Communization theory and its discontents truncate Marx’s dialectic

July 5, 2013


by Ron Kelch

“…after labor, from mere means of life, has itself become the prime necessity of life…only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be fully left behind…”
–Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program [*]

The persisting economic crisis has spurred new interest in Karl Marx, for example, at well-attended, self-organized, free Public School (PS) classes in Oakland, Calif. Much of the discussion there has been around the depth of the crisis, pointing to Marx’s vision of a total revolutionary break from capitalism to a non-capitalist future. The latter is crucial, because the many revolutions that have transformed from within into monstrous authoritarian regimes have dampened thought about a possible alternative. “Communization Theory,” the topic of a PS class, projects Marx’s dialectic as a total break with capitalism but without posing a need for dialectical mediation beyond capitalism.

Endnotes, an anti-vanguardist theoretical site centered in London, puts out a theoretical journal which began in 2008 as a critical exchange between former members of the journal Aufheben and the French journal Theorie Communiste which came out of the post-1968 French “ultra-left.” An article “Communisation and Value-form Theory” from 2010 constructs a line of development uniting Situationists, Communisation Theorists, and proponents of the “systematic dialectic” of Chris Arthur and Tony Smith with this dramatic conclusion:

The overcoming of capitalist social relations cannot involve a simple “liberation of labour”; rather, the only “way out” is the suppression of value itself–of the value-form which posits abstract labour as the measure of wealth. Communisation is the destruction of the commodity-form and the simultaneous establishment of immediate social relations between individuals. Value, understood as a total form of social mediation, cannot be got rid of by halves.

New “immediate social relations between individuals” means that revolution as communisation has no particular subjects like women or even workers. In this view, capital as subject has finally homogeneously subsumed all humanity. This leaves only individuals in their absolute singularity who abolish all divisions within social life. Further, the article claims that its conclusion–that the mediating totality of the value-form is replaced by immediate social relations–flows from Marx on “The Fetish Character of the Commodity” in Chapter One of Capital, which is quoted profusely at the beginning of the article. Nothing could be further from the truth.


After the people of Paris created a new way of organizing their lives in the 1871 Commune, it became clear to Marx that the form in which reality presents itself to those who create that reality through their labor is absolutely a function of social relations. The commodity-form is the real-life reign of the concept of labor-time in things that rules over their creators. Human relations actually are social relations between things. The only way out is production run by freely associated producers, for whom expending their efforts would then be done “in full self-awareness” as part of the whole. Thus, for Marx, far from disappearing, social mediation becomes a conscious lived experience (BF, 171).

The fantasy of immediate human relations is itself capitalism’s creation. Humans always relate to each other through abstractions which, says Marx, specifically distinguishes humans from the “beasts” (CW, 30:232). The capitalist epoch forces humankind to openly confront all the ways the “power of abstraction” (BF, 90) shapes how humans reproduce their material and spiritual reality.

Thus, revolution for Marx was multi-linear with multi-dimensional subjects even as he focused on the self-alienating abstraction that shapes the capitalist epoch that continuously tries to negate previous forms of human relations. What happens after the revolution cannot be left at the mere negative of getting rid of the mediation of value in things without confronting mediation, that is, the power of abstraction in a positive sense.

Put another way, that means fully bringing to the fore the positive in the negative, that is, the mediation of the self-determination of the idea in what Marx called new passions and new forces striving to reconstruct society on new foundations (BF, 928). Even a cursory look at today’s revolutions reveals the concrete need to realize philosophy, namely the Hegelian dialectic as Marx recreated it (see “The 200th Anniversary of Hegel’s Absolute Method,” Nov.-Dec. 2012 N&L).


The Women’s Liberation Movement and Marx’s designation in 1844 of the Man/Woman relation as the most fundamental are poles from which to investigate, practically and theoretically, one of those “new passions” of our epoch of mass movements that are also in themselves forms of theory. This year has seen the emergence of a global movement from practice against rape and violence toward women, in concert with an attempt to continue and deepen an ongoing revolution in Egypt (see “From India to Egypt to U.S., women fighting for freedom,” March-April N&L).

Paris Commune
The self-organization of the masses in Paris in 1871, in which women played a leading role, helped Marx deepen his philosophy of liberation.

Something has changed since 1979, when the founder of Marxist-Humanism, Raya Dunayevskaya, pointed out–against the prevailing equivocation on the left–that the counterrevolution within the revolution in Iran took the form of attacking women’s freedom even as she pointed to the need for “a philosophy of total liberation such as is Marx’s Humanism” (Crossroads of History, 67).

Today even relatively conservative Catholic and Muslim leaders reluctantly endorsed a modest plan at a UN conference to combat violence against women in response to the global upsurge against the barbarism foisted on women. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, however, strongly objected to it as clashing with Islamic principles and being against their culture. What they no doubt didn’t expect is that the head of Egypt’s delegation, Mervat Tallawy, had her own idea:

“I believe in women’s cause. I don’t take money from the government. I work voluntarily. If they want to kick me out they can…Women are the slaves of this age. This is unacceptable, particularly in our region.”

