TO WORK OR NOT TO WORK ? IS THAT THE QUESTION ?(1)
A historical failure. That could be a blunt but not too unfair summary of the communist movement 154 years after Marx’s and Engels’s Manifesto.
One interpretation of such a miscarriage centres on the importance or prevalence given to work. From the 1960s onwards, a more and more visible resistance to work, sometimes to the point of open rebellion, has led quite a few revolutionaries to revisit the past from the point of view of work acceptance or rejection. Former social movements are said to have failed because the labourers tried to have labour rule society, i.e. tried to liberate themselves by using the very medium of their enslavement: work. In contrast, true emancipation would be based on the refusal of work, seen as the only effective subversion of bourgeois and bureaucratic domination alike. Only work refusal would have a universal dimension able to transcend quantitative claims, and to put forward a qualitative demand for an altogether different life. The situationists were among the most articulate proponents of this view: « Never work ! » (2).
Later, a number of groups, formal and informal, in Italy particularly, frequently called « autonomous », attempted to develop and systematize spontaneous anti-work activities. (3)
The refusal of work has become the underlying theme of many a theory on past and present struggles. Defeats are explained by the acceptance of work, partial successes by active shopfloor insubordination, and a revolution to come is equated with a complete rejection of work. According to this analysis, in the past, workers shared the cult of production. Now they can free themselves of the delusion of work, because capitalism is depriving it of interest or human content, while making hundreds of millions of people jobless.
In Germany, Krisis recently gave an excellent illustration of the transformation of the anti-work stand into the philosopher’s stone of revolution. (4)
But the role of work has also been reinterpreted in a different light, since the 70s, mainly in France: up to now, the labouring classes have only tried to assert themselves as the class of labour, and to socialize work, not to do away with it, because up to now capitalist development prevented communist prospects from emerging. Whatever the proletarians (or radical minorities) may have thought, they were fighting for a capitalism without capitalists, for a worker led capitalism. A real critique of work was impossible in the 60s-70s, and the « 68 » period is analyzed as the last possible effort of labour to pose itself as the dominant pole within the capital-wage labour couple. Now things would be completely different, because a restructured capital no longer leaves any scope for a « workers’ » capitalism. Théorie Communiste has been the main exponent of this perspective. (5)
We’re not lumping together people as different from each
other as the SI and Théorie Communiste. We’re only dealing with
one important point they have in common: the belief that asserting the importance
of labour was a major obstacle to revolution, and that this obstacle would be
removed more by capitalist development than by the proletarians themselves.
It seems to us that these views are not borne out by historical facts, and (more
important) that their starting point, their « method », is debatable.
However, their defenders clearly uphold revolution as communization, destruction
of the State and abolition of classes. So this essay will be less of a refutation
than an attempt to think twice about work.