Does marxism have a religious view of the historic mission of the working class?

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

Since the collapse of the eastern bloc in 1989, the anti-communist propaganda of the bourgeoisie - based on the 'greatest lie of the 20th century' that claims Stalinism was the inevitable outcome of Marxism - has obtained heights never before imaginable. But moreover, the influence of the classical theses of anarchism - this 'radical' petty bourgeois critique of Marxism-has itself widened, touching even those political circles that seek to link themselves up with Marxism once again. The bourgeois critique, like the anarchist criticism of Marxism, affirms - even in the case where Marx is not relegated to the same ranks as Stalin - that certain fundamental theses of Marxism, supposedly false, prefigured the rise of Stalinism. Notably, the Marxist conception according to which the proletariat has an historic task, a mission to complete, is considered a residue of idealism and even as a religious deformation of the scientific spirit. One finds such anarchist influences even among the declared partisans of historical materialism, for example the review Soziale Befreiung (SB), written by the Unabh�ngige R�tekommunisten (independent council communists) in Germany. This influence does not surprise us since SB declares itself partisan of a "post-Marxist communism" in its new brochure The Terror of Capital (vol. 1).

In SB's last brochure, one finds a critique of a quotation from the Parti Communiste International's (PCI) celebrated article, Auschwitz, ou le grand alibi (Auschwitz, or the great alibi). This reads: "It happens at times that the workers themselves fall into racism. This happens when threatened with massive unemployment, they tend to concentrate their anger on certain groups: Italians, Poles, or other 'wops,' 'blacks' etc. But within the proletariat these drives only occur at the worst moments of demoralization; they do not last. Once it enters into the struggle, the proletariat sees clearly and concretely where its real enemy lies: it becomes a homogenous class with a perspective and an historic mission."

After having clarified this conception as a "form of the idealist cult of the proletariat," SB continues its critique further: "Bordiga's conceptions are the idealist and deformed reflection of proletarian life, which is strictly bourgeois as well. The working class is not strictly a unitary class. It is possible in crisis situations for it to act collectively, but this is a completely different matter. But this story of 'a historic perspective and an historic mission' is a revival of the idealist residues of Marxism: the faith the petty bourgeoisie has in another class. (Almost all the Marxist theoreticians of the 19th and 20th centuries - beginning with Marx and Engels themselves - were renegades from the bourgeoisie). Who then assigns these 'historic missions'? The God of History? All of this is terribly religious! Its purpose is to directly link the theory of the party impartially and inflexibly to the service of said mission." (Ibid, pg. 5)

The bourgeois, or more precisely petty-bourgeois, assertion according to which the Marxist conception of the proletariat's historic mission is supposedly religious and thus already contains the seeds of a Stalinist and bourgeois party-state regime of terror is echoed in SB's brochure.

But if the marxist conception of the working class is the equivalent of an idealist and religious "cult of the proletarians", what materialist conception - perhaps "post-Marxist" - does SB offer us as an alternative? We read: "The interests of the majority of the working class is determined simply by the quest to live a little bit better than it currently does. To the extent that this is possible in one way or another, the relations of exploitation are supported because in the normal course of capitalism the more conservative forces within the proletariat determine its behaviour. But as long as its combat is carried out in the interior of capitalism, it will lead to an approval of the rules of the capitalist game, of which the nationalist 'solution' to the social question is an integral part. The social partnership always posses a nationalist orientation." Nationalism and the social partnership can thus fully constitute expressions of the working class, as long as it develops its combat "in the interior of capitalism." Because, according to SB, the proletariat "as a class dominated by capital, can not be anything else but bourgeois." As an example of this 'bourgeois-worker' struggle, SB takes "white male workers who seek to preserve their standard of living to the detriment of women, people of colour and foreigners. In order to obtain work and social benefits, they thus lead a concurrent struggle produced by capitalist relations against other wage-earners. Sexism and racism constitute the ideologies of this class struggle."

