Why the proletariat is the revolutionary class: Critical notes on the article 'Leçons de la lutte des ouvriers anglais' in Révolution Internationale no 9

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Alongside the article on the history of the “Bérard tendency” in International Review 169, we are republishing a developed response by the organisation, first published in Révolution Internationale no 9 (first series), May-June 1974. Its principal arguments against the embryonic “communisation” tendency – their rejection of the economic struggles of the working class, and of the political dimension of the proletarian revolution, etc – remain entirely valid today.

Incomprehensions on the question

"The working class is the revolutionary class of our time." A century and a half after Marx made this statement, the idea continues to provoke reactions just like those of Copernicus’ contemporaries in the 15th century when the Polish scientist discovered that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa.

According to the bourgeois vision of the world, the working class is no more than an economic category, made up of ignorant individuals, totally devoid of any general ambition, concerned above all to ensure their mediocre well-being as individuals (or as a family) and for that reason competition divides them up into a vast mass of scattered atoms. The "modernist" and totalitarian version of this view may go so far as to recognise that the proletariat is able to unify, at least partially, to demand that its masters grant some improvement to its enslaved condition.

However, that this mass of ignoramuses is capable of challenging the very existence of such slavery, that it is a class with an historic mission, and not a modest one at that: to rid humanity once and for all of its total dependence on economy, now that is an idea that is beyond the bourgeois ideologue and is also one that he finds very irritating.

For him, proletarian revolutionary ideas can only be the utopian dreams of intellectuals, of defectors from the ruling class who are unable for various reasons to integrate themselves into society in the normal way like everyone else. As for the revolutionary uprisings of the class, phenomena whose existence, although rare, is undeniable, for the bourgeoisie and its "thinkers" these are only ever produced by the nefarious influence of agitators who come from outside of the "work situation", are more or less fanatics and are often "paid by foreign powers".

"Reality is opaque", especially for those classes which, feeling obliged to justify privileges that are unjustifiable, cannot analyse it objectively without denouncing themselves. Moreover, in class society "the dominant ideology is that of the dominant class" and the blindness of the bourgeoisie cannot fail to affect, in one way or another, the whole of society.

Even the revolutionary movement, whose thinking is in opposition to the ideology of the ruling class, cannot always escape this permanent and all-embracing pressure. The revolutionary project is based on the idea that those exploited by capital are the only ones able to undertake this project and carry it through to its conclusion. But the dramatic proof of this assumption; the revolutionary uprisings of the proletariat, are rare, although they have had a profound impact on the history of capitalism. The few incidents of openly revolutionary struggle on the part of the proletariat are submerged in decades of apathy and relative social calm. In periods of social peace, the revolutionary nature of the proletariat seems as imperceptible and as difficult to prove as theory of Copernicus.

This is why even revolutionaries themselves have experienced, and do experience, varying degrees of difficulty in grasping this basic postulate of revolutionary thought in all its complexity. Very often a lack of understanding of the revolutionary nature of the working class and the process by which this nature finds expression has rendered the principles of the workers’ movement inadequate and has led to the development of most of the divergences.

The early socialists from Babeuf to Fourier, via St Simon and Owen, failed to identify the revolutionary force capable of actualising the communist projects that they were the first to formulate. In the view of the "pre-Marxist" socialists, the advent of the new society would come out of the evolution of the idea of justice or equality. They still saw the movement of history as the product of the victories and defeats of ideas. For the realisation of their revolutionary projects, they appealed either to the whole of society without the distinction of class, or else to the dominant class because it alone seemed to possess the material means necessary, or else to all of the downtrodden within society regardless of their specific position within the social relations of production.

It was not until Marx and the movements of 1848 (the first uprisings of the proletariat as an autonomous class on the historic scene) that it became clear that the only revolutionary force capable of undertaking the socialist project had to be a class, that is, a part of society defined by its specific position within the relations of production; and that this class was none other than the working class.

Marx rejects the vision of humanity moved to action under the influence of ideas that are eternal and inexplicable and puts in its place that of societies divided into economic classes that evolve under the pressure of the economic struggles between them:

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. (…) Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of Modern Industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product.” (Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto)

The proletariat is an exploited class, but not all exploited classes are the proletariat, nor are they revolutionary classes. But how can this class, divided into competing individuals, submissive and powerless before capital, become a unified class, organised, conscious and armed with the will to shatter the old society? Marx answers:

"The proletariat goes through various stages of development. With its birth begins its struggle with the bourgeoisie." (Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto)

“Large-scale industry concentrates in one place a crowd of people unknown to one another. Competition divides their interests. But the maintenance of wages, this common interest which they have against their boss, unites them in a common thought of resistance – combination. (…) If the first aim of resistance was merely the maintenance of wages, combinations, at first isolated, constitute themselves into groups as the capitalists in their turn unite for the purpose of repression, and in the face of always united capital, the maintenance of the association becomes more necessary to them than that of wages. (…) Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers. The combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests. This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle, of which we have noted only a few phases, this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests.

 (…) The antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is a struggle of class against class, a struggle which carried to its highest expression is a total revolution.” (Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy)

Several points can be drawn out of this understanding:

1) Contrary to the "innovative" flights of fancy of all sorts of philosophers and other historical commentators, "total revolution" is not the result of "new" historical conflicts ("conflicts between the generations", "conflicts between different civilisations", etc.), the socialist revolution is simply the highest expression of the old antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, which has divided capitalist society from its birth.

2) Contrary to what some modern "Marxists" have claimed, there is not, on the one hand, an exploited, wage-earning class, divided and submissive to capital; the working class, and on the other hand, a class that is revolutionary, conscious, unified, etc.; the proletariat. Proletariat and working class are synonymous terms which designate the same class, the same social being

3) The process by which the working class rises to the level of its historical task is not a separate process that is external to its daily economic struggle against capital. On the contrary, it is within and by means of this conflict that the working class forges the weapons of its revolutionary struggle.

