I recently listened to Michael Heinrich’s talk on Red May Seattle and it confirmed my idea that most people who want to talk and theorise about ‘value’ these days do so in order to not have to speak about the working class and their own role as political animals. That’s a cruel and perhaps crude rule of thumb, but, more often than not, it fits. The problem is that there are quite a lot of people out there who find Heinrich’s stuff radical or ‘a good introduction to Marxism’, and some of them are comrades in our collective. This critique is part of an internal discussion about the meaning and implications of Heinrich’s analysis, and does not necessarily represent a unified AngryWorkers view.
Heinrich’s version of Marxism might be popular because it is cleansed from history and agency and presents capitalism as a dissectible system. Perhaps his emphasis on form and fetish makes people feel part of an enlightened circle, in particular if it’s combined with a certain cool cultural pessimism and detachment from political activity. Most likely, he is appreciated because there are not many other people around, apart from bumbly old David Harvey, who bother introducing people to Marx. Perhaps I am just gutted that his talk had ten times more views than ours!
Anyway, I found myself in a bit of a despair after listening to the talk, and it brought to mind another older text written by a comrade about the ‘New German Value Critique’, a fashionable theoretical tendency in the 1990s around groups like Krisis and people like Robert Kurz. The text criticises these theorists’ focus on the value/commodity form and the market sphere and their distortion of Marx’s critique of political economy. In many ways, this text also helps to engage critically with Heinrich’s Red May talk, so I then decided to translate it. You can find it here and I recommend reading it. More than that, the text can be seen as a much wider critique of both traditional Leninist and social democratic conceptions of capitalism.
I then decided to listen to the Red May talk more carefully a second time round, to summarise the main points he makes and to write down a few critical thoughts, which you can find below. This text refers only to Heinrich’s talk, not to any of his other contributions.
Heinrich starts (11:02) by maintaining that Marx didn’t speak about economic objects, but about economic forms, which cannot be detected with a microscope, but only through abstraction. He quotes the first chapter of the first volume of Capital, stating that the commodity is the elementary form of wealth and that value constitutes the form aspect of the commodity. He doesn’t explain this abstraction further at this point. (12:23) He criticises the fact that many on the left stop their interrogation at this point and claim that labour is the substance of value. Instead, he urges us to understand that the substance of value is abstract labour (13:34) and that the reduction of concrete labour to abstract labour only happens in the exchange, rather than in the production process (14:40).
He repeats that value is not ‘a thing’, but a social fact, a social relation that takes the form of a “thing-like objectivity”, with money being its adequate form. He describes the objectivity of value as being of a new kind, which is neither the natural objectivity of a thing, nor the pure abstract objectivity of a thought. This fetishism is neither a form of wrong consciousness nor of deception. (17:17) Apart from the commodity-, money- and capital fetish, Marx writes about mystifications and Heinrich claims that the wage form is the most important of these, when wages appear as a payment for the value of labour. (19:31) All mystifications, he continues, are contained in the so-called trinitarian formula (the so-called factors of production:labour, capital, land), which plays a central role when it comes to understanding the working class, class consciousness and the question of revolution. (20:35)
He then turns towards the specific form that class relations and exploitation takes in capitalism. In pre-capitalist societies, these relations took the form of personal dependency, such as slavery or serfdom. (22:56) The characteristics of exploitation in capitalism is that it is a result of a specific exchange process, in the form of the buying and selling of labour power. Workers are politically and legally free and equal to engage in and end contractual relations. (26:45) He supports the left’s claim that workers are not materially free and equal and that therefore the exploitative relation is contested. Unlike many on the left though, Heinrich states that this class struggle is a necessary struggle for the working class to exist within bourgeois society but that it is not necessarily a revolutionary struggle (at all).
