Who can change the world? (Part 2): The proletariat is still the revolutionary class

Printer-friendly versionSend by email


In the first part of this article, we explained why the proletariat is the revolutionary class within capitalist society. We have seen why it is the only force capable of resolving the insoluble contradictions which undermine the world today, by setting up a new society rid of exploitation and able to satisfy fully human needs. This capacity of the proletariat, which was demonstrated during the previous century by marxist theory in particular, does not spring merely from the degree of misery and exploitation to which it is subjected every day. Still less is it based, as some bourgeois ideologues try to pretend that marxism says, on some kind of "divine inspiration" transforming the proletariat into a "messiah for modern times". It is founded on thoroughly material conditions: the proletariat's specific place within capitalist relations of production, its status as the collective producer of the great majority of social wealth, and as a class exploited by these same relations of production. This place within capitalism does not allow it, unlike other social classes (such as the small peasantry, for example), to hope for a return to the past. On the contrary, it is forced to turn towards the future, to the abolition of wage labor and the construction of a communist society.

None of these elements are new: they are all part of the classical heritage of marxism. However, one of bourgeois ideology's most perfidious methods whereby it tries to turn the proletariat away from its communist project is to convince it that it is disappearing, or even that it has already disappeared. For this ideology, the revolutionary perspective is supposed to have had a meaning only as long as the vast majority of wage-earners were industrial workers; now that this category of the workforce is diminishing, such a perspective is supposed to disappear of itself. And we are forced to admit, that this kind of talk affects not only the less conscious workers, but even certain groups which call themselves communist. This is a further reason to fight firmly against such chatter.

The so-called "disappearance" of the working class

Bourgeois "theories" about the disappearance of the proletariat already have a long history behind them. For decades, they have been based on a certain improvement in workers' living conditions. The fact that workers can now acquire consumer goods which were once reserved to the bourgeois or the petty-bourgeois is supposed to illustrate the disappearance of the working class. But even when they appeared, these "theories" did not bear examination: when, thanks to the increase in the productivity of labour, such commodities as cars, televisions, or refrigerators became relatively cheap, and moreover when they became indispensable thanks to the evolution of the framework of working-class life[1], the fact of possessing them does not at all mean that one is no longer a worker, nor even that one is less exploited. In reality, the degree of exploitation of the working class has never been determined by the quantity or the nature of the consumer goods that it can dispose of at a given moment. Marx and marxism have long since answered this question: the wage-earners' ability to consume depends on the cost of their labour power, in other words on the quantity of labor necessary to renew it. When the capitalist pays the worker a wage, his object is to allow the latter to continue his participation in the productive process under the best possible conditions for the profitability of capital. This means that the worker must not only be able to house, feed, and clothe himself, but must also be able to rest, and to acquire the qualification necessary to operate the constantly evolving means of production.

This is why the creation and increase of paid holidays during the 20th century in the developed countries has nothing to do with any kind of bourgeois "philanthropy". They have been made necessary by the enormous increase in the productivity, and therefore the intensity of labor during the same period, as indeed of urban life as a whole. Similarly, the (relative) disappearance of child labor and the increase in time spent at school, which are presented as further proofs of bourgeois solicitude, are essentially due to capital's requirement for a more highly qualified labor force adapted to the demands of an ever more technically complex productive apparatus (though this has also become, today, a means of hiding unemployment). Moreover, in the "increase" in wages of which the bourgeoisie makes so much, especially since World War II, we must take account of the fact that workers must support their children for much longer than in the past. When children went to work at the age of twelve or even less, they brought extra money into a working-class family for ten years or more, before starting their own family. When children stay at school until eighteen, this effectively disappears. In other words, the "increase" in wages is also in large part one of capital's means of preparing the next generation of workers for new technological conditions.

Even if capitalism in the most developed countries gave the appearance, for a while, of reducing the workers' level of exploitation, this was only an illusion. In reality, the rate of exploitation, in other words the relation between the amount of surplus value that a worker produces and the wages he receives[2], has never ceased to grow. This is why, even at the time, Marx spoke of the "relative" pauperization of the working class as a constant tendency under capitalism. During the years of relative prosperity that corresponded to the reconstruction following World War II, the exploitation of the working class increased continuously, even though their living conditions did not fall as a result. This being said, we are not dealing with merely relative pauperization today. "Improvements" in wages are no longer a prospect in today's conditions, and the absolute pauperization which the bourgeoisie's apologists told us had disappeared for good is returning in earnest to the "wealthy" countries. Now that the policy of every national fraction of the bourgeoisie for dealing with the crisis, is to attack workers' living conditions through drastic attacks on the "social wage" and even on money wages, all the chatter about the "consumer society" or even the "bourgeoisification" of the working class has disappeared of itself. This is why the talk about the "disappearance of the proletariat" has changed its arguments, which now rely increasingly on the changes that affect different fractions of the class, in particular the reduction in the industrial labour force and in the proportion of "manual" workers in the labor force as a whole.

Such talk is based on a gross falsification of marxism, which has never identified the proletariat solely with industrial or manual ("blue-collar") workers. It is true that in Marx's day, the working class' biggest battalions were formed by the so-called "manual" workers. But there has always existed within the proletariat sectors which worked with sophisticated technology, or required a high degree of intellectual knowledge. Some traditional crafts, for example, required a long apprenticeship. Similarly, trades like the proof-readers in the printing industry required a high degree of study, which made their members "intellectual workers". This did not prevent this sector of the working class from being in the vanguard of the class struggle. In fact, the opposition between "blue-collar" and "white-collar" workers corresponds to the kind of categorization beloved of sociologists and their bourgeois employers, and is used to divide the workers' ranks. This is why this opposition is not new, since the ruling class understood a long time ago the advantage to be gained from making many employees think that they were not part of the working class. In reality, belonging to the working class has nothing to do with sociological, still less with ideological criteria (ie the idea that a proletarian, or a group of proletarians, has of his own condition). Fundamentally, it is determined by economic criteria.

Who belongs to the working class?

Fundamentally, the proletariat is the class exploited specifically by capitalist relations of production. As we saw in the first part of the article, the result is that "In general terms (...) belonging to the working class is determined by the fact of being deprived of the means of production, and of thus being obliged to sell one's labor power to those who do possess them, and who profit from this exchange to allot the surplus value to themselves". However, given all the falsification that surrounds the question, we need to give these criteria greater precision.

To begin with, although it is necessary to be a wage earner to be part of the working class, this is not a sufficient condition: otherwise the police, priests, the managers of large companies (especially in the state sector), and even government ministers would be exploited, and potential comrades in struggle of those that they repress, deceive, or set to work for a revenue ten or a hundred times less[3]. It is thus vital to understand that an essential characteristic of the working class is the production of surplus-value. This means two things in particular:

- a worker's income never exceeds a certain level[4]; beyond this, an income can only be derived from surplus-value extorted from other workers;

- a proletarian is a real producer of surplus-value, and not a paid agent of capital whose job is to impose capitalist order on the producers.

Amongst the personnel of a company, there may thus be technicians, or even engineers, whose salary is close to that of a qualified worker, and who belong to the same class as the latter, while those whose income is closer to the bosses' (even if they are not directly involved in labor management) do not. Similarly, the same company may include low-level managers or "security officers" whose wage may even be less than that of a technician or a qualified worker, but whose role is that of a "screw" in the industrial gaol and who therefore cannot be considered as part of the proletariat.

On the other hand, belonging to the working class does not necessarily imply a direct and immediate participation in the production of surplus-value. The teacher educating the future proletarian, the nurse - even the salaried doctor whose income these days may be less than that of a qualified worker - who "repairs" the workers' labor power (even if they also look after policemen, priests and union officials, or even ministers) undoubtedly belong to the working class in just the same way as the cook in the factory canteen. Obviously, the same is not true for the university mandarin, or for the private doctor. We should however be clear that the fact that teachers (whose economic situation is not usually brilliant) inculcate bourgeois values - consciously or unconsciously, willingly or not - does not exclude them from the exploited and revolutionary class, any more than workers in the armaments industry are excluded from it[5]. It is moreover the case that throughout the history of the workers' movement, there have been many teachers among the revolutionary militants. Similarly, the workers at the Kronstadt arsenal were among the vanguard of the Russian revolution in 1917.

We also need to make it clear that the vast majority of office workers and state employees also belong to the working class. If we take the case of a state enterprise such as the Post Office, nobody is going to claim that the mechanics, who maintain the Post Office trucks, or the sorting-office workers, do not belong to the proletariat. Nor, from this point of departure, is it difficult to understand that their comrades who deliver letters, or who work behind the Post Office counter are in the same situation. This is why office workers in banks, insurance companies, social security or income tax offices are also part of the working class. Nor can we even argue that their working conditions are any better than those of industrial workers. It is no less tiring to spend the day behind a desk or in front of a computer screen than operating a lathe, though it may be cleaner. And one of the objective factors behind the proletariat's ability to struggle as a class, and to overthrow capitalism - the associated, collective nature of its work - is not called into question by modern conditions of production, quite the reverse.

In the same way, the increasing technological level of production involves a growing number of what sociological statistics call "managers" (technicians, or even engineers), most of whose social status, and even income, is close to that of a qualified worker. This certainly does not imply any "disappearance" of the working class or its replacement by the "middle classes", but on the contrary the proletarianization of the latter[6] This is why the talk about the "disappearance of the proletariat" which is supposedly the result of the increase in the number of white-collar workers and technicians relative to manual workers has no other foundation than to try to demoralize and mystify both. Whether its authors believe what they say or not is irrelevant: they may serve the bourgeoisie efficiently while still being too stupid even to ask themselves who made the pen (or the word-processor) that they use to write their idiocies.

The so-called "crisis" of the working class

The bourgeoisie does not put all its eggs in one basket to demoralize the workers. So for those who are not taken in by the campaigns about the "disappearance of the working class", they reserve the idea that the latter is "in crisis". One of the supposedly decisive arguments in favor of this idea is the decline in union membership and influence during the last few decades. We will not, in this article, repeat our analysis of the bourgeois nature of trade unionism in all its forms. In fact, it is the working class' daily experience of the systematic sabotage of its struggle by the organizations which claim to "defend" it which is demonstrating this analysis, day after day[7]. And it is precisely this experience which is primarily responsible for the workers' rejection of the unions. In this sense, their rejection of the unions is not the sign of a "crisis" in their ranks, but on the contrary and above all a sign of a development in class consciousness. One illustration among many of this fact is the different attitude of workers in two great movements in France, thirty years apart. After the strikes of May-June 1936, right in the midst of the counter-revolution that followed the revolutionary wave after World War I, the unions enjoyed an unprecedented increase in membership. By contrast, after the general strike of May 1968, which marked the historic recovery of the class struggle and the end of the period of counter-revolution, union membership declined as workers tore up their union cards in disgust.

The argument that declining union membership proves the difficulties of the ruling class is a sure sign that anyone using it belongs to the ruling class. The same is true for the supposedly "socialist" nature of the stalinist regimes. History has shown, especially during World War II, the damage done to working-class consciousness by this lie peddled by every fraction of the bourgeoisie, whether right, left, or extreme left (stalinists and trotskyists). During the last few years, the lie of the "working class nature of the trades unions" has been used in much the same way: first, to enroll the workers behind the capitalist state; then, to confuse and demoralize them. However, the two lies have a different impact: because their collapse was not the result of the workers' struggle, the stalinist regimes' demise could be used effectively against the proletariat; by contrast, the discredit of the trades unions is essentially the result of this same workers' struggle, which considerably limits its impact as a factor of demoralization. This is why the bourgeoisie has encouraged the rise of "rank and file" unionism, to take the pressure off traditional unionism. And this is also why it is promoting more "radical" looking ideologues to put over the same message.

So we have seen the flourishing, and the promotion by the press[8], of analyses like those of Mr Alain Bihr, a doctor in sociology and the author, amongst other things, of a book titled: From the "great night"[9] to the "alternatives": the crisis of the European workers' movement. This gentleman's theses are not of much interest in themselves. However, the fact that he has recently been frequenting the milieux which claim to spring from the heritage of the communist left, some of which are ready to use his "analyses" themselves ("critically" of course) leads us to highlight the danger that they represent[10].

Mr Bihr presents himself as a "real" defender of working-class interests. This is why he does not claim that the working class is disappearing. On the contrary, he begins by asserting that: "... the frontiers of the proletariat extend today well beyond the traditional "world of the working class"". However, he only does so the better to put forward his central message: "During fifteen years of crisis, in France as in most other Western countries, we have seen a growing fragmentation of the proletariat which has called its unity into question and so has tended to paralyze it as a social force"[11].

Our author's main purpose is to demonstrate that the proletariat "is in crisis", and that it is the capitalist crisis itself which is responsible for this state of affairs, to which of course we have to add the sociological changes which affect the composition of the working class: "In fact, the current transformations of the wage relationship, with their overall effects of fragmentation and "reduction in mass" of the proletariat (...) tend to dissolve the two proletarian figures which made up the big battalions during the Fordist era: on the one hand, the skilled worker, whose condition is being profoundly modified by today's transformations which tend to replace the old skills with new categories of "professionals" linked to the new processes of automated labor; and on the other hand, the unskilled laborer, who was the spearhead of the proletarian offensive during the 60's and 70's, and is progressively being eliminated and replaced by part-time or fixed contract workers within the same automated production process"[12]. Apart from the pedantic language (which so delights the petty bourgeois who think themselves "marxist"), Bihr is just rehashing the same rubbish that generations of sociologists have already inflicted on us: automation is responsible for weakening the proletariat (since he thinks of himself as a "marxist" he doesn't talk about its "disappearance"), etc. He also follows them in maintaining that the decline in union membership is another sign of the "crisis of the working class" since: "All the studies that have been done on the development of unemployment and part-time working show that these tend to reactivate and reinforce the old divisions and inequalities within the proletariat (...). This dispersal into categories of such different status has had disastrous effects on the conditions of struggle. One sign of this is the failure of the various attempts, especially by the trades union movement, to organise part-time workers and the unemployed..."[13]. And so, behind all the radical talk and so-called "marxism", Bihr offers us the same old tripe served up by every sector of the ruling class: the trades unions are still "organizations of the workers' movement" (ibid).

This is the kind of "specialist" that inspires people like GS, and publications like Internationalist Perspective, which welcomes his writings with such sympathy. True, Bihr is no fool, and to smuggle his goods in he claims that the proletariat will be able, in spite of everything, to overcome its present difficulties by "recomposing" itself. But the way he says it tends to convince us of the reverse: "The transformations of the wage relationship have set a double challenge for the workers' movement: they force it simultaneously to adapt to a new social basis (a new "technical" and "political" composition of the class), and to make a synthesis between such apparently different categories as the "new professionals" and part-time workers, a synthesis which is much more difficult than that between the skilled and unskilled workers of the Fordist period"[14]. "The practical weakening of the proletariat and of the feeling of belonging to the working class can thus open the way to the recomposition of an imaginary collective identity on other bases"[15].

And so, after tons of - mostly specious - arguments designed to convince the reader that the working class is in serious trouble, and after having "demonstrated" that the cause of this "crisis" lies in the collapse of the capitalist economy and the rise of unemployment - neither of which will get anything but worse - the argument ends up simply asserting, without the slightest proof, that: "Things will get better... perhaps! But the challenge is a very difficult one". If you swallow Bihr's nonsense, and still believe that the proletariat and the class struggle have a future before them, you can only be a hopeless optimist. Well played Dr Bihr! Your rather obvious traps have caught the ignoramuses who publish IP and who present themselves as the true defenders of communist principles, which the ICC is supposed to have thrown to the winds.

It is true that the working class has encountered a number of difficulties in recent years, in the development of its struggles and its consciousness. For ourselves, and contrary to the reproaches directed at us by the professional sceptics (whether they be the EFICC - which is normal given their role as sowers of confusion - or Battaglia Comunista - which is less so, since this is an organization of the proletarian political milieu), we have never hesitated to point out these difficulties. But at the same time - and this is the least that one might expect of revolutionaries - we have analyzed the origins of these difficulties, and highlighted the conditions for overcoming them. And if we examine at all seriously the evolution of workers' struggles during the last decade, it is blindingly obvious that their present weakness has nothing to do with the falling numbers of "traditional" "blue-collar" workers. In most countries, for example, some of the most combative workers are to be found in the Post Office and the telecommunications industry. The same is true of health workers. In Italy in 1987, the biggest struggles were led by the school workers. And we could go on multiplying examples to show that neither the proletariat nor class combativity are limited to the "traditional" industrial workers. This is why our analyses are not obsessed with the kind of sociological criteria good only for academics or petty-bourgeois looking for an explanation not of the working class' problems, but of their own.

