Rifts and Swerves

the untranslatable écart

part 8 of a series

chapters 123456, 7

In section six of this series, I discussed Theorie Communiste’s notion of the écart, the swerve (or rift) within class action, and attempted my own formulation of it. The theory of the écart, we will remember, attempts to grapple with the insufficiency of self-organization as such. “Self-organization is the first act of the revolution; it then becomes an obstacle which the revolution has to overcome.” A truly dialectical concept, the écart is both the shape of that overcoming and the rift, or gap, that must be sealed by it. This rift-swerve, this diagonal or lateral rift, I have suggested, might be thought of as the other-organization of self-organization, or what amounts to the same thing, the self-organization of self-organization. In a nutshell, the theory of the swerve reveals that the self of self-organization is problematic, bound up with notions of right, property, and belonging which subtend the communist movement but which the movement of communism will have to unmake.

I intend to make this less abstract, but first a provisional word on translation. Écart is a word that takes on many meanings—most primarily gap, or distance, as between a train and a platform, or between the intentions and results of an action. It might also mean discrepancy, as between a real and a nominal value, or statistical variance, but finally swerve or deviation, as made by an automobile or perhaps a revolutionary proletariat confronting the limits of its action as a class. Theorie Communiste often use the word  to mean something close to “rift” or “gap” (or perhaps “fault”), for they often speak of an écart between [entre] two predicates, typically between, on the one hand, actions that put the proletariat’s reproduction within capital into question and, on the other hand, actions that simply confirm it as part of the self-reproduction of capital. This type of syntactical construction (écart entre) is used consistently with the term in in their initial writing on the topic, “Theorie de l’écart,” but in later texts, such as “The Present Moment,” they pluralize the term, speaking of a multiplication of écarts within the field of class struggle, such that the translator of this text rendered the term as “swerve” rather than “rift.” Though TC still employ the term in a sense closer to rift than swerve—“slippage” might be a nice compromise—I prefer the traduction of swerve to the implications of rift in some cases because I like the sense that the swerve is both forced and not. A coyote wanders onto the highway; one car swerves in order to avoid it and then another car swerves in order to avoid the car now swerving into it. So, too, the moments where some fraction of the proletariat finds itself forced to break from the circuits of capitalist reproduction and drive into the oncoming traffic of history.

 Theorie Communiste speak consistently of a “rift that opens in the center of class activity” where “to act as a class is to refuse its existence as a class, existence which self-organization formalizes and confirms.” The rift opens between the intention of an act and its effect. We see this sense of the rift most prominently in the way that, today, all reformist struggles burn with an insurrectionary intensity, and yet when pushed to define their contents, fall well within the limits of capital. But this kind of gap between means and ends might from another perspective, a perspective internal to class struggle, seem a swerve, a breaking-out or breaking-away of some fraction within the field of struggle.

In some sense, the theory of the swerve I want to develop assumes the primacy of one rift in particular, from which all other rifts flower: that between the working class as such and the proletariat as such, between the class of the exploited and the class of the dispossessed, which both is and is not the same class. We have encountered this rift time and again in this series, as I hope to show now, for it is a fundamental outgrowth of capital’s law of motion, its requirement that value self-valorize. From this law contradictory tendencies emerge which only crisis and class struggle can resolve—on the one hand, capital seeks to multiply labor, to employ as many workers as possible and to extend their time of labor for as long as possible. On the other hand, capital strives to wring as many products from those workers as possible, using any and all methods to increase productivity. Whereas the first tendency increases the mass of value, the second merely redistributes the value from capital to labor, by reducing necessary labor. The first tendency increases the working class by increasing proletarianization, dispossessing laborers so that they have nothing to sell but their labor, or imprisoning them and enslaving them, as was often the case in early capitalism. The second tendency decreases the size of the working class, and increases the size of the proletariat surplus to production.