Marx's famous phrase "the proletariat is revolutionary or it is nothing" is often interpreted as meaning that as long as the proletariat does not struggle in a revolutionary way, it is nothing. The Marxist conception is in fact the opposite; when speaking of the “feudal socialists" in the Communist Manifesto, Marx wrote: "what they reproach the bourgeois with is not so much the simple fact of having created a proletariat, but of having created it revolutionary".

The proletariat is revolutionary from its inception. It is impossible to understand what it is without understanding that it is revolutionary. Any approach that talks about the working class without understanding its revolutionary essence, any vision that stops short at the impression of a divided, submissive class, integrated into capital without detecting the revolutionary element that is a part of it at every moment of its existence, is an approach that has nothing to say.

The opposite view that envisages a revolutionary proletariat that is, however, distinct from the exploited class, an entity apart from the economic class that is permanently opposed to capital, is equally hollow.

The difficulty lies in understanding correctly this dual aspect of the proletariat: the historic specificity of the proletariat is that it is the first class in history to be both a revolutionary class and an exploited class. It is sometimes one aspect of the class that prevails in its struggles and sometimes the other but neither of these aspects ever totally disappears in the face of the other.

The failure to understand this permanent duality in working class struggles is the source of two symmetrical errors, both of which are equally in contrast to revolutionary thinking.

The first of these divergences is to understand proletarian struggles as merely "economic", as just wage struggles. By denying that they are also struggles against the system, this viewpoint sees them as no more than a fight to carve out a place within the system. This divergence gives rise to currents like workerism, certain kinds of anarchism, and above all to reformism. The formula of Bernstein, the great theorist of reformism, sums up the essence of this divergence very well: "The movement is everything, the goal is nothing”.

Marx denounced such distortions. Concerning the trade unions as they were in his day, he wrote: “Trades Unions work well as centers of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class that is to say the ultimate abolition of the wages system.” (Karl Marx, Value, Price and Profit)

The second kind of divergence is based on the same misunderstanding and is the mirror image of the former one. It too fails to recognize the revolutionary aspect of the immediate struggles of the working class in defense of its living conditions and sees them as being totally integrated into the system, just a part of its bargaining structure and therefore, unable to generate (much less to carry within them) the seeds of revolutionary struggle against the system.

The crudest version of this way of thinking is expressed by Proudhon. He thinks that any strike is harmful to workers because it traps them within their condition as wage earners, as slaves of capital. In their place he advocates the formation of cooperatives in which workers should fight from the very outset on a different basis - a revolutionary one - by focusing on the creation of new relations of production. In "Misery of Philosophy", Marx shows the utterly reactionary nature of this vision, which just ends up putting forward the same old stuff as the most scurrilous of the capitalist economists.

"The economists want the workers to remain in the society as it is formed and as they have recorded and sealed it in their manuals. The socialists (à la Proudhon) want them to leave the old society there, so that they can better enter the new society which they have prepared for them with such foresight.

Marx denounces in the same pages the “transcendental disdain” displayed by these same “socialists”, “when it comes to giving an accurate account of the strikes, coalitions and other forms in which the proletarians carry out before our eyes their organisation as a class.”

This divergence, which could be summed up by inverting the formula which summarises the first one: "The goal is everything, the movement is nothing", has experienced a sort of come-back - albeit in a less crude form than that of Proudhon - in the student movement, in particular that of May '68. The general strike of May '68, in which 10 million workers remained imprisoned in their factories, without managing to break the trade union straitjacket and in which the unions successfully managed to dispel any idea that the struggles could develop an explicitly revolutionary content, produced within the student milieu in revolt the "transcendental disdain" that Marx spoke of. The protesters, “disappointed in the proletariat” were drawn towards two different kinds of counter-revolutionary aberration. One of these was the idea of building communities in which new kinds of human and material relationships could gradually be created.

The pre-Marxist utopians were brought back into fashion by those who decided to immerse themselves in the childhood theories of the proletariat, convinced that they were going beyond all that old fashioned Marxist stuff. The other branch of the disillusioned dipped into the worst bits of Lenin's What is to be done and concluded that the only reason that the whole movement had been such a let-down was that there had been no solid Leninist party "able to lead the masses". They therefore threw themselves into "revolutionary party-building", prepared to do anything; trade unionism, parliamentarianism, frontism, nationalism, etc., in order to win the confidence of the masses of "trade-unionist" sheep who, left to their own devices, would just meekly follow the Stalinist and reformist bureaucracies.

Therefore, after 50 years of triumphant counter-revolution, the working class re-enters the scene of history to herald a new world revolutionary wave, but the idea of its revolutionary nature and the process by which its revolutionary will is forged has difficulty freeing itself from the image of a proletariat which had been apathetic for five decades, to the point that some, like Marcuse, had come to doubt whether it still existed.

To criticise reformist visions without falling into utopian aberrations; to criticise contestationist utopias without falling into neo-syndicalism; to advocate the need for immediate class struggle and its development without falling for the social-democratic vision; to defend the idea that the proletariat's struggles for immediate demands can no longer lead to real gains in the present epoch without rejecting them or underestimating their primordial importance, in short, to show that, for the proletariat, the goal and the movement are indissolubly linked in every moment of its historic struggle, this is the task facing revolutionaries today.




These points were taken up in the last part of the article "Leçons de la lutte des ouvriers anglais", which appeared in Révolution Internationale no. 8. Unfortunately, it did not achieve the aim it set itself: the problem is badly posed to start with, which means that the answers given are bound to lead to distortions or, at best, to tautologies.

