Introduction to the Study of Militant Workers’ Inquiry

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This text summarizes the viewpoint adopted by the Groupe de Recherches Matérialistes (GRM, Group for Materialist Research) to analyze different historical “cases” relevant to the practice of militant inquiry – Quaderni Rossi and the workerist tradition in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s, Socialisme ou Barbarie in France, revolutionary syndicalism in France during the 1930s.

The study of these “cases” was the object of the first part of the 2011-2012 Seminar that GRM organized at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.1 It would be impossible to summarize here the results of this work, which consisted principally in reopening the dossier of the critique of political economy, and addressing the question of the contemporary forms of capitalist accumulation.2 Here we aim only to formulate certain questions which motivated our study of inquiry, starting from the work that GRM directed in its first years, essentially devoted to to the notion of the “conjuncture,” and to the analysis of the historical corpus of communist, socialist, and anarchist thought.3 For us it was a matter of continuing to delimit the always heteronomous conditions of theoretical reflection and political orientation, and to reaffirm that contemporary emancipatory thought cannot ignore this corpus – textual and conceptual, organizational and discursive, of the political sequences from the 19th to the 20th century – these sequences which therefore seem to us to always take hold in this double inscription: of discourses and concepts in political practice, and political practices in the discursive textures of its (self-)reflection. In this sense, it is therefore not only a matter of affirming the impurity of theory, its overdetermination by politics, but equally the necessary overdetermination of politics itself by historical conditions which can never be exhausted by strategies, institutions, ideological and organizational formations; conditions whose irreducible excess represents at once the limit of the politics of emancipation, but also their possibility of intervening in the ensemble of social relations and the spheres of human existence. What we call the improper of politics.

So if there is only politics in (or under) determinate conditions, into which individuals and groups “enter” because they are always already inserted within them, it is necessary to engage in “a return to the material conditions of politics itself.”4 Returning to material conditions, that is to say, to non-political conditions to short-circuit the political itself in its effects of ideological interpellation, and by doing so exiting the chiasmus between the improper becoming of politics and the becoming-political of the improper. Now the conditions which the political cannot exhaust are from the beginning given by the capitalist mode of production itself in its relation to the proletariat, whose effect is “that of the form of the working class’s political existence within the limits of the capitalist ‘system,’ and of its effects on the very ‘functioning’ of the system,” and tendentially the stakes of communism itself.5

In this sense, our goal is to study the sites where the politics of emancipation have encountered, guided by the imperative of a fidelity to its conditions, the question of the status of the nature of the proletariat in its relation to political struggle. Such is, roughly, the problematic to which the work of GRM has led, and whose ulterior elaboration is concentrated in the question: “What is the proletariat?”

What, then, is “the proletariat”? And first, how many names does it have? Proletariat, working class, laboring classes, laborers, waged workers, popular classes… are all these “divine names” equivalent? And if they are not, by which differences can they be distinguished? To limit ourselves to the Marxian corpus, is the proletariat of the Manifesto the same thing as the working class of Capital? And what relation links the class which has nothing more to lose, which is entirely dispossessed, to the collective laborer evoked in the most visionary passages of the Grundrisse and the unpublished sixth chapter? What relation between the demiurge-laborer in the 1844 Manuscripts, whose condition is that of the loss of the object, and the “really subsumed” laborer of Capital, who only exists as an organized collective, which is the condition of all social objectivation of human activities (to the extent that the collective power of said activities can only be developed by the eclipse of every immediate relationship of appropriation of the social conditions of labor)? What relation, finally, between the “conscious” proletariat, subject of the overcoming of capitalism, and the empirical proletariat, subject to “trade-union consciousness” – what is the consciousness proper to proletarians, separated and opposed, vis-à-vis that of the proletariat?

