riff-raff #7  —  riff-raff.se

Correspondence Between Parts of the riff-raff-collective and Gilles Dauvé

G., March 28, 2004

– – –
Finally I have some personal questions I’d like to ask you. This is however not to ask you for “what you can’t deliver”.

First of all, I must admit that I turned out to be an easy target for your consciously – I guess – provocative statement that capital only can be questioned when a production cycle reaches its peak, when the capitalist wealth – and not poverty – is questioned by the workers. Of course, for me, this is more sympathetic than the average objectivist/determinist notion of a direct relation between crisis/material poverty and revolution, excluding or even denying the subjectivity of the proletariat. I guess that you, with your position, want to emphasize this subjective as opposed to the objective pole of the dialectic process. But from what you write in your “Whither the world?” I get a feeling of you more or less only flipping the dualism of subjectivity and objectivity. I’d prefer a stronger emphasis on the dialectic relation. Because, as Marx pointed out already in his critique of the Hegelian Philosophy of Right, revolution (also) needs a “passive element, a material base”; a material base that of course is a product of alienated subjectivity; alienated labour.

As I guess you know from M we have discussed the AufhebenThéorie Communiste-polemic. I read your comments on TC in your letter to M. And your “To work or not to work” that we translated and published is obviously a critique of TC’s positions. The immediate reason we discussed their polemic is that we, just like TC, are going to translate and publish the Aufheben trilogy on “Decadence”.

Personally what I, at least at first (?), found stimulating with TC’s positions was that they seemed to take the theoretization of the subject–object dialectic a bit further/deeper than the “Decadence” texts, and certainly than myself. I like their use of the concept of real and formal subsumtion, the self-presupposition of capital, the mutual involvement between proletariat and capital in their contradiction, etc. This is, however, not unique to the TC; I think you too are dealing with these “issues”. However, in the end, I side with Aufheben in this polemic; their positions seem to me more sympathetic. And I can’t really say anything about TC, since I – unfortunately – don’t read any French, and only have got to “know” them through this polemic.

From what I understand you think that the fundamental problem with TC is their method, that they are looking for a clue, a key to explain why there hasn’t been, and couldn’t have been, no communism. This key, then, is their use of the real and formal subsumtion to periodize the evolution of the capital relation/class struggle. Here, I agree – again – with Aufheben that they risk to use this periodization much too rigid (and you can relate this to the other conceptions of a/the final breakdown of capitalism – the way you put it in your letter to M there is a striking similarity with the positions of the ICC, that no reforms at all are possible in the era of the decline of capitalism...). The way I first interpretated the TC they only tried to provide a more “structuralist” explaination, with a strong touch of “determinism post festum”. To me, this is more than a clue, or a key (wheather you agree or disagree). There is to me atleast a moment of truth in this and their notion of the “affirmation of labour” (however, you problematize this in a better way in your text “To work...”), if one concider the role played by the workers’ unions and parties during the XXs Century. I would like to relate this to another text we published last year, Goldners piece on “Bordiga”, which I guess you are familiar with. He talks about how the workers’/labour movement pushed capitalism into its phase of real subsumtion. For me, there is a whole lot of truth in this, particularily in Sweden, where the face of “capital” and the state for almost 100 years has been the union and the Social Democratic Party, with the whole of the Left as its loyal supporters.

Generally I prefer your more open questions and conclusions with the stronger emphasis on the possibility of communism. But I don’t get more “satisfied” (and you can never be, really, can you) from your writings. I think one can – or at least try to – give general explainations of the failings of the proletariat; explainations that however must be general and provisional, and more or less post festum.

When I read some of your writings – that I generally really like – I get the feeling that you stop by just stating that the Bolsheviks (for example) came to power in Russia out of the struggle of the proletariat, not how and “why”. One explaination you give is that they had the advantage of a coherent political line, which to me smells a little like idealism. In the same way the Italian workers gave up chaning the world; why? And you say the Italian workers in 1945 got crushed in a more conventional way – union and party bureaucrats. But these are (degenerated/incorporated...) workers’ organisations, as I said above. You also – rightly – say that the only limit for capitalism is the conscious activity of the proletariat, and that social subjectivity is essential for all real critique. But what is this constituted of, act of will or moral demands? Of course not, and I don’t think that you think so. The way I interpretated TC they came up with atleast a partial “structuralistic-logical” answer, that has to be balanced up with more open, social subjective, approaches – like your.

