The ethics of revolution

With resonances of Mario Tronti and with the yellow vests in the background, a reflection on the ethics of revolution …

What can, what must keep us standing: About revolutionary ethics

Dietrich Hoss (lundi matin #228, 03/02/2020)

Always the same refrain about “the exhaustion of the movement”! Those who ruin our lives wager on ruin. But the worst is not always certain and even a temporary ebb does not mean the end of a deep groundswell. We have seen it since the emergence of the yellow vests and the movement against the plan to dismantle the pension system: the fight can continue in discontinuity. From where does this new tenacity come, against all odds, against the window dressing and the atrocious violence – here in France, but also in many other regions of the world?

These are spontaneous struggles for life in all of its forms, in all of its dimensions, according to different contexts, but with the same determination inscribed in duration. And that without directions or directives. More than ever it is a question of fighting “without god-nor master”, without party or homeland, that is to say, without religious illusions or charismatic leaders, without supervision by party apparatuses or nationalist corseting.

Local roots are a common feature of these uprisings. What remains or is reborn as places of common life, in the countryside and in cities, gives strength and helps men and women to survive through the fighting. Because of this and because they come from outside of conventional, institutionalised political schemes, these movements are labeled with hateful contempt as “populists” (“leftist” if you want to be condescending), malleable by the first manipulator to come along.

Experts in the fabrication of public opinion may or may not want to see another dimension of this new given. For the first time in decades, “revolution” reappears without a sentence, as a global horizon and an immediate objective in the struggle. Against its inflationary and distorting abuse by all the different counter-revolutionary forces, this notion is restored to its original brilliance. The situation dreamed of by the invisible Committee, where “it is enough to write ‘revolution’ on a wall for the street to ignite”, (1) has become reality today in reverse form: it is the burning street which cried “revolution” – not only enthusiastically in the face of the demolished Foucquets – but also in many other cities in France and in different parts of the world. This reversal is a confirmation of an observation in the same text of the Invisible Committee: contemporary insurrections

no longer start from political ideologies, but from ethical truths … These are truths that bind us, to ourselves, to what surrounds us and to each other. They introduce us to a life that is at once common, to an existence with separation, without regard for the illusory walls of our Self. (2)

In this sense, Giorgio Cesarano had already spoken in the 1970s of a “critical certainty” which did not spread

from simple “intellectual” mediations, separated from concrete experience. On the contrary, it is concrete experience – all the more concrete since it is more lived in passion – which constitutes the foundation of certainty. (3)

This rediscovery of ethical truth, of a critical certainty, as the basis of struggle, is a return to the sources of secular revolutionary movements, buried by the dominance of a “Marxism” of political and trade union, social democratic and “communist” apparatuses, which made unrecognizable the very basis of the “assault on heaven” aimed at by Marx. The basis of his gigantic theoretical work to uncover with scientific rigor the secrets of the functioning of capitalist society was an ethical positioning, a “categorical imperative” that went far beyond that of Kant’s ethics. “The criticism of religion”, he wrote in his “Introduction” to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843/44), “ends with the teaching that man is the highest essence for man – hence, with the categoric imperative to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, abandoned, despicable essence.”(4) The famous 11th Marxian thesis on Feuerbach, the starting point for his entire approach, is only an application of this imperative: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” It is true that Marx himself had already accentuated the scientific character of his work at the expense of this ethical dimension, but it was Engels who gave after his death an increasingly scientist appearance to “Marxism”. “The development of socialism from utopia to science” is the programmatic title of a text by Engels from 1896.

Maximilien Rubel, translator, commentator and editor of Marx’s works, convincingly brought to light in the 1950s the importance of revolutionary ethics as the hidden face of his approach, obscured by an institutional “Marxism”, something that was at its peak at that time. Marx, far from rejecting utopia as historically overcome, as something surpassed by science, gives on the contrary a new, concrete form to it:

In a sense Marx is the most utopian of utopians: careless of future society, he is only concerned with the destruction of present society. But he elevates the revolution to the rank of a total demand. It is the mechanism of this imaginary or imagined revolution which is utopian: it supposes men capable of thinking of all social criticism, of all socialism, men who are aware of their “golden” misery.(5)

That is to say:

… the utopia of revolution is, for Marx, an ethics of revolutionary behaviour … Revolution and utopia appear as normative foundations of a socialist ethics, inseparable from each other. To be socialist, one has to want revolution and utopia; one has to want the abolition of existing types of society and desire the creation of a new political world.

