Polemic: Doubts about the working class

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When the working class openly demonstrates its strength, when it threatens to paralyze producti­on, pushes the state back, stirs up a real ferm­ent in the whole of society -- as was the case, for example, during the mass strike in Poland in the summer of 1980 -- the question ‘is the working class the revolutionary force of our time?' seems rather absurd. In Poland, as in all the social struggles that have shaken capitalism, the heart of the social movement was none other than the heart of the working class: the shipyard wor­kers of the Baltic coast, the steel workers of Nova Huta, the miners of Silesia. When the Pol­ish peasants went into struggle, when the stud­ents or artists decided to fight the state, they had no other reflex than to ‘go and see the workers.'

When the workers manage to break through the forces that keep them powerless and atomized, when they unite against the ruling class and shake the whole edifice of their domination, it's easy, even obvious, to understand how and why the working class is the only force capable of con­ceiving and undertaking the revolutionary trans­formation of society.

But, as soon as the open struggle ceases, as soon as capital regains the upper hand and reimposes its leaden weight on society, what once seemed obvious can become blurred, even in the memory, and decadent capital then inflicts on its subjects its own sinister view of the world: that of subjugated atomized working class which silent­ly troops through the factory gates every morning, incapable breaking its chains by its own efforts.

At such moments there is no lack of ‘theoreticians' to explain to all those who want to hear that the working class, as such, is an integral part of the system, that it has a place in it to defend, and that only blind fanatics cam see this mass of money-conscious individuals as the bearer of a new society.          

Those who openly defend the benefits of the capitalist system, whether in its ‘western' or stalinist form, never come up with any other credo. But in periods of retreat in the workers' struggle we also see the regular appearance of groups or publications who theorize ‘doubts' about the historic nature of the working class, even among those who claim to be for the communist revolution and who have no illusions about the so-called ‘socialist' countries or the so-called ‘workers' parties in the west. A new lease of life is given to old ideas coming from anarchism and populism, according to which the revolution will not be the work of a specific economic class, but of all people who in one way or another suffer the inhumanity of capital.

Today, with the post-Poland retreat in the work­ers' struggle, ‘modernist' ideology, the ideology of a ‘modern theory of the revolution' which re­jects the ‘old workers' movement' with its ‘dusty marxism', seems to be undergoing a certain reviv­al, as it did during the reflux that followed the 1968-74 wave of struggles. Thus, among other things, we have seen in France the appearance of the review La Banquise[1] (literally ‘The Great Ice Barrier') and the review La Guerre Sociale[2] becoming a quarterly, and in Britain the reappearance of Solidarity[3].[4]

These publications are quite a bit different from each other. La Guerre Sociale and La Banquise are more directly part of a theoretical line which passes through Invariance and Le Mouvement Communiste. But they all share the same rejection of that basic idea of ‘old' marxism: the working class is the only truly revolutionary force in society; the destruction of capitalism and the opening up of a communist society requires a period of transition characterized by the polit­ical dictatorship of this class.

It's not our intention here to develop a complete critique of all the ideas defended by currents of this type. Polemic with these tendencies is, in any case, often sterile and tedious; firstly because we're talking about groups that are somewhat informal (and proud of being so), comprising various ‘independent' individuals, which means that articles that appear in the same publication can contain contradictory ideas; secondly, because modernists permanently cultivate ambiguities, ‘yes-buts' and ‘no-buts', especially vis-a-vis marxism, whose vocabulary they often use (Marx is quoted wherever possible) while rejecting what is essential. Because of this, they can always reply to criticisms with the classic formula ‘that's not what we say, you're distorting our position.'

What is important now, in a period of temporary retreat in the working class struggle, a period in which the social contradictions that will lead to the communist revolution are maturing at an accelerated rate, is to reaffirm the central role of the working class, to show why it is the revolutionary class and why, from the moment you ignore this essential reality of our time, you condemn yourself both to not understanding the course of history unfolding in front of our eyes (cf. the pessimism of La Banquise), and to falling into the worst traps of bourgeois ideology (cf. the ambiguities of La Guerre Sociale and Solidarity about the Solidarnosc union in Poland)

This is all the more necessary because, like the ‘radical' students in 1968, certain modernist groups often develop a lucid and searching analysis of some aspects of decadent capitalism, which only adds to the credibility of their political nonsenses.

What is the proletariat?

