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!
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 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.
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.
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)
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.