This is how it approaches the question of the revolutionary process: how does the class go from struggles for immediate demands to revolutionary struggles, and it makes the assumption that the former must be negated in order for the latter to develop. "There are no "revolutionary gains" within capitalist society. There are no small embryos of revolution within each struggle, which can grow and coalesce until the class is powerful enough to make the revolution. Just as the revolutionary class is the negation in movement of the class-for-capital, so the revolutionary struggle is the negation of the struggle for demands. Struggles for immediate demands do not become revolutionary; it is the class which, by overcoming and negating its immediate struggle, becomes revolutionary". (Leçons de la lutte des ouvriers anglais; Révolution International n°8, page 8, underlined by us)

Given that there has never been a revolutionary struggle of the proletariat which was not at the same time a struggle for demands, the author of the article is obliged to abandon any reference to the historical experience of the proletariat: "There are no revolutionary gains in capitalist society". Assumptions such as these make any reference to the actual practice of the class impossible. So let's see how the revolutionary process is explained.

"Workers try to struggle as a class-for-capital (by categories, factories, branches, in a competitive way as capitalism is competitive, in order to negotiate the price of labour power). But their relation to capital (their divisions, their submissiveness, their acceptance that they are only wage-labourers) is in contradiction with their own movement and becomes untenable. Therefore, the class must begin to present itself as the negation of its relation to capital, so no longer as an economic category, but as a class-for-itself. It then breaks the divisions that belonged to its previous state and presents itself no longer as a sum of wage-labourers but as a movement that affirms itself autonomously, i.e. it negates what it was before. It is not wage-labour that confronts capital, but wage-labour in the process of becoming something else, of dissolving. The proletariat affirming itself is simply this movement of negation!” (Leçons de la lutte des ouvriers anglais; Révolution International n° 8, page 7).

The reader is plunged into a philosophical jumble, all the more abstract and confused in that it avoids any concrete reference to practice. "Negation in movement", "movement of negation", "realise itself as negation", "movement of autonomous affirmation", "class-for-capital", "class-for-itself", "wage labour in the process of becoming something else", these are the terms used to describe the revolutionary process! In the face of all this obscure and pretentious language, how can we fail to recall the words of Rosa Luxemburg:

“Someone who expresses himself in obscure and high-flown terms, if he is not a pure philosophical idea-constructor or a fantasist of religious mysticism, only shows that he is himself unclear about the matter, or has reason to avoid clarity.” (Rosa Luxemburg, Introduction to Political Economy)

But since it is this language that is offered to us, we will try patiently to unravel its content.  Let's start, then, with the point that is the most important and is expressed in the clearest terms; struggles for immediate demands and revolutionary struggles.

Struggles for immediate demands and revolutionary struggles

To demand is to ask for that which is due to you. A struggle is for demands insofar as its aim is to ask for something from someone. It therefore involves the recognition of the power of he who is in a position to grant the demand. A revolutionary struggle, on the other hand, aims to overturn a given situation, to destroy that power. Far from recognising anyone’s power, that power itself is challenged.

There is, therefore, something profoundly different between these two types of struggle, there is a qualitative change in the content of a struggle which ceases to be a demand struggle and becomes a revolutionary one. So, it may seem natural to apply a simplistic syllogistic logic and say: therefore revolutionary struggles are a negation of struggles for demands. It is not possible to challenge someone’s power and at the same time demand something from them because the attitude contained in the latter implies, by definition, that you recognise this power.

The only problem is that the history of the workers' movement stubbornly refuses to bend to such simplistic logic. The history of the revolutionary struggles of the proletariat is the history of its struggles for demands. Many demand struggles have only been potentially revolutionary, but there is no revolutionary struggle that was not simultaneously a demand struggle.

Struggles for demands are always potentially revolutionary struggles.

As we have shown, for Marxism, there is no proletarian struggle which is purely economic, purely demand-oriented. Even in the smallest proletarian strike, there is potentially a political, revolutionary struggle.

If a strike meets too much resistance from the local bosses, if it has to confront the repressive apparatus of the state, in one form or another, it becomes a power struggle. It takes on the character of a revolutionary struggle. If the revolutionary outbursts of the proletariat have so often surprised the whole of society, including revolutionaries, it is precisely because on the whole they arise out of strikes, out of economic struggles which seemed to be completely encompassed within the legal framework.

This revolutionary potential in the class's struggle for demands was already present in capitalism’s ascendent period. When capital was still experiencing its great period of wealth and expansion and could afford to grant the working class real reforms and improvements without its economy being compromised, the revolutionary "over-spill" from demand struggles frequently stained the streets of industrial cities with the blood of workers and of capitalism’s soldiers.

When capitalism entered its decadent phase, the end of reformism was marked by inflation and infernal work rates, which were bound to reinforce this potential. (Hence the creation by capital of a permanent apparatus at the service of the state to supervise the working class: the unions; from whence the multiplication of a new form of revolutionary outburst: wildcat strikes). As capitalism sinks deeper into its decadent phase, Lenin’s comment becomes ever more appropriate: The socialist revolution looms behind every strike.” (Lenin, Extraordinary Seventh Congress of the R.C.P.(B.), March 6-8, 1918)

Revolutionary struggles are demand struggles

Most of the struggles of the proletariat have not gone beyond the framework of immediate demands, they have only been potentially revolutionary. However, in the history of the workers’ movement there is not a single proletarian revolutionary struggle which was not a struggle for demands at the same time. And how could it be otherwise, since it is the revolutionary struggle of a class, of a group of men who are characterized by their economic position and united by their common material situation?

We only have to note that the principle proletarian revolutionary movements were a reaction against the misery and despair engendered by military defeats to see to what extent revolutionary struggles, far from arising out of the negation of demand struggles, are on the contrary the most acute form, the “highest expression” of struggles for demands.