Throughout the history of the positioning of political practice in relation to the proletariat, few ruptures will have had the importance of Lenin’s gesture in 1902 – the proletariat is divided and this division is a structural fact; the process of political practice consists in intervening in this division to oppose, within the proletariat, its class destiny to that which – including its own immediate existence – stands in its way. This gesture fixes a paradigm of the encounter between communist politics and its conditions of effectuation – it seals a destiny, a “sending”6 of communism, whose consequences mark the 20th century. Many times, over the course of our work, we have encountered and taken up the most radical critiques of these consequences: critique of the concentration of political initiative in the apparatus of the party; critique of the division of political labor between directors and executants; critique of the mimeticism of the party vis-à-vis the State (which is indissociable from the aforementioned division of labor inherent in the State as a “separate apparatus”7 )… critiques, all in all, addressed to these aspects of the Leninist dispositif which, in Bolshevik theory and practice, and later that of the Comintern, will end up playing the role of a counter-tendency vis-à–vis the egalitarian process for which “communism” is the name.

But critiques of the logic immanent to political apparatuses would not be sufficient to represent a counter-movement of political invention without incorporating a return to the real of the proletariat, some attempts to re-interrogate the status and the reality of the supposed bearers of the communist process; without affirming the primacy, or the “centrality,” of the supplementary or heteronomous moment of politics against vicious (since inegalitarian) autonomisation of the organizational and “specialized” moment.

The moments of “return to class” – to its conditions, its utterances, its struggles, and its disinclination to struggle, or at least to struggle in the way political directors consider the most appropriate – have been, through the course of the 20th century, characterized by a particularly radical recourse to inquiry, as operator of a political process and a relationship between militancy and social classes, beyond the limits of simple sociological research, to aim at a transformation, even a conversion (in the literal sense of the reorientation of the mind), of the workers’ movement starting from a balance sheet of its impasses. By this movement of “return” to the concrete of proletarian existence, some attempts have been able to entirely rethink the meaning of notions like “dictatorship of the proletariat,” “organization,” “class struggle”; and some new analyses have been elaborated dealing with the capitalist mode of production, on its internal dynamics, on its capacity to transform collective life and assimilate opposition. Inquiry has therefore powerfully contributed to placing at the center of Marxist, neo-Marxist, or post-Marxist theory, not only the critique of traditional forms of militancy, but above all the polarity between Capital as permanent revolution and steel cage, and Class as the irreducible and virtual place of a different constitution of social relations.

This “dualist” formulation which focuses on the opposition and structural irreducibility between Capital and Proletariat explicitly distances itself from one interpretation of what we are trying to think, which is situated within a sociologizing approach that militant workers’ inquiry, in its various incarnations, rightly positioned itself against: that is to say, assuming that the proletariat would present itself as a class by naming itself first according to the similarity of the elements of a set which it composes according to previously fixed economic and juridical categories, and which could retranslate itself in tables or statistics, which signify in turn that social classes precede their relations rather than being their result.

Conversely, the whole Marxist analysis tends to affirm that we can only reverse this economic and sociological description, by a materialist theory, if we address “the formations of social classes within a system of differences or divisions: difference which develop and change as a result of a fundamental antagonism, materially determined.”8 And it affirms that in this way “in no historical period have social classes appeared in any sense on their own, with their names written in front, or rejecting their identity in their unified ‘class consciousness.’ What allows them to be identified is the way they act upon each other in given material conditions, the relations which they establish between themselves.”9

Now if no class is ever given once and for all, this is because, in every epoch, a class is the result of a tendential process. In other words, the proletariat is defined first by its divisions – better, its contradictions – which reflect in their unity itself the development of the forms of exploitation, as much in the immediate process of production as in the reproduction of labor-power. In short, the proletariat “in itself” does not exist, in the same way that “it does not reproduce itself by itself.” Better, “there is only a historical proletariat insofar as it is the result of an uneven process of proletarianization,” and the structure of the proletariat is overall nothing but the “index of tendencies of proletarianization in the historically determined conditions of a given social formation.”10 Far, then, from wanting to subsume these names by denying their singularity, or treating them as the manifestation of an inability to define the object in question, it is conversely a matter of locating them in the body of Marxian analysis as manifestations of a tendential contradictory unity, whose effects must be analyzed in turn as interpellation as much as the object and the modes of a possible political struggle which they implicate.

One of the elements of the problematization and critical elaboration of workers’ inquiry will consist then in outlining the moments when a grasp on the “real” of the proletariat was posed in contradiction with the hold on Marxian-Marxist theory itself: inquiry not only as the nourishing and seminal moment of conceptual elaboration, but also as its explosion, its internal division through confrontation with the excess of the real. Not that it is a question of an “abstract polemic against Capital,” or a simple case of philology, but rather a need to rethink a renewal of the political struggle of the proletariat, the renewal of a revolutionary praxis. Therefore it is a matter of rereading the theorists or militants of inquiry in light of this political antinomy in Marxism, a critical and continued reinterpretation of Marx’s magnum opus, “the text in which Marx wanted to concentrate his theory most systematically.”11 A reinterpretation which works on the displacements-limits in Marx’s work, playing it against itself to find within it a critical potential against its own tendency to transform into reified concepts, in which “the objectification of categories… blocks action by revolutionary subjectivity,” and which, finally, “enclosed in a dialectical totality,” can only lead to the bureaucratic degeneration of the workers’ movement.12 Now, Balibar’s text notes the difficulty Marx had in making the concept of the proletariat and that of the working class coexist in texts in which the latter is most thoroughly expounded, leaving the irreducibly problematic notion of the proletariat virtually open to variation in its content. So we have found in this differential gap [écart] between proletariat and working class the conditions of enunciation of what we have called a process of proletarianization.

We will retain only two moments of Balibar’s analysis. The first moment is to recognize that if the proletariat is not a sociological reality, that it cannot be reduced to this because it is first of all a political body, or the other name for political analysis in Marx, its rarefaction in the body of analysis of Capital is therefore nothing else but another manner of signifying that “Marx was never able to stabilize his discourse with respect to the concept of ‘politics,’” translating a necessary “gap” [décalage] between “a historical reality” updated by the analyses of Capital and its necessarily “impure”13 discourse, caught up in what Althusser called “the fullness of an already occupied world.”14

A necessary gap in the capacity of all thought in rupture, causing the saturation of a dominant ideology space to vacillate, “must be undertaken within the same field where it must intervene, practically in the very language with which this new rigor must break.”15 If Marx therefore makes a “short-circuit” between two realities that bourgeois thought and ideology have affirmed as irreducible or disjointed with relation to each other – the spaces proper to the economic and the political – and thus opens a whole field of revolutionary investigation through the theoretico-practical articulation of the concept of labor and the social relation; at the same time, this short-circuit had, in turn, been made by the ideology of Marx’s epoch, which he would not have known how to break from entirely. Balibar emphasizes that “Marx’s ‘political’ theory and action have no proper space in the ideological configuration of his time.” But here we can signal a difference of opinion – Balibar thinks that to continue along these lines would be “too easy,” unwilling to permit that “one should be content merely to record and illustrate the inscription of Marxism in the space of the ‘dominant ideology’ and the effects in return of this ideology upon Marxist discourse,” preferring to tie onto the “permanent anchoring points for any critique of social domination.”16

However, it is to the effects of this ideology on Marx’s own discourse which we had to return, inasmuch as they will determine a tension and counter-tendency within Marx’s own work, that is to say, the scientist ideology of the 19th century and its will to totally comprehend society and history. In the very place where Marx “refuses to grant [himself] in advance the solution to the problem of history and a completed dialectic,”17 even where he affirms that “communism is not an ideal state towards which society is progressing, but the real movement that suppresses the existing state of things,” the dialectic of Capital “makes Marx compare social evolution to a natural process, that stresses economic determinism, hailing in Darwin’s theory a discovery which parallels Marx”18:

the one thing which is important for Marx is to find the law of the phenomena with whose investigation he is concerned; and it is not the law which governs these phenomena, insofar as they have a definite form and mutual connection within a given historical period, that is important to him. Of still greater importance to him is the law of their variation, of their development, i.e. of their transition from one form into another, from one series of connections into a different one… Consequently, Marx only concerns himself with one thing: to show, by an exact scientific investigation, the necessity of successive determinate orders of social relations.19