At this point the talk turns towards the question of the revolutionary subject. He criticises the left for thinking that there is a dormant revolutionary subject. (29:00) Heinrich goes through the changes in Marx’s position on the matter: From the young Marx who thought the proletariat had to engage in a revolution in order to end its exclusion from society and its’ own alienation, to the Marx of the Communist Manifesto, who thought that the working class will inevitably have to overthrow capitalism for mere survival. (30:28) In the 1850s, Marx thought the revolution would have to come with the next crisis, but from 1857 onwards, Marx became more cautious. Heinrich claims that this has something to do with Marx starting to engage in form analysis of capitalism, whilst working on the Grundrisse. (32:03)
Heinrich talks about the fact that workers have other options apart from revolution. They can end contractual relations individually, they can associate in trade unions, they can vote and form political parties. This would not abolish capitalism, but opens possibilities to improve their lives. Due to this fact, he states, it is not certain whether workers would develop a class consciousness, nor whether class consciousness would ever turn into revolutionary consciousness. (35:22)
In order to bolster this argument, he returns to the trinitarian formula, presented by Marx in Volume 3 of Capital. According to this formula, the three factors of production (labour, capital, land) have to cooperate in order to produce and receive revenues from the surplus product (wages, profit, rent). Heinrich says that this formula is not ideology, but ‘a necessary picture, which capitalism itself produces as a kind of natural structure of human production’. (36:40) He says that this is important for three reasons: 1) the notion of justice (‘do workers receive a fair share’); 2) the self-perception of the worker (‘workers can organise in unions, but inside the bourgeois system’); 3) the image of the state (‘as a referee who protects private property and thereby reproduces class relations’). For Heinrich this is the background for a certain class consciousness and struggle, which belongs to capitalist society.
He finds a certain contradiction within Marx and quotes two paragraphs from Volume 1.
In the first one, Marx says: ‘The organisation of the capitalist organisation of production once it is fully developed breaks down all resistance. The constant creation of a relative surplus population keeps the law of the supply and demand of labour, and therefore wages in narrow limits which corresponds to capital’s valorisation requirements. In the ordinary run of things the workers can be left to the natural laws of production. Direct political force is only used in exceptional cases.’
In the second, Marx says: ‘With the progress of capitalist development the mass of misery, oppression, slavery… grows, but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, trained, united and organised by the very mechanism of capitalist process of production.’
Heinrich criticises a left that looks for the reasons for the absence of revolution (absence due to media, high wages, repression etc.), when the absence of revolution is actually the norm. (52:57) According to him, and he claims to represent Marx’s form analysis, we have to reverse the whole consideration: unfortunately the absence of revolutionary tendencies is the norm in capitalism; revolution depends on ‘special historical factors’; there is no revolutionary subject to discover. (54:08) ‘A revolution can happen, and then in this revolution, a revolutionary subject constitutes’. After the revolutionary moment, it will disappear. (55:00)
Heinrich finally turns to the question of what Marx’s form analysis is supposed to tell us about the form of socialism. (57:34) He alleges that form analysis delivers basic arguments against market socialism. He presents a series of derivations: the value form analysis tells us that we cannot have commodity circulation without money; in turn, he claims, pure money circulation does not exist, it requires capital circulation, which Marx has shown in his critique of Proudhon. From this he concludes that market socialism would logically end up in market capitalism, due to the ‘imperative of valorisation’. (1:03:07) He doesn’t really explain why money circulation requires capital circulation. Instead he says that discarding market socialism doesn’t mean that central planning has to be seen as the only alternative. He doesn’t explain this point further, but presents what he thinks Marx’s form analysis could tell us about socialism.
The task is to have an association of producers and consumers who cooperate in a conscious way; meaning, to go beyond all these market forms (commodity, money, etc.). This is only possible when we substitute market mechanisms by conscious forms of cooperation, where communities negotiate what they want, what they can contribute, the common goal. There is no ready-made recipe for this; even if such a process starts one day, there is no guarantee that it will be successful or that such an economy will not collapse. This is how Heinrich’s talk ends. He then responds to questions from the (chosen) audience.
There is the question of what kind of historical conditions create the basis for revolution. Heinrich says that there is no real theory for this and that in history people have only made revolutions after the state lost a war and social reproduction was seriously interrupted. Revolutions don’t come out of everyday life situations.
