In a 1995 interview shortly after the publication of The Age of Extremes, Eric Hobsbawm was asked about the future currency of socialist ideas. It depended, he answered, on whether a “historic force” would still exist to support the socialist project. “It seems to me the historic force rested not necessarily on the ideas but on a particular material situation … the major problem of the Left being that of agency.” In the face of the declining ratio of variable capital in modern production and thus of the social weight of the industrial proletariat, he said,
we may well find ourselves back in a different pattern to a society, like the one of the pre-capitalist society in which the largest number of people will not be wage workers — they will be something else, either, as you can see in the large part of the Third World, people who are operating in the gray area of the informal economy, who cannot be simply class as wage workers or in some other way. Now, under those circumstances, clearly the question is, how can this body of people be mobilized in order to realize the aims which unquestionably are still there and to some extent are now more urgent in form?1
The decline of traditional working-class economic and political power — now including stricken BRICS like Brazil and South Africa — has been indeed epochal.2 In Europe as well as the United States, the erosion of industrial employment through wage arbitrage, outsourcing, and automation has gone hand in hand with the increased precarity of service work, the digital industrialization of white-collar jobs, and the stagnation or decline of unionized public employment. The new social Darwinism, while inflaming working-class resentment against the new credential elites and the high-tech rich, has also narrowed and poisoned traditional cultures of solidarity, leading to the rise of anti-immigrant movements of the neo-right.3 Even if the hurricane of neoliberalism were to pass — and there is yet little sign this will happen — the automation not just of production and routine management but, now, of professional expertise and scientific research threatens the last vestiges of job security in core economies.4
Hobsbawm, of course, didn’t factor in the shift of global manufacturing to East Asia and the almost exponential growth of the Chinese factory working class over the last generation. But the replacement of human labor power by the next generation of artificial-intelligence systems and machines will not exempt industrial East Asia. Foxconn, the world’s largest manufacturer, is currently replacing assembly workers at its huge Shenzhen complex and elsewhere with a million robots (they don’t commit suicide in despair at working conditions).5 In much of the Global South, meanwhile, structural trends since 1980 have overthrown traditional ideas about “stages of economic growth” as urbanization has become decoupled from economic growth and subsistence from waged employment.6 Even in countries with high recent rates of GDP growth, such as India and Nigeria, joblessness and poverty have soared instead of declining, which is why “jobless growth” joined income inequality at the top of agenda at the 2015 World Economic Forum.7 Meanwhile, global rural poverty, especially in Africa, is being rapidly urbanized — or perhaps “warehoused” is the better term — with little prospect that migrants will ever be reincorporated into modern relations of production. Their destinations are the squalid refugee camps and the jobless peripheral slums, where their children can dream of becoming prostitutes or car bombers.
The summation of these transformations, in rich as well as poor regions, is an unprecedented crisis of proletarianization — or, if you prefer, of the “real subsumption” of labor, embodied by subjects whose consciousness and capacity to effect change are still enigmas. Neilson and Stubbs, using the terminology of chapter 25 of Capital, contend that “the uneven unfolding of capitalism’s long-term contradictory labour-market dynamic is generating a massive relative surplus population, distributed in deeply unequal forms and sizes across the countries of the world. It is already larger than the active army, and is set to grow further in the medium-term future.”8 Whether as contingent or uncollectivized labor, as micro-entrepreneurs or subsistence criminals or simply as the permanently unemployed, the fate of this “surplus humanity” has become the core problem for twentieth-first-century Marxism. Do the old categories of common sentiment and shared destiny, asks Olivier Schwartz, still define an idea of “the popular classes”?9 Socialism, as Hobsbawm warned, will have little future unless large sections of this informal working class find sources of collective strength, levers of power, platforms for participating in an international class struggle.
