Since 1989 and the collapse of the falsely named “Communist” regimes of the former imperialist bloc around the USSR, authentic marxism has had to fight back against an intensified campaign of deformations and lies, claiming that marxism is an out-of-date, discredited ideology which, when put into practice, could only prepare the ground for the Stalinist totalitarian gulag. These campaigns have been aided not only by the existence of regimes which have maintained the exploitation and repression of the working under a Red Flag, but also by all the former expressions of the workers’ movement which, having passed over to the side of the bourgeoisie, continue to make use of a disfigured version of marxism as an apology for their participation in imperialist wars and their advocacy of more statified forms of capitalist rule; and this has been a feature of the last 100 years and more. Thus, the mobilisation of the working class for the battle fields of 1914-18 was spearheaded by former Socialists who used passages in Marx and Engels that had been applicable in the period when national wars were still possible to justify their support for an imperialist and reactionary world war. Later on, the Stalinists and Trotskyists demonstrated their adherence to the camp of capital by painting the Second World War with a fraudulent marxist gloss, in particular by appealing for the defence of the “socialist fatherland” or the “degenerated workers’ state” in the USSR.
But the counter-revolution which engulfed the working class after the heroic struggles of 1917-23 did not only take the overt forms of Stalinism and fascism. It also required its “democratic” side, above all in the ideology of anti-fascism which was designed to draw in workers and even former revolutionary militants who were sickened by the horrors of fascist repression and mass murder. But on the more theoretical level, this democratic counter-revolution also gave birth to a new deformation of marxism, which has been termed “Western Marxism” and which has been a key component of what we call modernism. Unlike the Stalinists and the Trotskyists, this trend was more amorphous and did not put forward a definite programme for the statification of capital (although it generally accepted that there was indeed something non-capitalist in what Marcuse and others termed “Soviet Marxism”). It was mainly based around the universities or state-sanctioned “institutes for social research” – most notably in the case of the Frankfurt School, the main intellectual inspiration for “Western Marxism”.
This trend can be seen as the fountainhead of modernism because it claims to offer a critique of marxism’s “outdated dogmas”, which may have been valid once but no longer apply in “modern capitalism”. Of course, authentic marxism is far from a being a static dogma and must constantly analyse the endless changes brought about by the most dynamic and expansive society yet seen in human history. But the essence of modernism lies in invoking the name of Marx to strip marxism of its founding principles, of all its revolutionary traits. It is thus characterised by some or all of the following elements:
- First and foremost, the rejection of the revolutionary nature of the working class. The failure of the revolutionary attempts of 1917-23 demonstrated, for modernism, the historic failure of the working class, and even its enthusiasm for the counter-revolution – whether because of its submission to fascism (a strong element in the writings of Adorno, for example) or because “traditional” marxism itself was seen as being responsible for Stalinism (which would later align these “post-marxist” ideologies with the main themes of the ideological campaigns which followed the 1989 “collapse of communism”). In the period of the post-war boom, Marcuse, having concluded that the working class of the west had been bought off by economic prosperity and “one dimensional” ideologies like consumerism, began scrabbling around for other “revolutionary” subjects, such as the students protesting against the Vietnam war or the peasants allegedly leading the “anti-imperialist struggle” in the peripheries of the system;
- the rejection of any continuity with progressive historical development, both generally and more particularly that of the proletarian movement: Marx is accepted, but often Engels is dismissed as at best a vulgariser; the Second International pays no role in the development of marxism and is identified entirely with its opportunist wing; the same treatment can also be reserved for the Communist International, seen as no more than the source of latter-day “Soviet Marxism”;
- in line with the above, the rejection of the goal of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the construction of a revolutionary class party. Indeed, revolutionary militancy is often presented as the highest form of alienation.
Marxism is thus transformed into an individual utopian rejection of capitalism at the cultural ideological level, distorting the early Marx and his approach to the problem of alienation for this purpose, or turning the critique of political economy into a sophisticated argument in favour of the perennial, unchanging nature of capitalism and a dismissal of the theory of the decadence of capitalism.
Modernism penetrates the revolutionary movement
In our article “Modernism: From leftism to the void”, published in World Revolution number 3 in April 1975, we identified the Frankfurt School as one of the main sources of modernism, and showed that its main proponents had openly identified with ruling class and the imperialist war of 1939-45:
“In the 30s and 40s, the Stalinist fellow-travellers at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt (Marcuse, Horkheimer, Adorno) began to lay down the framework used by modernists today. According to them, marxism and the proletariat were failing because they were not being ‘revolutionary’ enough. For example, the workers had not fervently rallied to the defence of Republican Spain in 1936-38… Unable to see that the crushing of the workers’ uprisings of 1917-23 ultimately allowed for a new imperialist war, these dilettantes enthusiastically ‘chose’ to support the Allied side during that very same imperialist conflict”.
The article points out, for example, that, during the war, Marcuse served with the US Office of Intelligence Research in the State Department and became acting head of its East European section.