Another contributor questions critically whether Heinrich thinks that there are no tendencies and directionality in capitalism, e.g. changes in the labour process, which cannot be reversed. (1:30:30) Heinrich responds that Marx’s idea that there is a direction in history became weaker over time. He agrees that there is the tendency of capital accumulation, but states that a deep crisis could reverse this tendency. “I would even radicalise this position; I would argue against any directionality: we cannot point at any objective tendencies that undermine capitalism.” (1:45:10) According to him, capitalism has no profit problem or valorisation problem. Instead, the main problem is that it is so destructive to nature and humans; how long will this be possible for the reproduction of capital itself?
He is then asked about what form analysis tells us about political practice. (1:47:00) He says that a better regulation of markets is not the answer, neither is more social benefits. Instead, things have to be taken outside of capital valorisation. He cites the formation of council and inhabitant-run housing cooperatives in Berlin as a ‘progressive’ example.
Finally the questions return to the issue of abstract labour. Doesn’t value production shape the material form of the production process? (1:56:30) Heinrich repeats that there is no abstract labour in the process, that the capitalist doesn’t know anything about ‘abstract labour’, but that ‘value comes into consideration’. The substance of value is labour time, but not concrete labour. An individual carpenter might take 5 hours to make a certain table; that’s individual labour. We don’t know if he was fast or slow, as value only counts abstract labour, which can only be measured by money, not by the stop-watch. In this sense, the attempt to use labour time as a factor in socialist planning for example has absolutely nothing to do with value. (2:21:43)
Some spontaneous thoughts came to mind after I’d watched this talk. The first was: how is what he presents here (in rather high flying terms) any different from the old school, Second International ideas and the crude Leninist notion that workers can only develop trade union consciousness by themselves? He only differs in the fact that he discards the slightly embarrassing claim that therefore we should try and raise workers’ consciousness. Instead he retreats into the safe space of arbitrariness (‘they might, they might not’) and a detachment that has become quite hip in recent years. Alright, this is not a poignant criticism of Heinrich, more of a gut feeling.
So let’s look at the main fundaments of his beloved ‘form analysis’. He maintains that the most specific feature of capitalist exploitation, and therefore class relations, is the ‘legally free’ exchange character of the wage relation. Workers exchange their labour power and receive, like the capitalists and landlords, a certain revenue from the surplus product in the form of wages. He explains the relative stability of capitalism with the fact that the ‘freedom’ of workers is not pure ideology, that they can in fact form associations as market players (trade unions) and as citizens (political parties). This means that there is nothing inherently ‘revolutionary’ in class struggle, which is largely a struggle over fairer or unfairer distribution.
We should question if this individual contractual relation between the individual worker and a capitalist is the right starting point to really understand ‘workers’ consciousness’ in concrete and capitalism in general. But even if we follow his line of argument and start with the individual worker, we can question if the worker will be caught in the net of ‘wage mystification’ and can only experience it as a fairer or unfairer exchange in quantitative terms. Workers can see, and many of them have expressed this clearly, that the peculiar characteristics of the commodity that they sell, i.e. their labour power, is that they cannot put it in storage when the prices on the market are bad and sell it during more prosperous days. If they don’t sell their time and life force, they’re pretty cognisant of the fact that they’ll starve! They are not the commodity, but they embody it. Every worker can see that there is a qualitative difference between a worker and a capitalist here .
But let’s question Heinrich’s interpretation of the trinitarian formula with Marx himself. Heinrich argues that the trinitarian formula is not ‘ideology’, but a picture that capitalism itself creates. Is that all that Marx had to say about it? Capitalism is a process, and certain elements and characteristics only reveal themselves once seen in its historical development, within a process. A ‘picture’ is not the whole movie. If we watch the whole film, we can see that with ‘expanded reproduction’ capitalists don’t just bring ‘their own capital’ into the trinitarian exchange, but their ‘own capital’ is constituted by previously appropriated labour. Marx said that the central exchange in capitalism, between wage and labour power, in the end, is an act of appearance (“getauscht wird nur zum Schein”). Heinrich doesn’t even mention that in his talk. He probably assumes that workers can only fixate on the fact that the capitalist ‘owns’ their corporate assets and are unable to see these assets as products of the workers’ past exploitation.
