Part 3.2: Jacques Camatte - from Bordigism to the negation of the proletariat

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In the first part of this article[1] we traced Jacques Camatte’s political evolution from the Bordigist wing of the communist left to the abandonment of marxism and the theory of the class struggle – into what we term “modernism”. In this part, we will look more closely at this “new” outlook, focusing in particular on one of the best known of his works, The Wandering of Humanity, which first appeared in the journal Invariance (Series 2, number 3) in 1973.

Despotism of capital

The Wandering of Humanity begins with the assertion that “When capital achieves real domination over society, it becomes a material community, overcoming value and the law of value… Capital, which originally depended on the wage relation, becomes a despot”.  

In effect, according to Camatte, capitalism, by “autonomising itself”, by “running away”, has ceased to exist; it has almost turned into a new mode of production. It has “brought about the disappearance of classes” and humanity as a whole is exploited by this strange ghost of capital. Camatte explains further: “During its development capital always tended to negate classes. This has finally been accomplished through the universalisation of wage labour and the formation – as a transitional stage – of what is called the universal class, a mere collection of proletarianised men and women, a collection of slaves of capital. Capital achieved complete domination by mystifying the demands of the classical proletariat, by dominating the proletarian as productive labourer. But by achieving domination through the mediation of labour, capital brought about the disappearance of classes[2], since the capitalist as a person was simultaneously eliminated. The State becomes society when the wage relation is transformed into a relation of constraint, into a statist relation. At the same time the State becomes an enterprise or racket which mediates between the different gangs of capital.

Bourgeois society has been destroyed and we have the despotism of capital. Class conflicts are replaced by struggles between the gangs-organisations which are the varied modes of being of capital. As a result of the domination of representation, all organisations which want to oppose capital are engulfed by it; they are consumed by phagocytes”.

And this incapacity to oppose capital applies not just to political organisations, doomed as we saw in the first part of this article to end up as mere rackets, but to the working class, the proletariat itself: “The proletariat has become a myth, not in terms of its existence, but in terms of its revolutionary role as the class which was to liberate all humanity and thus resolves all social-economic contradictions”.  

Camatte is aware that Marx and his followers insisted that the working class had to go beyond the struggle for reforms within capitalist society, and pinned their hopes on the economic crises which would sooner or later result in the decline of the system. But Camatte argues that by overcoming value, capitalism has also overcome the tendency towards crisis: “The moment when the productive forces were to reach the level required for the transformation of the mode of production was to be the moment when the crisis of capitalism began. This crisis was to expose the narrowness of this mode of production and its inability to hold new productive forces, and thus make visible the antagonism between the productive forces and the capitalist forms of production. But capital has run away; it has absorbed crises and it has successfully provided a social reserve for the proletarians”. Camatte even suggests that Bernstein was one of the first to grasp this possibility, although this unfortunately led to Bernstein becoming an apologist for “the old bourgeois society which capital was about to destroy”.  

And what perspectives does the despot capital therefore offer to humanity? Camatte does not rule out the possibility that it will all end in its destruction. As we pointed out in the first part of this article, Camatte, following Bordiga in particular, was very aware of the growing tendency of capital to destroy the natural environment. “Some production processes carried out over periods of time lead to clashes with natural barriers: increase in the number of human beings, destruction of nature, pollution”. However, Camatte seems to consider that these problems can somehow, like the economic crisis itself, be overcome: “But these barriers cannot be theoretically regarded as barriers which capital cannot supersede”.

We can understand that in 1973 it was less evident that the ravaging of nature by capital would prove to be an increasingly insurmountable problem for capitalism – not least because, far from subjecting the world to a global despotism which could take effective measures to counter-act the destruction of nature, the advancing decay of capitalism has only intensified the deadly competition between national units, compelling each one of them to continue pillaging all the natural resources available to them.