So far for now, and I hope you don’t see this critique as being to harsh or negative. Basically I agree with most of the stuff I’ve read by you.– – –

Kind regards,


* * *

riff-raff, ≈ May 2004

Dear H & other comrades up North,

First let me tell you how much we value hering from you. Ideas and information from a country like Sweden are precious to us, as we certainly get less news from Scandinavia as you get from Britain or France. And of course we truly appreciate your interest in what we try to do. Once again, we were very pleased by your publishing two of our essays (and we’re looking forward to the forthcoming anthology M and other friends are prepering). – – –

As you are about to see, nearly all of this letter will deal with Therorie Communiste.

First, real and formal domination. When did the real one start? After 1918? after 1945? after the 1960s and 70s? If I understand people like TC, real domination (and all it entails: the end of the workers’ movement and the end of a possible worker led capitalism) was only born around 1980. Is that what Marx meant in his unpublished VIth chapter of Capital volume I and in Grundrisse? I’m not saying we should only stick to Marx’s writings. But if we borrow a concept from him and turn it into something very different, then we’d better realize it. I now hear about a first and a second phase in real domination. I guess real was not real enough until about 1980.

About thirty years ago, when Invariance (J. Camatte) and others began making much of that formal/real distinction, a friend of ours said: “To them, real domination means that from now on everything will be different.” I am afraid he was right. Camatte thought capital had become the only reality, and concluded that the very notions of capital, class, proletariat and revolution were obsolete. Those who remained Marxist and build everything on the theorization of real domination interpret it as the period when (at last) revolution becomes possible.

Maybe we ought to read those passages by Marx again. (A little while ago, I happened to read an article in International Perspective, published by some ex-ICC members, on the transition from formal to real domination. IP may not grasp the whole issue of communization as we hope to to, but the article certainly is closer to history than some theorizations we are new used to.)

In the aftermath (and demise) of the mid-sixties movement, there came the idea that the workers had failed because they had wished and tried (and probably always wished and tried, so far) to run capitalism themselves, in som way or other: in a soft way (social-democracy), in a hard way (Stalinism), or even in a genuine workers’ democratic way (council communism), but always with the illusion of managing or co-managing capital in the interests of labour. In short, revolutionary failure was explained by the workers’ longstanding attempt to assert themselves positively within capital. Groups like Invariance decided this was inevitable, and that a totally new perspective was needed. Groups like TC argued this had been only inevitable as long as capital allowed labour some space and self-organization, but was becoming impossible now that capitalist relationship rules the whole of society. This is where the notion of real submission of labour fits in, as a guarantee that no worker self-assertion is now feasible. Therefore the proletariat is now faced with only one alternative: to be nothing, or to act as revolutionary.

Now, this view is not supported by facts. It is simply not true that the attempt to take over capitalism and run it in the place of the bourgeois, or even a play a large part in its management, ever was a big (or the main) characteristic of the workers’ movement. Evidence rather points out the opposite: a constant deep tendancy to dodge work, and a reluctance to get involved in the running of the firms. “Counter-planning on the shopfloor”, as it was called in the 1970s, was a resistance to capitalist organization of work, and hardly ever turned into worker planning of the workplace.

The workers were moved by demands related to their concrete life (basically: more pay, better work conditions and less working hours), and sometimes acted in a revolutionary way, but they rarely rose to take over capital. This was the programme put formward by the unions and parties, with the workers’ support and consent of course, but the rank-and-file never really got involved, and whenever bureaucrats ruled economic sectors, the workers rebelled as much against them as they do against the traditional bourgeois.

Our Love of labour?... gives a few examples. I’ll add something about miners. In France (as elsewhere) the mining profession was long heralded as one of the archetypal workers, with a strong community feeling and a supposedly equally strong adherence to work. But a closer look shows that this was mainly the case for a few years, after 1945, at the zenith of the French CP as an agent of post-war reconstruction of the French economy. The average miner resisted it, only took part in the production effort when it was forced to, and even then for a short while. The miners only bothered to self-manage unprofitable mines that had been abandoned by the owners, and again did so for short periods. Workers’ pride or workers’ belif in the dignity of labour has never been the main obstacle to revolution.