A comparison between the revolutionary movement of 1917 in Russia with that of the German proletariat in 1918-19 speaks volumes on this point. In both cases, the proletariat was driven by the economic and social misery caused by military defeats to embark on revolutionary struggles. In both cases, the movement united and strengthened itself by means of the struggle for one demand: peace. It is true that, owing to its general character, this is a demand that is able to immediately carry the struggle onto a revolutionary terrain. But in itself it is just as much a demand struggle as is a struggle for wage increases. Just like any struggle for demands, it recognizes implicitly the power of he who is being asked to satisfy the demand.

The Russian bourgeoisie did not satisfy it and in order to obtain it the Russian proletariat was obliged to advance its struggle to the point of destroying the state. But in Germany the capitalists signed the peace accord because threatened by the revolutionary turbulence unfurling in every country and the revolutionary movement immediately suffered from this.

By depriving the movement of its main demand, the bourgeoisie also deprived it of its greatest unifying factor. Two months later, it was able quite coldly to provoke a mortal combat, sure that it would win: hence the massacre of the Berlin Commune in January 1919. The class was no longer able to unify. A large part of the proletariat returned from the front just wanting to enjoy peace. Noske's volunteer units were able to massacre the combative workers, in one town after another, without coming up against any real united resistance.

Those who speak pompously about the revolutionary struggles of the proletariat, without understanding what is fundamentally and inevitably demand-oriented in them, do not know what they are talking about.

Let's take another concrete example: the struggles of the Polish workers in December 1970 in the Baltic shipyards. The struggle was triggered by the price increases imposed by the Gomulka government. It therefore started out from the sense that “we can’t take anymore” and raised demands that concerned the working class as wage labourers: it was a reaction against a fall in the value of the wages paid by Polish capital for the workers' labour power. In the course of the struggle, the workers were forced to confront the government militia directly in a bloody battle, they set fire to the headquarters of the governing party, they formed factory councils and did all they could to generalise the movement. At the same time, negotiations with the insurgents were set in motion, which Gierek would attend to personally. Is this a revolutionary struggle (confronting the state by trying to generalise the movement) or a demand struggle (negotiating with capital over the price of commodities, labour power)? Did the Polish workers "negate" their demand struggle in order to attack the state, or did they attack the state because their demand struggle led them naturally to do so?

The answer is the same for all revolutionary struggles of the proletariat: the struggle is simultaneously for immediate demands and it is revolutionary. Making demands, resisting capitalist exploitation, is the basis and the engine of the revolutionary action undertaken by the class. What distinguishes Gdansk from a local strike that does not confront the state violently, is not that it ceased to put forward demands, or that it was not the product of capitalist wage workers, nor did it begin to actually transform capitalist relations of production into new ones. Wage labour was not "in the process of dissolving" during the negotiations with Gierek. What makes the Gdansk struggle special is that it had to resort to much more important forms of political struggle than would an isolated strike which confronts the state only in the guise of one or two cops preventing pickets from being formed or of a union boycotting the struggle.

The more a demand-oriented struggle is forced to use political means of struggle, the more it takes on the character of a revolutionary struggle. But it does not lose its character as a demand struggle. We can also ask the following question: in the aftermath of the seizure of power by the proletariat, when the political power of capital has been destroyed, can we still speak of struggles for demands? Aren't the struggles that the proletariat must wage during the period of its dictatorship purely revolutionary struggles?

The history of the Russian revolution (the only example of the seizure of power by the proletariat that we have) shows that after October 1917, there were still workers' strikes, even during the year 1917. It also shows that after the seizure of power the revolutionary action of the Russian proletariat by no means ceased to be motivated by the need to make economic demands.

We will show in the section on the 'dissolution of wage labour' that Russia is by no means an exception in this, that it cannot be considered an untypical historical example. As long as the proletariat exists as a class, its revolutionary struggle inevitably retains the character of an economic struggle for demands.

We can have a discussion around the speed and the mechanisms by which this aspect will disappear as the dictatorship of the proletariat spreads across the planet. But to ignore or deny the importance and the permanent nature of demands in the proletarian revolutionary struggles which lead to the seizure of power, as Hembé does in his article, is to make it impossible from the outset to understand the revolutionary process.

The class-in-itself, the class-for-itself  

The corollary of the idea stating that the development of revolutionary struggles presupposes the negation of struggles for immediate demands is that, in order to rise to its historic task, the working class must "begin to present itself as the negation of its relation to capital, so no longer as an economic category, but as a class-for-itself".

The idea that the working class must "present itself as the negation of its relation to capital” if it is to undertake the revolutionary struggle, can be understood in two ways depending on the reasoning behind it. One way leads to a tautology, the other to a contradiction.

If we reason in terms of will, of the conscious desire of the workers in struggle, we end up with the following truism: for the workers to think like revolutionaries, i.e. for them to consciously desire the destruction of the power of capital and therefore of the relation of exploitation which binds them to capital, they must consciously desire the negation of their relation with capital.

This is obviously not wrong, but it does not shed much light on the actual process by which this revolutionary will and consciousness is forged.

If we reason in terms of the concrete reality of workers' struggles, we end up with the following contradiction: for the working class to be able to fight against capital, it must first negate itself as the working class; in other words, for the class to confront capital and fight it in a revolutionary way, it must first disappear.

This interpretation of the text may seem ‘forced’ and somewhat ‘far-fetched’, but it is nevertheless what emerges. It is clearly explained that when the class confronts capital, it no longer presents itself “as an economic category", as a "sum of wage-earners". Now, what is a class, if not a particular "economic category"; and what is the working class if not "a sum of wage-earners"? Does not the act of consciously desiring the end of wage-labour make the working class immediately seem to be a sum of wage-labourers? Wouldn’t that make the abolition of wage-labour look like a question of the "auto-suggestion" of the workers?