Camatte’s blindness to the inability of capitalism to go beyond brutal competition between its various units is also noticeable in the fact that Wandering has nothing whatever to say about the inter-imperialist competition which, in the form of rivalry between the western and eastern blocs, held out a very concrete prospect of the destruction of humanity through nuclear war. So the catastrophic destruction of humanity seems, to Camatte, less likely than a kind of dystopian, science fiction nightmare. Camatte argues that we are already seeing “the transformation of the mind into a computer which can be programmed by the laws of capital”, paving the way to a future founded on the “production of a perfectly programmable being which has lost all the characteristic of the species homo sapiens”.

These predictions do in a certain sense anticipate the technological developments of the last 50 years: the increasing role of personal computers, mobile phones and the internet as vehicles for ideological intoxication; the beginnings of experiments with microchips inserted into the human body; the increasing sophistication of Artificial Intelligence which has alarmed serious thinkers like Steven Hawking (as well as the likes of Elon Musk… whose billionaire fantasies are certainly part of the problem he is so concerned about[3]) and has prompted them to issue warnings about AI taking over or even destroying humanity.

It’s certainly true that in a society where dead labour dominates living labour, we constantly see the instruments created by human activity becoming increasingly destructive and dangerous: the harnessing of atomic energy is the clearest proof of that. But the present acceleration of the decomposition of the system, the “Whirlwind” of effects (war, ecological crisis, pandemics, etc) which we have described elsewhere[4], pose a much more immediate threat to human survival than the complete robotisation of the species. In particular, the fears expressed by “tech leaders” about the possible weaponisation of AI are certainly real, but this is essentially an aspect of the insane arms race driven by imperialist competition and growing military chaos.

And the present acceleration of capitalist decomposition points to a very different meaning to the idea of capital “running away” – in sum, that its mad forward flight is taking it to the edge of the cliff, to a fall from which there will be no return. In Camatte’s vision there is the notion of capital as an all-powerful entity which can rid itself not only of the contradictions inherent in commodity relations, but even of living human beings. In this sense it has a certain resemblance to the visions of the conspiracy theorists for whom every stage in capital’s road to chaos and self-destruction is explained as yet another part of a global master plan, even if the conspiracists take comfort from personalising this omnipotent power in the form of extra-terrestrial lizards, Illuminati or Jews, a story which in turn reiterates an older, gnostic mythology which holds that this fallen, grossly material world is in the unbreakable grip of a malevolent creator deity, so that salvation can only be attained outside the confines of earthly existence.

The same could be said about capitalism’s capacity to absorb economic crises: in 1973, faced with the elucubrations of the likes of Marcuse, Castoriadis or the situationists, our current had to argue very forcefully to show that the post-war boom was indeed over and capitalism was entering an open crisis of overproduction. Camatte was not wrong in noting the increasing tendency of the state to absorb civil society, and to seek to contain the rivalries between different capitalist enterprises (at least within the confines of the nation). But this is precisely what the communist left is referring to when it argues that state capitalism has become a universal tendency in the period of capitalist decline and it is probably significant that Bordiga, from whom Camatte took a number of ideas, himself never accepted the concept of state capitalism.

For the majority of the communist left, however, it is impossible to understand the bourgeoisie’s response to its historic crisis without using the concept of state capitalism. The state apparatus has become the irreplaceable instrument to deal with the economic contradictions of the system, but the past few decades have shown that the more the ruling class resorts to state measures to contain the impact of these contradictions, the more it merely puts them off to a later date when they explode in an even more dangerous manner, as with the so-called “financial crisis” of 2008, the product of two decades or more of debt-fuelled growth. We should also recall that it was precisely the attempts of the Stalinist model of state capitalism to “assign value” that led to its ultimate collapse.

And this brings us to more fundamental flaw in Camatte’s thesis: the idea that capital has overcome value.