It would be a gigantic mistake, however, to conclude, as the post-Marxists have, that the starting point for theoretical renewal must be a funeral for the “old working class,” which, to put it crudely, has been demoted in agency, not fired from history. Machinists, nurses, truck drivers, and school teachers remain the organized social base defending the historical legacy of labor in Western Europe, North America, and Japan. Trade unions, however weakened or dispirited, continue to articulate a way of life “based around a coherent sense of the dignity of others and of a place in the world.”10 But the ranks of traditional workers and their unions are no longer growing, and the major increments to the global workforce are increasingly unwaged or jobless. As Christian Marazzi complained recently, it is no longer easy to use a category like “class composition” “to analyse a situation that is increasingly characterized by the fragmentation of the subjects constituted in the world of employment and non-employment.”11
At a high level of abstraction, the current period of globalization is defined by a trilogy of ideal-typical economies: superindustrial (coastal East Asia), financial/tertiary (North Atlantic), and hyperurbanizing/extractive (West Africa). “Jobless growth” is incipient in the first, chronic in the second, and absolute in the third. We might add a fourth ideal-type of disintegrating society whose chief trend is the export of refugees and migrant labor. In any event, we can no longer rely on a single paradigmatic society or class to model the critical vectors of historical development. Imprudent coronations of abstractions like “the multitude” as historical subjects simply dramatize a poverty of empirical research. Contemporary Marxism must be able to scan the future from the simultaneous perspectives of Shenzhen, Los Angeles, and Lagos if it wants to solve the puzzle of how heterodox social categories might fit together in a single resistance to capitalism.
The Proletariat’s Job Description
Even the most preliminary tasks are daunting. A new theory of revolution, to begin with, begs benchmarks in the old, beginning with clarifying “proletarian agency” in classical socialist thought. Summarizing the general view, Ellen Wood defines agency as “the possession of strategic power and a capacity for collective action founded in the specific conditions of material life,” but there is no canonical text that expounds Marx’s matured viewpoint or directly links class capacity to the categories of Capital.12 As Lukács lamented:
Marx’s chief work breaks off just as he is about to embark on the definition of class [chapter 52 of Capital]. This omission was to have serious consequences both for the theory and the practice of the proletariat. For on this vital point the later movement was forced to base itself on interpretations, on the collation of occasional utterances by Marx and Engels and on the independent extrapolation and application of their method.13
Since Lukács attempted to rectify this “omission” in History and Class Consciousness (1923), a trove of Marx’s unpublished works and drafts have been recovered, interpreted, and debated, but the itinerary of the key macro-concepts — class, historical agency, the state, modes of production, and so on — requires careful exploitation of three very different kinds of sources: explicit philosophical statements, mainly from before 1850; the politico-strategic conclusions drawn from partly empirical analyses; and fragments or allusions in the Grundrisse, 1861–63 Economic Manuscripts, and Capital that extend or modify earlier ideas.
But such a reconstruction from fragmentary sources, no matter how faithful, should not be misunderstood as the “true Marx.” It is simply a possible Marx. Marcello Musto has argued that Marx’s failure to update and systematize his ideas was not just a result of illness and the constant revision of Capital, but an inevitable result of “his intrinsic aversion” to schematization. His “inextinguishable passion for knowledge, not altered by the passing of the years, leading him time and again to new studies; and, finally the awareness he attained in his later years of the difficulty of confining the complexity of history within a theoretical project; these made incompleteness [his] faithful companion.”14
Bearing this in mind, the present essay makes no pretense to being a rigorous exercise in Marxology; rather, I make wide-ranging use of Lukácsian extrapolation in order to suggest a historical sociology congruent with the ideal-type of a revolutionary working class in the eras of the First and Second Internationals.15 I synthesize diverse claims about the revolutionary role of the factory working class that were actually made by Marx, Engels, their successors in the Second International and the Lukács school, or plausibly could be made in light of our current understanding of nineteenth and early twentieth-century labor history. The result, illustrated with various examples, is a maximum argument for the traditional working class as the gravedigger of capitalism. Imagine, if you will, the proletariat being asked by the World Spirit for a resume of its qualifications for the job of Universal Emancipator.16