If the working class does not present itself as a sum of wage-earners, exploited by capital, in its struggle against the capitalist state, how can it "present itself"? Hembé answers: "it presents itself as a class-for-itself", "it presents itself as a movement of autonomous affirmation, that is to say, the negation of what it was before". What then is this "movement of autonomous affirmation", autonomous in relation to what? In relation to capital? But can capital exist outside of and independently of wage labour, of exploitation? If capital exists, wage-labour remains, and the exploited class is a wage-earning class. Just as capital as a social relation cannot exist without the working class, so the working class can only affirm itself in opposition to, in its struggle against capital. To talk of the "autonomous affirmation of the class" is a contradiction in terms. A class is a part of society. It can therefore only affirm itself in relation to another part of society and, as we shall see, even in the best case scenario, this other part does not disappear, it rather merges with the rest of society.

Perhaps we can uncover something more serious and real in the other assertion put forward: the working class "behaves as a class-for-itself"?

But this too is playing with words because, contrary to what is claimed in the article, for Marxists the concept of "class-for-itself" is by no means a "negation" of the "class-in-itself", of the class as an "economic category", of the "class vis-à-vis capital".

Let us first recall the meaning Marx gives to the terms "class vis-à-vis capital" and "class-for-itself". As he defines it, the working class is initially "a crowd of people unknown to each other", a mass of people "divided in interests by competition". The only thing that this mass of reciprocally indifferent workers have in common is the fact that they are all under the direct domination of capital through wage labour. The individuals who constitute this class are not yet conscious of belonging to the same class, of having common interests: the class does not yet exist for itself, but it does exist in itself, vis-à-vis capital. The fact that capital creates workers' districts, social services for workers or "ad hoc" apparatuses of repression shows that for them this class already exists.

The combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests. This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself.” (Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy)

The class which begins to exist "for itself" is no other than this same class as it becomes conscious of its existence, of the common interests which characterise it in relation to the rest of society and above all in relation to capital. This consciousness is not the fruit of divine inspiration, nor of the omnipotence of an enlightened political party, but of the struggles that it is forced to wage against capital for its material conditions of existence:

"In the struggle, (...) “this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests.” (Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy)

The class which exists "for itself" is by no means a class which "negates itself" as a class existing 'vis-à-vis capital' or as an "economic category", on the contrary it is an economic class which is becoming conscious of its existence as such. It does not deny its nature as an economic class vis-à-vis capital, it takes it upon itself.

The fact that the revolutionary struggle of this class, which has become conscious of its historical interests against capital, inevitably leads to the destruction of capital itself, to the dissolution of all classes, and thus to its own dissolution, in no way implies that it must negate itself in order to confront capital, on the contrary. Its dissolution as a class is not the starting point of its struggle, but its outcome, the final result.

As we will see later, in practical terms, if the proletariat is bound to disappear as a class, it is not because it "negates itself" before other classes, but on the contrary because it asserts itself in such a way that it is forced to generalise its economic condition to the whole of society.




Do not tell us that our reference to Marx’s definition of the "class-for-itself" is inappropriate for the problems of the workers' movement in this period (because of the impossibility of reformism, the impossibility for the proletariat to create permanent organisations of economic struggle).

It is true that the workers' movement which Marx analysed in his day could still carry out reformist struggles, create permanent economic organisations within capitalist society.

It is true that in that historic period, the working class could exist for itself through its unions and its political parties, without being forced to immediately engage the capitalist state in revolutionary struggle: capital was rich enough and had sufficient markets for expansion for the system to be able to make some concessions to the living conditions of the working class.

It is also true that these conditions disappear in the period of capitalist decline. The workers can only become conscious of their existence as a class in the course of the struggles themselves (the emergence of the class for itself).

 The proletariat can no longer create economic organisations or political parties on a permanent basis within society: any unitary workers' organisation which tries to do so is forced either to transform itself into a revolutionary soviet - which is only possible in a revolutionary period - or to allow itself to be taken over by the capitalist state and to be integrated into it.

In the period of capitalist decadence, the unions have become organs of the state within the working class. Their task is not - as all governments in the world claim - to organise the class as an economic category, but to prevent such organisations from arising. The idea that unions organise the working class in our time only makes sense from the point of view of capital. They organise the workers just as the kapos organised the prisoners in the German concentration camps. From the point of view of the individual worker, they can, at best, be an intermediary in the service of the boss, just like the "psychologist" or the social worker in the factory. From the point of view of the workers as a class, they are just the first detachment of the army of capital which they have to confront every time they struggle. That's why for more than half a century, the class has tended, in every struggle, however "economic and demand oriented" it may seem, to create a sporadic, momentary form of organisation, viable only while the struggle lasts: the strike committees outside the unions.

These changes do not invalidate Marx's definition of what the "class-for-itself" is and how it is forged, nor do they mean that "economic struggles are impossible". What has changed is that the working class can no longer exist permanently as a class-for-itself within capitalism: it can only assert itself as a class in an ad hoc way, in the course of its open struggles. The path that the class must take to reach self-consciousness remains, however, the same as in the 19th century, that of its struggles.

The fact that the changed situation of capital forces these struggles to transform themselves much more quickly into revolutionary struggles, because capital can no longer grant real economic reforms, does not take away from them their basis as economic struggles. As long as working class and capital exist, the economic struggles of the proletariat will also exist. What has changed is that these economic struggles are even less purely economic struggles, their revolutionary nature is forced to emerge more quickly than in the 19th century, consequently they have become much more difficult. This explains both their tendency to take on increasingly the form of violent and sudden explosions, and also the long periods of apathy and hesitation which follow and prepare them.