With Marx, as with all marxists, the terms work­ing class and proletariat have always been syn­onymous. However, among those who call into ques­tion the revolutionary nature of the working class as such, without daring to openly espouse the anarchism or radical populism of the end of last century, we often find that a distinction between the two words is invented. The working class is defined as the workers and employees as you see them day-by-day under the domination of capital, with their struggles for better wages and for jobs. The proletariat is defined as a revolutionary force, its contours being somewhat indeterminate, but generally embracing all those who, at one moment or another, are in revolt against the authority of the state. This can be anyone from a metal worker to a professional criminal, and might include battered women, rich or poor, homosexuals or students, depending on the modernist ‘thinker' in question (cf. the fascination of the Situationist International or Le Mouvement Communiste with ‘outlaws'; cf. the journal Le Voyou (The Hooligan) in the mid-70's; cf. Solidarity's headlong flight into feminism).

For the review Invariance (Carnatte) in 1979, the definition of the proletariat ended up being ex­tended to its maximum: the whole of humanity. Since the domination of capital over society had become more and more impersonal and totalitarian, the conclusion was that the whole ‘human commun­ity' had to revolt against capital. This amoun­ted to denying that the class struggle was the dynamic of the revolution.

Today La Guerre Sociale offers us another defin­ition, more restricted, but not much more pre­cise:

"The proletarian isn't the worker or even the worker and employee, those who labor at the bottom rung. The proletarian is not the producer, even if the producer may be a proletarian. The proletarian is he who is ‘cut off', ‘excluded', who has ‘no reserves'. (La Guerre Sociale no. 6, ‘Open letter to the comrades of the maintained International Communist Party, December 82).

It's true that the proletarian is excluded, cut off from any real control over the running of social life and thus of his or her own life; it's true that, contrary to certain pre-capital­ist exploited classes, the proletarian does not possess any means of production and lives without reserves. But there's more to it than that. The proletarian isn't just someone who's ‘poor', they're also a producer, the producer of surplus value that is transformed into capital. They are exploited collectively and resistance against exploitation is immediately collective. These are essential differences.

To broaden the definition of the proletariat in this way isn't to enlarge the revolutionary class, but to dilute it in the fog of humanism.

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La Banquise, following in the wake of Invariance, believes that you can refer to Marx to broaden the notion of the proletariat.

"From the moment... that the individual product is transformed into a social product, into the product of a collective laborer whose different members participate in handling the material at many diverse degrees, or even not at all, the determination of productive labor, of the productive laborer necessarily broaden. In order to be productive, it's no longer necessary to touch things with your hands; it's enough to be an organ of the collective laborer or to fulfill one of its functions." (Marx, Capital Vol. 1) However, what Marx was emphasizing here wasn't the idea that anybody and everybody in the world had become productive or proletarian. He was showing that in developed capitalism it wasn't the spec­ific quality of the task accomplished by this or that worker which was a criterion for determining whether they were productive or not. By modifying the process of production according to its needs, capital exploits the whole of the labor power it buys, as though it were that of one productive laborer. The concrete use it makes of each mem­ber of this collectivity, bakery worker or office employee, producer of arms or floor-cleaner, is secondary from the standpoint of knowing who is exploited by capital. It's the collectivity as a whole which is exploited. The proletariat, the working class, today includes most of the employ­ees in the so-called ‘tertiary' sector.

However much it developed, capitalism has never generalized the condition of the proletariat to the whole of society. Capital has engendered huge masses of marginals without work, especially in the underdeveloped countries. It has allowed pre-capitalist sectors to survive, such as small ind­ividual peasants, small shopkeepers, artisans, the liberal professions.

Capital dominates all sectors of society. And all those who are living in misery and subjected to its domination have good reasons for revolting against it. But only those who are directly link­ed to capital through wage labor and the produc­tion of surplus value are truly antagonistic to capital, they alone constitute the proletariat, the working class.

Why is the proletariat the revolutionary class?

Before Marx, the dynamic of the history of soc­iety remained a mystery. In order to vainly try to develop a coherent picture of history, you had to resort to religious notions like Providence, to the genius of military leaders, or to History with a capital H. By demonstrating the central role of the class struggle in this dynamic, marxism made it possible to understand it for the first time. However, in doing so, it didn't evolve a way of interpreting the world, but a view of the world that made it possible to trans­form it. Marx considered that his fundamental discovery wasn't the existence of the class struggle in itself -- this the bourgeois theor­eticians had already established -- but the fact that the class struggle led to the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Marx said that the irreconcilable antagonisms between the working class and capital had to lead to a revolutionary struggle for the destruction of capitalist social relations and the establishment of a communist society. The protagonist of this revolution would be the working class, which had to organize itself autonomously, as a class, in relation to the rest of society, and to exer­cise a political dictatorship in order to destroy the bases of the old regime from top to bottom.