The “affirmation of labour” was neither a dominant feature of working class history, nor a major cause of revolutionary defeat. Swedish social-democracy did not succeed because it glorified work or integrated workers in the co-management of industry, but above all because it contributed to the workers working less and getting more to buy. It’s fascism and Stalinism (and more Stalinism than Bolshevism) that had posters of muscular steelworkers cheerfully contributing to the national or socialist productive effort. Social reactionaries were the ones who glorified work. Roosevelt and the CIO didn’t: they glorified what work could give, i.e. less work time and more money to buy fridges and cars. The average Swedish car worker may have believed that his country was recognizing the dignity of his work, or that he had a say in the running of the economy, but he was more concerned with what his relatively high income and job protection gave him. It’s a socially weak capitalism that praises work as such: a dynamic capitalism emphasizes the results of work, not its content. The truth and paradox is, work is usually glorified when it is constrained by police rule.

In a society like present Sweden or France, the ideology of work does not prevail among factory or office underlings, but among professionals (doctors, lawyers...), traditional middle class members (shopkeepers), and highly placed modern middle class members (the Personal Assistant that does a 60 hour week), who all have responsibilities, social recognition and high incomes.

You ask me how and why the proletarians left the bolcheviks stay in power in 1917–21. The same question could be asked of the German proles faced with the socialists in 1919, or the Spanish proles with the Republic in 1936. I’ll answer with a passage from Aufheben:

from time to time, the relation between capitalist development and the class reaches a point of possible rupture. Revolutionaries and the class take their chance; if the wave fails to go beyond capital, capital continues to a higher level.

When it quoted this, TC added it was “a little dissatisfied” with such a remark (this is translated in Aufheben, #11, p. 52).

Your letter expresses a similar dissatisfaction. Well, I am dissatisfied too. We all are. But there’s no way we can avoid this dissatisfaction. We can be tempted to build an apparently solid theoretical framework that will provide us with reasons why events were bound to happen or not to happen. But this would only be valid on paper, and we know it.

Revolutionary movements (and even more so a successful communist revolution) are possible at certain times, but never necessary in the sense that they would provide the one and only possible solution to the historical crisis they are born out of.

This possibility does include some choice on the part of the proletarians (just as the members of the ruling class always have several options open to them: there is more than one way of restoring order and putting capitalism back on a profitable track). This is not to say that any choice is possible any time any place. No social force ever makes choices outside of or against historical realities (to which its action contributes, but which is not only made of its own doing). If some comrades dismiss the notion of choice altogether because such a concept would be anti-materialistic or anti-Marxist or anti-dialectic, all I can say is they’re reducing history to physics or chemistry.

Much is being currently written about capitalism as the mutual involvment of capital and wage labour, or of the bourgeois and the proletarians. Karl [Nesic] and I fully endorse the notion! But precisely, it means that each “partner” matters as much as its opponent in the evolution of the dual relationship, so history is never foretold.

In the 1929, for instance, the proletarians of many countries realized the depth of the social crisis, yet (mainly because of their defeats in 1917–21) felt they were unable to act upon the deep causes of the crisis. So they accepted anything that passed off as a major (or even a “revolutionary”) change, be it fascism, the New Deal, Stalinism, Popular Fronts...

In the 1960s–70s, on the other hand, although there definately was a proletarian assault against wage labour, the State, parties, unions etc., it remained limited to a minority of the class. And this time we can’t seriously relate it to previos defeats. So how and why did it happen (or not happen)? I’d say that we do not know why most proletarians then remained reformist. No more than we can tell why in Berlin, January 1919, there were a few thousand revolutionaries ready to fight and a few hundred thousand proletarians somehow supporting them but unwilling to join them. TC does not know either, it only comes up with what looks like an answer.

Supposing that I would be too subjectivist and TC too objectivist, then it would be impossible to combine these two mistakes and look for an adequate solution half way between them. You never correct an error by adding the symetrically opposed (and symetrically wrong) error, only by finding whatever is logically at fault at the basis of both. You couldn’t balance a partly idealistic-humanist method with a structuralist-logical method, and approach the truth by a sensible combination of the two.