In reality, capital without value is a non-thing, and far from being something that is merely “assigned by capital”, it is the imperious need to expand value which has forced capitalism to occupy and commodify every aspect of human activity and every part of the earth’s geography. The maintenance of this drive has continued throughout what Camatte calls the period of real domination, but which we see as the epoch of capitalist decadence. The need to expand value remains at the root of this process, even if it has required massive state intervention, astronomical levels of debt and fictitious capital, and thus systematic interference with the operation of the law of value itself. Camatte sees this universalising drive as did Marx, but while for Camatte the process leads to the unassailable despotism of capital through the overcoming of value, for Marx this very push contains the seeds of the system’s demise: “This tendency – which capital possesses, but which at the same time, since capital is a limited form of production, contradicts it and hence drives it towards dissolution – distinguishes capital from all earlier modes of production, and at the same time contains this element, that capital is posited as a mere point of transition”[5] Rosa Luxemburg in particular later developed this approach to insist that capitalism’s drive to achieve total, universal domination could never be achieved since the very attempt to do so would unleash all the underlying contradictions of the system – economic, social and political – and this would plunge it inexorably into an age of catastrophe. Against this vision – which in our view has largely been confirmed by the barbaric trajectory of capitalism in the 20th and 21st centuries - The Wandering of Humanity is in part a polemic against the notion of capitalist decadence, in particular as defended by Révolution Internationale, one of the groups that would form the ICC in 1975.

Decline of the capitalist mode of production or decline of humanity?

“The capitalist mode of production is not decadent and cannot be decadent” (Wandering of Humanity).

In the article “Decline of the capitalist mode of product or decline of humanity” (originally published in the same issue of Invariance and included in the Red and Black pamphlet) Camatte quotes from a passage in the Grundrisse which we have had occasion to refer to on several occasions[6], principally to show that the decadence of capitalism should not be equated with a cessation of capitalist accumulation or a complete halt in the development of the productive forces:

The highest development of this basis itself (the flower into which it transforms itself; but it is always this basis, this plant as flower; hence wilting after the flowering and as consequence of the flowering) is the point at which it is itself worked out, developed, into the form in which it is compatible with the highest development of the forces of production, hence also the richest development of the individuals. As soon as this point is reached, the further development appears as decay, and the new development begins from a new basis”.

But already in 1972, in an article in RI old series, no 7, “Voluntarisme et confusion”, the same passage is used to support the theory of decadence against various groups, mostly of a councilist nature, who denied the connection between revolution and the objective historical conditions – in short, the necessity for a period of decadence. But according to Camatte, who cites the RI article in a footnote, “there is decay because the development of individuals is blocked. It is not possible to use this sentence to support the theory of the decline of the capitalist mode of production”. According to Camatte, “the remainder of Marx’s digression confirms that the decay refers to human beings”.

The attack on the theory of decadence also takes up a major section of Wandering, above all in this paragraph: “It makes no sense to proclaim that humanity's productive forces have stopped growing, that the capitalist mode of production has begun to decay. Such views reveal the inability of many theoreticians to recognize the run-away of capital and thus to understand communism and the communist revolution. Paradoxically, Marx analyzed the decomposition of bourgeois society and the conditions for the development of the capitalist mode of production: a society where productive forces could develop freely. What he presented as the project of communism was realized by capital”.

Camatte’s rejection of decadence theory is quite explicitly linked to a rejection of the “myth” of the proletariat and in the end, a rejection of Marx, who while Camatte generously admits may provide some material for understanding the runaway of capital, never really understood it (or its “real domination”). “Thus Marx’s work seems largely to be the authentic consciousness of the capitalist mode of production” – largely because he developed a dialectic of the productive forces, holding that “human emancipation depended on their fullest expansion. Communist revolution – therefore the end of the capitalist mode of production – was to take place when this mode of production was no longer ‘large enough’ to contain the productive forces”. But since capital has “autonomised itself” and can develop without limit, it has already realised what Marx presented as the project of communism.

It is not easy to orient oneself in the maze of Camatte’s theoretical wanderings, but he seems to be saying not only that Marx was wrong to argue that the conflict between the relations of production and the productive forces provide the objective basis for the communist revolution – thus refuting not only the theory of capitalist decadence, in which such a conflict assumes a permanent character, but also Marx’s general approach to historical evolution, upon which the theory of the ascent and decadence of capitalism is based[7]. For Camatte, maintaining Marx’s arguments actually expresses a capitalist outlook which sees the aim of communism as a society of perpetual quantitative growth – of accumulation in fact.