But perhaps his emphasis on ‘form analysis’ has a deeper reason. Throughout his talk he treats capitalism as if it was a kind of formula rather than a process, e.g. by saying that the role of the state doesn’t change fundamentally or by rejecting the claim of ‘historical tendencies’. And here we come to a deeper question: is the trinitarian formula and ‘exchange relations’ the right starting point? Are ‘free exchange’ and the fact that workers are legally equal to capitalists actually the decisive characteristics that sets capitalism apart from other class societies and explains the ‘absence of revolution as the norm?’ Is the exchange relation the material foundation for the value form?
There are various angles from which to address this question. An important angle is historical: how was ‘production for value’ enforced and spread around the globe? As a proponent of ‘form analysis’ and abstraction, rather than the analysis of historical processes, Heinrich doesn’t have to say much about this question. He treats the ‘expropriation of the producers from the means of production’ as an initial act, e.g. enforced through the enclosures. Once property rights are enshrined in law and reinforced by latent state violence, the ‘market form’ can guarantee a fairly stable reproduction of the class relation. But once we look at this issue from a historical perspective, we can see that neither ‘brute force’ nor ‘the wage and exchange fetish’, nor indeed the combination of both was sufficient for the enforcement of wage labour, and therefore the value form, as the norm. Only once the majority of people are wage dependent can ‘exchange relations’ take on ‘a life of their own’. We can see – and the recommended article we translated here describes this much more clearly – that, historically, wage labour was enforced through the development of a particular productive system, which expropriated the independent artisans and peasants by confronting them with interdependent global industrial labour. Here is the historical link between concrete labour becoming materially more homogenous, social and ‘abstract’ in the form of global industrial labour – and ‘abstract labour’ itself.
Only the combined labour of the factory raised productivity to such an extent that independent artisans were ‘priced out’. Only the combination of labour through machinery undermined the skill power of artisans and turned ‘individual concrete labour’ into easily comparable and exchangeable labour. Being confronted with an industrial apparatus – which itself only became possible through a deepening division of labour between revolutionised agriculture and global plantation labour – and its social productivity it became clear that the ‘capital relation’ cannot be overcome by local insurrection, Ludditism or small scale cooperatives. The wage form was not imposed only once, nor primarily through violence, but increasingly through the dependence of individual labour on social labour. Alone I cannot set a factory in motion. Alone I cannot get in touch with cotton-picking slaves on the other side of the globe whose cotton I spin or weave. As long as I am alone I have to accept the exchange with the capitalist as ‘fair’, because you don’t question what you cannot question practically. Behind the seeming freedom of the market exchange and trinitarian formula hides the real separation and dependency of the (individual, atomised) producers from the social character of labour.
While Heinrich emphasises the wage fetish as the fundamental mystification in capitalism, I would say that the capital fetish plays a much more significant role. The capital fetish is the perception that capital itself is productive. The individual worker is confronted with past labour in the form of factory buildings and machines, which appear as ‘capital’. More importantly, the cooperation within the production process is organised in a way that its social dimension appears as the productivity of capital: we are not in touch with the tech workers in a different department, with the workers abroad who produce the parts necessary for us to do our work. We are detached from our product, not just by mere legal declaration that the ‘product of our labour’ belongs to the capitalist, but by the actual production process itself, which detaches us from our co-producers. As a consequence, the product does not seem to belong to us, but to the social force that brought us all together: capital. Our labour becomes increasingly interchangeable and mobile. It becomes abstract, not just in the abstract, but in a tangible social and material way. The mystical ‘value’, which seems to dominate not just our individual minds, but the whole of society, is based on this very real detachment of the individual from their practical social relations.