Such an enumeration of ascribed capacities, beginning with workers’ ability to become conscious of themselves as a class, is a construct, assembled for comparative purposes, that makes no claim to empirical closure or theoretical coherence. However, it does assume with Marx that the sum of these capacities is a realistic potential for self-emancipation and revolution. Several disclaimers are in order. In focusing on resources for self-organization and action, as well the interests that mobilize them and the historical tasks that demand them, I sidestep philosophical debates about social ontology and consciousness, as well as recent agency/structure controversies among social theorists and historians (which Alex Callinicos addressed so commandingly in Making History.)17
The first is how classes, through conflicts structurally shaped by regimes of accumulation, actually make one another and influence one another’s relative capabilities and self-consciousness. A celebrated example is the tenth chapter of Capital, where Marx recounts how the victory of the English workers in forcing legislation of a ten-hour workday was quickly countered by their employers’ investment in a new generation of machines that increased the intensity of labor. (The premier theoretical text of Italian workerism, Mario Tronti’s Operai e Capitale , developed from this example a sweeping theory of the struggle between capital and labor as a dialectic of “class composition and recomposition.”)18
The second dimension is the uneven and crisis-punctuated path of capital accumulation over time: the changing economic topography of class struggle. Marx saw in the spiral of the business cycle the periodic opening and closing of opportunities for proletarian advance: for example, the boom of the 1850s quieted labor conflict in Britain, while the depression of the 1870s reawakened the class struggle on an international scale.19 Capital gave “objective conditions” a new and more powerful meaning as crisis theory. (Not until Lenin, however, would Marxists attempt to theorize war as a comparable or even more important forcing house of structural change.)20
Third, capacity, in my usage, is a developable potential for conscious and consequent activity, not a disposition that arises automatically and inevitably from social conditions. Nor in the case of the proletariat is capacity synonymous with endowment, such as the power to hire and fire that a capitalist receives from simple ownership of means of production. The conditions which confer capacity, moreover, can be either structural or conjunctural. The first arise from the proletariat’s position in the mode of production: for example, the possibility of organizing mass strikes that shut down production in entire cities, industries, and even nations. The second is historically specific and ultimately transient: as, for example, the stubborn maintenance of informal control over the labor process by late-Victorian engineering workers and shipbuilders. The conjunctural can also denote the intersection of unsynchronized histories, such as the persistence of absolutism in the middle period of industrialization, which led in Europe to the potent coincidence of suffrage struggles and industrial conflict — not the case in the United States and some other white-settler colonies.
Even though “structures empower agents differentially,” one is almost tempted to apply Newton’s Second Law to history, since structural conditions often produce tendencies and countertendencies at the same time. “The form of the factory,” for example, “embodies and therefore teaches capitalist notions of property relations. But, as Marx points out, it can also teach the necessarily social and collective character of production and thereby undermine the capitalist notion of private property.”21 Likewise, in Capital, the increasing organic composition (capital intensity) of production is indeterminately offset in value terms by the cheapening of capital goods. Similarly, resources can be deployed for alternative, even opposite, ends. A thirst for technical and scientific knowledge, for example, is a presupposition for workers’ control of production but also serves the ambitions of an aristocracy of labor that hopes one day to become managers or owners. Self-organized proletarian civil society, likewise, can reinforce class identity either in a subordinate, corporatist sense, as a subculture in orbit around bourgeois institutions, or in a hegemonic, anticipatory sense, as an antagonistic counterculture.