The article’s title, locating the origins of modernism in the left wing of capital, is perfectly accurate in this case. However, later experiences confirmed that modernism, like the various distortions of socialism criticised in the Communist Manifesto, could also take root in currents that had initially sought to place themselves on the terrain of the proletariat. In the 1960s, faced with the post-war economic boom, the group Socialisme ou Barbarie set out to prove that Marx had been wrong about the inevitability of economic crises in capitalism. In 1948, after breaking with Trotskyism, S ou B had insisted that capitalism had become a decadent system and were greeted by the Gauche Communiste de France as a potentially positive development, even though the GCF warned them explicitly about the difficulties of a complete break from Trotskyism and about the intellectual arrogance of seeing themselves as alone capable of solving the problems facing the working class and the revolutionary movement, without any reference to the left communist tradition which had already posed profound questions about the defeat of the 1917-23 revolutions and the nature of the “socialist” system in the USSR and elsewhere. In reality, Sou B were to prove that they were no less entranced by capitalist growth in the 50s and 60s than a figure like the social democrat Bernstein had been in the 1890s. And as they increasingly came to see the dogmas of Stalinism and Trotskyism as rooted in marxism itself, they began to call into question not only the economic contradictions of the system but even the fundamental contradiction between the working class and capital, replacing it with a nebulous conflict between “order givers and order takers” which reproduced the classic anarchist obsession with “authority”. A logical consequence of denying the inner contradictions of capital was the elaboration of a conception of socialism as a system of “self-management” which could co-exist with commodity production – another regression to anarchism presented as a new and radical alternative to “traditional marxism”.
SouB, and in particular their vision of generalised self-management, was a major influence on the situationist current whose moment of glory came in the events of May-June 1968. An article by Marc Chirik in Révolution Internationale 2, 1969, showed that S ou B’s influence also extended to the situationists’ rejection of the marxist conception of the profound link between the class struggle and an objective capitalist crisis. For them the huge class movements of 68 and afterwards were above all the consequence of subjective factors: at a general level, the boredom and alienation of “everyday life” under capitalism, but also, more specifically, of the exemplary intervention of the situationists themselves. The situationists were thus embedded in the modernist world-view, but having participated in a real class movement, and despite the classically “artistic” – in fact petty bourgeois – nature of slogans like “Never Work Ever” – were far less hostile to the struggle of the working class than some of those who succeeded them.
By the early 1970s, both S ou B and the Situationist International had ceased to exist, and the majority of the modernist currents – some of whom had passed through the school of S ou B and situationism, and even the Bordigist branch of the communist left - had developed a more “marxist” language which was able to discern the errors of self-management (even if, as we will see, they often resurrected it in in new forms) and insist that communism meant the eradication of the totality of capitalist social relations, based on wage labour and commodity production. This was the birth of the “communising” current which has since become the main form of modernist ideology. It is no accident that this development coincided with the revival of the communist left. The communisers, such the Invariance group around Jacques Camatte, the group Mouvement Communiste around Barrot/Dauvé, or the Organisation des Jeunes Travailleurs Révolutionnaires around Dominic Blanc, were much more willing to present themselves as heirs of the historic communist left but also as critics of its limitations, and above all of the “conservatism” of the revived communist left groups with their insistence on the need for militant political organisation and on the defensive struggle of the working class as the precondition for a future communist revolution. The elements in this new trend have referred to themselves as “communisers” because they claim to be the only real communists, the only ones who had understood what Marx meant in The German Ideology when he defined communism as “the real movement which abolishes the present state of affairs”. In this sense, while there were some early debates between the communisers and the new left communist groups this updated expression of modernism increasingly became a destructive force against the communist left, as evidenced by the role of the so-called Bérard or ex-Lutte Ouvrière tendency which split with Révolution Internationale in 1974 and very rapidly disappeared from political life.
As we have said, the revival of the communist left in the late 60s and early 70s was deeply connected to the earthquake of international class struggle which shook much of Europe and the Americas, and also to the increasingly obvious return of the open economic crisis. In such a period, while the communisers, and above all Camatte, more and more called into question the central importance of the workers’ class struggle, the idea that the working class was merely a “class for capital”, and that its future lay in its negation rather than its affirmation as a class, carried far less weight than it was to do following the difficulties of the class struggle in the 1980s and above all with the onset of the phase of capitalist decomposition after the collapse of the eastern bloc in 1989. As we have argued elsewhere, this period has been marked by a real weakening of class identity, of the proletariat’s awareness of itself as a distinct and antagonistic force within capitalist society. These conditions provided more fertile soil for the communisers, who have in general argued that it is precisely this class identity that the proletariat needs to abolish, not as the ultimate result of a revolutionary struggle, but as its precondition. And in a period in which the crisis of the system is more and more giving rise to popular revolts in which the working class has no distinct role, it can appear that the communisers’ ideas are being vindicated, and that we are beginning to see the “revolt of humanity” against capital which Camatte and others predicted back in the 1970s.