The real difficulties of the working class and how to overcome them

We do not have the space in this article to repeat all our analyses of the international situation during the last few years. The reader can find them in virtually every issue of the Review, and especially in the theses and resolutions adopted by our organization since 1989[16]. The proletariat's present difficulties, the reflux in its combativity and consciousness, on which basis some diagnose a "crisis" of the working class, have not gone unnoticed by the ICC. We have pointed out in particular that throughout the 1980's, the class has been confronted by the growing weight of capitalist society's generalized decomposition; by encouraging despair, atomization, the "look after number one" spirit, this has seriously damaged the general perspective of proletarian struggle and class solidarity, which - for example - has made it easier for the unions to shut the workers' struggles up in a corporatist framework. However - and this is an important sign of the class combat's vitality - the permanent weight of decomposition had not succeeded by 1989 in putting an end to the wave of struggles which had begun in 1983 with the strikes in the Belgian state sector. Quite the reverse: throughout this period we saw an increasing tendency for workers to go beyond the union framework, which obliged the unions to push a more radical rank-and-file unionism into the limelight, if they were to continue their work of sabotaging the struggle[17].

However, this wave of proletarian struggles was to be engulfed by the planetary upheaval which followed the second half of 1989. There were some - usually the same as those who had noticed nothing during the workers' struggles of the mid-80's - who thought that the collapse of the East European stalinist regimes in 1989 (the biggest expression to date of capitalist decomposition) would be favorable to the development of working class consciousness: we did not hesitate to assert that the opposite would be the case[18]. During 1990-91, with the Gulf crisis and War, then the Moscow putsch, we pointed out that these events would also affect the class struggle and the proletariat's ability to confront the increasing attacks of capital.

This is why the difficulties that the class has experienced these last few years have neither escaped our organization, nor surprised it. However, while we have analyzed their real causes (which have nothing to do with a mythical need for the working class to "recompose itself") we have also highlighted the reasons why the class has today the means to overcome its difficulties.

Here it is important to go back over one of Dr Bihr's arguments that there is a crisis in the working class: the economic crisis and unemployment have "fragmented the proletariat" by "reinforcing the old divisions and inequalities" within it. To show what he means, Bihr offers us a shopping list of all these "fragments": "workers with stable and guaranteed jobs", "those excluded from labor, or even from the labor market", "the floating mass of precarious workers". And he even takes delight in listing sub-categories of the latter: "workers for sub-contracting companies", "part-time workers", "temporary workers", "workers on training schemes", "workers in the black economy"[19]. In fact, what Dr Bihr presents as an argument is nothing other than a snapshot, which fits perfectly with his reformist vision[20]. It is true that at first the bourgeoisie's attacks on the working class were carried out selectively, in order to limit the extent of the latter's response. It is also true that unemployment, especially of young workers, has been used to blackmail some sectors of the proletariat, and so has reinforced their passivity by accentuating the influence of the general atmosphere of social decomposition and "every man for himself". However, the crisis itself, and its inexorable aggravation, will increasingly equalize, downwards, the living conditions of the working class' different sectors. In particular, the "high-tech" sectors (computers, telecommunications, etc) which had seemed to escape the effects of the crisis, are being hit head-on, throwing their workforce into the same situation as that faced by workers in the car or steel industries. Today, the biggest companies (such as IBM) are laying off en masse. At the same time, and contrary to the tendency of the previous decade, unemployment is rising faster among mature workers with existing work experience than amongst the young, which will tend to limit the atomization that unemployment created in the past.

