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(en) The Commoner #8 - Uncertainty and Social Autonomy by Werner Bonefeld*

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Tue, 23 Dec 2003 22:48:24 +0100 (CET)


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Amid the resurgence of anti-capitalist movements
across the globe, the centenary of Lenin's What
is to be Done? in 2002 has largely gone unnoticed.
Leninism has fallen on hard times - and rightly
so. It leaves a bitter taste of a revolution which
heroic struggle turned into a nightmare. The
indifference to Leninism is understandable. What,
however, is disturbing is the contemporary
disinterest in the revolutionary project. What does
anti-capitalism in its contemporary form of anti-
globalization mean if it is not a practical critique of
capitalism and what does it wish to achieve if its
anti-capitalism fails to espouse the revolutionary
project of human emancipation?

Anti-capitalist indifference to revolution is a
contradiction in terms. Rather then freeing the
theory and practice of revolution from Leninism, its
conception of revolutionary organisation in the form
of the party, and its idea of the state whose power is
to be seized, as an instrument of revolution,
remains uncontested. Revolution seems to mean
Leninism, now appearing in moderated form as
Trotskyism. It invests great energy in its attempt to
incorporate the class struggle into
preconceived conceptions of organization, seeking
to render it manageable under the direction of
the party leadership. The management of class
struggle belongs traditionally to the bourgeoisie
who 'concentrated in the form of the state' (Marx,
Grundrisse), depends on its containment and
management in the form of abstract equality. The
denial of humanity that is entailed in the
subordination of the inequality in property to
relations of abstract equality in the form of exchange
relations, is mirrored in the Leninist conception of
the workers state, where everybody is treated
equally as an economic resource.

Contemporary anti-capitalism does wel to keep well
away from the Leninist conception of
revolution. However, its indifference to revolution
belies its anti-capitalist stance. What is anti-
capitalist in anti-capitalism if it does not pose the
question of human emancipation? Anti-capitalist
indifference to revolution is a contradiction in terms.
Such contradictions seek resolution and
history's grotesque and bloody grimace shows what
that might mean.

What is to be done? This is Lenin's question. We
have to make it our question. We cannot avoid it.
If we avoid it, if we reject it because it was Lenin
who asked it, then we give in to the Leninist
tradition and its conception of revolution. Revolution
does not have to mean Leninism. It did not
mean Leninism in the past but became to mean
Leninism because of the establishment of
Marxism-Leninism as the official religion of (the
pre-emptive counterrevolutionary) revolution. Anti-
capitalism has to rediscover contesting conceptions
of revolution, it has to free Marx from orthodox
certainties and the ritualisation of Marxism as an
enemy of critical thought itself. This freeing of
Marx, this reopening of the revolutionary
perspective has to rediscover Marx's favourite motto:
doubt everything. Doubt is explosive. Why does this
content, that is, why do human social relation
exist in the form of capital and its state? Why does
human social practice produce an increasingly
enslaving reality? What, then, is to be done to
produce a reality that does not enslave human
social practice but instead, sets it free as a
self-determining human social practice? What, then,
is to be done to achieve what Marx, in the Communist
Manifesto, called the society of the free and
equal? What social relations have to be created by
active humanity to render abstractions
obsolete.

Human values such as dignity, honesty and
sincerity have no price and can not be quantified,
neither sold nor bought. These values connote
individual human distinctiveness, difference, sense
and significance, that is, Man (Mensch) in
possession of himself as a subject. Human values
can however be destroyed through the imposition of
abstract identity, that is, through the universal
reduction of all specific human social practice to the
one, same abstract form of labour, from the
factory floor to the cloning studio. Revolution is not
fashionable. It is not a commodity. Revolution
stands for the espousal of human values. It means
to summon the courage to ask, with conviction,
sincerity and honesty: 'what is to be done about
human emancipation?' It means to wrestle
revolution from the dead end of the Leninism and to
pose it as a question of human dignity.

The question 'what is to be done?' is impossible to
answer. Instead, we have to consider what is
not to be done. First, however, the theoretical and
practical orientation on the utopia of the society
of the free and equal is the only realistic departure
from the inhumanity that the world market
society of capital posits. Now, what not to do: The
idea of the revolutionary party as the
organisational form of revolution has to be
abandoned. The form of the party contradicts the
content of revolution, and that is, human
emancipation - an emancipation of the dependent
masses can only be achieved by the dependent
masses themselves. The notion of the form of the
state as an instrument of revolution has to go. The
idea of the seizure of power on behalf of the
dependent masses has to be exposed for what it is:
the denial of the society of the free and equal.

Moaning about the 'excesses' of capital has to stop.
A lamenting critique merely seeks to create a
fairer capitalism, conferring on capital the capacity
to adopt a benevolent developmental logic.
Capital is with necessity 'excessive' in its
exploitation of labour. To lament this is to misunderstand
its social constitution. The attempt to define the
revolutionary subject has to be abandoned. This
subject can neither be derived analytically from the
'logic' of capital, nor can its existence be
decreed by the party, as if it were a mere
foot-soldier. The revolutionary subject develops through
a constant conflict with capital and its state, and
the social composition of this subject will depend
on those who stand on the side of human
emancipation. In theoretical terms, the revolutionary
subject can only be determined as human dignity.
Its social constitution is a practical and not a
theoretical question.
II
Adam Smith was certain in his own mind that
capitalism creates the wealth of nations. Hegel
concurred but added that the accumulation of
wealth renders those who depend on the sale of
their labour power for their social reproduction,
insecure in deteriorating conditions. He concluded
that despite the accumulation of wealth, bourgeois
society will find it most difficult to keep the
dependent masses pacified, and he saw the form of
the state as the means of reconciling the
social antagonism, containing the dependent
masses. Ricardo formulated the necessity of
capitalist social relations to produce 'redundant
populations'. Marx developed this insight and
showed that the idea of 'equal rights' is in principle a
bourgeois right. In its content, it is a right of
inequality. Against the bourgeois form of formal
equality, he argued that communism rests on the
equality of the individual, that is, the equality of
individual human needs. This is the law of formal
equality: 'The power which each individual
exercises over the activity of others or over social
wealth exists in him as the owner of exchange
value, of money. The individual carries his social
power, as wel as his bond with society, in his
pocket' (Marx, Grundrisse). And the condition of
communist equality? Each individual receives
according to their needs. The equality of individual
human needs does indeed offer an alternative to
capitalism. In contrast, conception of socialism as
a much improved regulation and organisation of the
economy of labour do not offer an alternative
to capitalism. They merely compete with capitalism
on the basis of economic effectiveness. This
sort of opposition to capital and its state derives its
means and ends from capitalist society itself. It
seeks to perfect the machinery of oppression that,
ostensibly, it rejects as capitalist.

Only the organised negation to capital and its state
is able to transcend capitalism. This organised
negative is that of social autonomy. As Marx put it
in the Jewish Question, 'every emancipation is a
return of the human world and human relationships
to humans themselves. Political emancipation
is the reduction of man, on the one hand, to a
member of bourgeois society, an egoistic and
independent individual, on the other hand, to a
citizen of the state, a moral person. Not until the
real individual man has taken the abstract citizen
back into himself and, as an individual man, has
become a species-being in his empirical life, in his
individual work and individual relationships, not
until man recognises and organises his "forces
propres" as social forces and thus no longer
separates social forces from himself in the form of
political forces, not until then will human
emancipation be completed'. Some might object
because the quotation is from the early Marx; and
since Marx is said to have matured with age, a
quotation from the mature Marx is called for. The
economic 'mastery of capital over man' has to be
abolished so that man's social reproduction is
'control ed by him'. And the state? Its purpose is the
'perpetuation of the labourer' - the 'sine qua
non of the existence of capital' (Capital, vol. I).

And the party? Marx was adamant that the
emancipation of the working class can only be
achieved by the working class itself. Communism,
for Marx, stands for a classless society. He
argued that human history begins when Man has
created social relations in which humanity is no
longer an exploitable resource but a purpose. His
critique of bourgeois society does not merely
wish to expose its true character, that is the
accumulation of human machines on the pyramids of
accumulation for accumulation's sake. He also, and
importantly, showed that the constituted forms
of bourgeois social relations are forms of human
social practice. This is the material basis for his
revolutionary demand that all relations which render
Man a forsaken being have to be abolished in
favour of the society of the free and equal, a society
of human dignity where all is returned to Man
who, no longer ruled by self-imposed abstraction,
controls his own social affairs and is in
possession of himself. The idea of the party as the
organised vanguard of the working class is
premised on the idea of the historical backwardness
of the proletariat. It needs to be led into
freedom because it exists, within capital, as a mere
thing, a mere human resource - it exists merely
as a component of capital, as variable capital. The
party sees the proletariat in the same way as
capital: a nobody, a resource, who deserves to be
regulated more effectively. The argument of the
historical backwardness of the proletariat does not
wash. It presupposes that against the
background of existing conditions of misery, the
project of emancipation has with necessity to be
one of party leadership, a leadership which assumes
the directorship of the class struggle both
against existing powers and against backward
workers, educating them in political consciousness
and directing their efforts. It is easy to ridicule the
idea of the party as a sort of educational
vanguard - who educates the educators - but much
more difficult to contradict it. This is so
because, without hypocrisy, it acknowledges those
same conditions which prevent human self-
determination. The argument, then, rests on the
so-called objectivity of existing conditions and,
through their acceptance, reinforces their objective
character. Marx's idea that the dictatorship of
the proletariat teaches the state a lesson, replacing
the artificial and no less powerful sovereignty
of the state by the true sovereignty of the social
individuals organising their own social
reproduction, is thus turned on its head. The idea of
the 'education of the masses in socialism' not
only acknowledges the conditions which prevent
social self-determination. It also mirrors these
conditions in the revolutionary means and projects
them on to the 'new' society, perverting the
revolutionary ends. It calls for the seizure of power
- not the abolition of power; it seeks power on
behalf of the working class - generalising its
existence rather than abolishing classes. It pretends
that the socialist use of power amounts to its
abolition. Marx's argument in Capital (vol. I) that 'to
be a productive labourer is...not a piece of luck, but
a misfortune', is endorsed in perverted form:
the party's directorship over the proletariat is a
fortune for the misfortunate.

What then needs to be done? There is no doubt that
the organisational means of struggle have to
anticipate the end of human emancipation. The
circumstance that the ends of revolution have to
be constitutive of the means of resistance and
struggle entails social autonomy as the
organisational form of revolutionary struggle. What
does autonomy mean? How can it be
conceived? It does not mean the much celebrated
atomised market individual who makes
'autonomous' consumer choices, say between butter
produced in cubes or rectangles. Autonomy
without organisation is a contradiction in terms: it
espouses the atomised market individual whose
freedom consists in the choice between different
products of the same standardised issue.

Autonomy, if it takes itself seriously, requires
organisational forms of negavity. Here the problems
start. Autonomy and organisation appear to
contradict each other. Again, the resolution of the
contradiction points towards the Party, conceived
as an autonomous subject in its own right. What
is meant by autonomy? Its meaning is quite different
from modern day conceptions associated with
Negri for whom human molecules and associated
forms of bio-power have already escaped from
capitalism's grasp and thus have become
autonomous and this without telling capitalism. Is
this really an unwarranted caricature of his work?
Negri's conception of autonomy as some sort of
naturalisation of the human being - biopower - is
rather distressing. It seeks to render capitalism's
naturalisation of human social practice as a mere
resource attractive for anti-capitalist struggles.
Rather than being 'valorised' by capital, labour is
endorsed as a self-valorising power. What
misery.

Autonomy has three distinct meanings: It first
projects the aim of human emancipation, and that is,
communism as a classless society. It refers thus to
the society of the free and equal - this
association of the direct producers who, in control
of their affairs, organise the realm of necessity
by virtue of their sovereignty as human subjects. It
means, second, that human emancipation,
communism, can only be achieved by the working
class itself. Autonomy here means working
class self-activity, self-organisation, and thus class
autonomy, that is, the autonomy of the working
class from pre-existing organisational forms, like
the party or trade union, that treat the working
class as a mere object of organisation. Autonomy
here is associated with Luxemburg's idea of
spontaneity. There is of course no theory of
spontaneity to be found in Luxemburg. The 'theory of
spontaneity' is in fact an invention by the combined
forces of Stalinism and social-democracy. For
Luxemburg, spontaneity simply meant that the
working class creates, in and through its own
struggle, organisational forms of resistance. These
forms give substance to the experience of
struggle. In short, struggle and the accumulation of
experience belong together, give substance to
self-determined organinsational forms of resistance
and, importantly, lead to the creation of what
may be called a 'proletarian public'. For Luxemburg,
spontaneity focused the dialectics between
movement and organisation, between experience
and proletarian public sphere. Autonomy, in
sum, means autonomy as a means of resistance,
anticipating the ends of revolution. It means
autonomy from the party form, trade unions,
professional politicians seeking election to represent
the working class in the palazzo of power, etc. In
short, it means the autonomy of social self-
determination against forms of organisation that
derive their rational from capitalist society and are
thus interested only in their own continued
existence.

So far, autonomy has been discussed in terms of the
ends/means relationship of revolutionary
struggle, and that is, as self-organisation. What
however does autonomy mean within capitalism?
There is no reality outside capitalism. There are no
free, autonomous spaces that, as it were,
provide bases for anti-capitalist intervention.
Adorno once said that one cannot live an honest life
within capitalist society. Adorno was right and
wrong. He was right because we all have to sell our
labour power. We criticise the state, demand its
transfer into the museum of history, and yet we
depend on it for all sorts of things and we reject
cuts in welfare, and deteriorating welfare
provisions. We depend on welfare services, health
services, educational services, access to
welfare benefits, public transport provision, and
employment: we do indeed exist through the state,
and we do indeed exist as a wage labouring
commodity. Hence, Adorno's claim that we cannot live
an honest life in capitalism: we exist in and through
and depend upon those same perverted forms
existence which we reject as capitalist forms of
exploitation and domination. Still, the circumstance
that one depends and exists through the state does
not mean that one cannot report about its true
constitution. In other words, an honest life already
begins in the struggle against capital and its
state. Social autonomy starts with the struggle
against capital and its state, and associated
institutions of social integration. Class struggle
exists in and against capital. We all live in
bourgeois society. It can however not be left behind
by merely living within it. The revolutionary
negation of bourgeois society moves in and against
its constituted forms. This is the site of class
antagonism and class struggle. Only organised
negation is able to transform the existence of class
struggle in and against bourgeois social relations
into the beyond of human history. In short,
Adorno's statement that one cannot live an honest
life in the falsehood of bourgeois society is only
partially correct. An honest and sincere life starts
already with the struggle against the falsehood of
bourgeois society.

I do not think of revolution as an apocalyptic event:
sudden, unexpected, finished. Revolution is a
process of negation. There is no certainty. There is
to the best of my knowledge no historical law
that will lead us automatically to the society of the
free and equal. Those with deep scientific
insight into historical materialism will tell us a
different story, a story of certainty. For those,
however, who doubt teleological historical laws, the
achievement of the society of the free and
equal will depend on the sincere and honest struggle
against capital and its state. There is no
certainty. To speak about revolution is to embrace
uncertainty. Certainty and predictability belongs
to capitalism. It depends on making certain, as a
resource, and predictable, as a factor of
production, our living labour power. Our struggle
against capital and its state is the struggle
against certainty, a struggle of uncertainty, but a
struggle that anticipates in its organisational
means a certain goal: human dignity. We have to
pose revolution as a question of our time, as a
question of uncertainty. Revolution might not
happen. Yet, the proof of the pudding is in the
eating.

Uncertainty, then, is a determining element of social
autonomy. Another is doubt. And then there is
patience. If we think in categories of doubt, if we
accept that the results of our struggles are
uncertain, we have to accept patience as a
revolutionary endeavour. Impatience seeks quick,
certain, predictable results. It gives credence to
Leninism and its idea of the autonomy, not of the
proletariat, but of the party that always knows best.
Embracing revolution means to embrace
uncertainty and (revolutionary) patience. The
project of social autonomy is one of patience and
uncertainty, and doubt. In addition, we cannot do
without irony. Irony helps us to overcome set-
backs, it defends us against depression, against
privatisation - this return to the safety of the living
room. Irony, doubt, patience: these are the means
which help us to protect ourselves against the
dead end of an dishonest life, a life without struggle,
a life that feeds on the falsehood of bourgeois
society and thus a life that is indifferent to itself
and thus accepts without question its capitalist
purpose to function as an effective resource.
III
What to do in the misery of our time? Only radical
opposition to capital and its state is capable of
forcing those same material concessions that
reformist opposition aims at but is unable to obtain.
Reformist concessions depend on the strength of
the 'anti-systemic' opposition. Further, we have
to demand conditions, wages, and welfare. Labour
is the producer of social wealth and has to
demand its enjoyment. Lastly, we have to learn from
the experience of our struggles, our defeats
and moments of glory. The last century was a lousy
century. It was filled with dogmas that one
after another have cost us time and suffering. It
was, however, also a Century of hope in the
alternative entelechy of human dignity, solidarity
and human emancipation - from Mexico (1914) to
Petrograde (1917) and Kronstadt (1921), from
Berlin (1918), Budapest (1919) and Barcelona
(1936) to Berlin (1953) and Budapest (1956), from
Paris (1968), Gdansk (1980) Chiapas (1994)
and the Argentinean piqueteros (2001). These, and
many more, have been the intense moments
of human emancipation, constituting points of
departure towards the society of the free and equal.

The struggle for human emancipation is a struggle
against abstractions - and 'abstractifications' -
be it state, capital, or party. Anti-capitalist
indifference to revolution accepts 'abstractions', laments
their destructive force, and seeks to regulate them
benevolently, that is, in the interest of the
bonum commune. Within a capitalistically
constituted form of social reproduction, this bonum
commune is the commune of abstract wealth
through the bonum of capitalist accumulation. It is
time to stop lamenting. Revolution has again be
posed as a question.

*[Ed. Note: The case of Libertarian Marxist against
authoritarian Marxists by the author of Change the World
Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today.]



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