The core of the divergence probably lies in TC’s belief that revolutionary theory has to be reconstructed, on the basis of past communist thought of course, but in order to produce a theory of revolution for our time, a theory that would account for the impossibility of communism in the past and its necessity in the present. In other words, TC is aiming at a refoundation of communism. I am not. I feel the essential has be laid down in the 1840s. Not everything: the destruction of the State, the critique of the workers’ movement, the understanding of revolution as communization, these positions only became clear later, and some only in the past 40 or 50 years or so. By the essential, I meant the definition of the proletariat as a historical force, obviously related to the slaves or the poor of the past, but different from them, because of its existence within capitalism, its interrelation with capital, the “mutual involvement” that gives it the capacity to act as the agent of social change, able to bring about a human community. In that respect, there is no fundamental difference between the 1950 English miner or Paris proletarianized craftsman, and the 2004 Indian call centre worker or Californian supermarket delivery lorry driver. What they all have in common (in terms of possibilties and predicaments) is a lot more importmant than where they differ. That’s what I’d call the essential. That essential might be wrong. If it is, no theory can prove or disprove it. Only history (=the future) can.

There is no privileged time or place, no possible vantage point from which the whole meaning of history could at last be revealed to those who master the right theory. TC offers another example of an understandable but misplaced belief in the power of human thought.

After nearly 200 years of communist endeavour and misfortunes, the relation between proletariat and revolution is problemartic, to say the least... The relation is a historical and logical one. It is a possibility, not a necessity.

Incidently, if revolution was doomed in 1920, since no-one among us suggests we sholud have sided with the SPD against the KAPD, TC’s vision implies that people like us were indeed right to go and try for something that we now was totally out of reach. This also applies to what TC writes or myself attempted to do thirty years ago. In other words, every communist effort up to now was quixotic. We prefer Gorter to Kautsky but Gorter was a dreamer. Stalin was a bastard but he was logically right. Now the contradiction is over: we’re finally aiming at a target really exists. New we know. Do you believe that?

I presume you won’t mind my sending a copy of these remarks to M, but would it be allright if we put passages of your letter and of mine in our newsletter, or on our site? (I’m not sure we will. But we might, IF YOU AGREE: please tell me.)

In future, I sincerely hope we’ll exchange on other topics. Still, the issues at stake here are worth it, regardless of the respective merits of TC and Troploin.

And let’s hope we meet in flesh and blood one day. Till then, very fraternal greetings,


* * *
V., January 16, 2005

Dear Gilles,

It has now been quite a while since we had our little “correspondence” about Aufheben/Théorie Communiste and the use of the periodization of capitalism with the formal/real domination concept. – – –

As I think you know from M, the Vägrandets dynamik anthology is released – at last! And after (re-) reading it, I must say what an excellent compilation of communist theory it is. Everything I’ve heard about it has been positive – apart from a review in the weekly of the Left Party. However, if the latter had been positive, then what use would all the spiritual and material (money for example) efforts be, for you and for us? But for people (young people first of all) who are willing the efforts of communist activities and theorization, the book is a must-read (or must-study). The theories that you have been part of developing and articulating now really have a life of their own (cf. the circulation of the Eclipse... in different editions and languages worldwide, not the least on the internet) which proves the value of all your efforts.

When it comes to the use of the concepts of formal/real domination, I still hold the use for them as provisional work hypothesises and abstract models which de facto correspond to the general development tendencies of the capitalist mode of production. They may be useful to grasp the patterns of the full complexity of social life in the capitalist mode of production, a complexity that can’t be grasped immediately as it is – or rather as it appears. This is however a sort of criteria for theory and abstractions per se (in abstracto-in general).

From what I understand from your letter, you appreciate the work by Internationalist Perspectives on this issue, apart from, as you wrote, their lack of understanding of communisation. I appreciated reading their stuff too, really, but sometimes got a feeling that they just changed the ICC dogma of “the era of decadence of capital”, from which they origin, to the same catastrophic thesis on “the era of the real domination...”. However, their theories and, not the least, their attitude to the issue as well as other revolutionaries are far better. And I can’t really see how their use of the concepts formal/real domination fit with your critique of the TC.