Marx’s work does not deduce the inevitable arrival of classless society, but highlights the chances that proletarianised men and women can and will have to seize in order to achieve an “association where the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” (Communist Manifesto) Everything depends on their action: “the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the workers themselves” (Statutes of the International Workers’ Association), and Marx had noted, even before of the writing of the Manifesto, that the workers in struggle spontaneously adopted a behavior tending towards this new associative form of making society. The communist workers, he wrote:

In this practical process the most splendid results are to be observed whenever French socialist workers are seen together. Such things as smoking, drinking, eating, etc., are no longer means of contact or means that bring them together. Company, association, and conversation, which again has society as its end, are enough for them; the brotherhood of man is no mere phrase with them, but a fact of life, and the nobility of man shines upon us from their work-hardened bodies.

After more than a century and a half of experiences of struggles that took place after these first meetings of the young Marx in exile in France, the French men and women gathered at the roundabouts not only smoke, drink and eat together again, but also at the same time they reflect on and discuss passionately these experiences and the scope of their gatherings for a recasting of life in society.

Marx considered his theoretical effort as animated by the same revolutionary spirit that he had seen emerge among French workers and all his life he worked to make the connection between the different forms of appearance of this practical and theoretical spirit at the international level. For the “real movement” of the struggle and its theoretical reflection were one for him. Since revolutionary “critical certainty” is a fragile basis for standing forward in the long term, organisations were created to gain greater stability and power in the face of a multifaceted and all-powerful enemy. These national and international, political and trade union organisations have been able to constitute an effective weapon in certain contexts. But on many occasions they have finally turned into self-destructive machines in the form of bureaucratic monsters, even bloodthirsty states.

If victories are rare and the defeats disastrous, there is a great temptation to transform the organisation into a “Church institution”, as Mario Tronti recently analysed in analogy with the institutionalisation of the first Christianity:

The reason is as follows: the long wait has to be controlled, dominated, administered, the long wait has to be organised, to keep the message and anchor it in history. This requires an institutional force, a worldly power, capable of retaining this eternal time and, from within this time, to redeploy the relationship between a power that holds and a people that waits.(8)

Tronti paradoxically expresses in his plea for an ethics of free spirit a certain melancholic regret – astonishing for an early workerist – concerning the bankruptcy of the construction of a church-like revolutionary institution:

… what was missing was the Church form, which – it must be said – was attempted, but was a failure. The Revolution wants the Institution: to last, not decades, but centuries. This is what the Church is. The liberating event, which is always a matter of an instant – the capture of the Winter Palace -, to be preserved in time for the use of “those who will come”, must give itself a form. The transmutation of force into form is the politics that remains: it is only on this condition that we can make the whole story, that is to say completely and not only half of it. And it is essential to know – beware of those who do not know it – that this story, even before the institution that contains it, is permixta with good and evil. (9)

We, on the other hand, can only feel an immense rage and sadness that the failed construction of a “Marxist-Leninist” monster-Church has caused so many lost battles and countless victims, and that this option is not discredited once and for all as the Tronti example shows. Fortunately, the “Tronti enigma” (Marcello Tarì) never ceases to surprise us, as we will see a little later, when we refer to another more recent text by him.

But the question remains: how can the event hold out over time, despite all the experiences of failures and relapses? How can we not succumb to despair or to anesthetic self-consolations (we are offered so many alternative areas of engagement – artistic, scientific, political, media, humanitarian … – where “to be realised”)?

One thing is clear, the basis of a revolutionary ethics is a sense of presence in the world that goes far beyond the self-centered Ego. As it was said in À nos amis/To our friends about ethical truths:

If earthlings are ready to risk their lives so that a square is not transformed into a parking lot like in Gamonal, in Spain, so that a park does not become a shopping center like in Gezi in Turkey, so that hedgerows do not become an airport as in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, it is good that what we love, what we are attached to – beings, places or ideas – is just as much a part of us, such that we are not reduced to a Self housing the time of a life in a physical body bounded by its skin, the whole embellished with all the properties that it must have. When the world is touched, we are the ones who are attacked. (10)

We identify ourselves as belonging to the species of humans in their wandering through time to inhabit this world humanly; to their attempts, which are always renewed and until today still unfinished, stranded or threatened with death. We continue their fight.

