I want to do a series of posts on the theory of “communization” as it has developed since 1968, because it seems to me there is a great deal more interest in the term and desire than there is comprehension. There are many reasons for the abuse the word has suffered, but foremost is that, in France, from whence it derives, “communization” never at first served to name a tendency or a coherent theory. It was simply a term of art that a loosely connected network of communist projects used to explain their vision of communist revolution.
Even as the term courant communisateur – communizing tendency, or communizer current--began to be applied to these groups retrospectively, many questioned and resisted the term, drawing attention to the way that it conflated advocates of communization, who can exist in the world here and now, with those who practice communization, that is with people who do not yet exist.
Dating a concept like this to a single author or text is dangerously reifying, since most of these texts were written, edited, and discussed collaboratively, and were often first circulated in unsigned forms. Nonetheless, we can say that the seminal contribution was the essay Gilles Dauvé wrote in 1969, On Ultraleft Ideology [“Sur l’ideologie ultra-left], written for the national meeting of the council-communist group Informations et Correspondances Ouvières, and intended to engage Paul Mattick in debate. Later, the Paris bookstore and meeting-place La Vieille Taupe [The old mole] would republish the essay as “Contribution to a Critique of the Ultra-left”. Dauvé would rework this article for publication in Le mouvement communiste in the early 70s, the first publication where the theory of communization was elaborated. Fredy Perlman, then the US publisher for the Situationist International and by extension the ultraleft, gathered these articles together as Eclipse and Reemergence of the Communist Movement, still the best-known French text on communization and certainly ground zero for English-language discussion of the term. This is the first point: communization emerges as a critique, and can’t really be understood without understanding the object of critique, which is why most documents of communization involve a retelling of the story of the entire workers’ movement from the 19th-century forward.
I haven’t really told you what communization is because I think the best way to understand it at first is as the product of a problem, a milieu, and a conjuncture, which will eventually become abstract enough to stand on its own as theory. But the theory is impossible to understand without this history, a history which will allow us to approach communization in at least a dozen different ways.
Communization is first and foremost not just a critique but a critical synthesis, a kind of irreversible chemistry of ideas, in which the theory of revolution found in council communism, that is, in the Dutch-German ultraleft, was brought together with the ideas of Amadeo Bordiga and the Italian communism left—from which it had been up until then largely separated-- to produce a novel theoretical construct, opposed to both councilism and Bordigism. The first moment of this synthesis is the text just named, published in the main French organ of councilism and directed to the most significant living council communist. Whereas the Dutch-German ultraleft conceived communist revolution formally, as the extension worker’s self-management to control over the entirety of the economy, Bordiga and his associates draw attention to the content of communism, its logical and axiomatic definition:
Rejecting the theory of workers’ self-management [of the council communists], Bordigism performs one of the most trenchant critiques of the Russian [USSR] economy, putting in the forefront not the bureaucracy, as Trotskyists and Socialisme ou Barbarie do, but the relations of production. The revolution, suggests the Bordigist press, must consist of the destruction of the law of value and exchange. [collected in Rupture dans la theorie de la révolution: Textes 1965-75]
The term communization is not used in this essay but it’s implied by the synthesis, and everything that follows under the name of communization can be considered an extension of this synthesis.
What is being synthesized? Well, Bordigism and councilism, but that’s imprecise. From councilism, Dauvé retains the insistence on proletarian self-organization, the radical commitment to proletarian class struggle as theory. But this is not enough, the critique implies. It is not enough to simply seize power, it is not just a matter of form, but a matter of content. It’s not enough to form councils and take over the factories, as the workers did partially in ’68. You have to do something with the power seized too, and this is what did not happen in 1968 and what the ultraleft groups associated with it, Socialisme ou Barbarie, the Situationist International, ICO, and other stars in the broader ultraleft revival could not explain.
What is this content? Well, it’s the destruction of value and exchange, which for Dauve is identical with communism. I hope to show at some point how this definition falls short and introduces problems for the theory of communization but it must be noted first that for readers familiar with the Bordigist literature the phrase is shorthand and refers to something rather concrete—direct distribution of goods without the use of money, wages, or other mechanisms. Otherwise, the phrase describing the content of communism is simply another formalism—how can the destruction of a form be the content of communism?
At stake were practical questions of revolutionary organization. Bordiga had written at great length about the importance of such measures for communist revolution, and as a critique of what he thought was a state capitalism operative in Russia. This brings us to the final point for these writers: the critical Marxist vocabulary, in the theory of communization, is at once a description of communism. In the category of value, inherited from Marx, we find the kernel description (inverted) of communism. In Bordiga’s critique of the USSR, a theory of revolution as communism. The synthesis links communism directly to the categories of Marx’s critique of political economy in a manner that is unique and unprecedented. [To be continued]
Note: this is a working draft. Readers are encouraged to comment with factual corrections and other relevant remarks.]