And shortly for now, what I meant with “determinism post festum” – which isn’t a good expression – is from my point of view close to what F. Martin wrote 30 years ago in the Eclipse (p. 53, Antagonism edition), that “the failure of a movement is itself an adequate demonstration of its limits”. It was in this sense that I wanted to historize the non-reality of communism (and non-ability, retrospectively “after the party”). But, I’m not sure about this, I’m all ears and eyes for theoretical efforts to try to get to grips with explainations of the communist failures/“non-actualization” up to now (however abstract, provisional and conceited they may be).

I also noticed recently that you used the formal/real... concept yourself earlier, when I read some of your older stuff that – unfortunately – are not in the Vägrandets dynamik: “State and Capital” in Le Mouvement Communiste and “Le Roman de nos Origines” that I found on the John Gray website (ie. the English parts). I know of course that you have evolved theoretically over these 30-something years, and maybe you dropped these babies with the bathwater.

Well, at the end of the day, neither concepts, whole theories nor “work hypothesises” or “abstract models” are interesting in themselves. They are only valid if and when they correspond to the actual (however not immediate) experiences from the class struggle/capitalist mode of production, ie. society today. And this is of course debatable – and concepts from Marx, and bourgeois economy and philosophy, and concepts to come, might correspond to what is at stake – our understanding of capital/ism and class struggle, and communism, in our struggle in and against the present state of affaires. – – –

I’d also like to ask you about the concept “communization”; have you, or anyone else, written anything more explicit and lengthy about this concept than what is written in the Eclipse? I’d be interested in reading more about it, because I think it really has a lot to recommend it. What was the origin of this use of the concept, was it invented by you? From what I understand even your “antagonist”, the TC, use the concept (as an example). – – –

And when I got you on line, more boring and silly questions: I’ve been wondering ever since I first read the Eclipse if Paul Mattick ever replied to your text (ie. “Leninism and the Ultra-Left”)? If so, this reply should definately be on the internet. – – –

This is it for now, I think. And I (still) really hope we could meet someday.

Take care,


* * *
January 30, 2005

Dear H.,

thank you for your letter. – – –

Once again, I am very happy about the book, as I wrote to riff-raff. If there were any critiques you regard as valuable, please send them up for me in English.

Formal/real domination is a very useful concept and, like any useful concept, can be ruined into an “It’ll-explain-it-all” tool. Maybe I was wrong to refer you to the article in “Internationalist Perspective”. I only found it more interesting (more informative) than TC’s theoretical constructions which are only good as fas as discourse goes. But you’re right to point out that I.P. is still looking for some form of decadence. Basically, I’d say that any theory that claims to divide history into two periods (one when revolution was not yet possible, one when it is both necessary and possible), any such theory is blowed, wrong from the start.

The concept is most relevant as (and only inasmuch as) it differentiates between 2 very different things. A period when capital dominates society but does not yet penetrate it thoroughly. Capital and wage-labour are at the core of society, they influence it, they force it to obey the logic of value accumulation, but they are not present everywhere.

And another period when capital reproduces most social structures according to its logic. Bluntly, the money world is everywhere. Parents pay their kids to wash the car, and Japanese commuters pay for the air they breathe on a special mask they can buy on the subway. Religion, art, the family, politics, everything is organized as a market. This is not true... Total absolute capitalization would be a nonsense. You can’t pay teachers just by the good marks their pupils will get of the exam, the cops according to the number of crimes they solve, or the US marine by the number of Iraki rebels he kills, etc. It’s only true as a deep tendency. Still, it is true, to that extent.

This distinction is important. The question is what we make of it. Domination can be real in Sweden or Italy, it is still formal in Senegal. Some parts of Senegal are really submitted to capital, while most of the countryside is not.

Let’s bear in mind that the man at the origin of the concept, Marx, believed real domination was already born [? – hard to read] (at least in England) in the 1860s, that is nearly 150 years ago. Whether he used the phrase “real/formal domination” or not, Gorter would certainly have thought that labour submission to capital, and capital rule over Europe, were real in 1920. Debord and Bordiga would have thought that capital ruled really most of the (at least, Western) world by 1960. So I am cautious about people being tempted to declare their time as the one which “at last” is going through real domination by capital.