Finally, the “classical proletariat” is defined as the European and North American working classes of the Second Industrial Revolution, from 1848 to 1921. The notional bookends are the socialist insurrection of June 1848 in Paris (a debut) and the so-called March Action of 1921 in Saxony (a finale). The first opened the era of post-bourgeois revolution; the second ended the European Revolution of 1917 to 1921. With the German revolution defeated, Comintern Marxism turned toward historical subjects — anti-colonial movements, “surrogate” proletariats, peasants, unemployed, Muslims, even American farmers — not encompassed within the original theoretical vision of Marx and Engels.22
Chains and Needs
In contrast to the obsolete artisan, the poor peasant, or even the slave, the industrial worker doesn’t look backward through Jeffersonian or Proudhonist nostalgia to a utopian restoration of petty production, natural economy, and egalitarian competition. “The human instinct for control of oneself and one’s immediate environment, which for previous classes meant essentially a drive towards perfecting private control of the means of personal subsistence and wealth creation, for the proletariat is converted into a desire for collective control and ownership of the means of production.”23 They accept that the massacre of small property by capital is irreversible and that economic democracy must be built upon the abolition of the wages system, rather than large-scale industry per se. Alone among all subalterns and exploited producers, the proletarian has no vestigial stake in the preservation of private ownership of the means of production or the reproduction of economic inequality.
However, it’s essential to distinguish between the chains worn by Marx’s “philosophical proletariat” in the 1843–45 writings and those that later fettered the workers in Volume One of Capital.24 The first were defined by absolute destitution, exploitation and exclusion: “a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, an estate which is the dissolution of all estates, a sphere which has a universal character by its universal suffering.” Its existence, according to the young Marx, was not only a “negation” of humanity but a condition whose own negation requires a “radical revolution,” the overthrow of the “hitherto existing world order.25
In Capital, on the other hand, structural position becomes as important as existential condition in defining the essence of the proletariat. Marx demonstrates that the poverty of the proletarians, while less extreme than that of the starving countryside, is more radical in nature since it arises from their role as producers of unprecedented wealth. In Britain the Industrial Revolution had created a society “in which poverty is engendered in as great abundance as wealth,” while in Germany the emergent proletariat was “not the naturally arising poor but the artificially impoverished.”26 If poverty, as André Gorz claimed, is the “natural basis” of the struggle for socialism, it is this “unnatural poverty,” which grows in lockstep with the productive powers of collective labor.27
Marx also makes a crucial distinction between factory-socialized and general or hand labor power. The “formal relations of production” (wage labor and capital) arising from the expropriation of small producers by agricultural and merchant capital shape the broad boundaries of a propertyless working class. Moreover, the “wages system,” David Montgomery reminds us, “has historically not been coextensive with industrial society.”28 In mid-Victorian Britain, for example, domestic servants made up the largest single group within the waged population and hand labor continued to flourish alongside the factory system. The Great Exhibition of 1851 glorified the age of steam power, but the three hundred thousand panes of glass that covered the Crystal Palace were blown by hand.29
In contrast, the socio-technical relations of production distinguish the factory proletariat, the collectivized core of the modern working class, according to Marx.30 For the workers’ movement to acquire a universal form, inclusive of all varieties of wage labor, it must accumulate power, first and above all, in the advancing industrial sectors: textiles, iron and steel, coal, shipbuilding, railroads, and so on. They alone, in the words of the Manifesto, possess “historical initiative.”31
Revolutions of the poor in backward countries can reach for the stars, but only the proletariat in advanced countries can actually grasp the future. The integration of science into production, compelled by both intercapitalist competition and working-class militancy, reduces the necessity (if not the actuality) of alienated toil. Already in The Poverty of Philosophy (1847) Marx had argued that “the organization of revolutionary elements as a class supposes the existence of all the productive forces which could be engendered in the bosom of the old society.”32 A decade later, in the Grundrisse, he predicted that “to the degree that large industry develops, the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labour-time and on the amount of labor employed” than upon “the general state of science and on the progress of technology, or the application of this science to production.” At this point “the surplus labour of the mass has ceased to be the condition for the development of general wealth, just as the non-labour of the few, for the development of the general powers of the human head.” Then it will be both materially possible and historically necessarily for the workers themselves to appropriate their own surplus labor as free time for “the artistic, scientific etc. development of the individuals… measure of wealth is then not any longer, in any way, labour time, but rather disposable time.”33