This struggle, based on revolutionary ethics, is a struggle not only against an external enemy. The external enemy has taken a position in our entrails, as Alain Damasio wrote in 2007:

Myself, at thirty, I know, to test it, that the guerrilla war begins against me – finally against the alter ego fattened in the belly, which they have inseminated and which seeks its slippers, its kids and its reassuring couple, who falls asleep in front of the Internet and keeps me on my buttocks when I want to stand up. Standing. Just to see, huh. To maintain a perspective on the weary war of gluttons … Linked to a regime of power, the revolt is today naked in the face of what alienates it, encysts it and dilutes it. What the hell is this thing? We are looking for names: ultraliberalism, neocapitalism, globalisation, cryptofascism – but these are old names for a designated external enemy, when the struggle is first internal and unclear, in each one of us, but relayed by everyone (everybody is a cop …). (11)

At the same time, the Manifeste pour une désobéissance générale (2009) stated:

Part of us finds ourselves surreptitiously forced to be the executioner of our other self, the one who dreams, knows and wants this world not to be this one. How many of the citizens find it difficult to undo at night or during their meager free time what they have been accomplices to every working day?

Always the same idea: either by a cop or by an executioner, our consciences are colonised, conditioned and formatted by the enemy. After having reached the outer limits of its expansion in the world, capital successfully attacked to invest the interior of men and women as a field of valorisation: “By internalizing itself, the process settles in the sphere of subjective existence…: it comes to be grafted on pre-existing psychological (society internalised) or organic (internal nature) presuppositions.” It is a question of “conquering inside the body of the species the space which, until then, it has disastrously conquered outside, and thus to find, in the intimacy of bodies, the last quality to convert into quantity.”(12)

Everywhere it has become clear to many people something that we have learned with difficulty: there is nothing and no one to trust; neither the laws of history, nor party-churches. We can only trust ourselves; we can only hold on alone, with accomplices, on the basis of revolutionary ethics. In the face of the external and internal enemy, never give up, no conciliation or accommodation; identify positions and maneuvers, and gain self-control as one tries to conquer places outside.

Unexpectedly, we find Mario Tronti sharing such a perspective. A last text by him, Desperate Hopes, (13) places at the center a reference to Ernst Bloch, to his The Spirit of Utopia, and to Thomas Müntzer as Theologian of Revolution. Instead of the necessity of the Church form, Tronti here exalts the Peasants Wars, the “war of the poor”, directed precisely against the Church, support of the feudal lords of the time: “Any young man, boy or girl, who decides to enter politics on the side of those who want to change the world, is in the ethical obligation to drink from this source, for original accumulation of subversive energy. And he quotes Bloch:

History is a difficult and inconvenient journey … As a rule, the circumstances are such that the soul must become guilty in order to annihilate what exists and is harmful, so as not to become even more guilty by withdrawing into the idyllic and tolerating injustice with apparent kindness. In itself, domination and power are harmful, but it is necessary to oppose them with just as much power, almost a categorical imperative that points its gun…


1. Comité invisible A nos amis, La fabrique 2014, p.241

2. Ibid. p.45s.

3. Giorgio Cesarano, Manuel de survie, Les Editions la Tempête 2019, p.155

4. In MEGA I,1/1,trad. et cit. by Maximilien Rubel, Karl Marx, essai de biographie intellectuelle, [1957] reedition. Klincksieck 2016, p.76

[5] Maximilien Rubel, Réflexions sur l’utopie et la révolution, in: Front Noir 1963-1967 Surréalisme et socialisme de conseils, Texts selected and presented by Louis Janover and Maxime Morel, Non Lieu 2019, p.112. This collection of texts from a small magazine, which I did not know, was for me a discovery of particular importance. On the fringes and against the proponents of what is called in these texts “real surrealism” or “artistically existing surrealism”, the review defended the original revolutionary ethics of this movement, at the time of the Surrealist Revolution, and – by associating Maximilien Rubel and a part of Socialisme ou Barbarie in this approach – the revolutionary ethics of Marx against “Marxism”.

6. Ibid. p.114

7. Karl Marx, Les manuscrits économico-philosophiques de 1844, Vrin 2007, p.184

8. Mario Tronti, De l’esprit libre, Editions la Tempête 2019, p.90

9. Ibid. p.305

10. Op.cit.p.46

11. Alain Damasio, La zone du dehors, Postface, Ed. La Volte 2007

12. Giorgio Cesarano, Apocalypse et révolution, §§ 48,55 ; this essay of 1972, available at the site of the magazine Invariance, will be reissued by Les Editions de la Tempête en 2020


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