This is of course true for the Stalinist caricature of communism, but it entirely forgets that for Marx, the development of the productive forces under communism had an entirely different meaning, since it means above all the flowering of the creative possibilities of humanity, not the endlessly spiralling production of things. Camatte seems to recognise this in some ways, since he says that, for Marx in the third volume of Capital and in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, “the discontinuity (between capitalism and communism) lies in the fact that the goal of production is inverted… The goal ceases to be wealth, but human beings”. And yet at the same time, Camatte insists that Marx did not really see a discontinuity because he argues for a transitional phase, the phase of proletarian dictatorship, which is “a period of reforms, the most important being the shortening of the working day and the use of the labour voucher”. Here, according to Camatte, we see “Marx’s revolutionary reformism in its greatest amplitude”.

Alternatively, we can see Camatte’s work as the authentic consciousness of the primitivist standpoint which holds that the development of technology (narrowly identified with the concept of the development of the productive forces) is the real cause of humanity’s ills and that it would be better to return to the communism of the hunter gatherers. Camatte denies that his communism is a simple return to the past, to the “nomadism of a type practised by our distant ancestors who were gatherers”, but it is no accident that fully-fledged primitivists like the group around Fifth Estate in the US were so impressed by Camatte’s theories.

Who is the reformist?

But Camatte does continue to talk about the need for communist revolution. Since “one can no longer hold that there is a class which represents future humanity”, since the proletarian project is no more than a programme for the reform of capital, who will make the revolution? Sometimes it appears to be the work of humanity as a whole, since humanity as such is exploited in the period of real domination: “threatened in their purely biological existence, human beings are beginning to rise against capital”. But if humanity itself is in decline, where will the movement towards communism come from?

There is much in Camatte’s description of communism in Wandering that we can accept, mainly because we have already seen in it the work of Marx and other marxists: its dialectical link to the Gemeinwesen of the past, the archaic human community which Marx studied intently in his later years[8]; its general social definition: “communism puts an end to castes, classes and the division of labour”; the relationship it restores between humanity and the rest of nature: “it is not domination of nature but reconciliation, and thus regeneration of nature”. And – a view that seems to be in contradiction with his assertion that communism is not a new mode of production - “human beings in communism cannot be defined as simple users… human beings are creators, producers, users. The entire process is reconstituted at a higher level, and for every individual”. In other words, communism means human beings producing what they need and desire in a qualitatively new way, and for this very reason does not cease to represent a “mode of production”. Camatte is also right to insist that “the struggle against reduction of the amplitude of the revolution is already a revolutionary struggle”, since the proletarian revolution, as Marx insisted from the beginning, is the basis not only for abolishing capitalist exploitation, but also for overcoming all the other oppressions, repressions and divisions that hold humanity in check, so that communism will be the starting point for the full flowering of human potential, a potential which we have so far only seen in glimpses.

But unless you can see a “real movement” in this society against the domination of capital – which marxists consider to be the movement of the working class against exploitation – descriptions of future communism fall back into utopianism, as Bordiga once observed. And when we look a bit more closely at what Camatte perceives as signs of a real movement inside the existing order, we see a real “reformism” emerging.

True he argues, in Wanderings, that “the goal cannot be realised by the establishment of communities which, always isolated, are never an obstacle to capital, can easily be surrounded by capital… Nor can the goal be reached by the cultivation of one’s own individual being, in which one would finally find the real human being”. And yet elsewhere, particularly in the provocatively titled “We must leave this world”[9], which already suggests the possibility of some kind of magical flight out of the present civilisation, he expresses a strong interest in the possibilities that vegetarian communes, regionalists and …anti-vaxxers might form a kind of vanguard of resistance against capital.

And more recently, in the Cercle Marx interview referred to in the first part of this article[10], he expresses a real interest in the Yellow Vests:

JC: To tell the truth, I know very little about the yellow vest movement. I haven’t studied it. But what I felt at the beginning was important was the fact of totally refusing the world as it is. And it is the need for recognition, and it is pretty extraordinary, the fact that we put on a yellow vest that renders visible, and that they go on the roundabouts shows the problem of being seen. But it cannot open onto something else; it maintains itself in opposition to others”.

Anything but the class struggle! The result of Camatte’s attempt to go beyond the poor old working class struggle and discover the true revolt of humanity reveals itself as a real regression to forms of rebellion which at best dissolve the working class in the “people” and at worst – like the anti-vaxxers of today – have been recuperated by the extreme right wing of capital (hence perhaps his willingness to engage with the dubious Red-Brown alliance advocates of Cercle Marx).

But what betrays this non-revolutionary, even explicitly anti-revolutionary, outlook most clearly is when, at the end of “This World We Must Leave”, he warns against the idea of overthrowing capital through a frontal assault: “One must envisage a new dynamic, for the CMP[11] will not disappear following a frontal struggle of people against their present domination, but by a huge renunciation which implies the rejection of a path used for millenia”  – an argument further advanced in the interview when he warns:

“CM: Do you in a way think that capital has become a totality that no longer has an outside, that no longer has an exterior, and that in relation to this totality class struggle is now only an internal phenomenon to capital, that the real opposition for you becomes that between humanity and capital. The real decisive opposition is no longer between classes?

JC: Yes, and now I go even further, in the sense that we cannot posit an opposition beween humans and capital because when we are in this dynamic, we are still in the dynamic of enmity, and to oppose something is to reinforce it... But I saw that now we can no longer fight against capital. Not because capital is too strong but because it keeps it living.

CM: Fighting against capital inevitably ends up reinforcing it.

JC: Absolutely

CM: So you say that we must irrevocably leave this world. If the world is the place of all places, if the world is now obviously that of capital that has become a totality, how can we leave this world? Do you think you’ve left this world?

JC: Yes. We cannot leave this world materially, but we leave it insofar as we no longer accept its givens. But we are forced to live. But for example, I live here, I don’t vote, it’s been 27 years that I haven’t gone to vote, but I am on good terms with the mayor. That it’s him and not another it’s all the same. That’s that world. And I live on the outside, as far as I can, because it’s obvious that I am caught up by taxes, by this, by that. So by all my thinking process, by all my behavior, I don’t feel myself reproducing this society. But even more than before, with the process of inversion, I move on to something else”.

In fact, this idea of an individual “way out” is already theorised in Wandering, precisely in the passage that precedes his apparent rejection of reaching communism through setting up anti-capitalist communities or cultivating one’s own individual being: “We are all slaves of capital. Liberation begins with the refusal to perceive oneself in terms of the categories of capital, namely as proletarian, as member of the new middle class, as capitalist, etc. Thus we also stop perceiving the other - in his movement toward liberation - in terms of those same categories. At this point the movement of recognition of human beings can begin”. 

In sum: before you can change the world, change yourself. This individualist, idealist vision is perfectly compatible with the notion of the disappearance of the working class which has reached its paroxysm in the phase of capitalist decomposition. And, according to Camatte, the beginning of liberation is not for workers to recognise themselves as part of a class which is antagonistic to capital, to recover their class identity, but exactly the opposite: to join the grand dissolution in which classes have no substance and the class struggle merely reflects our enslavement to the categories of capital.



Once again on the wanderings of Bérard

As we showed in a previous article in this series[12], the influence of modernism in the renascent revolutionary movement of the early 70s was also felt in the “pre-ICC” via the “Bérard tendency”. We recalled that this influence expressed itself both in the rejection of the workers’ struggle for immediate demands, and, at the organisational level, by an opposition to the first attempts to centralise the Révolution Internationale group on a national level. At a meeting of the group in 1973, focused on the necessity to elect a centralising commission, Bérard warned that this initiative would lead to Trotskyist or Stalinist type Central Committee, to a force for bureaucracy. Comrade Marc Chirik countered with a warning to Bérard: that he and his tendency were heading in the direction of Barrot and Camatte, and thus towards the abandonment not only of revolutionary organisation but of the revolutionary class as well. Bérard indignantly rejected this warning.

