As many readers who follow me on Twitter may be aware, over the past few days I’ve been doing some reading, some thinking, and making wildly provocative and bold claims about how we should understand Marxist theory today. Twitter can be a great website, and I find it particularly helpful in being able to take a hunch or an idea and plunge head-first into throwing out ideas, taking on feedback and suggestions, and reworking them into better and more consistent proposals. It breaks down the barrier imposed by lengthier forms of online communication which necessitates both better planning and a more careful attention to the nuances of what is being communicated. But it’s also limited, partly because of the lack of an edit button (Give the people what they want, Twitter!), and because of the character-limit. I wanted here to take some of the ideas I’ve been playing with and articulating on Twitter and to try to flesh them out a bit more, to give them some greater substance and to speak to more concrete issues. This may in fact require several articles, but here I want to focus on a question which has been bugging me – like an itch I can’t get rid of – for years now. And it has to do with the way I so frequently see “debates” about leftist ‘ideologies’ played out across the internet. The problem might provisionally be stated as something like this: What has gone wrong such that questions of political organisation and mobilisation has been displaced (reduced) to debates over abstract notions of ‘Socialism’? We might have to clarify this question below. I should add, finally, that this is far from an attempt to ‘have the final say’, it is an attempt to push us towards a better discussion.
In the spirit of my recent tweets, I want to start with a provocation: Neither Socialism nor Communism are abstract propositions to be evaluated from one’s desk, to be argued in debating societies, contested on social media, or constantly fractured into ever-more identitarian internet ideologies. The Communist Hypothesis (to borrow a phrase from Badiou) is not a proposition to be evaluated, to be weighed up in order to consider, in turn, its merits and defects. We must recall the forcefulness with which Marx and Engels state in the German Ideology: “We call Communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”1 Both of these claims must be grasped in order to see how far removed so many of our discussions are from the heart of the matter. First, Communism must be grasped in all its negativity and in all of the possibilities that this negation affirms. But we must run this backwards, again: What we have to grasp is how the affirmation of what could be must take concrete form as the abolition of the present stage of things. Second, these possibilities are determined by “the premises now in existence.” Communism arises out of present conditions in order to abolish them.
We now have at least the start of an answer for how we got here, why it is that the left is riven not just with factionalism (there is perhaps nothing which defines the left so consistently as factionalism!), but with that dreadful odour of something which has begin to rot. So much of what is today clearly visible is political ideology as fan-fiction, violently forced through the neoliberal axiom which constructs a reciprocal relationship between identity and the commodity. We should examine this a little, examining each part of this in turn. Participants draw up their own unique utopian society, implicitly predicting their own position (or, sometimes on Twitter, explicitly) in that structure, and argue with each other about the merits and defects of certain models. “You’re an authoritarian!”, “You prioritise individualism over collectivism!”, “Fuck off, tankie!” On and on it goes; endless, dreary, utterly rudderless discourse. We will examine this more below. But perhaps much of the stench of this discourse is to be located in its enframing by neoliberal subjectivity. These ‘ideologies’ are really just so many products on shelves, each trying to outdo the other in their marketing: this one is less authoritarian, this one more pragmatic, yet another promises to liberate the individual or the collective or vice versa, and so on. There is nothing ‘living’ left in so many of these debates; they are historical relics, occasionally examined, prodded and considered. But they were products of particular circumstances which are no longer our own. Here we are seeing revolution where it manifestly will not occur.
I mean to be quite clear here: the problem is not that of privileging theory over praxis, and I’m not trying to dunk on teenagers engaging with important theoretical ideas with their global peers. Especially during times in which almost all of us are essentially stuck at home for months on end, the possibilities of political action are highly constrained, particularly for marginalised groups most at risk of both the virus and police discrimination. When Žižek says “Don’t act. Just think”, we must in fact be bolder and move beyond such a false binary. The question is not whether to theorise or whether to act; under our conditions, the question is ‘What kind of theory is required?’ I hope this article is some small contribution in this regard. We cannot provide, a priori, our ideal model of society in advance; at best, we can begin to put into practice our ideals through our political action. My point is, instead, that if there is to be a revolutionary theory it must be attentive to the real conditions of society (and societies, given combined and uneven development) and proceed from there, tracing the lines of flight, the new openings of capital’s delirious oscillations. The communicative and co-operative possibilities opened up by the internet are unprecedented and to a great extent unrealised in their total promise – but there is an enormous amount of highly worthwhile and productive discourse, even on social media.