In parallel to this, the first signs of a revival of class struggle in the first decade of the new century was accompanied by a certain resurgence of anarchism, attracting young elements looking for revolutionary ideas but for the most part unable to connect with the genuine marxist tradition, which they still tended to associate with the defeat of the Russian revolution and the degeneration of Bolshevism. Given the paucity of anarchism’s theoretical framework, the communisers, particularly individuals like Dauvé and groups like Théorie Communiste, Aufheben and Endnotes, were able to offer the anarchist milieu an appearance of theoretical profundity, displaying their familiarity with marxist terminology while in no way challenging most of the central prejudices of anarchism, in particular the rejection of centralised political organisation. Looked at from another angle, the communisation current is itself a new variant of anarchism, as we will seek to demonstrate in subsequent articles in this series. But because many of its adherents refer not just to Marx but to Bordiga, the KAPD, and other components of the tradition of the communist left, they can often be confused with the real left communist tradition, and this can be an extremely negative factor in the political evolution of new elements searching for communist clarity.
For precisely this reason, it is essential that the communist left demarcates itself sharply from the communisation tendency around the most important questions which separate them
- First and foremost, by insisting that despite all the changes in the composition of the working class that we have seen over the last few decades, despite all the ideological and political set-backs experienced by the working class, it remains the only revolutionary class in capitalist society, and that its struggles in defence of its material interests remains the only soil in which a revolutionary assault on capital can grow. Thus, the repudiation of all theories which call on the working class to negate itself or to renounce its defensive struggles.
- Second, by reaffirming that to fight against the onslaught of bourgeois ideology, and for the eventual transformation of immediate economic struggles into a political and social offensive against the whole system, the revolutionary minority must be organised on an international scale and on the basis of a coherent political platform. Thus, the critique of the idea that communist militancy is “the highest stage of alienation”, that proletarian political organisations can only be “sects” or “rackets” and should dissolve into a loose cooperation between sovereign individuals. In doing so, we will show how hostility to revolutionary organisation has led parts of the communisation current towards political parasitism, and its propensity to individualism towards bourgeois careerism.
- Third, by defending the necessity for the working class to fight for its political dictatorship over society in order to begin a period of transition towards communism, as opposed to the communisers view of a kind of “grand dissolution” which bypasses both the need for working class political power and a period of transition.
On the method of this series
We see this series as an offshoot of our long-standing series on the historical development of the communist programme. Thus, in taking up the points that distinguish us from the communisers listed above, we will also take a historical approach, focusing on certain of the “classical” texts of communisation theory from the 1970s and the trajectory of some of the main figures in the development of communisation theory. Thus, our projected articles will include:
- A review of the ICC’s first major combat against modernist/communisation theory in its own ranks, the “ex-Lutte Ouvière tendency” in the early 70s;
- A reminder of the political trajectory of Jacques Camatte, which in many ways reveals the true “secret” or direction of communisation theory;
- A critique of texts such as Camatte’s “On organisation” and the OJTR’s “Militancy: The Highest Stage of Alienation”
- A response to certain texts by Barrot/Dauvé on “communist measures” and the abolition of value.
In carrying out this work, we will also republish some of the ICC’s own texts in response to the modernist conception of communism and the class struggle, most of which have not been available for many years.
 In more common parlance, the term “modernism” is used to describe some of the artistic trends that arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and particularly in the wake of the First World War, for example the experimental writing of James Joyce and Virginia Wolf, Schoenberg’s atonal music, or expressionism and cubism in painting. It would of course be interesting to analyse these artistic movements in their historical context (see for example Notes toward a history of art in ascendant and decadent capitalism | International Communist Current (internationalism.org), but here we want to make it clear that our use of the term modernism to describe a particular political current has a very different meaning
 See Paul Mattick’s Critique of Marcuse: One-dimensional man in class society, Merlin Press, 1972 for a proletarian response to Marcuse’s theorisation of the integration of the working class into capitalism. We will not attempt a more developed critique of the principal figures and ideologies of the Frankfurt school here, although it remains an important task for the future. It is apparent that this school was headed by learned and even brilliant intellectuals who were investigating real questions, notably the way that capitalist ideology penetrates the mass of the population and the working class in particular. In so doing, they attempted to bring together elements of marxism and of Freud’s psychoanalysis. But because this attempted synthesis was envisaged not from a communist standpoint, from the standpoint of “social humanity”, to use the terminology of the Theses on Feuerbach, but from the standpoint of the isolated professor, it not only failed to achieve this overall “critical theory” but, through its very sophistication, served to attract inquiring minds into a project which could only be instrumentalised by the dominant ideology.
 Not to be confused with the existing ‘workerist’ group Mouvement Communiste
 For example, Movement Communiste sent a contribution to the 1973 Liverpool conference organised by Workers Voice following the call by Internationalism in the US for an international discussion network.
 See the report on class struggle to the 23rd ICC congress: Report on the class struggle : Formation, loss and re-conquest of proletarian class identity | International Communist Current (internationalism.org)
 Themes for reflection and discussion | International Communist Current (internationalism.org): “Communism is not just a nice idea, but a material necessity”.