But such an appropriation can never occur if the goal is framed simply as redistributive justice, income equality, or shared prosperity.34 These are preconditions for socialism, not its substance. The new world, rather, would define itself by the satisfaction of “radical needs” generated by the struggle for socialism itself and incompatible with the alienation of capitalist society. “They include the need for community, for human relationships, for labor as an end (life’s prime want), for universality, for free time and free activity and for the development of personality. They are qualitative needs — in contrast to the needs for material products, which decline relatively in a society of associated producers (as the need to ‘possess’ disappears).”35 It is not the development of consumption or capitalist “affluence” that creates radical needs for free time and liberated work, but rather the countervalues and dreams embodied in radical mass movements. To take root in daily life such needs must be prefigured, above all in socialist attitudes toward friendship, sexuality, gender roles, women’s suffrage, nationalism, racial and ethnic bigotry, and the care of children. Marx and Engels’s well-known aversion to utopian blueprints and futuristic speculations demonstrated their scientific discipline, but was not meant to foreclose the socialist imagination, much less to discourage the profusion of alternative institutions, ranging from labor colleges to consumer cooperatives, hiking clubs to free psychoanalytic clinics, through which the workers’ movement both addressed existing needs and envisioned new ones.36
On foundations of modern technology and within a union of advanced countries, a workers’ government could sustain economic growth while making dramatic improvements in the quality of life, above all the reduction of the work day. Since workers themselves would participate in making both small- and large-scale decisions about investment, production targets, and work intensity; there would be ample motivation for continued technological innovation, making machines the slaves of workers rather than the other way around.37
At what level of economic development would a society be ripe for socialism? In 1870, despite impressive industrial progress in North America, Germany, and France, Marx judged only England to have “the material conditions for the destruction of landlordism and capitalism.”38 Yet, at the same time, he continued to conceive of revolution as a global or at least multinational process. Lenin, if anything, was even more emphatic on the necessarily “European” character of a socialist victory, with a German revolution as the sine qua non of its possibility. Only after his death in early 1924, coinciding with the Dawes Plan that stabilized the bourgeois Weimar Republic, were the Bolsheviks forced to confront their future without the deus ex machina of a revolution in the West.
As Lenin and others, both supporters and opponents, had already foreseen, a workers’ government in a backward country with a huge rural population, unmechanized agriculture, and low-value exports would face enormous difficulties in generating domestic industrial investment, especially targeted to infrastructure and fixed capital, without forcing the countryside to tithe most of its surplus to the modern sectors. Before it could become a general emancipator, in other words, the working class, a small if highly organized minority in such societies, would have to act in lieu of the bourgeoisie as collective confiscator or exploiter. This would risk the equivalent of a rural general strike, as wealthier peasants, the most efficient producers, lost any incentive to maintain output and began to hoard food for sale through the black market — exactly what had happened during the Civil War and again with the end of the New Economic Policy (NEP). In response, the state would either have to relent (Bukharin’s “rightist” strategy) or resort to sheer coercion (Lenin’s policy in 1918–19 and Stalin’s from the end of the 1920s).
“Primitive socialist accumulation,” as Yevgeni Preobrazhensky called it in 1925, was both a necessity and a tragedy for proletarian rule in a backward economy. But alternative strategies like the NEP risked rehabilitating capitalist property relations and, as many argued, a rural bourgeoisie that risked severing the “alliance between town and country.”39 The only way to cut this Gordian knot would be foreign investment and technical aid from more advanced socialist countries, thus returning the theory of revolution full circle to the premise of a socialist breakthrough in Europe’s industrial heartland west of the Elbe.
In his scattered comments on the material preconditions for socialism, Marx failed to make a clear distinction between the development of the productive forces per se and the creation of counterpart social capacities for economic coordination and planning. This latter involves, on one hand, institutions of economic democracy and workers’ control and, on the other, technologies that process massive economic data in real time and present it in formats that allow popular participation in decision-making. It can be argued that requisite informatics for democratic planning have only emerged recently in the form of computer information systems, business-process reengineering, managerial dashboards, smartphones, the internet of things, the collaborative commons, peer production, and the like. Likewise, the observational platforms and scientific paradigms for understanding the geoenvironmental impacts of the economy (especially upon the carbon and nutrient cycles), thus making planning for sustainability possible, are only now being put into place.