Moreover: What Communism is, or might be, or could be, is not determined by our ideas. History is neither moved nor mediated by the concept but by the material conditions of life: by the multiplicity of forms of life which exist in any given region or structure, the endlessly morphing productive processes at work, the flows and investments of desire and interest. Capitalism is never just Capitalism, it’s always mediated by combined and uneven development: flows and cuts distributed across a shifting topology, always and everywhere. Deleuze and Guattari write in A Thousand Plateaus that “We have often seen capitalism maintain and organize inviable states, according to its needs, and for the precise purpose of crushing minorities. The minorities issue is instead that of smashing capitalism, of redefining socialism, of constituting a war machine capable of counter the world war machine by other means.” Their commitment is clear. They continue: “the deepest law of capitalism: it continually sets and then repels its own limits, but in so doing gives rise to numerous flows in all directions that escape its axiomatic.” These ‘numerous flows’ tend to enter into connection with each other to delineate “a new Land”, “without their constituting a war machine whose aim is neither the war of extermination nor the peace of generalized terror, but revolutionary movement”.2
The question must always be: what, today, resists, breaks through and escapes capital’s neurotic recoding? What lines of flight can we trace in the movements of desire and interest today? It is worth quoting Deleuze and Guattari at length here:
There is in each case a constructivism, a “diagrammatism,” operating by the determination of the conditions of the problem and by transversal links between problems: it opposes both the automation of the capitalist axioms and bureaucratic programming. From this standpoint, when we talk about “undecidable propositions,” we are not referring to the uncertainty of the results, which is necessarily a part of every system. We are referring, on the contrary, to the coexistence and inseparability of that which the system conjugates, and that which never ceases to escape it following lines of flight that are themselves connectable. The undecidable is the germ and locus par excellence of revolutionary decisions. Some people invoke the high technology of the world system of enslavement; but even, and especially, this machinic enslavement abounds in undecidable propositions and movements that, far from belonging to a domain of knowledge reserved for sworn specialists, provides so many weapons for the becoming of everybody/everything, becoming-radio, becoming-electronic, becoming-molecular… Every struggle is a function of all of these undecidable propositions and constructs revolutionary connections in opposition to the conjugations of the axiomatic.Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (London: Bloomsbury, 2019), p. 550. Emphasis mine
Here is not the place for an analysis of what continues to escape capital’s axiomatic and obsessive recoding of codes. I have thoughts on this, and I would like to expand on this in relation to Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s Assembly (2017) which engages directly with not just this question but many of those raised in this article. For now, I want to draw out a few threads from this, before returning to some provocative claims about concrete revolutionary movements, finally pulling this all back together again at the end.
First, I take it from Anti-Oedipus that Capitalism is never just the decoding of flows. Firstly because Deleuze-Guattari insist upon capital’s tendency towards reterritorialization as a kind of security measure against the instability produced by its own chaotic movements. But equally, the work of capital “presupposes codes or axioms which are not the products of chance, but which are not intrinsically rational either.”3 What capital decodes with one hand – territories, nations, religions, traditions – it recodes with the other in line with the axiomatic of money. Traditions, for example, are not recoded onto money – as if money could be anything other than alienated and alienating – money is recoded onto traditions, sold back to us as corporate mindfulness courses. “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”4 Capital abhors that which it cannot measure, what it cannot abstract away into an endlessly exchangeable and interchangeable series of items, to ‘linearize’ (as Guattari puts it). And as Deleuze-Guattari point out, capital “never stops crossing its own limits which keep reappearing further away. It puts itself in alarming situations with respect to its own production, its social life, its demographics, its borders with the third world, its internal regions, etc. Its gaps are everywhere, forever giving rise to the displaced limits of capitalism. […] it is the problem of the marginalized: to plug all these lines of flight into a revolutionary plateau. In capitalism, then, these lines of flight take on a new character, a new type of revolutionary potential.”5
To bugger Marx, these lines of flight “result from the premises now in existence.” The lesson Althusser draws from Machiavelli is that we must take a view of things and of people as they are, not as we might wish they were. And if we take just two historical examples of revolutionary political action, we can perhaps get a clearer picture of how things stand. We can start with the Spanish anarchist militias during the civil war of 1936-39. And let me be provocative again here: the Spanish syndicalists did not spend years debating the details, merits, and defects of various models of utopian society, before deciding – in their moment of glorious reflective equilibrium – that on balance they ought to pursue a loose and horizontalist federation of largely autonomous unions. Their political practice was directly born out of their actual engagements with their conditions of life at the time: the complexities of the conflicts between the Fascists, Soviets, Republicans, and all their diverse micro-factions; the development and organisational resilience of their unions; the nation’s class-composition and level of technical development; their country’s own historical and cultural factors in the subjectivities in play. The organisational structure they developed was a response to their conditions of life. Mao’s reformulation of Marxist theory and development of a peasant-centered political praxis; Lenin’s relentless drive to industrialisation and proletarianisation against the backdrop of serfdom. The Zapatistas did not invent a theory from on high, articulating in advance the society to be endorsed; they did not seek to ‘persuade’ the people of the Chiapas region that their alternative was better. Their movement and organisational structure was a direct response to their conditions of life: lack of food, housing, security, and a state which lurched wildly between being unresponsive and brutally repressive. This should not be read as a historical determinism; quite the opposite. As Sonali Gupta and H. Bolin recently argue in e-Flux, ” there is no algorithm that prescribes the specific conditions that produce social rupture; there is no such thing as an engineered riot.” History can only be understood backwards.
The standard analysis not only puts the cart before the horse by continuing to privilege the role of the ‘revolutionary intellectual’ over the masses, it also passes over the ways in which each revolutionary movement is also always a response to their own conditions of life. We must stop refusing to see revolution where it is. If there is to be a communism for the west (and this is far from guaranteed!), it will not be born out of an abstract clash of ideas or this interminable proliferation of internet ideologies utterly cut off from reality; it will be born from the real conditions in which we live. And we can hopefully jettison the concept of the ‘intellectual’ entirely – is there anything more pretentious, so openly advertising a desire for power and authority? “Representation no longer exists; there’s only action: theoretical action and practical action which serve as relays and form networks.”6 The task, then, seems to be the same that Deleuze and Guattari articulated so many years ago: To trace the lines of flight in capital’s contemporary conditions, to understand the ways in which capital not only pushes up against its own limits but also what escapes it; and to draw these together on a plane of consistency, to “plug all these lines of flight into a revolutionary plateau” in such a way as to construct “a war machine capable of countering the world war machine by other means.” What kind of revolutionary structures and modes of organisation are made possible under contemporary conditions? And how can they brought together on a plane of consistency such that they can constitute a war-machine adequate to the situation we face? This remains the question of organisation, and I hope to explore them in later posts.
- Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, available here: The German Ideology (marxists.org)
- “7,000 BC: Apparatuses of Capture” in Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (New York & London: Bloomsbury, 2019), p. 549
- “Capitalism: A Very Special Delirium” in Félix Guattari, Chaosophy (South Pasadena: Semiotexte, 2009), p. 35
- Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (London: Penguin Classics, 2002), p. 223
- “Capitalism: A Very Special Delirium”, p. 35
- Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, “Intellectuals and power”, available here: Intellectuals and power: A conversation between Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze (libcom.org)
Cover image: ‘boypoolrhuzome’ by Dr Mark Ingham