It's this analysis which the modernists reject:

"In order to really transform their conditions of existence, the proletarians cannot rise up as the ‘working class'. But this is difficult, because they fight precisely on the basis of their condition of existence. This contradiction can only be clarified in theory when it has been overcome in practice." (La Banquise no 1, ‘Arant la Debacle' p.11) "The proletariat cannot first pose itself as a social force before changing the world." (ibid, no 2, ‘Le Roman de nos Origines')

"But, right now, you can only close yourself up in this oppression if you don't attack it as proletarians, or as humans, and not on the basis of a specificity -- which is becoming more and more illusory -- to be conserved or defended. The worst thing would to be to make this specificity the depositary of a capacity for revolt." (our emphases, La Guerre Sociale no 5,'Towards the Human Community', p 32).

The modernists don't know what the proletariat is fundamentally because they don't understand why it is revolutionary. Why should it organize sep­arately, as a class, when it has to fight for the elimination of classes? For the modernists, the working class, as a class, is no more revolution­ary than anyone else: as a class, its struggle is limited to the fight for better wages and to the defense of a slave's employment. Instead of constituting itself into a political class, the proletariat must begin to negate itself as a class and to affirm itself as... ‘human'. The worst thing, says Le Guerre Sociale, would be to make a specificity -- being a worker for example - "the depositary of a capacity for revolt."

With the modernists, history always seems to begin with them. The Paris Commune, the mass strike in Russia in 1905, the October 1917 rev­olution in Russia, the revolutionary movement in Germany in 1919 -- none of this shows us or teaches us anything. "The contradiction can only be clarified in theory when it has been overcome in practice", says La Banquise. But who led all the revolutionary struggles against capital for over a century if it wasn't the working class, which was fighting to defend its specific aspir­ations?

Why has it always been like that?

"...in the fully formed proletariat the abstraction of all humanity, even of the semblance of humanity, is practically complete; since the conditions of life of the proletariat sum up all the conditions of life of society today in their most inhuman form; since man has lost himself in the proletariat, yet at the same time has not only gained theoretical consciousness of that loss, but through urgent, no longer removable, no longer disguisable, absolutely imperative need -- the practical expression of necessity -- is driven directly to revolt against this humanity, it follows that the proletariat can and must emancipate itself. But it cannot emancipate itself without abolishing the conditions of its own life. It cannot abolish the condition of its own life without abolishing all the inhuman condit­ions of life of .society today which are summed up in its own situation." (Marx, The Holy Family)

This is the specificity of the working class: its immediate and historic interests coincide with those of humanity as a whole. This isn't the case with any other layer of society. It cannot liberate itself from capitalist wage labor, the most complete form of the exploitation of man by man, without eliminating all forms of exploitation, "all the inhuman conditions of life of society today." But it doesn't follow from this that all parts of humanity possess the material force and the consciousness indispensable for undertaking a communist revolution.

The working class derives its strength first of all from its central situation in the process of production. Capital isn't machinery and raw mat­erials, it's a social relation. When through its struggle, the working class rejects this relat­ionship, capital is immediately paralyzed. There's no capital without surplus value, no surplus value without the labor of proletarians. Here resides the power of mass strike movements. This explains in part why the working class can materially undertake the destruction of capital­ism. But it's not enough to explain why it can lay the bases for a communist society.

The Spartacus slaves in antiquity, or the serfs in feudalism, also played a central, decisive role in the process of production. However, their revolts could not give rise to a communist pers­pective:

"The separation of society into an exp­loiting and an exploited class, a ruling and an oppressed class, was the necessary consequence of the deficient and restricted development of pro­duction in former timed. So long as the total social labor only yields a produce which but slightly exceeds that barely necessary for the existence of all; so long, therefore, as labor engages all or almost all the time of the great majority of the members of society -- so long, of necessity, this society is divided into classes." (Engels, Anti- Duhring. Part 3, chap 2)

The proletariat is the bearer of communism because capitalist society has created the mat­erial means for creating it. By developing the material riches of society to the point of allow­ing sufficient abundance to suppress economic laws, ie the laws of managing scarcity, capitalism has opened up a revolutionary perspective for the class it exploits.