Culture is no fossilized object but undergoes living development, a living development which is accelerated exponentially by the process of revolution.

The prominent participation of women in pre-revolution strikes and in the mass movement in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, which brought down Mubarak, created new human relations. Lately, women who continue to practice a public role in moving the revolution forward are being singled out for rape. Counter-revolution gives the revolution a fixed form, whether as “culture” or a constitution in place of an ongoing unfolding of the multi-faceted idea of freedom.

A lack of theory to meet women’s reason in actual revolution didn’t save Communization Theory (CT) from disputes over the issue of women. The PS class in it took up an article, “Communization and the Abolition of Gender,” with the author, Maya Gonzalez, present (from Communization and its Discontents, edited by Benjamin Noys). Gonzalez, who is part of Endnotes, challenges the claim that CT “involves the abolition of gender as much as the abolition of capitalist social relations,” noting that they do “little more than suture gender to an already existing theory of the capitalist mode of production.”

Yet Gonzalez, following CT’s unilinear dialectic, also does “little more than suture” women’s pre-capitalist role of sexual reproduction onto capitalist relations, making childbirth a principal force of production as the unacknowledged point of reproduction of labor power and capitalist relations. Accepting CT’s view, Gonzalez writes: “The revolution as communization has no subject, no affirmable identity–not the Worker, the Multitude, or the Precariat. The real basis of any such revolutionary identity has melted away” (220).

Rather than engage Marx’s original (1844) dialectical unity in difference between women and men, Gonzalez ends with the concept of equality of workers that depends on a technological breakthrough that takes women out of reproduction with test-tube babies. Such a conclusion only flows from reducing revolution to an immediate response to the development of capital as an all-encompassing mediating subject that finally subsumes all humanity. CT’s view that capital makes possible the “immediate overcoming of all separations” (222) leaves no place for the universal as a new social individual in all her/his singularity emerging through confronting the particular barriers now dismissed as “affirmable identities.”

Why, in spite of the centrality of Man/Woman in Marx’s philosophic beginnings, do Marxists fail to address its integrality to his whole body of thought, especially when our time has seen the unearthing of Marx’s vast late writings on the family and pre-capitalist ethnographic studies? As Marx put it in 1844:

…the secret of the relationship of man to man finds its unambiguous, definitive, open, obvious expression in the relationship of man to woman, and in this way the direct, natural relationship between the sexes. The direct, natural, necessary relationship of man to man is the relationship of man to woman…From the character of this relation it follows to what degree man as a species has become human… (CW, 3:296-7)

Marx’s reference to “the direct, natural relationship between the sexes” certainly includes within it sexuality and the reproduction of the species. The principle Marx unleashed still speaks to the concrete unfolding of the freedom idea in its multiple manifestations today. That principle was always seeing the reach for human freedom within any given level or dimension of material necessity. To grasp this aspect of Marx’s humanism as total uprooting, one needs to reiterate the quality in the phrase “become human” in the quantitative measure “to what degree man as a species has become human.”

In 1844 Marx’s concept of alienation precedes private property out of which capitalism emerged. Whatever stage of development, the determinate character of being human, humanity’s species character, is human activity as free, conscious life-affirming activity in contrast to labor as a mere means to life (CW, 3:276). The same idea reappears as a continuing principle of the future in Marx’s 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program.

This human species character is the idea that measures the particular revolutionary dimension, whether that is peasants toiling in the fields, African-American slaves, women struggling to be whole from within the patriarchal family or workers fighting both for a shorter work day and against the domination of capital, the machine, in their everyday working lives. The fundamental question that persists before, during and after overcoming production for value is: Is the human being the free, conscious architect of her own life activity or is that activity a mere means, whether in relation to her capacity to produce new humans or as a satisfier of needs? Within Man/Woman, says Marx, one sees the degree to which a human being is needed as a human being.

When Marx implicitly brings in human reproduction by alluding to the natural species connection in the man/woman relation, he is not talking about reproduction in relation to capitalism, namely, the point of reproduction of labor-power, through which many feminist Marxists search for theoretical validity for women’s subjectivity. No, Marx is talking about multiple paths to freedom within the realm of material necessity. Our epoch shows that revolutions live or die depending on whether they deepen along these multiple paths which confront now what happens after a revolutionary break with capitalism’s particular form of self-alienating, self-deluding social necessity.

Alternate translation in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works (International Publishers: New York) vol. 24, p. 87, further referenced as “CW” with the volume number and page number in the text, except for the commonly used Ben Fowkes translation of Capital, (London: Penguin, 1976), which is referenced with “BF.”

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