C’est la lutte finale
Groupons-nous, et demain
Sera le genre humain!

‘Tis the final conflict
Let each stand in his place
The International working class
Will be the human race!

Karl Marx wrote very little about the scene of “final conflict” celebrated in theInternationale. Yet the following well-known passage from Capital demonstrates that his historical vision was indeed informed by a scenic imagination that he generally preferred to leave implicit:

Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolize all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working-class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labor at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. [Die Stunde des kapitalistischen Privateigentums schlägt.] The expropriators are expropriated. (Capital I, part VIII, ch 32)

What is most striking about this revolutionary scene is its utter passivity. Even the expropriation of the expropriators takes place in the passive tense. The capitalist “integument” bursts without a human or even an anthropomorphic agent, as the inevitable result of the growing incompatibility between the “centralization of the means of production” and “capitalist private property,” whose hour is struck, not by the revolutionary proletariat, but by the impersonal forces of history.

Marx’s aim is not to render the proletariat passive, but, on the contrary, by affirming the inevitability of the process, to encourage them to hasten it. To this end, a natural necessity is affirmed in scenic, that is, cultural terms. An impersonal process is made into a spectacle; we are witnesses on the scene of history itself. And although the periphery lacks identifiable agents, the scene, like all scenes, is focused on its mortal center, the expropriators, the sacrificial nature of whose expropriation is underlined by the fatal implications of the striking hour (which the English “knell” renders in a more ecclesiastical register).

The passage concludes:

The capitalist mode of appropriation, the result of the capitalist mode of production, produces capitalist private property. This is the first negation of individual private property, as founded on the labor of the proprietor. But capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation. It is the negation of negation. This does not re-establish private property for the producer, but gives him individual property based on the acquisition of the capitalist era: i.e., on co-operation and the possession in common of the land and of the means of production.

The transformation of scattered private property, arising from individual labor, into capitalist private property is, naturally, a process, incomparably more protracted, violent, and difficult, than the transformation of capitalistic private property, already practically resting on socialized production, into socialized property. In the former case, we had the expropriation of the mass of the people by a few usurpers; in the latter, we have the expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people.

The first paragraph reinforces the process just described as the unfolding of an inexorable” law of Nature,” whereas the second concludes with a reference to a human agent, the “mass of the people” [Volksmasse]. The action here is the same as in the preceding passage, the expropriation of the “usurpers.” But here it is made explicit that the role of the capitalist in history is to construct what turns out to be the final revolutionary scene. Human history is divided into two phases: in the first, “incomparably more protracted,” “scattered” property is concentrated into a form “already practically resting on socialized production,” that is, into an economic totality, a nineteenth-century version of today’s global economy. In contrast, the second phase, that of the “negation of negation,” is swift and automatic, and this because it takes place on the scene laboriously constructed in the course of the first phase. The “mass of the people” is, in effect, the entire society minus the few “usurpers.” On the one hand, a sacrificial scene whose victims, “usurpers” or “expropriators,” play the central role; on the other, a historical process in which this small group of capitalists is cast off as an “integument.” The historical function of the bourgeoisie is to construct the unique and definitive sacrificial scene of human history, in which they play the central role as the last identifiable, and consequently superfluous, individuals, no longer necessary to the henceforth conflict-free historical process.

As with the scene of revolution, Marx was equally reluctant to lay out the scene of the future communist utopia, and his unique attempt to do so is equally revelatory. It is found in a famous passage from The German Ideology, very nearly contiguous to the passage analyzed in the preceding Chronicle as representative of Marxian anthropology.

Division of labor and private property are, moreover, identical expressions: in the one the same thing is affirmed with reference to activity as is affirmed in the other with reference to the product of the activity.

Further, the division of labor implies the contradiction between the interest of the separate individual or the individual family and the communal interest of all individuals who have intercourse with one another. And indeed, this communal interest does not exist merely in the imagination, as the “general interest”, but first of all in reality, as the mutual interdependence of the individuals among whom the labor is divided. And finally, the division of labor offers us the first example of how, as long as man remains in natural society, that is, as long as a cleavage exists between the particular and the common interest, as long, therefore, as activity is not voluntarily, but naturally, divided, man’s own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him. For as soon as the distribution of labor comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now. (My emphasis)

There is more than meets the eye in this semi-serious blueprint for the communist utopia. Aside from the pointedly pastoral references to hunting and fishing, the vision of communism as RabelaisAbbaye de Thélème where each can do as he pleases without specializing in anything is reminiscent, in a more individualistic (and far more chaste) mode, of Fourier’s phalanstères, which were to be meticulously organized so that the members’ desires would all complement each other. But beyond what amounts to blaming “the division of labor” for the mortality that limits the scope of our earthly activities, the heart of this passage is the bland but sinister phrase: “society regulates the general production” (die Gesellschaft die allgemeine Produktion regelt). In any other case, Marx would be the first to tell us that abstractions like “society” disguise specific class interests. This little phrase is a blueprint for totalitarianism; “society,” as incarnated by what Lenin would call “the vanguard of the proletariat,” brooks no political debate over the terms of its regulation of production.

It is worth reflecting on the flaw in Marx’s anthropology that underlies the flaw in his utopian vision. What we uncover in Marx’s phrase about society is, once again, a scene: for “society” to regulate production, it is necessary that the productive functions of the whole society be accessible to a single decision-making body. Yet this scene remains unvisualized in Marx’s text, where the main clause describes rather the individual’s self-motivated lifestyle. The scene in which “society” decides who should produce what is syntactically subordinated to “my” desire to fish in the morning and hunt in the afternoon, as though “society” were a disinterested computer program that instantaneously transformed the energy of each individual’s desires to produce into a “general production” that would simultaneously satisfy all these individuals’ desires to consume. The cavalier style of the passage does not make it any less valuable as a revelation of the fundamental incoherence of Marx’s anthropology: his vision of the ideal society as a scene without conflict between periphery and center, as a body with a single, absolute will (Rousseau’s volonté générale), yet wholly lacking in self-presence, existing only to guarantee the individual independence of its members. As those who lived under twentieth-century despotisms learned to their detriment, denial of the scene of reciprocal human exchange is the most deadly denial of all.

Just as the sacrificial scene of revolution is disguised as an inevitable conflictive movement of impersonal forces, so the sacrificial scene of communism is disguised as the automatic harmonious operation of equally impersonal forces. Although throughout most of the twentieth century, to criticize Marx in this manner would have been denounced as perverse and reactionary, today we are able to realize that these fragments of Marx’s scenic imagination have a good deal to tell us.