Introduction to the Study of Militant Workers’ Inquiry

viewpoint ill (660 x 300)4

This text sum­ma­rizes the view­point adopted by the Groupe de Recherches Matéri­al­is­tes (GRM, Group for Mate­ri­al­ist Research) to ana­lyze dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal “cases” rel­e­vant to the prac­tice of mil­i­tant inquiry – Quaderni Rossi and the work­erist tra­di­tion in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s, Social­isme ou Bar­barie in France, rev­o­lu­tion­ary syn­di­cal­ism in France dur­ing the 1930s.

The study of these “cases” was the object of the first part of the 2011-2012 Sem­i­nar that GRM orga­nized at the École Nor­male Supérieure in Paris.1 It would be impos­si­ble to sum­ma­rize here the results of this work, which con­sisted prin­ci­pally in reopen­ing the dossier of the cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­omy, and address­ing the ques­tion of the con­tem­po­rary forms of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion.2 Here we aim only to for­mu­late cer­tain ques­tions which moti­vated our study of inquiry, start­ing from the work that GRM directed in its first years, essen­tially devoted to to the notion of the “con­junc­ture,” and to the analy­sis of the his­tor­i­cal cor­pus of com­mu­nist, social­ist, and anar­chist thought.3 For us it was a mat­ter of con­tin­u­ing to delimit the always het­eronomous con­di­tions of the­o­ret­i­cal reflec­tion and polit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion, and to reaf­firm that con­tem­po­rary eman­ci­pa­tory thought can­not ignore this cor­pus – tex­tual and con­cep­tual, orga­ni­za­tional and dis­cur­sive, of the polit­i­cal sequences from the 19th to the 20th cen­tury – these sequences which there­fore seem to us to always take hold in this dou­ble inscrip­tion: of dis­courses and con­cepts in polit­i­cal prac­tice, and polit­i­cal prac­tices in the dis­cur­sive tex­tures of its (self-)reflection. In this sense, it is there­fore not only a mat­ter of affirm­ing the impu­rity of the­ory, its overde­ter­mi­na­tion by pol­i­tics, but equally the nec­es­sary overde­ter­mi­na­tion of pol­i­tics itself by his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions which can never be exhausted by strate­gies, insti­tu­tions, ide­o­log­i­cal and orga­ni­za­tional for­ma­tions; con­di­tions whose irre­ducible excess rep­re­sents at once the limit of the pol­i­tics of eman­ci­pa­tion, but also their pos­si­bil­ity of inter­ven­ing in the ensem­ble of social rela­tions and the spheres of human exis­tence. What we call the improper of pol­i­tics.

So if there is only pol­i­tics in (or under) deter­mi­nate con­di­tions, into which indi­vid­u­als and groups “enter” because they are always already inserted within them, it is nec­es­sary to engage in “a return to the mate­rial con­di­tions of pol­i­tics itself.”4 Return­ing to mate­rial con­di­tions, that is to say, to non-polit­i­cal con­di­tions to short-cir­cuit the polit­i­cal itself in its effects of ide­o­log­i­cal inter­pel­la­tion, and by doing so exit­ing the chi­as­mus between the improper becom­ing of pol­i­tics and the becom­ing-polit­i­cal of the improper. Now the con­di­tions which the polit­i­cal can­not exhaust are from the begin­ning given by the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion itself in its rela­tion to the pro­le­tariat, whose effect is “that of the form of the work­ing class’s polit­i­cal exis­tence within the lim­its of the cap­i­tal­ist ‘sys­tem,’ and of its effects on the very ‘func­tion­ing’ of the sys­tem,” and ten­den­tially the stakes of com­mu­nism itself.5

In this sense, our goal is to study the sites where the pol­i­tics of eman­ci­pa­tion have encoun­tered, guided by the imper­a­tive of a fidelity to its con­di­tions, the ques­tion of the sta­tus of the nature of the pro­le­tariat in its rela­tion to polit­i­cal strug­gle. Such is, roughly, the prob­lem­atic to which the work of GRM has led, and whose ulte­rior elab­o­ra­tion is con­cen­trated in the ques­tion: “What is the pro­le­tariat?”

What, then, is “the pro­le­tariat”? And first, how many names does it have? Pro­le­tariat, work­ing class, labor­ing classes, labor­ers, waged work­ers, pop­u­lar classes… are all these “divine names” equiv­a­lent? And if they are not, by which dif­fer­ences can they be dis­tin­guished? To limit our­selves to the Marx­ian cor­pus, is the pro­le­tariat of the Man­i­festo the same thing as the work­ing class of Cap­i­tal? And what rela­tion links the class which has noth­ing more to lose, which is entirely dis­pos­sessed, to the col­lec­tive laborer evoked in the most vision­ary pas­sages of the Grun­drisse and the unpub­lished sixth chap­ter? What rela­tion between the demi­urge-laborer in the 1844 Man­u­scripts, whose con­di­tion is that of the loss of the object, and the “really sub­sumed” laborer of Cap­i­tal, who only exists as an orga­nized col­lec­tive, which is the con­di­tion of all social objec­ti­va­tion of human activ­i­ties (to the extent that the col­lec­tive power of said activ­i­ties can only be devel­oped by the eclipse of every imme­di­ate rela­tion­ship of appro­pri­a­tion of the social con­di­tions of labor)? What rela­tion, finally, between the “con­scious” pro­le­tariat, sub­ject of the over­com­ing of cap­i­tal­ism, and the empir­i­cal pro­le­tariat, sub­ject to “trade-union con­scious­ness” – what is the con­scious­ness proper to pro­le­tar­i­ans, sep­a­rated and opposed, vis-à-vis that of the pro­le­tariat?

Through­out the his­tory of the posi­tion­ing of polit­i­cal prac­tice in rela­tion to the pro­le­tariat, few rup­tures will have had the impor­tance of Lenin’s ges­ture in 1902 – the pro­le­tariat is divided and this divi­sion is a struc­tural fact; the process of polit­i­cal prac­tice con­sists in inter­ven­ing in this divi­sion to oppose, within the pro­le­tariat, its class des­tiny to that which – includ­ing its own imme­di­ate exis­tence – stands in its way. This ges­ture fixes a par­a­digm of the encoun­ter between com­mu­nist pol­i­tics and its con­di­tions of effec­tu­a­tion – it seals a des­tiny, a “send­ing”6 of com­mu­nism, whose con­se­quences mark the 20th cen­tury. Many times, over the course of our work, we have encoun­tered and taken up the most rad­i­cal cri­tiques of these con­se­quences: cri­tique of the con­cen­tra­tion of polit­i­cal ini­tia­tive in the appa­ra­tus of the party; cri­tique of the divi­sion of polit­i­cal labor between direc­tors and exe­cu­tants; cri­tique of the mimeti­cism of the party vis-à-vis the State (which is indis­so­cia­ble from the afore­men­tioned divi­sion of labor inher­ent in the State as a “sep­a­rate appa­ra­tus”7 )… cri­tiques, all in all, addressed to these aspects of the Lenin­ist dis­posi­tif which, in Bol­she­vik the­ory and prac­tice, and later that of the Com­intern, will end up play­ing the role of a coun­ter-ten­dency vis-à–vis the egal­i­tar­ian process for which “com­mu­nism” is the name.

But cri­tiques of the logic imma­nent to polit­i­cal appa­ra­tuses would not be suf­fi­cient to rep­re­sent a coun­ter-move­ment of polit­i­cal inven­tion with­out incor­po­rat­ing a return to the real of the pro­le­tariat, some attempts to re-inter­ro­gate the sta­tus and the real­ity of the sup­posed bear­ers of the com­mu­nist process; with­out affirm­ing the pri­macy, or the “cen­tral­ity,” of the sup­ple­men­tary or het­eronomous moment of pol­i­tics against vicious (since ine­gal­i­tar­ian) autonomi­sa­tion of the orga­ni­za­tional and “spe­cial­ized” moment.

The moments of “return to class” – to its con­di­tions, its utter­ances, its strug­gles, and its dis­in­cli­na­tion to strug­gle, or at least to strug­gle in the way polit­i­cal direc­tors con­sider the most appro­pri­ate – have been, through the course of the 20th cen­tury, char­ac­ter­ized by a par­tic­u­larly rad­i­cal recourse to inquiry, as oper­a­tor of a polit­i­cal process and a rela­tion­ship between mil­i­tancy and social classes, beyond the lim­its of sim­ple soci­o­log­i­cal research, to aim at a trans­for­ma­tion, even a con­ver­sion (in the lit­eral sense of the reori­en­ta­tion of the mind), of the work­ers’ move­ment start­ing from a bal­ance sheet of its impasses. By this move­ment of “return” to the con­crete of pro­le­tar­ian exis­tence, some attempts have been able to entirely rethink the mean­ing of notions like “dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tariat,” “orga­ni­za­tion,” “class strug­gle”; and some new analy­ses have been elab­o­rated deal­ing with the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion, on its inter­nal dynam­ics, on its capac­ity to trans­form col­lec­tive life and assim­i­late oppo­si­tion. Inquiry has there­fore pow­er­fully con­tributed to plac­ing at the cen­ter of Marx­ist, neo-Marx­ist, or post-Marx­ist the­ory, not only the cri­tique of tra­di­tional forms of mil­i­tancy, but above all the polar­ity between Cap­i­tal as per­ma­nent rev­o­lu­tion and steel cage, and Class as the irre­ducible and vir­tual place of a dif­fer­ent con­sti­tu­tion of social rela­tions.

This “dual­ist” for­mu­la­tion which focuses on the oppo­si­tion and struc­tural irre­ducibil­ity between Cap­i­tal and Pro­le­tariat explic­itly dis­tances itself from one inter­pre­ta­tion of what we are try­ing to think, which is sit­u­ated within a soci­ol­o­giz­ing approach that mil­i­tant work­ers’ inquiry, in its var­i­ous incar­na­tions, rightly posi­tioned itself against: that is to say, assum­ing that the pro­le­tariat would present itself as a class by nam­ing itself first accord­ing to the sim­i­lar­ity of the ele­ments of a set which it com­poses accord­ing to pre­vi­ously fixed eco­nomic and juridi­cal cat­e­gories, and which could retrans­late itself in tables or sta­tis­tics, which sig­nify in turn that social classes pre­cede their rela­tions rather than being their result.

Con­versely, the whole Marx­ist analy­sis tends to affirm that we can only reverse this eco­nomic and soci­o­log­i­cal descrip­tion, by a mate­ri­al­ist the­ory, if we address “the for­ma­tions of social classes within a sys­tem of dif­fer­ences or divi­sions: dif­fer­ence which develop and change as a result of a fun­da­men­tal antag­o­nism, mate­ri­ally deter­mined.”8 And it affirms that in this way “in no his­tor­i­cal period have social classes appeared in any sense on their own, with their names writ­ten in front, or reject­ing their iden­tity in their uni­fied ‘class con­scious­ness.’ What allows them to be iden­ti­fied is the way they act upon each other in given mate­rial con­di­tions, the rela­tions which they estab­lish between them­selves.”9

Now if no class is ever given once and for all, this is because, in every epoch, a class is the result of a ten­den­tial process. In other words, the pro­le­tariat is defined first by its divi­sions – bet­ter, its con­tra­dic­tions – which reflect in their unity itself the devel­op­ment of the forms of exploita­tion, as much in the imme­di­ate process of pro­duc­tion as in the repro­duc­tion of labor-power. In short, the pro­le­tariat “in itself” does not exist, in the same way that “it does not repro­duce itself by itself.” Bet­ter, “there is only a his­tor­i­cal pro­le­tariat inso­far as it is the result of an uneven process of pro­le­tar­i­an­iza­tion,” and the struc­ture of the pro­le­tariat is over­all noth­ing but the “index of ten­den­cies of pro­le­tar­i­an­iza­tion in the his­tor­i­cally deter­mined con­di­tions of a given social for­ma­tion.”10 Far, then, from want­ing to sub­sume these names by deny­ing their sin­gu­lar­ity, or treat­ing them as the man­i­fes­ta­tion of an inabil­ity to define the object in ques­tion, it is con­versely a mat­ter of locat­ing them in the body of Marx­ian analy­sis as man­i­fes­ta­tions of a ten­den­tial con­tra­dic­tory unity, whose effects must be ana­lyzed in turn as inter­pel­la­tion as much as the object and the modes of a pos­si­ble polit­i­cal strug­gle which they impli­cate.