In the Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx famously compared the backward strata of the French peasantry to a “sack of potatoes.” “Their mode of production,” he wrote, “isolates them from one another, instead of bringing them into complex interactions.”41 As a result, Hobsbawm adds, peasant consciousness tends to be entirely localized or constituted in abstract opposition to the city, often in the language of millenarian religion. “The unit of their organized action is either the parish pump or the universe. There is nothing in between.”42 The industrial proletariat (in which Marx includes factory hands, building laborers, miners, workers in capitalist agriculture, and transport workers), on the other hand, is only constituted en ensemble, as integral collectivities within the social division of labor. The French socialist Constantin Pecqueur, in his 1839 book on the revolutionary nature of the steam age, had already extolled the factory for its “progressive socialization” of the labor force and its creation of a “proletarian public life.”43
Mutuality, as noted earlier, is not directly endowed, and class consciousness, as David Montgomery reminds us, “is always a project.” Workers in new industries or plants are initially atomized, a competitive situation that capitalists attempt to prolong through favoritism, piecework wages, and ethnic divisions of labor.44 The most elementary forms of solidarity must be consciously constructed, beginning with the informal work groups, defined by common tasks or skills, that are the “families” out of which a plant society is built. Forging links of common interest between work groups and departments was a strenuous, patient labor that required negotiation, education, and confrontation; the rank-and-file leaders who undertook it risked dismissal, blacklisting, even imprisonment or death.45 The first steps toward inclusive organization, moreover, were generally defensive in character: to protest, for instance, a reduction in wages, the introduction of dangerous machinery, or some other egregious grievance. But as Marx emphasizes in The Poverty of Philosophy, the union (or in some cases, the clandestine workplace organization) became a goal in itself, as irreducible to its purely instrumental functions as, say, a church or village. “This is so true that English economists are amazed to see the workers sacrifice a good part of their wages in favor of associations, which, in the eyes of these economists, are established solely in favor of wages.”46
In The Condition of the Working Class in England, the young Engels portrays a proletariat whose “making” is as much the result of urbanization as industrialization.
If the centralization of population, stimulates and develops the property-holding class, it forces the development of the workers yet more rapidly .… The great cities are the birthplaces of labour movements; in them the workers first began to reflect upon their own condition, and to struggle against it; in them the opposition between proletariat and bourgeoisie first made itself manifest …. Without the great cities and their forcing influence upon the popular intelligence, the working class would be far less advanced than it is .… [The cities] have destroyed the last remnant of the patriarchal relation between working men and employers.47
Engels, who often complained about the suffocating piety of his own bourgeois background, was astonished by the casual and almost universal indifference of London laborers to organized religion and spiritual dogma. “All the writers of the bourgeoisie are unanimous on this point, that the workers are not religious, and do not attend church.”48 In Paris, meanwhile, where the Goddess of Reason had been briefly enthroned in Notre Dame in 1792, militant anticlericalism was deeply rooted in the republican petit-bourgeoisie as well as the socialist artisanate. But the most dramatic and perhaps surprising example was Berlin, Europe’s Chicago, where by 1912 the Socialists were winning 75 percent of the vote and the poorest districts were considered completely “dechristianized.” Working-class Berlin, like Africa, was a missionary frontier.49
If secularism represented one mode of “negative integration” into capitalist society, another was the rise of alternative institutions that contested bourgeois values across virtually the entire spectrum of daily life. The ideas of socialism and anarcho-communism became embodied in literate and well-organized popular countercultures that projected the solidarities of the workplace and neighborhood into all spheres of recreation, education, and culture. By 1910 virtually every industrial city or town had an impressive central building for workers’ meetings, union offices, party papers, and the like. The typical maison du peuple or casa del pueblo had a library, a theater or cinema, sports facilities, and sometimes a medical clinic. Some were visionary cathedrals of the people: La Maison du Peuple de Bruxelles, the Urania in Vienna, and the Volkshaus in Leipzig. (The Constructivists in the early Soviet Union took the next step and made workers’ clubs — rendered in modernist masterpieces as the Zuev and the Rusakov in Moscow — the hubs of the new culture and its utopian hopes.)