Today, as in Marx's day, the revolutionary class, the class that exists for itself, is not a class distinct from the class-in-itself, the economic class. Today, as in the past, the historically revolutionary class is none other than the class of wage-labour which suffers and confronts capital before our eyes every day.

The dissolution of wage labour.

Continuing in his attempt to explain how the working class will come to confront capital, comrade Hembé writes: "It is not wage labour which confronts capital, but wage labour in the process of becoming something else, of dissolving. The proletariat affirming itself is simply this movement of negation."

How can wage labour “dissolve” before capital has been destroyed? How can capital be destroyed before the proletariat has taken political power and has control of the whole economic apparatus on a world scale, or at least in a number of developed countries? By putting the cart before the horse in this way, we end up either with the idea of the possibility of socialism in one country (or at least the beginning of socialism), or with the idea that there can be effective communist economic transformation within capitalist society, even before the bourgeois state has been destroyed. That is, two reactionary divergences.

Bourgeois revolutions (Cromwell in England, 1789 in France) were essentially political upheavals. The economic infrastructure of the new society pre-existed the seizure of political power by the bourgeoisie. The process of the proletarian revolution, because it is the work of an exploited class, is the opposite. The revolutionary class takes political power, not to consecrate the already existing economic situation, but on the contrary to destroy it. The new economic and social infrastructure can only begin to be built after the political power of the bourgeoisie has been destroyed, once the proletariat has acquired political power. This is a specificity of the proletariat as a revolutionary class.

To abolish wage-labour is to abolish the sale and purchase of labour power. For this to be possible, all buying and selling in society must cease all at once because abolishing wage-labour means eliminating commodities in general. In practical terms, this means that the production of the whole of society must be pooled and that everyone must be able to access it according to his needs.

The abolition of wage-labour, communism, has become possible and necessary because of the extraordinary development of the productive forces under capitalism. But given that capitalist production takes place on a world scale and that today every commodity is composed of goods from the four corners of the globe, the abolition of wage-labour can only come to pass when market exchange has been eliminated all over the entire planet. As long  as there are parts of the world where the labour product must be bought and sold, the abolition of wage-labour cannot be fully achieved anywhere.

This means that in those countries where first the proletariat manages to destroy the capitalist state apparatus and establish its dictatorship by seizing control of the whole industrial apparatus of production, the first aim will be to create as large a collectivised sector as possible. Logically this sector must initially include all the industrial centres of production, the domain of the revolutionary proletariat. Within this sector, collectivisation will lead to the generalisation of free goods. To the objective collectivisation of material production which capitalism will already have achieved in practice, there will be added the collectivisation of distribution - free of charge.

The proletariat will do all in its power to enlarge its sector as widely and as quickly as possible at the expense of the sector which remains uncollectivised: some peasants, and the countries which are still under the total domination of capital. The success or failure of its revolutionary activity depends on its ability to carry out this task and once the process has begun, the briefest hiatus will mean a return to capitalist exploitation via a counter-revolutionary massacre. Therefore, an essential aspect of making wage labour disappear is the expansion of this sector and the integration of the whole population into collectivised production.

The beginning of the process of the "dissolution of wage labour " will therefore be marked by the creation of this first collectivised sector. As long as this sector does not exist, to speak of the dissolution of wage-labour is just empty talk! As long as it has not been created, capital and wage labour dominate society in all their hatefulness.

However, even with the best case scenario (the revolution starting in the USA, for example) the nucleus of this sector can only be created through the seizure of political power by the proletariat in at least one large industrial country, if not several. Otherwise, it will have no material reality. A collectivised sector forced to buy and sell most of what it consumes and produces has no chance of collectivising anything. The black market and similar phenomena would immediately reduce collectivization to a meaningless word written in fiery declarations of early soviets. And as for wage-labour, it would no more dissolve than would the law of exchange.

When we try to understand, at least in broad outline, what the process of "the dissolution of wage-labour" means practically, we can see that ideas such as, “before taking on the capitalist state, the working class must begin to “dissolve as wage labour””, is just playing with words!

The dictatorship of the proletariat.

On the whole the tendency to identify two distinct classes within the revolutionary process, one that lives under capitalism ("the class-in-itself", the "economic category", "the class for capital" or simply "the working class") and another that is the "negation" of the first, with the responsibility of making the revolution ("the class-for-itself", "the universal class", the "revolutionary class" or "the proletariat"), start from the same theoretical incomprehension.

We have to understand that the main task of the proletariat in the course of its revolutionary dictatorship is to abolish wage-labour and that practical measures to abolish it can and must be taken from the very beginning of the dictatorship of the proletariat (an idea which contradicts the one prevailing within the social-democratic labour movement at the beginning of the 20th century, according to which there should be a long period of transition characterised by wage equality)

We are therefore confronted with the following problem: if the elimination of exploitation begins from the start of the revolutionary dictatorship, what happens to the working class? What distinguishes it from the rest of society now that it is losing its most important specificity: the fact that as a class it is exploited through wage labour, since it will tend to dissolve into a mass of producers who are all equal? The basic motive force behind the proletariat’s action within capitalist society is its struggle against exploitation; but what is left of this motive force when the exploitation of the proletariat begins to come to an end? To what extent is the term "dictatorship of the proletariat" still applicable?

There is a big temptation to solve the problem by saying either that there are two distinct classes, one that is exploited while the other is revolutionary; that there is one class within capitalism and, through the revolutionary process, a “universal class”, that is, no class at all really; or else that there is in fact only one class but that it is so different in the two different situations that it is no longer the same.