One of the ele­ments of the prob­lema­ti­za­tion and crit­i­cal elab­o­ra­tion of work­ers’ inquiry will con­sist then in out­lin­ing the moments when a grasp on the “real” of the pro­le­tariat was posed in con­tra­dic­tion with the hold on Marx­ian-Marx­ist the­ory itself: inquiry not only as the nour­ish­ing and sem­i­nal moment of con­cep­tual elab­o­ra­tion, but also as its explo­sion, its inter­nal divi­sion through con­fronta­tion with the excess of the real. Not that it is a ques­tion of an “abstract polemic against Cap­i­tal,” or a sim­ple case of philol­ogy, but rather a need to rethink a renewal of the polit­i­cal strug­gle of the pro­le­tariat, the renewal of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary praxis. There­fore it is a mat­ter of reread­ing the the­o­rists or mil­i­tants of inquiry in light of this polit­i­cal antin­omy in Marx­ism, a crit­i­cal and con­tin­ued rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of Marx’s mag­num opus, “the text in which Marx wanted to con­cen­trate his the­ory most sys­tem­at­i­cally.”11 A rein­ter­pre­ta­tion which works on the dis­place­ments-lim­its in Marx’s work, play­ing it against itself to find within it a crit­i­cal poten­tial against its own ten­dency to trans­form into rei­fied con­cepts, in which “the objec­ti­fi­ca­tion of cat­e­gories… blocks action by rev­o­lu­tion­ary sub­jec­tiv­ity,” and which, finally, “enclosed in a dialec­ti­cal total­ity,” can only lead to the bureau­cratic degen­er­a­tion of the work­ers’ move­ment.12 Now, Balibar’s text notes the dif­fi­culty Marx had in mak­ing the con­cept of the pro­le­tariat and that of the work­ing class coex­ist in texts in which the lat­ter is most thor­oughly expounded, leav­ing the irre­ducibly prob­lem­atic notion of the pro­le­tariat vir­tu­ally open to vari­a­tion in its con­tent. So we have found in this dif­fer­en­tial gap [écart] between pro­le­tariat and work­ing class the con­di­tions of enun­ci­a­tion of what we have called a process of pro­le­tar­i­an­iza­tion.

We will retain only two moments of Balibar’s analy­sis. The first moment is to rec­og­nize that if the pro­le­tariat is not a soci­o­log­i­cal real­ity, that it can­not be reduced to this because it is first of all a polit­i­cal body, or the other name for polit­i­cal analy­sis in Marx, its rar­efac­tion in the body of analy­sis of Cap­i­tal is there­fore noth­ing else but another man­ner of sig­ni­fy­ing that “Marx was never able to sta­bi­lize his dis­course with respect to the con­cept of ‘pol­i­tics,’” trans­lat­ing a nec­es­sary “gap” [décalage] between “a his­tor­i­cal real­ity” updated by the analy­ses of Cap­i­tal and its nec­es­sar­ily “impure”13 dis­course, caught up in what Althusser called “the full­ness of an already occu­pied world.”14

A nec­es­sary gap in the capac­ity of all thought in rup­ture, caus­ing the sat­u­ra­tion of a dom­i­nant ide­ol­ogy space to vac­il­late, “must be under­taken within the same field where it must inter­vene, prac­ti­cally in the very lan­guage with which this new rigor must break.”15 If Marx there­fore makes a “short-cir­cuit” between two real­i­ties that bour­geois thought and ide­ol­ogy have affirmed as irre­ducible or dis­jointed with rela­tion to each other – the spaces proper to the eco­nomic and the polit­i­cal – and thus opens a whole field of rev­o­lu­tion­ary inves­ti­ga­tion through the the­o­retico-prac­ti­cal artic­u­la­tion of the con­cept of labor and the social rela­tion; at the same time, this short-cir­cuit had, in turn, been made by the ide­ol­ogy of Marx’s epoch, which he would not have known how to break from entirely. Bal­ibar empha­sizes that “Marx’s ‘polit­i­cal’ the­ory and action have no proper space in the ide­o­log­i­cal con­fig­u­ra­tion of his time.” But here we can sig­nal a dif­fer­ence of opin­ion – Bal­ibar thinks that to con­tinue along these lines would be “too easy,” unwill­ing to per­mit that “one should be con­tent merely to record and illus­trate the inscrip­tion of Marx­ism in the space of the ‘dom­i­nant ide­ol­ogy’ and the effects in return of this ide­ol­ogy upon Marx­ist dis­course,” pre­fer­ring to tie onto the “per­ma­nent anchor­ing points for any cri­tique of social dom­i­na­tion.”16

How­ever, it is to the effects of this ide­ol­ogy on Marx’s own dis­course which we had to return, inas­much as they will deter­mine a ten­sion and coun­ter-ten­dency within Marx’s own work, that is to say, the sci­en­tist ide­ol­ogy of the 19th cen­tury and its will to totally com­pre­hend soci­ety and his­tory. In the very place where Marx “refuses to grant [him­self] in advance the solu­tion to the prob­lem of his­tory and a com­pleted dialec­tic,”17 even where he affirms that “com­mu­nism is not an ideal state towards which soci­ety is pro­gress­ing, but the real move­ment that sup­presses the exist­ing state of things,” the dialec­tic of Cap­i­tal “makes Marx com­pare social evo­lu­tion to a nat­u­ral process, that stresses eco­nomic deter­min­ism, hail­ing in Darwin’s the­ory a dis­cov­ery which par­al­lels Marx”18:

the one thing which is impor­tant for Marx is to find the law of the phe­nom­ena with whose inves­ti­ga­tion he is con­cerned; and it is not the law which gov­erns these phe­nom­ena, inso­far as they have a definite form and mutual con­nec­tion within a given his­tor­i­cal period, that is impor­tant to him. Of still greater impor­tance to him is the law of their vari­a­tion, of their devel­op­ment, i.e. of their tran­si­tion from one form into another, from one series of con­nec­tions into a dif­fer­ent one… Con­se­quently, Marx only con­cerns him­self with one thing: to show, by an exact sci­en­tific inves­ti­ga­tion, the neces­sity of suc­ces­sive deter­mi­nate orders of social rela­tions.19