The first tends to result in massified, deskilled labor. The second tends to result either in a reskilling or a Taylorization of labor. In an early twentieth-century mine, labor was both deskilled and relatively massified. In a Fordist factory, labor was often deskilled, or semiskilled, and atomized. The most powerful struggles tend to cut laterally across these divisions. We have so far examined the German Revolution, May ’68, the Italian 70s, and the Argentine crisis of 2001. In each case, we can see that the explosivity of the sequence results from lateral connections that cut, swervingly, across these divisions. In an essay on the KAPD and the movement of the German Councils, “Class Composition and the Theory of the  Party at the Origins of the Workers-Councils,” Sergio Bologna writes fascinatingly about these divisions, though he tends to overstate his case. Bologna was one of the most astute theorists to emerge from operaismo, and an important internal critic of Potere Operaio. His essay is as much about Italy in the 70s as it is about the German Revolution, an attempt to highlight certain themes within the council movement that are relevant to the situation, developing the important concept of “class composition.” Marxists had typically used the term composition, following Marx, as a category to describe capital, and particularly the relationship between variable and constant capital, but Romano Alquati had, in his study of shopfloor culture, used composition to think about the structure of the class—both technically composed by the division of labor and the structure of machinery, and politically composed through its struggle. Bologna reads the factory-council movement as an attempt to produce worker’s power without worker’s control. It was a reformist rather than insurrectionary movement, in his view, dominated by the skilled workers and technicians in the German machine-industry who did not want so much to take over the economy as retain their autonomy. But as Bologna notes, the most combative fractions of the German working-class typically emerged where semi-skilled or deskilled gang-labor still operated—mines, heavy industry, and shipyards.

Bologna’s essay is wide-ranging, moving rather quickly from Germany to a discussion of the IWW, the 1905 strike wave, and the first Russian revolution. The rift Bologna observes, between a mass, deskilled workforce and a skilled, professionalized one is precisely the rift that he and other writers associated with operaismo see flowering across the interval of the extended May. By contrast, the council movement in Italy in the red biennium after WWI had been composed largely of skilled workers, whose visions of autonomy most resembled syndicalism. That skilled working-class still existed by Bologna’s time but was being augmented by a new mass worker, composed of migrants from the south, women, and youth, whose values were entirely different. It was this group that brought the theme of “refusal of labor” to the fore. The hesitation of the council movement is then explained, for Bologna, not as the expression of the will to expropriate but instead class power as rupture, arrest, refusal, something that Bologna says would have been unacceptable for German capital and provoked revolution.

Much of the essay is clearly retrojection, designed to legitimate a tendentious position on the the then-developing struggles of the Italian working class, but there is something to Bologna’s assessment, something that conforms with the facts. The most explosive episodes did, in fact, occur where labor was collective, massified, and relatively deskilled. It is unsurprising but nonetheless worth remarking that the program of the KAPD and the later council communist formations found its strongest appeal among the unemployed, the marginally employed, the deskilled—that is, those who lacked autonomy in their working lives. The workers who did have some autonomy fought to retain it but not necessarily to expand it, given how much they had to lose. The March Action of 1920, the last hope of the communist left, broke out among the industrial workers of central Germany after an attempt to disarm them. At the Leuna works, the 12,000 armed workers chose not to go on the offensive though they did take up arms and were bombarded, disarmed, and killed, in part due to the hesitance of the KAPD organizers among them. Had they known of the armored communist units operating in their area and been able to coordinate with them, perhaps things would have gone differently. To do this, however, would have required an extension of self-organization that broke with the self of the factory-works. This would have been a veritable swerve, a deviation in the course of the revolution, breaking down the opposition between Red Army and workers’ council, workers and the unemployed.

The process of partisanization, the informal Red Army that emerges in the course of a revolution, has a tendency to separate partisans from social location. Conflict is mobile, and so must organization be. In the rising in the Ruhr, the armies that formed had a loose connection to the factory groups of the anarchists and the communist left, by necessity. Any proof of working class identity was taken as sufficient.

One can see an image of the swerve in Dauve’s commentary on this rising in the Ruhr:

The proletarians were victorious as long as they relied upon their social functions, utilizing the productive apparatus for supplies, arms and transport, without, however, remaining within the boundaries of production. The rebel cities united and sent help to   the workers in other cities. But even in this respect the movement displayed its weak points, which characterized the whole epoch. After having emerged victorious from its clash with the Army, using the Army’s own methods and fighting on its own terrain, the proletarians, in their immense majority, thought that their job was done and handed over their power to the parties and the democracy. The red army expelled the military and then transformed itself into the classical workers movement.

One interpretation of the implications of this passage is that if the armies had pushed further, continued the fight, and began no to reproduce not only the means of combat but to direct themselves to proletarian needs, coordinating with workplace structures, they would have broken those “boundaries of production” and effected a real break with the “classical workers’ movement.” Communism cannot be made at gunpoint but it will not emerge through democratic deliberation either; it must emerge through a series of rifts, swerves, that allow people to make communism together.

