I’ve been reading this recently. I think I finished it on the train this morning, but since I’ve been reading it in fits and starts I’ll probably never know. This is a collection of texts by a group of two fellers who go by the name Monsieur Dupont. Their articles and musings caused quite a stir, largely because they argued that the best thing for communists to do was nothing. Their categorical refusal to conform to the literary parameters and social norms of the pro-revolutionary milieu (their term, not mine) made them relatively unpopular, though some of their terminology and critiques seem to have been gradually adopted. I enjoyed reading it immensely. A lot of radical writing suffers from piety, self-righteousness, bombast, and awkward language which is to be understood by some mythical Ordinary Folks. This book is an exploration of the lived experience of a distinct literary voice. Maybe it’s an elaborate prank, but I found it profoundly moving.
The core idea is as follows (though I’m hardly doing justice to their lilting prose); the activities of all hitherto existing groups of revolutionaries is predicated on the instilling of consciousness into the wider working class, by means fair and foul. When the working class is conscious of its position within capitalism, and its immanent power to destroy it, the revolution breaks out.
The problem with this formulation, according to Monsieur Dupont, is that it is fundamentally incorrect, even pernicious. Consciousness, they argue, is only ever the result of material circumstances, which revolutionary groups are entirely incapable of influencing.
Workers in industries central to capitalism are capable of shutting it down, or creating new forms of production, depending on the objective circumstances forced on them by the development of capitalism. Workers peripheral to capital, such as those who fill the ranks of revolutionary organizations, can not do so. When (if) it is shut down, new forms of consciousness may emerge. In other words, a communist consciousness may follow, but is not a prerequisite for, a radical shift in material conditions. The propaganda of self-declared revolutionaries is more or less irrelevant to this process.
This is not to say that they do nothing, on the contrary. Groups of revolutionaries have made heroic efforts to destroy or derail such developments. For all intents and purposes, revolutionary groups do not do what they think they do. They do not provide a leadership of ideas. They do not force communism into existence by acts of will.
An honest appraisal of the history and current state of the self-declared communist movement would seem to support this conclusion. I think that there is a tendency amongst revolutionary groups to confuse one’s own subjective experience of the world with an ontological consciousness. It’s most clear in the absurd hubris of Leninists who believe their group is the most advanced elements of the proletariat, who have no interests but those of the class as a whole (and vice versa), but its equally present, albeit in a subdued and (in my opinion) considerably less odious form in anarchist conceptions of “the leadership of ideas” (http://anarchistplatform.wordpress.com)
Nevertheless, being the relentlessly optimistic revolutionary activist that I am, I feel compelled to formulate a kind of response.
First off, I think Monsieur Dupont are a little reductive in their appraisal of the role of revolutionary groups. While I remain sympathetic to their fundamental point, the precise configuration of the relationship between class and revolutionary minority is obviously contingent on specific historical circumstance (Mr. Dupont does allow for a role for the pro-revolutionary group during a crisis in capitalism, mind you, it just can’t make one by raising consciousness). I won’t presume to give an exhaustive account of these relationships, but they do vary, this much is apparent. Given this fact, I am not prepared to write off the whole tradition as at best a waste of time and at worst recuperative middle-class shenanigans.
To adress the question of social makeup first; in my experience the majority of those involved in anarchist, syndicalist, or communist groups (broadly understood) are workers of one kind or another. Unlike the leadership of the parliamentary left (and in contrast to prevalent stereotypes), these groups do not primarily recruit from social elites.
Rather, the historical and contemporary makeup of such groups seem to follow a similar pattern; it comprises workers who are relatively peripheral to capital. Hence the watchmakers of Jura, the migrant cleaners, publishing co-ops, and sandwich technicians of the revived IWW, hence the marxist academic and the zapatista peasant. There are exceptions to this pattern; one also finds anarchist princes and stalinist miners. I lack the immediate empirical material to prove the general truth of this claim, but it strikes me as intuitively true and, since this is a blog post and not a scholarly paper, that will have to do for now.
The formation of pro-revolutionary groups dedicated to raising to consciousness the laboring masses is as endemic to working class history as economic exploitation. The workers uprisings of the 1830’s had their Saint-Simonians, the Paris Commune it’s Jacobins and Proudhonists, the German worker’s councils had their Spartacists and syndicalists. It does not seem correct to imagine these groups as a force alien to the class, neither in light of the multifaceted and at times contradictory relationships they develop to the wider class, nor in terms of the social makeup of the groups themselves. There is a clear correlation between mass working class action, crises of capital, and the formation and growth of revolutionary groups. The nature of this correlation, and the question of causality, remains unclear to me.
If the hypothesis that these groups are incapable of creating potentially revolutionary crises is correct, and that the presence or absence of consciousness is irrelevant (which I remain inclined to believe is the case), but the growth of such groups is both endemic to the class and a constant in its history, as well as having a far from equivocally pernicious influence on its struggles, how are we to understand them?
If we accept the idea that capitalists are constantly creating the conditions of their own destruction by creating a class with interests diametrically opposed to theirs, but only those with their hands on the switch, so to speak, have the power to effectuate this destruction, what are workers outside of this relation to do? Their antagonism is equally real, their grievances equally valid. What distinguishes them is their impotence. I would make the case that the revolutionary activist group is the manifestation of their class antagonism, and the farther different sections of the proletariat find themselves from the ideal type of capitalist relations, the more differentiated their forms of organization. The more difficult it becomes to sharply delineate productive and non-productive labor, the greater the likelihood of a coalescence of these different antagonisms.
The idea that heaven can be stormed by a coalescence of differentiated antagonistic identities from across the spectrum of exploitation, rather than the response of productive workers to objective conditions, probably developed in the 1960’s, but it’s been most explicitly expressed in Hardt and Negri’s Multitude. The conscious activist, whether metropolitan anarchist or indigenist peasant militant, moves centre stage.
Movements, spaces, and situations based on this ethos have been capable of drawing in a wider range of people than is generally acknowledged. The experiences of the last decades of alter-globalization struggle are a case in point, as are the victories of the 1960’s in terms of gender liberation and decolonization projects (Dupont denies that these things have anything to do with communism. I disagree)
Perhaps these movements and grouplets, in all their contradictions, exhilaration, impotence, and absurdity, are the expression of the class antagonism of workers peripheral to capital. In that case their existence as such is to be applauded and encouraged. The problem lies then, in their confusion of their sectional interests and specific activities with the formulation and spreading of a universal (or at least pan-proletarian) revolutionary consciousness.
How this relates to Lacanian psychoanalysis will have to wait till next post, I need to go eat.
for the full text of Nihilist Communism, the reading of which I heartily recommend; http://nihilistcommunism.blogspot.co.uk/