endnotes: from the refusal of work to "communisation"

when guy debord wrote “never work” on the wall of a left-bank alleyway in 1954, the slogan, appropriated from rimbaud, was still heavily indebted to surrealism and its avant-garde progeny. that is to say, it evoked at least in part a romanticised vision of late nineteenth century bohemia — a world of déclassé artists and intellectuals who had become caught between the traditional relations of patronage and the new cultural marketplace in which they were obliged to vend their wares. the bohemians’ negative attitude towards work had been both a revolt against, and an expression of, this polarized condition: caught between an aristocratic disdain for the “professional”, and a petit-bourgeois resentment of all other social classes, they came to see all work, their own included, as debased. this posture of refusal was rendered political by the surrealists, who transformed the nihilistic gestures of rimbaud, lautréamont, and the dadaists, into the revolutionary call for a “war on work”. yet for the surrealists, along with other unorthodox revolutionaries (e.g. lafargue, elements of the iww, as well as the young marx), the abolition of work was postponed to a utopian horizon on the other side of a revolution defined in its immediacy by the socialist programme of the liberation of work — the triumph of the workers’ movement and the elevation of the working class to the position of a new ruling class. the goal of the abolition of work would thus paradoxically be achieved through first removing all of work's limits (e.g. the capitalist as a parasite upon labour, the relations of production as a fetter to production) — thereby extending the condition of work to everyone (“those who don't work shall not eat”) and rewarding labour with its rightful share of the value it produces (through various schemes of labour-accounting).

this apparent contradiction between means and ends, evinced in the surrealists’ troubled relationship with the french communist party, was typical of revolutionary theories throughout the ascendant period of the workers’ movement. from anarcho-syndicalists to stalinists, the broad swathe of this movement put their hopes for the overcoming of capitalism and class society in general in the rising power of the working class within capitalism. at a certain point this workers’ power was expected to seize the means of production, ushering in a “period of transition” to communism or anarchism, a period which would witness not the abolition of the situation of the working class, but its generalisation. thus the final end of the elimination of class society coexisted with a whole gamut of revolutionary means which were premised on its perpetuation.

the situationist international (si) inherited the surrealists’ opposition between the concrete political means of the liberation of work and the utopian end of its abolition. their principle achievement was to transpose it from an external opposition mediated by the transition of the socialist programme into an internal one that propelled their conception of revolutionary activity. this latter consisted of a radical rethinking of the liberation of work, along lines which emphasised the refusal of any separation between revolutionary action and the total transformation of life — an idea expressed implicitly in their original project of “creating situations”. the importance of this development should not be underestimated, for the “critique of separation” here implied a negation of any temporal hiatus between means and ends (thus of any period of transition), as well as a refusal of any synchronic mediations — insisting on universal (direct democratic) participation in revolutionary action. yet in spite of this ability to rethink the space and time of revolution, the si's transcendence of the opposition between the liberation and abolition of work would ultimately consist in collapsing its two poles into one another, into an immediate contradictory unity, transposing the opposition between means and ends into one between form and content.

after their encounter with the neo-councilist group socialisme ou barbarie at the beginning of the sixties, the si wholeheartedly adopted the revolutionary programme of council communism, lauding the council — the apparatus through which workers would self-manage their own production and, together with other councils, grasp the entirety of social power — as the “finally achieved form” of the proletarian revolution. from then on all the potential and all the limits of the si were contained in the tension between their call to “abolish work” and their central slogan, “all power to the workers’ councils.” on the one hand the content of the revolution was to involve a radical questioning of work itself (and not merely its organisation), with the goal of overcoming the separation between work and leisure; yet on the other hand the form of this revolution was to be workers taking over their workplaces and running them democratically.

what prevented the si from overcoming this contradiction was that the polarities of content and form were both rooted in an affirmation of the workers’ movement and the liberation of work. for although the si appropriated from the young marx (and the sociological inquiries of socialisme ou barbarie) a preoccupation with the alienation of labour, they nonetheless saw the critique of this alienation as made possible by the technological prosperity of modern capitalism (the “leisure society” potentials of automation) and the battalions of the workers’ movement who were capable of both compelling (in their day to day struggles) and appropriating (in their revolutionary councils) these technical advances. it was thus on the basis of an existing workers’ power at the points of production that they saw the abolition of work as becoming possible, both from a technical and organisational standpoint. in transposing the techniques of the cyberneticians and the gestures of the bohemian anti-artist into the trusted, calloused hands of the organised working class, the situationists were able to imagine the abolition of work as the direct result of its liberation; that is, to imagine the overcoming of alienation as a result of an immediate technical-creative restructuring of the workplace by the workers themselves.

in this sense the si's theory represents the last sincere gesture of faith in a revolutionary conception of self-management integral to the programme of the liberation of work. but its critique of work would be taken up and transformed by those who sought to theorise the new struggles that emerged when this programme had entered into irreversible crisis in the 1970s. the latter would understand this critique as rooted not in an affirmation of the workers’ movement, but in new forms of struggles which coincided with its decomposition. however, in the writings of invariance, la vielle taupe, mouvement communiste and others, the attempt to overcome the central contradiction of the si would first be expressed in a critique of “formalism”, the privileging of form over content, within the ideology of council communism.

contrary to the instructions of the si, the workers who took part in the mass strike of may '68 in france did not seize the means of production, form councils, or try to run the factories under workers’ control. in the vast majority of occupied workplaces workers were content to leave all the organisation in the hands of their union delegates, and the latter often had trouble in convincing workers to show up to the occupation assemblies to vote for the continuation of the strike. in the most important class struggles of the ensuing years, most notably those in italy, the council form, consistently the epitome of proletarian radicalism in the foregoing cycle (germany ‘19, italy ‘21, spain ‘36, hungary ‘56), was absent. yet these years paradoxically saw a rise in the ideology of councilism, as the perception of an increasingly unruly working class and the decreasing viability of the old organisations seemed to suggest that the only thing missing was the form most adequate to spontaneous and non-hierarchical struggles. in this context groups like informations correspondance ouvrieres (ico) in france, solidarity in england, root and branch in the us, and to some extent the operaisti current in italy, managed to revive an interest in the german/dutch left through blaming the old enemies of councilism — all the left parties and unions, all the “bureaucrats” in the language of the si — for the failure of each new insurgency.'

it would not take long for this perspective to be challenged, and this challenge would initially take the form of a revival of the other left-communist tradition. under the intellectual leadership of amadeo bordiga, the italian left had long criticised council communism (which in “left-wing communism, an infantile disorder” lenin lumped together with the italian left) for its championing of form over content, and its uncritical conception of democracy. it is this position, filtered through the influence of the dissident bordigist journal invariance, which underlies gilles dauvé's critique of council communism in “leninism and the ultraleft”, one of the foundational texts of the tendency we are describing. dauvé accuses council communism of formalism on two counts: their approach to the question of organisation sees the form of organisation as the decisive factor (an “inverted leninism”), and their conception of post-revolutionary society transforms the form (the councils) into the content of socialism, through depicting the latter as fundamentally a question of management. for dauvé, as for bordiga, this was a false question, for capitalism is not a mode of management but a mode of production, in which “managers” of any sort (capitalists, bureaucrats, or even workers) are merely the functionaries through which the law of value is articulated. as pierre nashua (la vielle taupe) and carsten juhl (invariance) would also later argue, such a preoccupation with form over content effectively replaces the communist goal of the destruction of the economy with a mere opposition to its management by the bourgeoisie.