Which has the pos­si­ble effect of “destroy­ing the dynamism of this process by hypo­sta­tiz­ing it, by rigid­i­fy­ing it into a total­ity with its own laws of devel­op­ment that one might be able to pos­sess, or dom­i­nate, or reverse.”20

Another moment which we retain in this analy­sis addresses the prob­lem of the process of the becom­ing his­tor­i­cal or the becom­ing-sub­ject of the pro­le­tariat within Cap­i­tal. If the pro­le­tariat only appears in in the analy­sis of Cap­i­tal as “con­cretely present but with­out a unique sig­ni­fier,”21 it’s that it rests on the polar­ity of two non-super­im­pos­able modal­i­ties, “two modes of man­i­fes­ta­tion of the same social real­ity”22 proper to the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion, of which we must ana­lyze the dif­fer­en­tial gap, the name it gives for that mat­ter to “two over­lap­ping col­lec­tives of work­ers, made up of the same indi­vid­u­als (or almost) and yet incom­pat­i­ble”23: the one pas­sive, as the effect of the labor process, or a cap­i­tal-col­lec­tive (deter­mined or indi­vid­u­al­ized by the wage form and linked to the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of labor-power as com­mod­ity), the other active, “inco­ercible residue,”24 the Pro­le­tariat-mass or pro­le­tariat-col­lec­tive char­ac­ter­iz­ing “the ele­ment of mate­rial impos­si­bil­ity” of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion itself, which, under his­tor­i­cal analy­sis of class strug­gles, is the effect of its own con­tra­dic­tion, neces­si­tat­ing then a cap­i­tal­ist man­age­ment of these dif­fer­ences and con­flicts which it leads and thus mak­ing, on the other hand, the class strug­gle into a fac­tor of the accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal. This is why in Marx’s analy­sis of Cap­i­tal, the work­ing class tends to be “pre­sented as fac­ing cap­i­tal sym­met­ri­cally,” as its inverted image.25 Quite the oppo­site, all analy­sis must rec­og­nize their essen­tial dis­sym­me­try, inas­much as it is part of the move­ment of cap­i­tal:

The fact that the pro­le­tariat, which is both a “class” and the “masses,” is not a sub­ject, that it never coin­cides with itself, does not mean that the pro­le­tariat never presents itself or acts as a sub­ject in his­tory. How­ever, this rev­o­lu­tion­ary action is always tied to a con­junc­ture, last­ing or not, and only exists within its lim­its. This the­sis opens up two prac­ti­cal ques­tions: (1) what are the con­di­tions and forms through which such an effect can occur? and (2) what enters a mass move­ment, from a deter­mi­nate class con­di­tion, that makes it capa­ble of being rec­og­nized prac­ti­cally as the expres­sion of this class? Con­versely, this the­sis dis­misses the spec­u­la­tions and puerile con­tro­ver­sies con­cern­ing the irre­ducible dif­fer­ence between the “ideal pro­le­tariat” and the “empir­i­cal pro­le­tariat.” It admits that the emer­gence of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary form of sub­jec­tiv­ity (or iden­tity) is always a par­tial effect and never a speci­fic prop­erty of nature, and there­fore brings with it no guar­an­tees, but obliges us to search for the con­di­tions in a con­junc­ture that can pre­cip­i­tate class strug­gles within mass move­ments.26

The symp­to­matic read­ing Bal­ibar pro­poses seems to us to have this dou­ble ben­e­fit of clear­ing up, from a Marx­ian antin­omy, an inter­pre­tive path to the con­di­tions of pos­si­bil­ity for a the­ory of pro­le­tar­ian rev­o­lu­tion, while also leav­ing open the prob­lem that this read­ing was able to iden­tify. And from here to main­tain the blindspot of Marx’s the­ory, between the objec­tive devel­op­ment of the con­di­tions of social for­ma­tions, and the forms of sub­jec­tiv­ity inter­nal to this devel­op­ment; and on the other hand, the the­o­ret­i­cal block­ages which can nei­ther reflect nor rec­og­nize the con­di­tions of pos­si­bil­ity of a pos­si­ble inver­sion of the rela­tions of deter­mi­na­tion within the rei­fied effec­tiv­ity of social real­ity. So the impos­si­bil­ity of think­ing rev­o­lu­tion as a sub­jec­tive move­ment, of self-deter­mi­na­tion and self-lib­er­a­tion of the pro­le­tariat, is now the becom­ing his­tor­i­cal of the pro­le­tariat in its polit­i­cal het­eron­omy, and inter­pret­ing there­fore work­ers’ strug­gles as the sim­ple reflec­tion of an objec­tive con­flict between labor and Cap­i­tal and non as a becom­ing-sub­ject by the over­com­ing of sub­jec­tive het­eron­omy inher­ent to the social live of the exploited classes. Now it is against this blindspot and block­age of Marx­ist the­ory that the the­o­rists of inquiry for­mu­lated their most rad­i­cal the­ses, open­ing to an entire reverse-shot of crit­i­cal and mil­i­tant analy­sis of cap­i­tal in the 1960s and 1970s. We will only men­tion two. The first, that of Cas­to­ri­adis, in his 1960 arti­cle “Mod­ern Cap­i­tal­ism and Rev­o­lu­tion,” des­ig­nated Cap­i­tal as a “degra­da­tion of rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory,” which derives the “basic premise” accord­ing to which, “in the cap­i­tal­ist econ­omy, indi­vid­u­als, whether pro­le­tar­i­ans or cap­i­tal­ists, are actu­ally and wholly trans­formed into things, i.e. rei­fied; they are sub­mit­ted to the action of eco­nomic laws that dif­fer in no way from nat­u­ral laws,” this the­sis: “the the­ory as such ‘ignores’ the action of social classes.”27 In other words:

[It is as] pure and sim­ple objects that work­ers and cap­i­tal­ists appear in the pages of Cap­i­tal. They are only blind and uncon­scious instru­ments real­iz­ing through their actions what is imposed upon them by “eco­nomic laws.” If eco­nom­ics is to become a mechan­ics of soci­ety, it must deal with phe­nom­ena ruled by “objec­tive” laws that are them­selves inde­pen­dent of the action of peo­ple and classes. We end up with the fol­low­ing fan­tas­tic para­dox: Marx, who dis­cov­ered class strug­gle, wrote a mon­u­men­tal work ana­lyz­ing the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism from which the class strug­gle is totally absent.28

In short: “this con­cep­tion is equiv­a­lent to treat­ing work­ers in the­ory as cap­i­tal­ism would like to treat the pro­duc­ers in actual prac­tice… but can­not, that is, as pure and sim­ple objects.”29

If we can­not deny the whole pages devoted to class strug­gle in the body of analy­sis of Cap­i­tal, what Cas­to­ri­adis puts into ques­tion here is indeed the ques­tion of the cen­tral­ity of the place they occupy. Rec­og­niz­ing the his­toric­ity of cap­i­tal­ism, if there is strug­gle, this strug­gle can only resist effects and not the causes of these effects which, for their part, link up accord­ing to a mechan­i­cal logic, accord­ing to quasi-invari­able con­nec­tions which make class strug­gle a mar­ginal fac­tor, a sim­ple vari­able of adjust­ment but chang­ing noth­ing in the ten­den­cies of the cap­i­tal­ist econ­omy. In a dif­fer­ent man­ner, but from the same site of crit­i­cal enun­ci­a­tion, as the reverse-shot of the analy­sis of Cap­i­tal, we cite these lines of Negri:

Cap­i­tal is also this text which served to reduce cri­tique to eco­nomic the­ory, to anni­hi­late sub­jec­tiv­ity in objec­tiv­ity, to sub­ject the sub­ver­sive capac­ity of the pro­le­tariat to the reor­ga­niz­ing and repres­sive intel­li­gence of cap­i­tal­ist power. We can only recon­quer a cor­rect read­ing of Cap­i­tal (not for the painstak­ing con­science of the intel­lec­tual, but for the rev­o­lu­tion­ary con­science of the masses) if we sub­ject it to the cri­tique of the Grun­drisse, if we reread it through the cat­e­gor­i­cal appa­ra­tus of the Grun­drisse, which is tra­versed through­out by an absolutely insur­mount­able antag­o­nism led by the capac­ity of the pro­le­tariat. From this point of view, the Grun­drisse rep­re­sents the cri­tique of the cap­i­tal­ist “rev­o­lu­tion from above” in the real move­ment. It is the con­fi­dence in the “rev­o­lu­tion from below”; it bears the strongest poten­tial for the destruc­tion of every kind of the­o­ret­i­cal or polit­i­cal auton­omy detached from the real move­ment. This is what the Grun­drisse under­stands (through its cat­e­gories) as the only pos­si­ble foun­da­tion.30

The mil­i­tant read­ing of Marx lead in Italy by Quaderni Rossi, and later by the work­erists, will come down to a divi­sion in Marx him­self (fol­low­ing the exam­ple of the pro­le­tariat): Cap­i­tal becomes the organon of the grasp­ing of a com­pleted and autopo­etic total­ity, capa­ble of inte­grat­ing all oppo­si­tion in its unlim­ited move­ment of self-repro­duc­tion; while the Grun­drisse becomes the nec­es­sar­ily frag­mented tran­scrip­tion of erup­tions of pro­le­tar­ian insub­or­di­na­tion from the phe­nom­e­nal man­i­fes­ta­tion of the process of val­oriza­tion: the Grun­drisse as analy­sis, not of the becom­ing-sub­ject of sub­stance, but the irre­ducible oppo­si­tion of the sub­ject within sub­stance. It would be impos­si­ble here to fol­low in detail the con­se­quences of this divi­sion of Marx in the ide­o­log­i­cal and orga­ni­za­tional his­tory of the Ital­ian far Left, from operaismo to Autono­mia. The red threat, or the “hot wire,” of the search for a pro­le­tar­ian sub­jec­ti­va­tion irre­ducible to the move­ment of Cap­i­tal, will con­di­tion the lines of flight from one fig­ure of the pro­le­tariat to another, up to the con­tem­po­rary posi­tions regard­ing immaterial/cognitive labor. If a cri­tique of these posi­tions is nec­es­sary, and remains to be made, it is impos­si­ble to pass over with silence their rela­tion to the search for a direct line between the the­o­ret­i­cal analy­sis of the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion and an imme­di­ate expres­sion of the pro­le­tar­ian excess: the knowl­edge of cap­i­tal would have to imme­di­ately express the dis­obe­di­ence of pro­le­tar­ian sub­jec­tiv­ity, the artic­u­lat­ing self-con­sti­tu­tion of the antag­o­nis­tic sub­ject and its posi­tion­ing within the con­tra­dic­tory struc­ture of the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion.31