This temptation is so great that one can even manage to convince oneself that this is a decisive "innovation" on the "old workers' movement" and that anyone who does not reason in this way is inevitably doomed to evolve towards social-democratic ideas. By centering the analysis of the revolutionary process on the "negation of the class-for-capital by the class-for-itself", the article is caught up in this same kind of view. But how does saying that the class which acts in a revolutionary way is very different from that which lives under the domination of capital help us to solve the problems occasioned by the revolutionary process after the seizure of power?

There is no doubt that, from the point of view of its conscious will as well as of its organic composition, the proletariat undergoes an important transformation in the course of its revolutionary struggle. It is obvious that the proletariat which is doing its utmost to extend its dictatorship over the rest of society, which is trying to expand the collectivised sector which it has created, is possessed of a conscious will which is not the same as that of the proletariat when it was engaged in partial struggles during the period of capitalism’s expansion. It is also true that a proletariat which is managing to expand the sector it has collectivised every day, is a proletariat which is converting new workers into "proletarians" and so grows steadily. It is no less true that the proletariat that works in a collectivised sector behaves differently from the proletariat within capitalist society.

All this is quite correct and can be summarised by noting that the life of the proletariat while it passively submits to the dictatorship of capital is not the same as when it exercises its dictatorship to free itself definitively.

We might have suspected this ....

But having noted this, the problem remains: the question that is pending is: what motivates the proletariat to continue its revolutionary struggle in this period and why does the proletariat continue to be the only revolutionary class?

If we really want to tackle these problems, we have to start by answering two other questions:

1) Why is the working class the only revolutionary class that confronts capital?

2) How does the working class continue to be exploited after it has seized power?

Why is the proletariat revolutionary?

The characteristics that make the proletariat revolutionary are present from the moment it is born:

  1. the material relations that tie it to the means of production; the elements and means by which it labours;
  2. the social relations that tie it to capital, viewed not in terms of the material means of production, but as a social relation.

We must therefore distinguish, on the one hand, the capitalist system of production as a material way of producing, of associating living and dead labour; and, on the other hand, the capitalist system as a set of social relations linking the different economic classes of society.

Let us consider the working class within capitalism from the point of view of the material means of production. Its specificity in relation to the other classes in society lies in the fact that it constitutes the living force of associated labour. Unlike the small farmer, the craftsman, the small shopkeeper, the members of the liberal professions, etc., the industrial worker works and produces collectively. He produces only an increasingly small part of the overall product within an ever-increasing division of labour. His relationship with the means of production is a relationship with means that become increasingly enormous. It is a relationship that is objectively collective.

It is when faced with the economic crises of society that classes reveal their true historic nature. As it is a collective producer, the proletariat cannot envisage an individual solution to an economic crisis based on private property. “Independent” workers, such as peasants or craftsmen, whether or not they are the owners of their means of production, are bound to be extremely suspicious of any kind of collectivisation of the means of production in the face of a crisis. It is inevitable that they tend to react by advocating the re-division of the land or the protection of private property.

On the contrary, for the industrial worker, even an illiterate one, the division of the factory into individual plots would seem completely nonsensical.

As it is situated at the very heart of the production of social wealth that is so vital, as it works in an associated way, as its relation to the means of production is exclusively COLLECTIVE, the industrial proletariat is the only social class able to understand, desire, and achieve the actual worldwide collectivisation of production. This is the first basic fact that makes it the only revolutionary class of our time.

Now to consider the position of the proletariat within capitalism in terms of a set of social relations; it constitutes the only class really antagonistic to capital and the bourgeoisie. Surplus-value, the sole source of the accumulation of capital, labour stolen from the working class by the capitalist, is at the very heart of the relations which bind the two fundamental classes of society. Marx said that his only two original discoveries were the theory of surplus value and the fact that the proletariat is the revolutionary class of capitalist society. These notions are in fact the two keystones to an understanding of social life under capitalism: the essence of capitalist social life is summed up in the struggle for surplus value between those who create it and those who consume and use it. The engine of the proletariat’s action is this struggle against the extraction of surplus-value, against wage-labour. As long as capital dominates society, there is wage labour. As long as capital exists, the action of the proletariat is entirely determined by the fundamental antagonism which links it to capital.

As the direct antagonist of capital, permanently forced to react against capitalist exploitation, the social position of the proletariat constitutes the other basic element that determines its revolutionary nature.

Every exploited class in history has fought against its exploitation. Within capitalism itself, there are other exploited classes which, at one time or another, in one way or another, have come into conflict with capital. But because the capitalist system can only be overthrown by a system based on a higher collectivisation of the productive process, the working class, whose labour is collective, is the only one that is historically revolutionary.

Exploited class and living force of collective labour, these two aspects exist permanently within the proletariat. From its birth to the final disappearance of the class, these two elements explain the revolutionary content of proletarian struggles. The struggle against exploitation is the engine of all its actions; the fact that it works collectively determines the form these take. Any attempt to understand proletarian struggle without referring to these two aspects is bound to end up inventing forces that have no form or forms that are without force.

Therefore, just as the simplest type of struggle against exploitation, the strike, cannot be understood without reference to the collective class nature of labour, so neither is it possible to understand how the proletariat strives to collectivise the production of the whole planet without understanding that it is a struggle against exploitation. For as long as the proletariat exists, for as long as classes exist, the proletariat will be an exploited class.

In what way is the working class an exploited class during its revolutionary dictatorship?

It is surprising to learn that there were workers’ strikes in early Soviet Russia (from 1917). This was a period of revolutionary euphoria, a period in which the workers' soviets were still full of revolutionary life, the workers were collectivising everything they could, workers’ power was rising on the still smouldering ruins of the old society (...)