Which has the possible effect of “destroying the dynamism of this process by hypostatizing it, by rigidifying it into a totality with its own laws of development that one might be able to possess, or dominate, or reverse.”20

Another moment which we retain in this analysis addresses the problem of the process of the becoming historical or the becoming-subject of the proletariat within Capital. If the proletariat only appears in in the analysis of Capital as “concretely present but without a unique signifier,”21 it’s that it rests on the polarity of two non-superimposable modalities, “two modes of manifestation of the same social reality”22 proper to the capitalist mode of production, of which we must analyze the differential gap, the name it gives for that matter to “two overlapping collectives of workers, made up of the same individuals (or almost) and yet incompatible”23: the one passive, as the effect of the labor process, or a capital-collective (determined or individualized by the wage form and linked to the representation of labor-power as commodity), the other active, “incoercible residue,”24 the Proletariat-mass or proletariat-collective characterizing “the element of material impossibility” of the capitalist mode of production itself, which, under historical analysis of class struggles, is the effect of its own contradiction, necessitating then a capitalist management of these differences and conflicts which it leads and thus making, on the other hand, the class struggle into a factor of the accumulation of capital. This is why in Marx’s analysis of Capital, the working class tends to be “presented as facing capital symmetrically,” as its inverted image.25 Quite the opposite, all analysis must recognize their essential dissymmetry, inasmuch as it is part of the movement of capital:

The fact that the proletariat, which is both a “class” and the “masses,” is not a subject, that it never coincides with itself, does not mean that the proletariat never presents itself or acts as a subject in history. However, this revolutionary action is always tied to a conjuncture, lasting or not, and only exists within its limits. This thesis opens up two practical questions: (1) what are the conditions and forms through which such an effect can occur? and (2) what enters a mass movement, from a determinate class condition, that makes it capable of being recognized practically as the expression of this class? Conversely, this thesis dismisses the speculations and puerile controversies concerning the irreducible difference between the “ideal proletariat” and the “empirical proletariat.” It admits that the emergence of a revolutionary form of subjectivity (or identity) is always a partial effect and never a specific property of nature, and therefore brings with it no guarantees, but obliges us to search for the conditions in a conjuncture that can precipitate class struggles within mass movements.26

The symptomatic reading Balibar proposes seems to us to have this double benefit of clearing up, from a Marxian antinomy, an interpretive path to the conditions of possibility for a theory of proletarian revolution, while also leaving open the problem that this reading was able to identify. And from here to maintain the blindspot of Marx’s theory, between the objective development of the conditions of social formations, and the forms of subjectivity internal to this development; and on the other hand, the theoretical blockages which can neither reflect nor recognize the conditions of possibility of a possible inversion of the relations of determination within the reified effectivity of social reality. So the impossibility of thinking revolution as a subjective movement, of self-determination and self-liberation of the proletariat, is now the becoming historical of the proletariat in its political heteronomy, and interpreting therefore workers’ struggles as the simple reflection of an objective conflict between labor and Capital and non as a becoming-subject by the overcoming of subjective heteronomy inherent to the social live of the exploited classes. Now it is against this blindspot and blockage of Marxist theory that the theorists of inquiry formulated their most radical theses, opening to an entire reverse-shot of critical and militant analysis of capital in the 1960s and 1970s. We will only mention two. The first, that of Castoriadis, in his 1960 article “Modern Capitalism and Revolution,” designated Capital as a “degradation of revolutionary theory,” which derives the “basic premise” according to which, “in the capitalist economy, individuals, whether proletarians or capitalists, are actually and wholly transformed into things, i.e. reified; they are submitted to the action of economic laws that differ in no way from natural laws,” this thesis: “the theory as such ‘ignores’ the action of social classes.”27 In other words:

[It is as] pure and simple objects that workers and capitalists appear in the pages of Capital. They are only blind and unconscious instruments realizing through their actions what is imposed upon them by “economic laws.” If economics is to become a mechanics of society, it must deal with phenomena ruled by “objective” laws that are themselves independent of the action of people and classes. We end up with the following fantastic paradox: Marx, who discovered class struggle, wrote a monumental work analyzing the development of capitalism from which the class struggle is totally absent.28

In short: “this conception is equivalent to treating workers in theory as capitalism would like to treat the producers in actual practice… but cannot, that is, as pure and simple objects.”29

If we cannot deny the whole pages devoted to class struggle in the body of analysis of Capital, what Castoriadis puts into question here is indeed the question of the centrality of the place they occupy. Recognizing the historicity of capitalism, if there is struggle, this struggle can only resist effects and not the causes of these effects which, for their part, link up according to a mechanical logic, according to quasi-invariable connections which make class struggle a marginal factor, a simple variable of adjustment but changing nothing in the tendencies of the capitalist economy. In a different manner, but from the same site of critical enunciation, as the reverse-shot of the analysis of Capital, we cite these lines of Negri:

Capital is also this text which served to reduce critique to economic theory, to annihilate subjectivity in objectivity, to subject the subversive capacity of the proletariat to the reorganizing and repressive intelligence of capitalist power. We can only reconquer a correct reading of Capital (not for the painstaking conscience of the intellectual, but for the revolutionary conscience of the masses) if we subject it to the critique of the Grundrisse, if we reread it through the categorical apparatus of the Grundrisse, which is traversed throughout by an absolutely insurmountable antagonism led by the capacity of the proletariat. From this point of view, the Grundrisse represents the critique of the capitalist “revolution from above” in the real movement. It is the confidence in the “revolution from below”; it bears the strongest potential for the destruction of every kind of theoretical or political autonomy detached from the real movement. This is what the Grundrisse understands (through its categories) as the only possible foundation.30

The militant reading of Marx lead in Italy by Quaderni Rossi, and later by the workerists, will come down to a division in Marx himself (following the example of the proletariat): Capital becomes the organon of the grasping of a completed and autopoetic totality, capable of integrating all opposition in its unlimited movement of self-reproduction; while the Grundrisse becomes the necessarily fragmented transcription of eruptions of proletarian insubordination from the phenomenal manifestation of the process of valorization: the Grundrisse as analysis, not of the becoming-subject of substance, but the irreducible opposition of the subject within substance. It would be impossible here to follow in detail the consequences of this division of Marx in the ideological and organizational history of the Italian far Left, from operaismo to Autonomia. The red threat, or the “hot wire,” of the search for a proletarian subjectivation irreducible to the movement of Capital, will condition the lines of flight from one figure of the proletariat to another, up to the contemporary positions regarding immaterial/cognitive labor. If a critique of these positions is necessary, and remains to be made, it is impossible to pass over with silence their relation to the search for a direct line between the theoretical analysis of the relations of production and an immediate expression of the proletarian excess: the knowledge of capital would have to immediately express the disobedience of proletarian subjectivity, the articulating self-constitution of the antagonistic subject and its positioning within the contradictory structure of the relations of production.31

This is why, even in their divergences, the theorists and militants of inquiry will reaffirm the necessity for an emancipatory project of resubjectifying and intensifying militant political theory and practice through a return to the material conditions of laborers surrounding the elaboration of a collective praxis; and thus of using “political practice as an intensifier of thought, and analysis as a multiplier of the forms and domains for the intervention of political action.”32 Which calls for a last remark: resubjectivating theories and practices or returning to the “subjective” does not mean supporting the empiricist position of traditional sociology, which under the pretext that only the fact of individual existence can be observed, tends to negate the idea of social class or otherwise to affirm it as a generic fictive notion. What we will name subjective is a return to what Claude Lefort named and identified as a proletarian experience, a return to the ensemble of social relations which this class maintains with itself and with its own history. Therefore this term “subjective” does not remotely negate the notion of class, quite the contrary: it best sums up “the dominant trait of the proletariat,” its own reality. There is the “subjective” in the sense that “its comportments are not the simple result of the conditions of its existence.”33 Better, there is a proletarian “subjective” because its condition of existence for being transformed demand of it a constant struggle; a struggle against the irrationality and the contradictions inherent to the scientific organization of labor, where, “in real life, capitalism is obliged to base itself on the people’s capacity for self-organization, on the individual and collective creativity of producers. Without making use of these abilities the system could not survive for a day. But the whole ‘official’ organization of modern society both ignores and seeks to suppress these abilities to the utmost.” But struggle also against the very content of this life, since:

More than any other social order, capitalism has put work at the center of human activity – and more than any other social order capitalism makes of work something that is absurd (absurd not from the viewpoint of the philosopher or of the moralist, but from the point of view of those who have to perform it). What is challenged today is not only the “human organization” of work but its nature, its content, its methods, the very instruments and purpose of capitalist production.34

This no sociology can manage to understand: only the return to direct testimonies by militant inquiry can make it thinkable, because it participates itself in this struggle. To make it thought in the sense of an intervention in social struggle. This struggle was named, in the course of the Seminar of the GRM, the excess of the subject – the excess of the subject vis-à-vis structural determinisms, of which we must demonstrate not only the possibility, but also the real efficacy. This is why we wish to add to the two “categories” proposed by Balibar – the Proletariat-class and the Proletariat-mass (in the blockage of the categories of analysis of Marx’s Capital) whose traditional vector is the overdetermination under revolutionary conjuncture – a third which we could name: the Proletariat-subjective as “the anchoring point of subjective refusal in the structure of society which can only find articulation to the materiality of social relations by this internal excess to the structure which represents the irreducibility of labor to a simple factor of capitalist production” and which constitutes the index of the repressed [refoulé] within Marxism.35 Which the implies clarifying and defining the term “experience” in a very precise sense, in a double sense. Not only does it identify the class distinction between proletariat and bourgeoisie, in their reality and their properly asymmetric historical character (against the tendency of objectivist sociology), but it also signifies that this distinction was only able to be clarified, historically by the proletariat, from the counterrevolutionary failure of the party-organization of the Leninist tradition, the one enunciated in 1902, making the process of political practice an intervention in the division of the proletariat to oppose, in the proletariat, its class destiny to that which – including its own immediate existence – stands in its way. This failure would then have revealed “that the proletariat cannot divide itself, alienate itself in stable forms of representation as the bourgeoisie did. It cannot do so because it has an economic nature in relation to which the political parties are only superstructures. But the proletariat is nothing objective. It is a class in which the  economic and the political no longer have a separate reality and which defines itself as experience… It is therefore as a total class that it must resolve its historical tasks, and it cannot recognize its interests in a detached part of itself”36 in its political process of reappropriation of its conditions of existence, through the experience of its autonomy and that of its self-organization. If experience would seem to reject the necessity of an organizational form instituted as vanguard which would take hold in an exterior point, and therefore the introduction “from outside” of political consciousness; if experience puts into question, and perhaps disqualifies, the very idea of the party inasmuch as no one can act or speak in the name of the proletariat, it is necessary to redefine the status of revolutionary theory and its relations with the effective political praxis of the proletariat, that is, to redefine the very figure of the militant; with the understanding that if the proletariat can only be its own theory, and in this unrepresentable, we cannot reach it theoretically “but only at the level of practice by participating in its history,” restoring its attitude internally; what can take form internal to the proletariat is a knowledge of its history, of its differentiation, of its present tasks, in showing “how its capacities for invention and power of organization manifest in everyday life.”37 How then to intervene in the direction of the self-determination and therefore the autonomy of laborer, under which dialectic? How to think this internal relation between what is aimed for (the development of autonomy) and that by which it is aimed at (the exercise of this autonomy)?38

