A Parallel Between Autonomous Marxism and Communization Theory

Both the autonomist tradition and communization theory argue that seizing the state–as orthodox socialists advocate–does little to attack the root problem of capitalism: that workers do not have direct say over the process of producing surplus value.

I’m in the middle of reading Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism [PDF], by Steve Wright.  It’s a good book, and gives good historical context to the development of the autonomist tradition, its core theorists, and its core arguments and tenets.

In Chapter Two, I noticed an interesting parallel between autonomous Marxism and communization theory (a school that synthesizes Marxism and ultra-leftist politics).  Namely, that both schools critique state central planning by  arguing that capitalist social relations exist not just on the level of the macro-economy, but in the workplace and in methods of production themselves; the implication being that the 20th-century socialisms failed to truly transform society because while the state (presumably run by the proletariat) was the new accumulator of surplus value, the social relations at the factory and in the workplace remained capitalist (the workers still did not have direct control of and access to of the product of their labor, they merely ceded control from the capitalists to a “workers’ state”).  As such, power was still held by an entity external to the working class.

Wright addresses this concept through the works of Raniero Panzieri–specifically, the essay “Surplus Value and Planning.”  Panzieri argues that the reason why Lenin (and implicitly, the other leaders of actually-existing-socialism) failed to realize the entrenchment of capitalist social relations within the factory, was the strict adherence to Marx’s argument in Capital: Volume One that any sort of planning on the macro-economic level would be antithetical to capitalism, as it removed the primary agent of the system: accumulation of profit by a private individual or entity.

Believing planning to be intrinsically anti-capitalist, and forced moreover to act in a Russia isolated by the failed revolutions of Central Europe, Lenin had been unable to entertain ‘the possibility that capitalist social relations may be present in socialist planning’ which treated science and technique as socially neutral forces.  As a consequence, ‘the repetition of capitalist forms in the relations of production both at the factory level and at the level of overall social production’ had proceeded apace in the USSR, with the doctrine of socialism in one country as an ‘ideological screen’.  Stripped, in this manner, of its critical faculties, Marxism in the Soviet Union had ultimately been reduced to a mere ‘apologetic form of thought’ (Wright 2002: 45).

A very similar (if not exact) type of analysis is advanced by the communist journal Endnotes in their essay “Communisation and Value-Form Theory“:

If, after a revolution, the bourgeoisie is expropriated but workers remain workers, producing in separate enterprises, dependent on their relation to that workplace for their subsistence, and exchanging with other enterprises, then whether that exchange is self-organised by the workers or given central direction by a “workers’ state” means very little: the capitalist content remains, and sooner or later the distinct role or function of the capitalist will reassert itself.

The theme here is clear: in order to truly revolutionize social relations and do away with the violence and domination inherent to class society, a fundamental transformation has to be had in the relationship between people and production.  The structure of the factory itself, and the relationship between factories (and in general, any point of production), inherently gives rise to imbalanced power relations and a bifurcation of the population into classes.

On a slightly different note, this all upholds the notion that economic power is political power.  Given that the monopolization of economic resources in the Soviet Union was not in the hands of workers, but in the hands of the State (in addition to the fact that most of the workers had been decimated after the Civil War, and the Bolsheviks were left with no class base and an increasingly rebellious peasant population), it makes sense that there was only uncoordinated and impotent resistance to events like the Holodomor, and general excesses of the State.  A similar explanation probably holds for the disasters of the Great Leap Forward, and the inability of the population to resist or challenge the decrees from the State.

In any case, the parallel between Panzieri and Endnotes is striking; as far as I know, there is no direct connection between the two schools (at last, the citations in the Endnotes essay contained no references to any autonomous Marxists that I know of).  If indeed both schools came to the same conclusion, then it is all the more reason for the radical left–especially the orthodox Marxist schools who dismiss both autonomism and communization theory as anarchist–to pay more attention to their arguments, and synthesize them into more dominant theories of capitalism and revolution.

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