Some say that these strikes were due to the opposition between the revolutionary movement of the workers and the "anti-worker" nature of the Bolshevik party. Others talk instead of the harmful influence of bourgeois parties like the Mensheviks who encouraged the workers to go on strike in order to weaken the situation of the proletarian Bolshevik party. The real point is that the seizure of power by the Russian proletariat in October 1917 was not enough to put an end to its exploitation by world capital.

The proletariat can seize power in a country, it can collectivise the whole productive apparatus and eliminate all exchange within the collectivised sector by making all goods and services free, but its economic survival will still depend on other countries, as well as on the non-collectivised sectors in its own country (see the peasants in Russia and their opposition to the proletariat). Within the country, the proletariat can create better working conditions for itself (reduction of working hours, improvement in factory conditions, etc.), but it can only do so within the limits imposed by the need to trade with the rest of the world. If the capitalist countries decide to block all exports to the country in which the insurrection is taking place, or simply to increase their selling price, although those workers have a monopoly of armaments within their territory and are in full control of their revolutionary dictatorship, they will be forced to implement the most stringent rationing or to increase working hours in order to survive. Only the geographical extension of the revolution can mitigate this dependence.

Capitalist exploitation is international and as long as capital has not been destroyed on a global scale, as long as commodity exchange continues to exist somewhere in the world, no part of the proletariat can cease to be an exploited class. The end of capitalist exploitation will only come about when all the workers of the world have been integrated into the revolutionary proletariat, that is, when the proletariat has been dissolved into humanity. The force that leads the proletariat to continue its revolutionary struggle after the seizure of power is therefore no different from the one that brought it to power: the struggle against its exploitation.




Instead of wading pretentiously into the simplistic world of abstractions, the philosophers of "negation" would do well to raise their level to the reality of the actual process. They would quickly see the emptiness of their reasoning.

The intervention of revolutionaries

If someone thinks that "revolutionary struggles" are the "negation" of struggles for immediate demands, if he can only conceive of the "revolutionary class" as a "negation" of the "wage-earning class", what can he say to workers who are currently engaged in wage struggles? Hembé answers:

"Communists are present in the struggles as much as possible, however small these struggles may be, and they are as energetic and imaginative as any combative worker, if for no other reason than that they suffer the same exploitation and share the same feeling of revolt against their present existence. But what distinguishes them is that they say openly and against the general opinion of other proletarians who refuse to recognize the fact, that the deepening of the crisis and the present attacks are the condition for the revolution in that they provide practical proof of the impossibility in this period for the proletariat to defend itself simply as wage-labour within capitalist society". (Leçons de la lutte des ouvriers anglais; Révolution Internationale n°8, page 9)

In the Manifesto, when speaking of the intervention of communists in the struggles, Marx writes: the communists “have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement”. (Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto)

As he is convinced that the problem of the direction of the workers' movement boils down to an understanding of the necessity to "negate" the struggle for immediate demands, Hembé understands nothing about what can be done within these struggles. Thus, he proposes that we participate in them, that we deploy "as much" energy and imagination as the most combative workers, while declaring: "It's all useless!" or, at most: "I hope that this will serve as a lesson and that you will understand at last that, as simple wage-labour, you cannot defend yourselves!”. "There is no way out within the system!".

It is true that demand struggles cannot lead to real material gains within decadent capitalism. It is also true that this is one of the main ideas that revolutionaries must defend within the struggles. But if one participates with all one's "energy" in a struggle in order to constantly repeat (with "imagination" one supposes) that it will not do any good, for no other reason than to convince us of its futility, one will be treated as an fool, and rightly so! If we have nothing else to say, we might as well stay at home!

Hembé’s intention is to criticise the attitude of the Trotskyists and their tactic of the "transitional programme" – they raise demands within the struggles, these are unobtainable within capitalism and revolutionaries know it but the workers are supposed to be totally unaware of the fact; they are sure that, once the class has taken them up, there will be a revolutionary confrontation because most of them can only be obtained after the workers have seized power; it's the simple mechanism of the carrot dangled in front of the donkey to make it move forward. But the criticism as he makes it leads to a position as absurd as that of the Trotskyists.

Hembé repeats several times in the article that "immediate struggles are necessary". Why? Because the class must "repeat again and again the practical experience of the impossibility of reformism”, and he reminds us, in his own words, of Marx's famous phrase: "Men do not overturn their social relations until they have exhausted all possibility of patching them up". (Leçons de la lutte des ouvriers anglais; Révolution Internationale No. 8, page 3)

If this were all that immediate struggles were good for, revolutionaries would no more participate in them than in imperialist wars. But these partial struggles have another function for the proletariat. It is through them that the workers become conscious of belonging to a class, it is through them that the unity of the class is forged. A class which does not resist exploitation on a permanent basis will never be able to launch a revolutionary struggle.

Conscious desire develops only when there is a possibility of it being realised. Just as humanity only tackles problems that it can solve, so too workers only begin to tackle the problem of the revolutionary project as and when the forces necessary for its realisation begin to appear clearly before their eyes. The working class has only two weapons for its revolutionary task: its consciousness and its unity. Two weapons that it discovers only in the course of its struggles.

Revolutionary ideas reverberate very differently according to whether they are voiced in an electoral booth or whether they are discussed by a group of strikers. Between these two situations, there is the gulf which separates the individual worker, isolated and powerless, from the worker who discovers in a strike the strength that stirs in the loins of his class.

Communists who try earnestly to understand the conditions, the direction and what has come out of the workers' movement generally, know that these struggles can at any moment be transformed into real revolutionary combats.

They don't say ‘abandon your struggles because they are useless’. Instead they urge: strengthen your struggles, extend them, use the most radical and political means you can, because there, where only economic struggles can be seen, you are really forging the weapons for the only material victory still possible for you: the socialist revolution.


R. Victor, May-June 1974




Critique of the so-called "communisers", annex to part 2