I once knew someone who passed through a stage of life where he regularly re-read this book by Kierkegaard, often once a year, as a way to measure where he was at in his life. I sometimes think that aspects of autonomist marxism are like that for me.
The piece is called “Marx Yesterday and Today.” Early in the piece Tronti writes that we ought “to confront Marx not in his own time, but in our time. _Capital_ should be assessed on the basis of the capitalism of today.” Later Tronti says that _Capital_ ought to “be ‘cemented’ through an active encounter with the modern reality of contemporary capitalism.” Agreed.
Then there’s about a paragraph of theoretical big bad wolfery – ie, some huffing and puffing of a sort that works well for blowing down houses of sticks and straw but has little other use in the opinion of this particular bricked up pig at the end of which comes a clear political statement. “[I]t is here- at the social base of the most advanced capitalism- where that decisive confrontation between working class and capital takes place”. I’m not sure that’s true. I’m also not sure that’s NOT true. I think this is probably a mistaken way to pose the issue. The ‘here’ is likely a geographically located point and likely a nationally bounded one — advanced production in those countries with that sort of production. That’s all insufficiently subjective, in my not so humble opinion.
Tronti also writes later something that seems totally goofy and mockworthy to me: “an ideology is always bourgeois” and “ideological mystification is only possible, indeed, on the basis of modern bourgeois society” and “Marx is not the ideology of the worker’s movement: it is its revolutionary theory.” Ooookay Mario. Whatever you say. [Rolls eyes.] The “our stuff is theory! not ideology!” thing sounds to me like “I don’t eat any animal products but I am not a vegan, because, like, veganism is a lifestyle and I don’t have a lifestyle I have a *commitment.”
The reasons for my deserved sarcasm here are that this comes very close to a confusion of terms and concepts, when the presence or absence of a term is an imperfect indicator of the absence or presence of an idea. Furthermore, this whole rhetorical style, while it has quite the pedigree, fits with a sort of smoke-and-mirrors approach, using terms in a way that create the appearance of greater profundity. [I’ve got a short rant here I’ll insert into this post later about this tiresome sort of performance in Dauve’s essay where he claims he’s not an anti-fascist.]
Setting that aside, Tronti writes “The thought of Marx- as any authentically revolutionary thought- tends to destroy what exists in order to construct that which does not. There exists then two parts, distinct in themselves but organically united, which form this thought. One is the “ruthless criticism of all that exists”, which in Marx is expressed as the discovery of the mystified procedure of bourgeois thought and, as a consequence, as theoretical demystification of capitalist ideologies. The other is the “positive analysis of the present” which produces from the maximum level of scientific comprehension the future alternative to the current present. One is the critique of bourgeois ideology; the other scientific analysis of capitalism. In the work of Marx these two moments can be apprehended, divided logically and chronologically successive: from The Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right to Capital.”
I think this overstates the degree to which _Capital_ is an analysis of actually existing capitalism rather than a critique of capitalist ideology about capitalism.
I do like what immediately follows it, though:
“This does not mean, therefore, that this procedure should be repeated in this precise division and in this succession. Marx himself, when he addressed classical political economy and retread that same path which had led him to discover, through the means of analysis, a few general abstract relations, knew quite well that that path was not to be repeated; on the contrary, it was necessary to start from those simple abstractions- the division of labour, money, value- in order to then reach, once again, the “living unity”: the populace, the nation, the State, the world market.”
This I think supports my view that the ’empirical’ portions of _Capital_ are the most advanced bits. Tronti continues, remarking on what communists ought to think about today:
“In the same manner, today, once the point of arrival of Marx’s work is reached –Capital- it is necessary to use it as a point of departure: once we reach an analysis of capitalism, it is from here that we must start again. Inquiry around certain determinant abstractions- wage-labour, the modifications in the organic composition of capital, value under oligopolistic capitalism- should be the point of departure in order to arrive at a new ‘living unity”: the people, democracy, the political State of neo-capitalism, the international class struggle.”
This bit is problematic, I think. Tronti writes here in a way that “tends to destroy what exists in order to construct that which does not” but makes it sound like what he wants to construct already exists. He writes that the working class’s “existence as a class, that is, its presence as an antagonistic reality against the global capitalist system, its organization as a revolutionary class, do not link it to the mechanism of that development but make it instead, yes, independent of it and opposed to it.”
I mean, yes, of course, certainly, yeah. But…. only…. sort of. That is to say, this is not all of what is the case and this is not fully the case. The working class here sounds a fair bit like an active and conscious subject which deliberately opposes capitalism. That’s not the actually existing working class.
“the more that capitalist development advances the more autonomous can the working class become in relation to capitalism”
That’s got a problematic determinist overtone if reversed — the less advanced was/is capitalism, the less autonomous the working class could be — and has a strongly social democratic side (the only difference between this as revolutionary and this as reformist is the assessment of whether or not the time has arrived for the working class to be ready for full autonomy).
“the more the system “perfects” itself the more the working class should become the maximum contradiction within the system, to the point of making its survival impossible and at the same time making it possible and, as a result, necessary the revolutionary rupture which liquidates and overcomes the capitalist system.”
And this is the bad old historical necessity (in the sense of logical necessity) of the supercession of capitalism by a communist society.
In his assertions that marxism is a theory and ABSOLUTELY NOT AN IDEOLOGY SO DON’T CALL IT ONE, Tronti writes that marxism is “[a] theory which only lives as a function of the revolutionary practice of the working class, that provides weapons for its struggle, develops instruments/tools for its knowledge, isolates and magnifies the objectives of its action.” That’s a prescriptive definition of marxism according to which I think much actually existing marxism isn’t/hasn’t been marxism (which in turn provides good reason for people to pretend to themselves and others that their work is in fact doing these things, since it’s, I mean, marxist and all…).
Except for all the science stuff, I like this a lot:
“a work of internal criticism of Marx’s own work, of the separation and choosing of some major directions that it contains. Those that should be focused on and valued are those in which scientific generalizations are exercised at the highest level and where, therefore, the analysis of capitalism demonstrates in a powerful way a dynamic understanding of the system, individualizing and judging the substantive tendencies which continually modify capitalism and revolutionize it internally. On the other hand, those parts that should be isolated and pushed aside are those in which that type of generalization at the scientific level appear to have not been attained and where, as a result, immediate generalizations of relative particulars of a particular state of the development of capitalism which ends up covering up the character of capitalism as a whole.”
[I broke off at the paragraph beginning “We are used to speaking today with a certain degree of irony and contempt of vulgar Marxism”; I’ll pick it back up there later.]