Italy in the 70s, the real object of the Bologna essay, seems to provide an image of the rifts such a choreography of swerves would need to overcome. Never has the theme of class recomposition found such a fertile tactical and strategic ground. But as we learn from Nanni Balestrini and Primo Moroni’s The Golden Horde, the project of class recomposition was always projectual. After the Hot Autumn of 69 and the student movement of that period, the newly energized Italian left, heads stuffed full of Quaderni Rossi and the Situationist International, Mao and Che, Marcuse and the Black Panthers, joined together as Potere Operaio, Lotta Continua, Il Manifesto, Avanguardia Operaia, and many other groups. By 1975, however, most of these groups had collapsed. The themes of autonomy, of refusal, had a tendency to break apart existing identities, to decompose as much as they recomposed. A prime example, frequently described in the literature of the movement is the women’s march in Rome called by Lotta Feminista. Male comrades had insisted that groups like Lotta Communista be represented in the march with banners, in order to express solidarity with their women comrades. But the women had heard something different in the watchword of autonomy. When the men were told they could not enter the march with their banners, a brawl broke out, one of the central events leading to the dissolution of Lotta Communista.

Autonomy, yes, but from whom? And for what? Whose refusal? These questions came to the fore in 1975. Potere Operaio had dissolved but its militants were still active. The moment the movement had been waiting for seemed to occur with the armed occupation of the Turin Mirafiori plant in 1973, which provided an image of a way forward for the movement after the death of the groups:

 The year 1973 without doubt represented a key moment in the process of divergence between the workers’ vanguard and the Communist Party, for two reasons. The  workers’ and proletarian vanguard received a decisive message from the Mirafiori occupation: it was possibly to organize autonomously even up to the point of occupying one of the biggest factories in Italy, without the participation of the union or the Party—indeed, even while being explicitly against these forces.

In other words, the occupation became a model of the party, of the organic unity of the class, bringing together workers with the unemployed, students, and others. Potere Operaio disbanded in response to this development, the emergence of what Toni Negri would call the “Mirafiori Party.” But while the tactic of occupation would dominate, the energy would pass from the worksite to beyond—the plazas, the streets. One could not unify around the figure of the worker without provoking violent conflict, as was made clear in the open brawls between proletarian youth and Communist Party steward during the speech by Lucio Lama, General Secretary of the CGIL, forced on the occupation of the university of Bologna by Communist Party-aligned students. On the run, chased from place to place, without a grasp on the levers of power, the armed occupation passed quickly into armed struggle and sclerotic voluntarism, disconnected from the mass, festival-like energies of the movement. A gap had emerged at the heart of the project of autonomy, between refusal of work and workers’ power. The ability of refusal to form an organization of production was limited, all it could do was set rates. The organizations that formed could only tear apart production, not run it, which would mean something closer to proletarian power than workers’ power.

Nowhere a swerve and everywhere a rift. Do I even need to say how these dynamics play out in Argentina in 2001? Between the occupied bankrupt factories taken over by their workers and unemployed piqueteros demanding grants so that they can autonomously organize their own reproduction between the populist cacerolazo that brought down the government and rioters of proletarian suburbs and cities, we can outline the passage from insurrection to revolution as a swerve that did not take place. The singularization of the term is a bit of a problem, and throughout this piece I am forced to rely on the fiction of what would have needed to happen, rotating history away from the axis of the real and into the complex plane, where imaginary histories keep pace with what must have happened. The point of this exercise, it should be made clear, is only to illuminate the communist prospect today, not engage in alternate history. I do not mean to imply that everything rested on these moments—the Ruhr, Mirafiori, etc. For if things were different so too would the central moments be, and in any case the passage to communist revolution is not a single swerve but many, a dynamic that pulls self-organization from its social location through reciprocal action. The point is to illuminate the rifts that compose our movements.

Those rifts are everywhere, as an examination of the uprising last study here in the United States will show. For what is the story of the various forms of autonomy carved from the center of antipolice riots but a story about the difficulty of determining the self- of self-organization, which is to say also the other of self-organization? Autonomy, yes, but from what and for what?

*Readers may wonder, given the influence of Althusser on Theorie Communiste, whether Althusser translates Lucretius’s clinamen as écart in his late writing on aleatory materialism. The term he uses is déviation.