The most celebrated example of a proletarian counterculture was the vast universe of cycling, hiking and singing clubs, sports teams, adult schools, theater societies, readers groups, youth clubs, naturalist groups, and the like that were sponsored by the SPD and the German unions. In the period of the antisocialist laws (1878 to 1890), these labor associations provided a crucial legal shelter for workers’ gatherings and the training of activists. In his important 1985 book The Alternative Culture, Vernon Lidtke contested the claim of some historians that this “proletarian world of its own” eventually became too hermetic to constitute a radical threat to the Wilhelmine system. “This alternative may be called radical not because it proposed to overturn the Kaiserreich in one bold stroke, but because it embodied in its principles a conception of production, social relations, and political institutions that rejected existing structures, practices, and values at almost every point.” Certainly the state saw socialist cultural activities as a subversive threat, especially to the nationalist indoctrination of youth. Thus “on the eve of the war, on July 2, 1914, the Kaiser approved a measure to establish a compulsory national youth organization for all boys between the ages thirteen and seventeen,” under the command of retired officers.50
The real weakness of the German counterculture, Lidtke says, was the SPD’s emphasis on democratizing bourgeois high culture rather than exploring the “possibility that workers… might develop a unique culture of the labor movement, one that would draw its inspiration directly from the lives of workers themselves.”51 This was not a problem in Catalonia, where anarcho-syndicalism was culturally libertarian and there was hardly any bureaucratic or reformist stratum in the workers’ movement. Nowhere in Europe were unions and neighborhoods so robustly united in struggle as in Barcelona where the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (which by 1918 had 250,000 members in the city and its factory environs) would one day organize a strike and the next day provide “armed escorts for groups of working-class women who requisitioned food from shops.”52 The majority of the factory proletariat — despised by the Catalan middle class — were immigrants from Murcia and Andalusia, and with the aid of rich communitarian traditions built their own antinationalist and Esperanto-speaking alternative society in Europe’s most tubercular and violent slums.
Marx and Engels, for example, clearly believed that mass socialist consciousness would be a dialectical alloy of the economic and the political, of epic battles over rights as well as over wages and working hours, of bitter local fights and great international causes. Since the formation of the Communist League in 1847, they had argued that wage labor constituted the only serious social force able to represent and enact a consistently democratic program of suffrage and rights, and thus provide the hegemonic glue to bind together a broad coalitions of workers, poor peasants, national minorities, and radicalized strata of the middle class. While the mind of the liberal petit-bourgeoisie easily amputated political rights from economic grievances, workers’ lives refuted any categorical distinction between oppression and exploitation. The “growing over” of political into economic democracy, and of economic class struggle into the question of state power — the process that Marx characterized as “permanent revolution” in the contexts of 1848 and Chartism — was the chief motif of a prerevolutionary crisis.