How could a class that fights in such a bourgeois manner come to revolutionary consciousness? According to SB "Revolutionary class consciousness cannot ignite in large sections of the working class until capitalism, shaken by crisis, can no longer satisfactorily satisfy basic needs. It is not until this moment that the adhesion of the proletariat to nationalist ideology can be broken." The revolutionary nature of the working class

SB affirms that the working class's struggle, as along as it is conducted within capitalism, reverts to an approval of the rules of the capitalist game and poses a nationalist orientation in the context of the "social partnership." However, experience shows absolutely that the working class's struggle cannot hold to the rules of the capitalist game because it is a struggle against exploitation. Autonomous workers' struggle and self-organization remains fundamentally outside bourgeois legality and, once it is launched, it sees itself immediately confronted with the entire arsenal of the exploiters' state. This includes not only the police and the courts but also the unions and the leftists.

The idea that there would be two proletarian struggles, one within the capitalist system, the other outside of it, is entirely false. In reality, there does not exist such a line of separation between the proletariat's economic struggles and the revolutionary assault. Since the aspirations of the immediate everyday struggles of the class - the maintenance of a certain standard of living, the diminution of exploitation, the opposition to the pursuit and intensification of the dehumanization of work - in the historic sense are no longer possible to obtain within the capitalist system, the revolutionary assault becomes nothing other than the defensive struggles taken to their ultimate consequence. Therefore, it is true (as Rosa Luxemburg demonstrated at the beginning of the 20th century against the opportunist 'revisionists', like Bernstein), that the development of a revolutionary voice and the communist perspective within the proletarian masses is a necessity - in order that the defensive struggles, if only temporarily, prevent the aggravation of the working class's situation. This is the reason why, since capitalism as a system attained its apogee, that the proletarian struggle, conforming to its nature, takes the form of the mass strike: the generalized struggle of class against class.

Naturally, the working class, like all the members of this society of commodity production is continually exposed to the pressure of the bourgeois competition of each one for himself. Naturally, the worker, taken as an individual, like all the members of this society, is exposed to the influence of racism and nationalism. However, as this competition derives from the economic nature of the bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeoisie, the nature of the proletariat's combat consists of association and the struggle against this competition. Because without the struggle against competition, without unification, workers' struggle is not even possible. Even if every worker taken individually may be racist or sexist, for the workers as a class to respond, they must confront this capitalist division and learn to tighten their ranks.

This is why the PCI's text on Auschwitz is perfectly correct to affirm that the class, with the exception of the deepest moments of demoralization, constantly fights these divisions in the course of its struggle.

Already in 1845, in The Condition of the Working Class in England, Engels recognized the importance of workers' association, as "the first attempt of the workers to abolish competition. They assume this idea to be very true, that the domination of the bourgeoisie is secured only by the competition between the workers themselves, that is to say on the infinite division of the proletariat, on the possibility of imposing on them various categories of worker. And it is precisely because they challenge, even if in a unilateral and always limited fashion, this competition, this vital nerve of today's social order, that they constitute such a danger for this social order." (1) Engels affirms moreover that it is only in combating capitalist competition that the workers "affirm themselves as human beings, that in addition to their labour power also have a will".

Marxists recognize here that the revolutionary nature of the proletariat is already present in its daily struggles. Even the most intelligent representatives of the dominant class have for a long time recognized this fact as for example the Interior Minster of Imperial Prussia Puttkamer, author of the famous phrase: "Already in every strike lies the hydra of the revolution". Or moreover as Lenin himself also stated: "Each strike is a little crisis of capitalist society." The workers' struggle is also a theoretical and political struggle