In the final analysis, the proletariat is the bearer of communism because it is the bearer of communal consciousness. If we leave aside the semi-religious, pre-capitalist visions of a society without exploitation, the project of a communist society without private property, without classes, where production is oriented directly and exclusively towards the satisfaction of human needs, appeared and developed with the emergence of the working class and of its struggles.

The socialist ideas of Babeuf, Saint-Simon, Owen or Fourier reflected the development of the working class at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. The birth of marxism, the first coherent and scientifically-based theory of communism, coincided with the appearance of the working class as a specific political force (the Chartist movement, the 1848 revolut­ions). Since then, in one way or another, with greater or lesser degrees of clarity, all the important struggles of the working class have taken up communist ideas.

Communist ideas, revolutionary theory, can only be developed through an understanding of workers' struggles. All the great steps forward in the theory of the communist revolution have been the product, not of the pure logical deductions of a few thinkers in their studies, but of a militant and committed analysis of the major advances of the real movement of the working class.

This is why it's only the working class which has attempted to destroy the power of capitalism in a communist manner (Paris Commune, October1917). The history of the communist movement is none other than the history of the workers' movement.

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Does this mean that the proletariat can make the revolution all on its own, ignoring the rest of society? Since the 19th century, the proletariat has known that communism has to be "the unification of the human species". The experience of the Russian revolution clearly showed it the importance of winning the support of all exploited strata. But experience has also shown that the proletariat alone can put forward a coherent revolutionary program. The unification of humanity, and to begin with, of all the exploited, can only be brought about on the basis of the activity and program of the working class. By organizing separately, the proletariat doesn't divide society. It is giving itself the means to achieving its communist unification.

This is why, contrary to what the modernists say, the movement towards the communist revolution begins with the unitary organization of the working class as a force; with the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The disorientation of modernism

The Historic Period

Understanding the present historic period while being unaware that the working class is the rev­olutionary force is as difficult as understand­ing the end of the feudal regime without taking into account the development of the revolutionary bourgeoisie.

It's hard to find out whether the conditions for a revolutionary upheaval are developing if you don't know how to identify the protagonist of the revolution.

Anyone who knows the history of the workers' movement and understands its revolutionary nature knows that the process which leads the proletar­iat towards the communist revolution is neither linear nor automatic. It is a dialectical dynamic made up off advances and retreats, in which only long practice and the experience of the struggle enables millions of proletarians, under the pressure of poverty, to unite, to rediscover the lessons of past struggles, to break the ideolog­ical grip of the ruling class, and launch a new assault on the established order.

But when you see the struggles of the working class as a class as something with no future, if you can't understand their revolutionary potent­ial and dynamic, you can only be ‘disappointed'. If you see struggles like those in Poland in 1980 merely as struggles ‘within capital', it's obvious you're going to be depressed, fifteen years after May 68; it's obvious that you won't see the significance of the fact that, despite the momentary retreat in the workers' struggle since 1980, strikes have broken out here and there in the heart of the industrialized countries (Belgium 82, Italy 83), and that we are not seeing the mobilization of the workers behind the interests of the national economy and its union representatives, but on the contrary, increasingly violent clashes between workers and unions.

Thus no 1 of La Banquise opens with a phrase marked by a nostalgia for the barricades of 1968 in Paris and by a depressed tone:

"‘Under the paving-stones, the beach', we said before the great glaciation. Today the Great Ice Barrier has covered all that. Ten, twenty, a hundred meters of ice above the paving-stones. Then, the beach."

This is a depression as senile as the radical students of 1968 were infantile in their belief that you could have ‘everything, now.' Modernism seems to grow old very quickly!

The Impotence and Confusion of Modernism in the face of the Class Struggle

It's no accident that modernist publications like Solidarity or La Guerre Sociale ceased to appear during the struggles in Poland. Like the petty bourgeoisie of which it is the ‘radical' express­ion, the modernist current lives in a state of ambiguity and hesitation between the rejection of bourgeois ideology and a contempt for the down-to-earth struggles of the workers. When the rev­olutionary force affirms itself, even in a still embryonic manner, as in Poland, history has a tendency to get rid of ambiguities and thus of the ideologies which splash about in them. This is what happened temporarily with the modernists in 1980.

But the political disorientation of the current doesn't unfortunately remain at the level of mere impotence. It can lead to the defense of frankly leftist positions when it comes to pronouncing on a workers' struggle.