There can only be militant inquiry, against all objective and supposedly neutral forms, if the inquirers themselves “accept the value of proletarian experience,” on the condition that they “take root in its situations and make the social and historical horizon of the class” their own; that they themselves break “with the immediately given conditions which are those of the system of exploitation.” The militant must appear then as an “agent of the laborers,”39 and not, as Lenin wanted, “a tribune of the people,” who knows how to profit from every occasion for “exposing before all his social convictions and democratic demands”; “starting from a critique or from a laborers’ struggle in a determinate sector,” usually borrowed from an implicit discourse, fragmentary and more felt than reflected, it “to show how it puts into question the very fact of exploitation and therefore tries to extend its reach”40; to find forms of action “in the multiple nuceli of militants freely organizing their activity while taking care of their contacts, their information, their connections, in confrontation but also in the unity of workers’ experiences.”41 In this sense, militant workers’ inquiry could reintroduce to us Balibar’s enigmatic formula, of a “function of collective analysis.”42

The experience of militant workers’ inquiry which we analyzed in the course of the first Section of the GRM Seminar 2011-21012, were experiences localized between France and Italy, these two countries representing the European contexts where the process of the (self-)critique of Marxism had the greatest articulation to the effective transformation of mass political practices: which implies a re-elaboration of the relation of theory to practice, through a play of decentering(s) of practices which traditionally incarnated power authorities in the unequal Party/class relation, determined hierarchically by the distinction directors/executants. Within the conjunctures which interest us, these axes could only be formulated in direct struggle, formal or informal, against material conditions, could only be reflected by an everyday practice of demands, could only be the production of a process of the autonomy of the proletariat. To speak of an active re-elaboration of the relation between theory and practice, by an emancipated praxis, implies then that we no longer think of inquiry in terms of objective modalities and techniques of a knowledge, previously established or acquired, whether in a fragmentary or partial fashion. For the scheme of knowledge, as means and ends of inquiry, we must substitute a political praxis, that is an active comprehension inviting a conscious transformation of the real, and, vice versa, that only the proletarian experience can realize. An experience which must be interrogated by different angles and beginning from these effective “sites” of constitution: production, the workshop, the factory, whether it is in the very act of working, or in the relations of production where such labor is carried out (implying an analysis of the process of Fordist and Taylorist labor, but also a challenge to the subjective implications of said process).

—Translated by Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi

  1. The seminar texts are collected on the GRM website.  

  2. See the blurb for the 2012-2013 seminar and the texts produced on this occasion. 

  3. See the editorial for GRM’s first Cahier

  4. According to an efficacious expression of Etienne Balibar. 

  5. Etienne Balibar, Masses, Classes, Ideas, trans. James Swenson (New York: Routledge, 1994), 128. 

  6. Translators’ note: “Envoi historial,” a usual French translation of Heidegger’s Ge-schick

  7. See in particular the following meetings of the GRM: “Introduction à la Révolution Culturelle” and “Crise du marxisme et critique de l’Etat. Le dernier combat d’Althusser.” 

  8. Etienne Balibar, “Plus-value et classe sociale” in Cinq études du matérialisme historique (Paris: Maspero, 1974), 152. Translators’ note: translations from French ours unless otherwise noted. 

  9. Balibar, “Plus-value,” 157-158. 

  10. Balibar, “Plus-value,” 157. 

  11. Balibar, Masses, 126. 

  12. Antonio Negri, Marx Beyond Marx, trans. Harry Cleaver, Michael Ryan, and Maurizio Viano (New York: Autonomedia, 1991), 19, 8. 

  13. Balibar, Masses, 131. 

  14. Louis Althusser, Essays in Self-Criticism, trans. Grahame Lock (London: New Left Books, 1976), 165; translation modified. A philosophy “only exists in so far as it occupies a position, and it only occupies this position in so far as it has conquered it in the thick of an already occupied world. It therefore only exists in so far as this conflict has made it something distinct, and this distinctive character can only be won and imposed in an indirect way, by a detour involving ceaseless study of other, existing positions.” 