We can see that these are two quite different interpretations of what makes capitalism fundamentally special and consequently, what position workers have in society. What other indicators are there, apart from historical developments, that market exchange and the wage form are not the underlying social relation here, but their surface apparitions, or rather, their mediating forms? If the trinitarian formula was as central as Heinrich claims, wouldn’t capitalism be a much more stable and less dynamic system? Wouldn’t feudalism, with the personal forms of oppression and exploitation have been a much more dynamic system compared to capitalism? In Heinrich’s presentation the trinitarian formula seems to guarantee a permanent freeze, or at least containment, of social relations, which wobble within the distributive conflict between the actors on the market. Can this perspective explain why capital has literally changed the face of the earth, has expanded into all corners, has undergone dozens of technical revolutions? Heinrich doesn’t want to address this question of why capitalism is such a dynamic system, and instead, he presents us with a capitalism which has no clear historical tendencies, where the role of the state doesn’t change much, where the only real ruptures happen during freak occurrences, such as wars. If he was forced to answer the question regarding capital’s unprecedented dynamism, he would probably say that it is due to the competition between capitalists, which compels them to accumulate and to invent and invest constantly.
I think this is a slightly unsatisfactory answer, as the reason behind this dynamic would then be either a faulty structure (‘the anarchy of the market’) or personal greed. I think that the dynamic nature of capitalism has something to do with the fact that billions of people are forced to work and, at the same time, are detached from their product every day. This creates a fundamental social tension, which surfaces in all kind of ways. The specific character of capitalism is that the system has to translate this tension into development. Development, rather than brute force, is the way that capital tries to contain class struggle. Only through development was capital able to react to workers’ demands for higher wages and shorter working hours and increase profits at the same time. Profits do not primarily satisfy greed, but are reinvested into productive assets. The reason for that might be partly in order to survive the competitive race with other capitalists, but can that explain the situation in modern capitalism with thousands of shareholders, state enterprises and mixed economies?
While this can still be interpreted as part of the struggle for fair distribution, we have to keep in mind that class relations themselves are maintained by the awe of the individual producer vis-a-vis the productive apparatus. Capital expropriates individual labour by confronting it with an increasingly complex social division of labour, through the maintenance of the capital fetish. The assembly line was developed against the background of the power of skilled workers and their organisations of struggle. The struggles in the 1970s in western Europe and the US have expanded industrial capitalism to the global south and accelerated the digital revolution. Capital contains and channels class struggle into leaps of development – this is the ‘imperative of valorisation’.
At this point, we can ask ourselves if Heinrich presents us with any contradictions within the capitalist mode of production. The direct relation between capital and labour is portrayed more like a quantitative dispute over distribution of revenue, rather than a contradiction. The only contradiction he mentions in the talk is the contradiction between capitalist valorisation and nature, when he asks whether capital will undermine its own basis of existence by destroying the environment. Otherwise he speaks about necessary struggle and justified revolt. When it comes to the capitalist production process, he only states that ‘abstract labour’ is established in the commodity exchange after the commodities are produced. The need for valorisation only ‘comes into consideration’ for the capitalist, but doesn’t seem to enter the consciousness of workers.
This seems an abstraction to the point of turning into ideology. Anyone who observes the production process closely can see that there is a permanent internal conflict: the production process is, at the same time, a process of use value production and of valorisation. This becomes visible in the way that machines and work processes are geared towards a maximum output of commodities at the detriment of their use value. Workers have to improvise constantly, on an individual, but also collective level, in order to keep these two conflicting elements in an unstable balance. While this might not be a textbook contradiction, it nevertheless plants seeds of doubt in the minds of workers: how much does management actually understand about work? What social sense does our work have if it’s all slap-dash?
These conflicting tendencies at the heart of the production process develop into a full-blown contradiction when it comes to the double-character of the production process in regard to the reproduction of class relations. In terms of its own material reproduction and expansion, capital is interested in the most productive work process possible, which requires the most closely linked and smoothest cooperation between workers as possible. In terms of the reproduction of class relations, the close cooperation of workers is a political powder keg, as workers who feel in control of the production process tend to question the need for bosses. What were ‘soviets’ and ‘councils’ if not the expression of workers in a concentrated and locally integrated industrial process, where people also lived and worked in the same place?
This political danger forces capital to constantly reintroduce divisions within the cooperation of workers: geographical outsourcing, new hierarchies between tech workers or engineers and manual workers, dispersed supply-chains, a change in migration laws. Individually, workers will experience this fundamental contradiction as mismanagement or arbitrariness. They have to cooperate against all odds, they have to improvise, they get frustrated. On a collective level, workers will see these divisions as new challenges for organising their daily struggle. Capital has to both increase productivity and divide the cooperating workers. With this contradiction between the ‘economic need for valorisation and political requirement for division’ in mind, it becomes clear that workers’ struggle contains a deeper political element and potential that Heinrich is apparently oblivious to.