Thus La Guerre Sociale found itself alongside the Trotskyists and other democrats in repeating that Solidarnosc -- organiser of the defeat of the workers in Poland -- is a proletarian organ: "Solidarity is incontestably an organ of the proletariat. The fact that elements coming from non-working class strata (intellectuals or others) were installed at its head didn't alter the fact that from the beginning the proletariat recognized itself in it. How else can we explain the adhesion of virtually the whole Polish prol­etariat? How can we explain the union's influence on the class?" (La Guerre Sociale no 6)

This is a typically leftist way of reasoning, in the spirit of the degenerating IIIrd International. Following this logic, the Polish Church, which has more faithful workers than Solidarnosc should also be "incontestably an organ of the proletariat"... and the Pope, Lenin!

La Guerre Sociale also talks in general terms about the nature of the unions, but only to serve up the old ambiguous soup of the group Pouvoir Ouvrier (at the end of the 1960s -- in fact, also of the group Socialisme ou Barbarie) about the ‘dual nature of the unions':

"The union isn't an organ of capital, a war machine against the proletariat, but the organizational expression of its relationship with capital, antagonism and cooperation. It expresses the fact that capital is nothing without the proletariat, and that, in the immediate, the reciprocal is also true" (ibid)

In decadent capitalism there's no cooperation between capitalism and workers that benefits the workers. In our epoch, the view that identifies the unions with the working class is none other than the propaganda of the ruling class (which also knows how to cooperate on a world level to create a credible ‘Solidarnosc'). It is based on the idea that there can be a conciliation between the interests of capital and the interests of the proletariat. It ignores the revolutionary nature of the working class. Thus La Guerre Sociale makes the following candid observations: "The essential difference between Solidarity and the Polish proletariat is that the former took into account national and international economic interests necessary for the survival of the sys­tem, whereas the second carried on the defense of its immediate interests without in the least con­cerning itself with the problems of the valorization of capital." (ibid)

Only by ignoring the revolutionary nature of the proletariat, by considering it as essentially a part of capital and not as its destroyer, can you see some sort of identity between "the national and international economic interests" of capital, and the "immediate interests" of the proletariat.

The disorientation provoked by failing to recognize the revolutionary character of the working class thus leads to the same view as that of the leftists, so heavily criticized by radical mod­ernism.

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The proletariat is the first revolutionary class in history that is also an exploited class. The process of struggle which leads to the communist revolution is inevitably marked by periods of retreat. These retreats are not only concretized -- by a diminution in the number of workers' struggles. On the level of consciousness, the proletariat also undergoes a disarray which mani­fests itself in the weakening of its revolution­ary political expressions and the resurgence of political currents who cultivate ‘doubts' about the working class.

The breakthrough in 1968, after nearly half a century of triumphant counter-revolution, opened a course towards decisive class confrontations. This course hasn't been reversed by the post-Poland retreat any more than it was by the reflux of 1975-78. The historic conditions of this re­treat are being worn out at the same rate as the economic crisis is deepening, and it is the real­ity of the crisis which is slowly but systematic­ally undermining the pillars of decadent bourge­ois ideology (the working class nature of the eastern bloc, the welfare state, parliamentary democracy, unions, national liberation struggles, etc...)

All the conditions are maturing for the struggle of the proletariat to point the way to the future of humanity, and to sweep away all doubt about its revolutionary nature.

RV



[1] La Banquise, BP 214, 75623 Paris, Cedex 13, France.

[2] La Guerre Sociale, BP 88, 75623 Paris, Cedex 13, France. Yearly from 1977 to 1979, this publication temporarily ceased to appear in ... 1980, during the biggest struggles in Poland. It didn't reappear till May 81 and went quarterly in June 82.

[3] The group Solidarity has its origins in 1960s. Throughout the 1970s it published, fairly, regularly, a review of the same name. but, in autumn 1980, unable to take a coherent position on the struggles in Poland and to pronounce on what attitude to adopt towards Solidarnosc, the review disappeared. It reappeared at the beginning of 83 with a new series (the crisis of 1980 was discussed here) Solidarity: c/o 123, Lathom Road, London E6, UK.

[4] These three groups are directly and indirectly linked to Socialisme ou Barbarie, a magazine of the 50s and 60s, whose main animator, Castoriadis (alia Chaulieu, Cardan, Coudray) has spent a great deal of time theorizing the transcendence of Marxism.