  15. Louis Althusser, Psychanalyse et sciences humaines (Paris: Stock/IMEC), 1996, 78-79. We could thus say of Marx what Althusser said of Freud, redeployed in Balibar’s analysis: “We are dealing with the emergence of a new truth, a new knowledge, therefore the definition of a new object, which is in rupture with the anteriorly constituted field: with relation to a field from the depths of which this new rigor detaches itself. An already occupied field, that is to say an ideological field in which it has no space. To the extent we are dealing with an epistemological break, a rupture of continuity in relation to the exterior field, we are dealing with a phenomenon of rupture which contains itself, like real virtuality, a capacity for the disruption of that from which it emerges… But at the same time, this emergence in the depths of a field in which all places are taken, appears in such conditions that the emergence has the tendency to be contested and revoked by the field in the depth of which it emerges. The rupture of a new scientific rigor introduced on the field where all places are taken, essentially poses to the thinker or the scientist who is trying to define his new object, certain problems which are practically unsolvable in the first instance. This rupture must be undertaken within the same field where it must intervene, practically in the very language with which this new rigor must break.” 

  16. Balibar, Masses, 135. 

  17. Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society, trans. Kathleen Blarney (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988), 56. 

  18. Castoriadis, Imaginary Institution, 57. 

  19. See Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin, 1976), 100. 

  20. Negri, Marx Beyond Marx, 9. 

  21. Balibar, Masses, 143. 

  22. Balibar, Masses, 159. 

  23. Etienne Balibar, The Philosophy of Marx, trans. Chris Turner (New York: Verso 2007), 101. 

  24. Balibar, Philosophy, 102. 

  25. Balibar, Masses, 143. 

  26. Balibar, Masses, 147. 

  27. Castoriadis, Imaginary Institution, 16. 

  28. Cornelius Castoriadis, Political and Social Writings, Volume 2, 1955-1960: From the Workers’ Struggle Against Bureaucracy to Revolution in the Age of Modern Capitalism, trans. David Ames Curtis (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 257. 

  29. Castoriadis, PSW 2, 247. 

  30. Negri, Marx Beyond Marx, 18-19. 

  31. On these questions, see “Dialogue avec Yves Duroux” in Le sujet et l’étude: Idéologie et savoir dans le discours maoïste (Reims: Le Clou dans le Fer, 2010).  

  32. Michel Foucault, “Preface” to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (New York: Penguin, 2009), xiv. 

  33. Claude Lefort, “Proletarian Experience,” translated in this issue of Viewpoint

  34. Castoriadis, PSW 2, 93-4. 

  35. GRM seminar November 13, 2010, “Luttes de classes dans le capitalisme avancé. Les aventures de la dialectique chez Hans-Jurgen Krahl.” 

  36. Claude Lefort, “Le prolétariat et sa direction” in Eléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie, (Paris: Gallimard, 1979), 67. 

  37. Claude Lefort, “Proletarian Experience.” 

  38. Here lies the question of the real political effectivity, theoretical and organizational, of the proletariat, and its possible limits. Effects and limits which seem to us to have been reformulated in 1967 by Marcuse, before German students:: “You have defined what is unfortunately the greatest difficulty in the matter. Your objection is that, for new, revolutionary needs to develop, the mechanisms that reproduce the old needs must be abolished. In order for the mechanisms to be abolished, there must first be a need to abolish them. That is the circle in which we are placed, and I do not know how to get out of it.” Herbert Marcuse, “The End of Utopia,” reprinted online at 

  39. Claude Lefort, “Organisation et parti” in Eléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie (Paris: Gallimard, 1979), 104. 

  40. Lefort, “Organisation,” 104. 

  41. Lefort, “Organisation,” 113. 

  42. Etienne Balibar, “État, Parti, Ideologie” in E. Balibar, C. Luporini, A. Tosel, Marx et sa critique de la politique, Paris, Maspéro, 1979, 153. 

Authors of the article

is a professor of Philosophy and researcher at the University of Liège. He is a member of the Groupe de Recherches Matérialistes (GRM) and the Association « Louis Althusser ». He is the author of Le sujet et l'étude. Idéologie et savoir dans le discours maoiste (2010) and Enquête ouvrière et théorie critique. Enjeux et figure de la centralité ouvrière dans l'Italie des années 1960 (2013).

is a professor of philosophy who lives and works in Reims.