This is why, even in their diver­gences, the the­o­rists and mil­i­tants of inquiry will reaf­firm the neces­sity for an eman­ci­pa­tory project of resub­jec­ti­fy­ing and inten­si­fy­ing mil­i­tant polit­i­cal the­ory and prac­tice through a return to the mate­rial con­di­tions of labor­ers sur­round­ing the elab­o­ra­tion of a col­lec­tive praxis; and thus of using “polit­i­cal prac­tice as an inten­si­fier of thought, and analy­sis as a mul­ti­plier of the forms and domains for the inter­ven­tion of polit­i­cal action.”32 Which calls for a last remark: resub­jec­ti­vat­ing the­o­ries and prac­tices or return­ing to the “sub­jec­tive” does not mean sup­port­ing the empiri­cist posi­tion of tra­di­tional soci­ol­ogy, which under the pre­text that only the fact of indi­vid­ual exis­tence can be observed, tends to negate the idea of social class or oth­er­wise to affirm it as a generic fic­tive notion. What we will name sub­jec­tive is a return to what Claude Lefort named and iden­ti­fied as a pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence, a return to the ensem­ble of social rela­tions which this class main­tains with itself and with its own his­tory. There­fore this term “sub­jec­tive” does not remotely negate the notion of class, quite the con­trary: it best sums up “the dom­i­nant trait of the pro­le­tariat,” its own real­ity. There is the “sub­jec­tive” in the sense that “its com­port­ments are not the sim­ple result of the con­di­tions of its exis­tence.”33 Bet­ter, there is a pro­le­tar­ian “sub­jec­tive” because its con­di­tion of exis­tence for being trans­formed demand of it a con­stant strug­gle; a strug­gle against the irra­tional­ity and the con­tra­dic­tions inher­ent to the sci­en­tific orga­ni­za­tion of labor, where, “in real life, cap­i­tal­ism is obliged to base itself on the people’s capac­ity for self-orga­ni­za­tion, on the indi­vid­ual and col­lec­tive cre­ativ­ity of pro­duc­ers. With­out mak­ing use of these abil­i­ties the sys­tem could not sur­vive for a day. But the whole ‘offi­cial’ orga­ni­za­tion of mod­ern soci­ety both ignores and seeks to sup­press these abil­i­ties to the utmost.” But strug­gle also against the very con­tent of this life, since:

More than any other social order, cap­i­tal­ism has put work at the cen­ter of human activ­ity – and more than any other social order cap­i­tal­ism makes of work some­thing that is absurd (absurd not from the view­point of the philoso­pher or of the moral­ist, but from the point of view of those who have to per­form it). What is chal­lenged today is not only the “human orga­ni­za­tion” of work but its nature, its con­tent, its meth­ods, the very instru­ments and pur­pose of cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion.34

This no soci­ol­ogy can man­age to under­stand: only the return to direct tes­ti­monies by mil­i­tant inquiry can make it think­able, because it par­tic­i­pates itself in this strug­gle. To make it thought in the sense of an inter­ven­tion in social strug­gle. This strug­gle was named, in the course of the Sem­i­nar of the GRM, the excess of the sub­ject – the excess of the sub­ject vis-à-vis struc­tural deter­minisms, of which we must demon­strate not only the pos­si­bil­ity, but also the real effi­cacy. This is why we wish to add to the two “cat­e­gories” pro­posed by Bal­ibar – the Pro­le­tariat-class and the Pro­le­tariat-mass (in the block­age of the cat­e­gories of analy­sis of Marx’s Cap­i­tal) whose tra­di­tional vec­tor is the overde­ter­mi­na­tion under rev­o­lu­tion­ary con­junc­ture – a third which we could name: the Pro­le­tariat-sub­jec­tive as “the anchor­ing point of sub­jec­tive refusal in the struc­ture of soci­ety which can only find artic­u­la­tion to the mate­ri­al­ity of social rela­tions by this inter­nal excess to the struc­ture which rep­re­sents the irre­ducibil­ity of labor to a sim­ple fac­tor of cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion” and which con­sti­tutes the index of the repressed [refoulé] within Marx­ism.35 Which the implies clar­i­fy­ing and defin­ing the term “expe­ri­ence” in a very pre­cise sense, in a dou­ble sense. Not only does it iden­tify the class dis­tinc­tion between pro­le­tariat and bour­geoisie, in their real­ity and their prop­erly asym­met­ric his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ter (against the ten­dency of objec­tivist soci­ol­ogy), but it also sig­ni­fies that this dis­tinc­tion was only able to be clar­i­fied, his­tor­i­cally by the pro­le­tariat, from the coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary fail­ure of the party-orga­ni­za­tion of the Lenin­ist tra­di­tion, the one enun­ci­ated in 1902, mak­ing the process of polit­i­cal prac­tice an inter­ven­tion in the divi­sion of the pro­le­tariat to oppose, in the pro­le­tariat, its class des­tiny to that which – includ­ing its own imme­di­ate exis­tence – stands in its way. This fail­ure would then have revealed “that the pro­le­tariat can­not divide itself, alien­ate itself in sta­ble forms of rep­re­sen­ta­tion as the bour­geoisie did. It can­not do so because it has an eco­nomic nature in rela­tion to which the polit­i­cal par­ties are only super­struc­tures. But the pro­le­tariat is noth­ing objec­tive. It is a class in which the  eco­nomic and the polit­i­cal no longer have a sep­a­rate real­ity and which defines itself as expe­ri­ence… It is there­fore as a total class that it must resolve its his­tor­i­cal tasks, and it can­not rec­og­nize its inter­ests in a detached part of itself”36 in its polit­i­cal process of reap­pro­pri­a­tion of its con­di­tions of exis­tence, through the expe­ri­ence of its auton­omy and that of its self-orga­ni­za­tion. If expe­ri­ence would seem to reject the neces­sity of an orga­ni­za­tional form insti­tuted as van­guard which would take hold in an exte­rior point, and there­fore the intro­duc­tion “from out­side” of polit­i­cal con­scious­ness; if expe­ri­ence puts into ques­tion, and per­haps dis­qual­i­fies, the very idea of the party inas­much as no one can act or speak in the name of the pro­le­tariat, it is nec­es­sary to rede­fine the sta­tus of rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory and its rela­tions with the effec­tive polit­i­cal praxis of the pro­le­tariat, that is, to rede­fine the very fig­ure of the mil­i­tant; with the under­stand­ing that if the pro­le­tariat can only be its own the­ory, and in this unrep­re­sentable, we can­not reach it the­o­ret­i­cally “but only at the level of prac­tice by par­tic­i­pat­ing in its his­tory,” restor­ing its atti­tude inter­nally; what can take form inter­nal to the pro­le­tariat is a knowl­edge of its his­tory, of its dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion, of its present tasks, in show­ing “how its capac­i­ties for inven­tion and power of orga­ni­za­tion man­i­fest in every­day life.”37 How then to inter­vene in the direc­tion of the self-deter­mi­na­tion and there­fore the auton­omy of laborer, under which dialec­tic? How to think this inter­nal rela­tion between what is aimed for (the devel­op­ment of auton­omy) and that by which it is aimed at (the exer­cise of this auton­omy)?38

There can only be mil­i­tant inquiry, against all objec­tive and sup­pos­edly neu­tral forms, if the inquir­ers them­selves “accept the value of pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence,” on the con­di­tion that they “take root in its sit­u­a­tions and make the social and his­tor­i­cal hori­zon of the class” their own; that they them­selves break “with the imme­di­ately given con­di­tions which are those of the sys­tem of exploita­tion.” The mil­i­tant must appear then as an “agent of the labor­ers,”39 and not, as Lenin wanted, “a tri­bune of the peo­ple,” who knows how to profit from every occa­sion for “expos­ing before all his social con­vic­tions and demo­c­ra­tic demands”; “start­ing from a cri­tique or from a labor­ers’ strug­gle in a deter­mi­nate sec­tor,” usu­ally bor­rowed from an implicit dis­course, frag­men­tary and more felt than reflected, it “to show how it puts into ques­tion the very fact of exploita­tion and there­fore tries to extend its reach”40; to find forms of action “in the mul­ti­ple nuceli of mil­i­tants freely orga­niz­ing their activ­ity while tak­ing care of their con­tacts, their infor­ma­tion, their con­nec­tions, in con­fronta­tion but also in the unity of work­ers’ expe­ri­ences.”41 In this sense, mil­i­tant work­ers’ inquiry could rein­tro­duce to us Balibar’s enig­matic for­mula, of a “func­tion of col­lec­tive analy­sis.”42

The expe­ri­ence of mil­i­tant work­ers’ inquiry which we ana­lyzed in the course of the first Sec­tion of the GRM Sem­i­nar 2011-21012, were expe­ri­ences local­ized between France and Italy, these two coun­tries rep­re­sent­ing the Euro­pean con­texts where the process of the (self-)critique of Marx­ism had the great­est artic­u­la­tion to the effec­tive trans­for­ma­tion of mass polit­i­cal prac­tices: which implies a re-elab­o­ra­tion of the rela­tion of the­ory to prac­tice, through a play of decentering(s) of prac­tices which tra­di­tion­ally incar­nated power author­i­ties in the unequal Party/class rela­tion, deter­mined hier­ar­chi­cally by the dis­tinc­tion directors/executants. Within the con­junc­tures which inter­est us, these axes could only be for­mu­lated in direct strug­gle, for­mal or infor­mal, against mate­rial con­di­tions, could only be reflected by an every­day prac­tice of demands, could only be the pro­duc­tion of a process of the auton­omy of the pro­le­tariat. To speak of an active re-elab­o­ra­tion of the rela­tion between the­ory and prac­tice, by an eman­ci­pated praxis, implies then that we no longer think of inquiry in terms of objec­tive modal­i­ties and tech­niques of a knowl­edge, pre­vi­ously estab­lished or acquired, whether in a frag­men­tary or par­tial fash­ion. For the scheme of knowl­edge, as means and ends of inquiry, we must sub­sti­tute a polit­i­cal praxis, that is an active com­pre­hen­sion invit­ing a con­scious trans­for­ma­tion of the real, and, vice versa, that only the pro­le­tar­ian expe­ri­ence can real­ize. An expe­ri­ence which must be inter­ro­gated by dif­fer­ent angles and begin­ning from these effec­tive “sites” of con­sti­tu­tion: pro­duc­tion, the work­shop, the fac­tory, whether it is in the very act of work­ing, or in the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion where such labor is car­ried out (imply­ing an analy­sis of the process of Fordist and Tay­lorist labor, but also a chal­lenge to the sub­jec­tive impli­ca­tions of said process).

—Trans­lated by Asad Haider and Salar Mohan­desi

  1. The sem­i­nar texts are col­lected on the GRM web­site.  

  2. See the blurb for the 2012-2013 sem­i­nar and the texts pro­duced on this occa­sion. 

  3. See the edi­to­rial for GRM’s first Cahier

  4. Accord­ing to an effi­ca­cious expres­sion of Eti­enne Bal­ibar. 

  5. Eti­enne Bal­ibar, Masses, Classes, Ideas, trans. James Swen­son (New York: Rout­ledge, 1994), 128. 

  6. Trans­la­tors’ note: “Envoi his­to­rial,” a usual French trans­la­tion of Heidegger’s Ge-schick

  7. See in par­tic­u­lar the fol­low­ing meet­ings of the GRM: “Intro­duc­tion à la Révo­lu­tion Cul­turelle” and “Crise du marx­isme et cri­tique de l’Etat. Le dernier com­bat d’Althusser.” 

  8. Eti­enne Bal­ibar, “Plus-value et classe sociale” in Cinq études du matéri­al­isme his­torique (Paris: Maspero, 1974), 152. Trans­la­tors’ note: trans­la­tions from French ours unless oth­er­wise noted. 

  9. Bal­ibar, “Plus-value,” 157-158. 

  10. Bal­ibar, “Plus-value,” 157. 

  11. Bal­ibar, Masses, 126. 

  12. Anto­nio Negri, Marx Beyond Marx, trans. Harry Cleaver, Michael Ryan, and Mau­r­izio Viano (New York: Autono­me­dia, 1991), 19, 8. 

  13. Bal­ibar, Masses, 131. 

  14. Louis Althusser, Essays in Self-Crit­i­cism, trans. Gra­hame Lock (Lon­don: New Left Books, 1976), 165; trans­la­tion mod­i­fied. A phi­los­o­phy “only exists in so far as it occu­pies a posi­tion, and it only occu­pies this posi­tion in so far as it has con­quered it in the thick of an already occu­pied world. It there­fore only exists in so far as this con­flict has made it some­thing dis­tinct, and this dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter can only be won and imposed in an indi­rect way, by a detour involv­ing cease­less study of other, exist­ing posi­tions.” 

  15. Louis Althusser, Psy­ch­analyse et sci­ences humaines (Paris: Stock/IMEC), 1996, 78-79. We could thus say of Marx what Althusser said of Freud, rede­ployed in Balibar’s analy­sis: “We are deal­ing with the emer­gence of a new truth, a new knowl­edge, there­fore the def­i­n­i­tion of a new object, which is in rup­ture with the ante­ri­orly con­sti­tuted field: with rela­tion to a field from the depths of which this new rigor detaches itself. An already occu­pied field, that is to say an ide­o­log­i­cal field in which it has no space. To the extent we are deal­ing with an epis­te­mo­log­i­cal break, a rup­ture of con­ti­nu­ity in rela­tion to the exte­rior field, we are deal­ing with a phe­nom­e­non of rup­ture which con­tains itself, like real vir­tu­al­ity, a capac­ity for the dis­rup­tion of that from which it emerges… But at the same time, this emer­gence in the depths of a field in which all places are taken, appears in such con­di­tions that the emer­gence has the ten­dency to be con­tested and revoked by the field in the depth of which it emerges. The rup­ture of a new sci­en­tific rigor intro­duced on the field where all places are taken, essen­tially poses to the thinker or the sci­en­tist who is try­ing to define his new object, cer­tain prob­lems which are prac­ti­cally unsolv­able in the first instance. This rup­ture must be under­taken within the same field where it must inter­vene, prac­ti­cally in the very lan­guage with which this new rigor must break.” 

  16. Bal­ibar, Masses, 135. 

  17. Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, The Imag­i­nary Insti­tu­tion of Soci­ety, trans. Kath­leen Blar­ney (Cam­bridge: MIT Press, 1988), 56. 

  18. Cas­to­ri­adis, Imag­i­nary Insti­tu­tion, 57. 

  19. See Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Pen­guin, 1976), 100. 

  20. Negri, Marx Beyond Marx, 9. 

  21. Bal­ibar, Masses, 143. 

  22. Bal­ibar, Masses, 159. 

  23. Eti­enne Bal­ibar, The Phi­los­o­phy of Marx, trans. Chris Turner (New York: Verso 2007), 101. 

  24. Bal­ibar, Phi­los­o­phy, 102. 

  25. Bal­ibar, Masses, 143. 

  26. Bal­ibar, Masses, 147. 

  27. Cas­to­ri­adis, Imag­i­nary Insti­tu­tion, 16. 

  28. Cor­nelius Cas­to­ri­adis, Polit­i­cal and Social Writ­ings, Vol­ume 2, 1955-1960: From the Work­ers’ Strug­gle Against Bureau­cracy to Rev­o­lu­tion in the Age of Mod­ern Cap­i­tal­ism, trans. David Ames Cur­tis (Min­neapolis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press, 1988), 257. 

  29. Cas­to­ri­adis, PSW 2, 247. 

  30. Negri, Marx Beyond Marx, 18-19. 

  31. On these ques­tions, see “Dia­logue avec Yves Duroux” in Le sujet et l’étude: Idéolo­gie et savoir dans le dis­cours maoïste (Reims: Le Clou dans le Fer, 2010).  

  32. Michel Fou­cault, “Pref­ace” to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guat­tari, Anti-Oedi­pus, trans. Robert Hur­ley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (New York: Pen­guin, 2009), xiv. 

  33. Claude Lefort, “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence,” trans­lated in this issue of View­point

  34. Cas­to­ri­adis, PSW 2, 93-4. 

  35. GRM sem­i­nar Novem­ber 13, 2010, “Luttes de classes dans le cap­i­tal­isme avancé. Les aven­tures de la dialec­tique chez Hans-Jur­gen Krahl.” 

  36. Claude Lefort, “Le pro­lé­tariat et sa direc­tion” in Elé­ments d’une cri­tique de la bureau­cratie, (Paris: Gal­li­mard, 1979), 67. 

  37. Claude Lefort, “Pro­le­tar­ian Expe­ri­ence.” 

  38. Here lies the ques­tion of the real polit­i­cal effec­tiv­ity, the­o­ret­i­cal and orga­ni­za­tional, of the pro­le­tariat, and its pos­si­ble lim­its. Effects and lim­its which seem to us to have been refor­mu­lated in 1967 by Mar­cuse, before Ger­man stu­dents:: “You have defined what is unfor­tu­nately the great­est dif­fi­culty in the mat­ter. Your objec­tion is that, for new, rev­o­lu­tion­ary needs to develop, the mech­a­nisms that repro­duce the old needs must be abol­ished. In order for the mech­a­nisms to be abol­ished, there must first be a need to abol­ish them. That is the cir­cle in which we are placed, and I do not know how to get out of it.” Her­bert Mar­cuse, “The End of Utopia,” reprinted online at 

  39. Claude Lefort, “Organ­i­sa­tion et parti” in Elé­ments d’une cri­tique de la bureau­cratie (Paris: Gal­li­mard, 1979), 104. 

  40. Lefort, “Organ­i­sa­tion,” 104. 

  41. Lefort, “Organ­i­sa­tion,” 113. 

  42. Eti­enne Bal­ibar, “État, Parti, Ide­olo­gie” in E. Bal­ibar, C. Luporini, A. Tosel, Marx et sa cri­tique de la poli­tique, Paris, Maspéro, 1979, 153. 

Authors of the article

is a professor of philosophy who lives and works in Reims.

is a professor of Philosophy and researcher at the University of Liège. He is a member of the Groupe de Recherches Matérialistes (GRM) and the Association « Louis Althusser ». He is the author of Le sujet et l'étude. Idéologie et savoir dans le discours maoiste (2010) and Enquête ouvrière et théorie critique. Enjeux et figure de la centralité ouvrière dans l'Italie des années 1960 (2013).