In fact, if the workers' defensive struggles normally hold themselves to the rules of the capitalist game, as SB affirms, how does one then explain how the suffering, which the aggravation of the capitalist crisis causes, would lead to the development of a revolutionary consciousness within the entire class. SB sees the incapacity of capitalism to satisfy "the most basic needs" of the workers as a precondition to this. However, capitalism has already known many such situations (the Great Depression after 1929, the end of the Second World War in Europe, or even today in numerous parts of the world) without that necessarily opening the way to a revolutionary consciousness among the proletarian masses. In reality, there are more than simply economic preconditions for this. Marxism has repeatedly demonstrated that the proletarian struggle is never simply economic. On the contrary, it possesses a theoretical and political dimension that is just as important. It is a characteristic of councilism to negate this other dimension and to await this consciousness as the unilateral, and more or less automatic, consequence of capitalism's desperation. However, capitalism will never face a situation of such utter desperation as long as the proletariat does not understand the necessity for its overthrow.

Class consciousness is not only a product of the immediate economic situation or the immediate struggle; rather it is an historical process, the accumulation, not only of the advance of the struggle, but also the clarification of the political lessons of these struggles drawn from the development of society and the class struggle. A fundamental element of this maturation of consciousness is to "see clearly and concretely where their enemy lies", as the PCI validly formulates the question. Here we see the dangerous consequences of SB's non-marxist conception of the working-class. The historic mission of the working class

As SB does not understand why the working class is revolutionary, it is not possible for it to understand the proletariat's historic mission. Let us see how Marxism has responded to this question. Engels writes in Anti-D�hring that "the historic role of the capitalist mode of production and its ruling class the bourgeoisie consists of concentrating, enlarging the dispersed and narrow means of production, to become the commanding levers of modern production. � But � the bourgeoisie cannot transform these limited means of production without transforming individual means of production into social means of production, useful only by an assembly of men." (2) But even if production is socialized, the appropriation of the fruits of production remains private, dispersed and anarchic. "In this contradiction, which gives this new mode of production its capitalist character, is already contained in embryo all the great collisions of the present. When the new mode of production comes to dominate in all the decisive sectors of production and in all the economically important countries, and vanquishes individual production until it has been reduced to insignificant residues, one will clearly and at the same time brutally witness the incompatibility of social production and capitalist appropriation" (3). This concentration of the means of production through the socialization of production is at the same time the decisive factor that leads to the separation "between the concentration of the means of production in the hands of the capitalists on the one hand, and on the other the reduction of the producers to a state of owning nothing other than their labour power. The contradiction between social production and capitalist appropriation manifests itself as the antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie." (4)

Communism, that is to say the satisfaction of human needs, motor of the development of socialized production, constitutes the only positive solution possible to the fundamental contradiction of capitalism. Only the proletariat can establish communism, because it is the only class that produces in a socialized fashion under capitalism. This collective nature of the proletariat, grounded in production, makes it, and it alone, the bearer of a future society without classes. There is no trace of "religion" in any of this or of a "cult of the proletarians." It is capitalism itself that confers this historic mission on the proletariat. Or as the Communist Manifesto formulates the matter: "The progress of industry, of which the bourgeoisie is the passive and unconscious agent, replaces the isolation of the workers in competition by their revolutionary union through association. The development of large-scale industry undermines, from under the feet of the bourgeoisie, the very ground upon which it established its system of production and appropriation. The bourgeoisie produces above all its own gravediggers."

More broadly speaking, within the question that SB raises in a rhetorical fashion -"Who assigns historic missions? The God of History?" - is posed the fundamental question of the Marxist method, of the historical materialist conception.

"A social formation never disappears until it has developed all the productive forces which it can contain, new and superior relations of production never substitute themselves for old ones, before the material conditions for the existence of these relations are born within the womb of the old society. This is why humanity never poses itself tasks except those that it can resolve, because, as shall be shown, it will always find that the task itself only arises where the material conditions for its resolution are already present, or at least are in the process of becoming." (5) From Weltrevolution no 119 (August-September 2003) organ of the ICC in Germany.


(1) Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (2) Engels, Anti-D�hring (3) Ibid (4) Ibid (5) Marx, Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy