesting aspects of his text, which at least provide welcome provocation to further thought.

Let’s pick up first of all from that last mistake, which will provide a useful backdrop against which to sketch some thoughts on a more common point of misunderstanding, and vis-à-vis some of the distinctly anarcho-primitivist envisionings of communisation. Krul appeals to Marx’s conception that “the very technological and organisational capacities of capitalism itself would make socialism possible” against what he sees as our “romantic” rejection of all mediating structures — physical, mental, technical etc. It should come as no great surprise that, stated as a general point, we don’t object to the claim that technical capacities developed under capitalism would be utilised in a post-capitalist world. As far as this goes, we would side with Krul against the primitivists. But we should also be clear that, if capitalist technology should not be grasped as all indifferently bad, the alternatives to this absolutising verdict are not limited to other equally absolutising positions: if technology isn’t all bad, nor is it all neutral — and it certainly isn’t all good. (Stated so baldly, such positions sound just as absurd as they are.)

If the primitivist pole in the rhetorical construct we’re examining here — and which Krul identifies with Endnotes — can be associated with the “absolutely bad” view, marxist tradition has often been home to a symmetrical, progressivist pole which reads capitalist technology as fundamentally an unqualified good; which wants to see in every productivity increase a further liberation from the “realm of necessity”, or to read technology as a socially neutral substratum which could simply be relieved of its capitalist uses. Of course, we reject such progressivism just as much as we reject primitivism. But the obvious way of escaping these tedious dualities, which orbit around every other discussion of technology, is to simply avoid posing the problem in absolute terms. In the course of struggles just as in any possible post-capitalist world, we will inevitably have to judge each specific technology by its “affordances”: will it help or not? What unintended side-effects might it have? How might it contribute to the shape of our actions? Will it be harmful or not? How will it change how other things work? Does it make any sense in the absence of of specifically capitalist social forms? Is it a straightforward obstruction? As Jasper Bernes writes in Endnotes 3:

We cannot merely invert the orthodox, progressivist account of machinery which assumes that every advance of the productive forces constitutes an enlargement of the possibilities for communism and declare, in opposition, that all technology is politically negative or inherently capitalist. Rather, we have to examine technologies from a technical perspective, from the communist prospect, and consider what affordances they really do allow, given the tragic circumstances of their birth.

It would clearly be unfair to read Jasper’s article, as Krul does, as involving a claim for the absolute unsalvageability of the entire technical world. Jasper’s position is opposed — quite reasonably — to notions of the neutrality of technology and to any simple progressivism; but it doesn’t require the claim that all technology is indifferently bad, indifferently doomed to its capitalist fate. He’s concerned, rather, with the specific problems, questions and constraints with which logistical systems in particular confront contemporary struggles.

Some of the most interesting parts of Krul’s critique of “communisation theory” circle around a quite legitimate identification of the abstractness of such theory as elaborated so far in Endnotes, and a probing of the question of whether so abstract a theory can be plausibly grounded in the “real movement that abolishes the present state of things”. There’s no getting away from the fact that our conception of revolution as “communisation” is distinctly abstract. It’s also true that it supplies no notion of how to get “from A to B”. This genre of critique is a recurrent one, being taken up also by Alberto Toscano, for example, in a slightly different form.[6] As such, it seems to identify something structural about communisation as a problematic, something which it will no doubt be important to clarify further.

We should state here by way of provisional response, that we’re not interested in valorising negativity for its own sake, or in a normative opposition to all positive thinking about how struggles might best be developed and extended. Such thinking is a necessary, immanent aspect of any struggle, and a struggle which passed over into a dynamic of communisation would of course not do so by accident. However, strategic thinking which occurs in the absence of, or external to, open struggle, itself tends inevitably to abstraction. This is why, for all of their seeming concreteness and common sense, latter-day Leninists appealing to the importance of strategy, against perceived spontaneisms and tailisms, are typically incapable of offering up more than some old organisational formalism to counter the contrary formalisms of the horizontalists and anarchists. Which is to say, in their appeals to strategy in general, organisation in general, the would-be strategists are no less abstract than are theorists of “communisation”. The abstraction in both cases is probably unavoidable; it follows from an objective situation in which, if we are honest, no one can really say exactly how things will necessarily proceed. Lacking a coherent, composed, revolutionary class-subject to realise them, or disembedded from any real revolutionary struggle, attempts at revolutionary strategy tend to be reduced to the activity of the Dungeon Master, watching over the progress of his awkward little band of elves and dwarfs through hobgoblin lairs and imaginary castles. Beware the death-spike pit!

In this sense, the abstractness of the theory can be grasped as stemming at least in part from the state of the “real movement”, rather than indicating a simple failure to do the requisite digging to “bring the old mole to the surface again”. The default state of the posited supersession of the capitalist class relation — as it is given by that relation’s immanent tendencies themselves — is necessarily an abstract one.[7] If the theory remains abstract hitherto it is because we cannot honestly say with more precision how that supersession will actually take place, and nor — as far as we can tell — can anyone else: the problem here lies in reality, not theory. If a high degree of abstraction is given by the limits of the objective situation, it is at least more honest to acknowledge this problem, and to attempt to theorise on its basis, rather than to obfuscate it. An abstract notion of revolution is where we necessarily begin, but it is equally important to avoid making a fetish of the problem and ruling out tout court all attempts to think seriously about the furtherance of movements as they attempt to move “from A to B”.

If the theory, as given in contemporary conditions, is necessarily abstract and negative, one must nonetheless strive to draw it into greater concretion through careful attention to the dynamics of contemporary struggles and the real mediations of the capitalist world. In this sense, the “message of hope” that Krul sees in “communisation theory” precisely demands actualisation. The difficult programme of such actualisation is the problematic we necessarily face if we are to attempt to produce “communist theory” at present; there is, of course, no royal road to science — here least of all. So, on this level we can agree with Krul: yes, it is necessary that we move beyond some abstract, merely negative, Blochian “message of hope”. That is precisely the problem. We hope that, for all our criticisms of Krul’s lapses, he’ll continue to pursue the more valuable intuitions that are at play here, in theory and in struggle. This is, after all, the arduous path along which communist theory is constrained to walk.

[1] Matthijs Krul, ‘Endnotes: A Romantic Critique?’, The North Star, 28 January 2014.

[2] The sloppiness of Krul’s reading stands in marked contrast to the care and insight with which Ray Brassier has also recently undertaken a critical engagement with our work. See ‘Wandering Abstraction’, Mute Magazine, 13 February 2014.

[3] Here we were effectively supporting claims developed at greater length in Théorie Communiste’s contributions to Endnotes #1, such as in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’:

The revolution as affirmation of the class confronts its own failure, because the counter-revolution is intrinsically linked to this affirmation in its very motivations (and not because there was any ‘error’, or because it was impossible in terms of some ahistorical definition of the revolution).

[4] See, for example, ‘What are we to do?’, in Ben Noys (ed.), Communization and its Discontents, Minor Compositions, 2011, p. 28:

Communisation occurs only at the limit of a struggle, in the rift that opens as this struggle meets its limit and is pushed beyond it.

[5] See ‘Spontaneity, Mediation, Rupture’, in Endnotes 3.

[6] See ‘Now and never’, in Communization and its Discontents, pp. 85–101.