Not long afterwards, “Une Tendance Communiste” put itself outside the framework of the organisation by publishing its pamphlet La Révolution Sera Communiste ou ne Sera Pas, the one and only public expression of this ephemeral group. In it, there is a section headed “Why Invariance is no longer revolutionary”, which, while recognising that the early Invariance had made some fruitful contributions (such as on the question of formal/real domination), it subsequently entered the realm of ideology with its vision of a revolution made by “humanity”, the consequence of his idea that capital had become a “material community”:

hence his inability to grasp the real contradictions of the period of historical crisis (the exacerbated tendency towards the real domination of capital coming up against the limits of exchange, the tendency towards the proletarianisation of the whole of humanity counter-acted by the inability of the wage relation to integrate those with nothing to fall back on (the sans-reserves). Capital becomes abstractly ‘unified’, completely abstract and goes beyond itself in the material community ... The absurdity of a combat of ‘humanity’ against ‘capital’ is obviously based on the idea that humanity already exists – and here we have the full reformist, a-classist vision”.

And the text also criticises Camatte’s accompanying idea that any attempt by communist minorities to organise themselves can only lead to a new racket.

As it happens, Bérard at this point was more influenced by Barrot/Dauvé[13] than by Camatte, and was thus able to retain references to the proletariat as the subject of the revolution. It was in fact a kind of half-way house between the position of the communist left that he was leaving behind – in short, Marx’s insistence on the need for the working class to affirm its autonomy in the fight against capitalist exploitation, and to exercise its dictatorship during the period of transition towards communism - and Camatte’s open abandonment of the proletariat. As we showed in the article on the Bérard tendency, this centrist stance was based on the pseudo-dialectical theory of a simultaneous affirmation/negation of the proletariat.

Many of today’s communisers are still residents of this half-way house, but the pull towards Camatte’s pure negation of the class struggle is very strong in the modernist milieu. In the case of Bérard, his subsequent – and very rapid –abandonment of the politics of the communist left, of any organised activity, and his evolution towards a kind of primitivism, fully confirmed Marc’s prediction.


[2] The Wandering of Humanity - Jacques Camatte This is the online version of the 1975 translation by Black and Red, the group around Freddy Perlman in Detroit. On the term “despotism”, Camatte appends a significant footnote, showing that his choice of the word “despotism” is not accidental: “Here we see a convergence with the Asiatic mode of production, where classes could never become autonomous; in the capitalist mode of production they are absorbed”.

[3] Musk was a co-signatory of a declaration by 1000 “tech leaders” calling for a pause in the development of AI until more can be found out about its consequence, citing “profound risks to society and humanity”.  Elon Musk and Others Call for Pause on A.I., Citing ‘Profound Risks to Society’. Shortly afterwards, one of the signatories, Geoffrey Hinton, resigned from his job as a leader of Google in order to focus on the risks posed by AI.

[5] Notebook V, the Chapter on Capital. Grundrisse 10 ( p540 in the Penguin edition.

[6] For example Growth as decay

[7] In particular, in his “Preface to the Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy”, reproduced as an annex to Decadence of capitalism (ii): What scientific method do we need to understand the present social order...? which argues that the Preface provides the methodological underpinning of the idea of the ascent and decline of the successive modes of production since the dissolution of primitive communism.

[8] See the article from our series on communism, The Mature Marx - Past and Future Communism

[9] Invariance 5…an English translation by Dave Brown can be found here: This world we must leave - Jacques Camatte

[11] CMP; “This abbreviation means the Capitalist Mode of Production, which Invariance never spells out. It reminds one of the ancient Hebrews, who showed a similar reluctance in naming their creator” (“Modernism: from leftism to the void”, World Revolution number 3).

[12] From leftism to modernism: the misadventures of the ‘Bérard tendency’

[13] We will return to the main ideas of Barrot/Dauvé in another article



Critique of the so-called ‘communisers’