Does that mean that there is no ‘law of value’, that capitalism doesn’t have any structural limits apart from those imposed by immediate class struggle? Capital is not a unified subject that reacts consciously to the challenges that workers’ struggles throw up. Neither is the working class a subject that exists as a fully-formed entity separate from capital. Capitalism is the contradictory outcome of the struggle against and transformation of feudalism, which liquified personal relations of coercion through the money form and granted bourgeois freedom. Money is the signifier of both separation from the means of production and ‘individual freedom’. The conflict between a ‘semblance of freedom’ and class exploitation imposes a necessarily chaotic character onto society, through the conflict between individual and collective interests, the split between the political and economic sphere and, last but not least, the tension between capital as a global relation and its mediation through, and a system of, (competing) nation states.
A system emerged that, despite all Keynesian efforts and state planning, does not regulate itself consciously, but entrusts the coordination and combination of social labour to the brittle links of money relations. It can only measure its own viability and prosperity through the value and money form. It is a real straight-jacket, a structurally determined form through which capital has to reproduce itself and deal with the class antagonism. In that sense, we can agree with Heinrich, the whole thing is a bloody mess, where valorisation has replaced conscious human interaction. Where boom follows bust, even when there are no major workers struggles. But in contrast to Heinrich, I can see that ‘capitalists’ and ‘workers’ are not equally enmeshed in, and constrained by, the trinitarian formula. Due to their global social practice of materially producing and reproducing society, workers are able to break out of the matrix of market relations and form conscious associations. The only post-capitalist society that replaced the law of value with the bureaucratic imitation of value – the freak version of ‘real existing socialism’ – was created by a failed proletarian revolution, not by the IMF or the World bank.
At this point we have to ask ourselves about the nature of class struggle in capitalism. Let’s remember that, for Heinrich, the trinitarian formula and ‘freedom as citizens’ confines workers’ struggle basically to redistributive and reformist forms. For him, all that happens during a strike is workers exercising their market power. But is that actually all that happens? Do workers only just go on strike or riot due to economic considerations? If we leave the world of forms and formulas aside, we can see that in many strikes workers express much more than the wish for more money. It’s about power, about control, about dignity – against a life where our collective activity is turned against us. I would also contest Heinrich’s idea that the only challenge that strikes pose to capital is a quantitative one, in the form of too high demands or financial losses. Again, once we look at actual struggles, we see that what strikes and larger strike movements do is undermine the capital fetish: only when we stop working can we see that we are connected and cooperate with others. Only when we learn how to turn our cooperation around in a strike can we see that we could replace the rule of capital with more conscious forms of working and living together. These tendencies are potentially and embryonically present in each strike and other forms of collective action. They potentially point at the heart of the labour – capital relation.
And there is a certain directionality in this process. Heinrich says that capital hasn’t got any tendencies that could not be reversed, e.g. through moments of deep crisis. But is this true? Did capitalism start completely new after each of the pretty disastrous World Wars? Is there not a general tendency to expand social labour and pull more and more people into the wage relation and into ever expanding supply-chains? Is there not an increase in the share that knowledge adds to production, which has a major impact on value production? If capitalism was just a formula, Heinrich would perhaps be correct, and there would be no directionality. I could say, in turn, that workers’ struggles impose a certain directionality onto capital. Workers know about the level of productivity that has been reached, the standards of living, the general level of applied knowledge. Workers push beyond the confinements set by the old world: the village economy, the caste system, the patriarchal family. These are ‘revolutionary changes’, in their own way. Yes, there are regionally limited exceptions, where workers have been ‘bombed back into the Stone Age’, but, largely, capital is not able to turn back time, last but not least because workers would leave the Stone Age and migrate to California or Stockholm.