The distinction is most useful, as it explains the emergence and then decline of quite a few historical realities, the workers’ movement for example, or parliamentarism. But people stop explaining anything when they merely divide history in BEFORE/NOW. Just one example. It’s quite true that party politics, parliamentary democracy, large labour parties, etc., were connected to a capital that was mastering society without deeply and totally reducing all instructions to capitalist functions. But it would be naive and wrong to assume that democracy, for instance, or unions, are now devoid of meaning or social impact. The family that exists now in Paris or Stockholm is a lot more “capitalized” and “commodified” than my parents’ family in the 1920s and 1930s, but it still functions, it still works as a social conservative agent, albeit in a very different way from 1930.

About “post festum determinism”. In the early 1970s, we were tempted by a mistake that I can explain, but it was a mistake. We had to address the common belief that revolution was first and foremost a question of organization, spontaneity and will. So we tended to bend the stick too much the other way. Therefore we were very fond of Marx’s formula: No matter what some proletarians or the proletariat as a whole want, the important thing is what they will be forced to do. OK. Marx was right. I guess Fransois Martin was also right to write: “the failure of a movement is itself an adequate demonstration of its limits”. But he was only right as fas as he was rejecting the idealism of those who turn the social question into a question of self-organization + free will.

Anyhow, all concepts (domination of capital, proletariat, historical constraints, social determination, etc.) are only, as you say, abstract models that de facto correspond to the general development of real events. No more, no less. – – –

You as me about the notion of communization. For the last ...30 years, we’ve repeated: this is one of our major issues, so we ought to think and write more about it, but we haven’t. We’ve certainly thought about it a lot, but not written much. The forthcoming (not in a near future) text on democracy will deal with communization.

As far as I remember, the word itself came up around 1972–74 among a number of people who were critical of but inspired by the S.I., the German and Italian left, etc. Maybe the first person who used the word was Pierre Guillaume, the bookseller (and ex. “Socialisme ou Barbarie” member) of “The Old Mole” (that was the bookshop’s name). He certainly was the first one to give the concept its importance. Maybe the word was coined by Dominique Blaue, who was then to be the main person in the group LA GUERRE SOCIALE, who wrote a very stimulating and pionering essay “A world without Money”... The sad thing is, this very forceful notion was not really developed by the small mileau it came from. Maybe sign of the weakness on the part of the communist movement (as a social movement, not just people like you and me).

And, sadly again, it’s now taken up by people like TC who (to me) are not really interested in the actual communizing process a revolution would be. Their main interest is to use the concept as a proof that now is totally different from before. – – –

Paul Mattick... Well, back in 1969, I translated the critique of the ultra-left text for him as he was staying in Paris, and had it sent to where he lived, rue DANTE..., maybe, and we met a few days later. Some of the words I remember as if it all happened yesterday.

– Is this the work of your group?

– Yes.

– It’s very weak, and sometimes it’s embarrasingly weak.

A bad start. So I tried to shift the conversation to our wish to inherit not just from the German left, but also from the Italian left. The idea was to try and explain him why we were critical of workers’ management. But I was wrong again.

– Bordiga is a Leninist.

From then on, we sort of moved to the Spanish civil war. I said we were critical to anarchy as a principle, as a theory, not just of the CNT. He replied as if I was dismissing anarchism as a grass root genuine product of proletarian activity.

– I don’t care if they raped the nuns.

I guess I’ve forgotten the rest. All the time, he was unsymphathetic, like he was talking to a half-wit leftist intellectual with subversive pretensions he can’t and won’t live up to. (Maybe we’d feel the same towards a pro-situ.) Anyway, I’ve only ever met histility from the heirs of the German-Dutch left, ICO and recently ECHANGES ET MOUVEMENT – I suppose their aggressiveness comes from deep incomprehension. To them, borrowing from both Bordiga and Pannekoek must appear like crossdressing appeared to my mother.

I hope the anecdote wasn’t too boring.

All the best to you all,


riff-raff #7  —  riff-raff.se