Thus, even if decomposition is a handicap for the development of the class' struggle and consciousness, the increasingly obvious and brutal bankruptcy of the capitalist economy, with the string of attacks that this implies on working-class living conditions, is the determining element in the present situation for the recovery of the struggle, and the march of class consciousness. Obviously this is incomprehensible if one thinks, as reformist ideology (which cannot envisage the slightest revolutionary perspective) would have it, that the capitalist crisis provokes a "crisis in the working class". But once again, events themselves have taken care of the inane ramblings of the sociologists and demonstrated the validity of marxism: the Italian proletariat's formidable struggle in autumn 1992, against economic attacks of unprecedented violence, has once again shown that the proletariat has neither died nor disappeared, and that it has not given up the struggle, even if as one might expect it has not yet completely recovered from the blows it has suffered in the last few years. Nor will these struggles remain merely isolated events. Just like the workers' struggles of May 1968, they herald a general renewal of workers' combativity, a renewal of the proletariat's forward march towards the consciousness of the conditions and aims of its historic struggle for the abolition of capitalism. Whether those who lament, sincerely or otherwise, over the "crisis of the working class" and its "necessary recomposition" like it or not.


[1] The car is indispensable for getting to work, or for shopping, when public transport is inadequate or distances are too great. A refrigerator becomes vital when the only means to buy cheap food is to go to the supermarket, which can't be done every day. As for the television, which has been presented as the symbol of access to the "consumer society", quite apart from the fact that it provides the bourgeoisie with a formidable means of propaganda and stultification (it has proved an excellent replacement for religion as "opium of the people"), it can be found today in many "Third World" slum dwellings, which speaks volumes as to its devaluation.

[2] Marx described the rate of surplus-value, or the rate of exploitation, as the ratio S/V, where S is the surplus value or labor-value (the number of hours in the working day that the capitalist appropriates for himself) and V the variable capital, ie the wage (the number of hours in which the worker produces an equivalent to the value that he receives). This ratio allows us to determine the real intensity of exploitation in objective economic terms, not in subjective ones.

[3] Obviously, this assertion contradicts the lies of all the so-called "defenders of the working class" like the social-democrats or the stalinists, who have a long experience both in repressing and mystifying the workers, and in government. When a worker "leaves the ranks" to become a full-time union official, a councilor, a town mayor, a member of parliament or even a minister, he loses all links with his class.

[4] Of course, it is very difficult (if not impossible) to determine this level, which varies over time and from one country to another. What is important is that in each country (or group of countries which are similar from the standpoint of their economic development and the productivity of labor), there is a threshold which separates a qualified worker's wages from a manager's salary.

[5] For a fuller analysis of productive and non-productive labor, see our pamphlet on The decadence of capitalism.

[6] Although we should note at the same time that some managers see their income rise to the point where they are integrated into the ruling class.

[7] For a more developed analysis of the nature of the trades unions, see our pamphlet Unions against the working class. 

[8] For example, Le Monde Diplomatique, a French humanist monthly which specializes in the promotion of a capitalism "with a human face", often publishes articles by one Alain Bihr. In the March 91 edition, we find a text from this author entitled "Retreat of social rights, weakening of the trades unions, the proletariat is breaking up".

[9] In the French anarchist tradition, "le grand soir" designated the long-awaited general uprising which would overthrow the whole capitalist system.

[10] In no.22 of Internationalist Perspective, organ of the so-called "External Fraction of the ICC" we can read a contribution from GS (who is not a member of the EFICC, but who seems to have its agreement on all the essential points), entitled "The necessary recomposition of the proletariat", which quotes Bihr's book at length to support his assertions.

[11] Le Monde Diplomatique, March 1991.

[12] From the "great night"....

[13] Le Monde Diplomatique, March 1991.

[14] From the "great night"....

[15] Le Monde Diplomatique, March 1991.

[16] See the International Review nos. 60, 63, 67, 70 and this issue.

[17] Of course, if we follow Dr Bihr in considering the unions as working-class rather than bourgeois organizations, then the progress of the class struggle is converted into a retreat. But it is strange that people like the members of the EFICC, who officially recognize the bourgeois nature of the unions, follow him down this path.

[18] See the article on the difficulties confronting the proletariat in International Review no. 60.

[19] Le Monde Diplomatique, March 1991.

[20] One of Alain Bihr's favorite sayings is that "reformism is too serious to be left to the reformists". Just in case he takes himself for a revolutionary, let us undeceive him here and now.