I would claim that this latter perspective, which focuses on the changes in productive relations, also allows us to say more about ‘revolutions’ and ‘communism’ than Heinrich is able to in his talk. If the trinitarian formula and wage form were the primary determining features of workers’ struggle, then workers’ struggles would not have changed so much over time, not just in form, but also in terms of what kinds of aspirations and ideas about social alternatives workers developed. For Heinrich, similar to many traditional lefties, all these questions of ‘social alternatives’ seem to take place in a completely different ‘political sphere’. When asked about the question of revolution, he responds by saying that, historically, revolutions were only reactions to break-downs, such as wars. There are two major problems with that. Firstly, while many revolutions did indeed happen after wars, these were not the only ‘revolutionary periods’, where masses of working class people fought and thought about social alternatives (think 1968 to 1979 etc). Secondly, according to his view, there is little to no connection between the daily life and struggles of workers and these revolutionary moments. “The revolutionary subject is created by the event, and disappears with the event”. This is not only philosophically unsatisfactory, but also historically wrong. While wars might have been a catalyst, the actual content of revolutions were pretty much connected to experiences workers had made in previous struggles, which forms they found to organise themselves. Their horizon of revolution was tied closely to the degree of social productivity their labour had obtained at this juncture. While Heinrich’s version of revolution might appear libertarian and hip – ‘we don’t know what is coming, we have to be part of it when it happens’ – it is actually pretty traditional leftism, which sees workers and their struggles as mere appendices of history.
It is therefore not surprising that Heinrich also cannot tell us much about ‘communism’. We have to replace ‘market relations’ by ‘conscious associations of producers and consumers who negotiate what they need and want to contribute’. He doesn’t say anything about the question of whether this kind of ‘conscious association’ requires a certain material basis. For him the main issue is that the market form has to disappear, because, for him, that is the main feature of capitalism. And it seems that the basis for this market or value form is primarily the wrong consciousness of the producers, or the lack of conscious connections. Instead, we could first of all state that a material lack of goods tends to create the need for exchange relations. So communism requires a certain degree of social productivity. Heinrich’s view seems pretty parochial, it sounds like being constituted by separate entities of producers and consumers who operate separately and ‘negotiate’. Is communism not about finding ways to live which overcome these separations? Are we not talking about a ‘world commune’? But more importantly, in order to ‘cooperate consciously’ the production process itself would have to allow the producers to do so, by minimising the negative impacts of the social division of labour, e.g. between manual and intellectual labour, between town and countryside etc.
In his talk Heinrich doesn’t explain why the ‘planned economy’ of real-existing socialism, which didn’t rely on market mechanisms, is not an alternative – he just states that they failed. Again, an analysis of the productive structure and the relation of workers to the ‘socialist’ production process might be able to tell us more than simply focusing on the question of ‘market vs. planning’. Heinrich can neglect all these questions, perhaps because he knows that this would then demand him to re-think the role of workers and their knowledge, and also our own contribution to the revolutionary process. Instead he decides to tie himself into knots of consciousness, when he says: “what the form analysis reveals has the aim to overcome the social conditions which produce these forms and make a form analysis necessary”. Can form analysis do the trick, if instead of looking at these social conditions it remains focused on the level of forms?
Some AngryWorkers comrades say that we should not criticise Heinrich for what he is not saying. They suggest that Heinrich’s perspective is only an abstract description, which does not contradict an historical, rather than formal, analysis of capitalism. We should not bother Heinrich with the role of the workers, as he is operating on a different plane. I think this view is not helpful. We can clearly see that by abstracting the ‘value form’ from its historical origins and from the sphere of production that Heinrich doesn’t only present a different perspective which could be complemented with a historical view. His analysis of the deeper contradictions of capitalism and his suggested political results are substantially different. The parallel between Krisis, Heinrich and many other proponents of ‘value critique’ is simple: they reduce ’the working class’ and the class antagonism to an economic factor. Of course they criticise the trade unions as reformist, but only after having subsumed the working class to trade unionism, through their ‘Marxist’ analysis. In Germany in the 1990s they provided the theoretical background music for a generation of leftists to excuse themselves from the working class. It doesn’t matter if that was their aim or not, but it certainly worked.