But because economic struggles and political conflicts are only episodically synchronized — usually during depression or war — there was also a strong tendency toward their bifurcation. The inverse but symmetrical illusions of economism/syndicalism (progress by economic organization alone) and parliamentary cretinism (reform without workplace power) have always required regular weeding of the red garden. Thus, for Rosa Luxemburg, the central lesson of the 1905 revolution in Russia was the need to understand the economic and the political as moments in a single revolutionary process:
In a word: the economic struggle is the transmitter from one political center to another; the political struggle is the periodic fertilization of the soil for the economic struggle. Cause and effect here continually change places; and thus the economic and the political factor in the period of the mass strike, now widely removed, completely separated, or even mutually exclusive, as the theoretical plan would have them, merely form the two interlacing sides of the proletarian class struggle in Russia. And their unity is precisely the mass strike. If the sophisticated theory proposes to make a clever logical dissection of the mass strike for the purpose of getting at the “purely political mass strike,” it will by this dissection, as with any other, not perceive the phenomenon in its living essence, but will kill it altogether.53
In his remarkable book on the making of the Korean working class, the most militant in Asia, Hagen Koo stresses the continuous dialogue between shop-floor struggles and populist resistance to the state: a modern example of the overdetermination of the economic by the political and vice versa — and, in this case, by cultural indigenism as well. With no inherited working-class tradition and faced with a repressive, pro-employer regime with a huge security apparatus, Korea’s workers, especially young women in light manufacturing industries, drew unexpected strength from their alliance with the extraordinary minjung (masses) movement that arose in the mid-1970s:
This broad populist movement was led by dissident intellectuals and students and aimed to forge a broad class alliance among workers, peasants, poor urban dwellers, and progressive intellectuals against the authoritarian regime. … It introduced new political language and cultural activities by reinterpreting Korean history and reappropriated Korea’s indigenous culture from the minjung perspective. … Thus, culture and politics have critical roles in the formation of the South Korean working class, not in the usual roles ascribed to them in the literature on East Asian development — as factors of labor docility and quiescence — but as sources of labor resistance and growing consciousness.54
The original sin of the parties of the Second International was their lukewarm support for, or even opposition to, women’s suffrage and economic equality. Yet, as David Montgomery reminds us, “married women caring for their children in bleak, congested neighborhoods and facing creditors, charity officials, and the ominous authority of the clergy were reminded of their class as regularly as were their husbands, daughters, and sons in the factories.”55 Mothers, moreover, were the typical organizers of rent strikes, demonstrations against fuel shortages, and bread riots, the oldest form of plebian protest. The Russian Revolution of 1917, we should recall, began on International Women’s Day as “thousands of housewives and women workers enraged by the endless queues for bread poured into the streets of Petrograd, shouting, ‘Down with high prices’ and ‘Down with hunger.’”56 In his analytically acute history of European socialism, Geoff Eley gives the slum neighborhood equal weight with the factory in the formation of socialist consciousness. “No less vital were the complex ways neighborhoods spoke and fought back. If the workplace was one frontier of resistance, where collective agency could be imagined, the family — or more properly the neighborhood solidarities working-class women fashioned for its survival — was the other. … The challenge for the Left was to organize on both fronts of social dispossession.”57
In previous social formations, the direct producers had little access to or need for formal learning — usually a prerogative of the church or a scribe class — but the French Revolution generated an insatiable popular appetite for literacy and education. Industrial workers thus inherited a rich autodidactic tradition from the artisan-intellectuals in Paris and Lyon who were the pioneers of socialism, and from their English counterparts who adapted classical political economy to the agenda of Chartism. As Marx always acknowledged, the development of the Ricardian “labor theory of value” into a powerful critique of exploitation, usually attributed to him, was actually achieved by plebian intellectuals like the American-born printer John Bray, the Scottish factory worker John Gray, and the court-martialed sailor and rogue journalist Thomas Hodgskin. Likewise, several of the most important English scientists of the nineteenth century were self-educated plebeians, notably Michael Faraday (a bookbinder’s apprentice), Alfred Russell Wallace (land surveyor), and the theorist of the Ice Ages, James Croll (university janitor).
By midcentury, moreover, large sections of the working class, especially in England and the United States, were as avidly abreast of news and current events as the middle classes were. Indeed, newspapers, Marx wrote in the 1861–63 Manuscripts, now “form part of the necessary means of subsistence of the English urban worker.”59 In the early 1840s, Chartists alone published more than a hundred papers and reviews.60 Marx himself, of course, was a journalist (as was Trotsky) — the only job he ever held — and the emergence of mass socialist parties toward the end of the nineteenth century would have been unimaginable without the dramatic growth of the workers’ press and the counternarrative of contemporary history it presented.
In Ten Days That Shook the World, John Reed marveled at the war of print between classes and factions:
In every city, in most towns, along the Front, each political faction had its newspaper — sometimes several. Hundreds of thousands of pamphlets were distributed by thousands of organisations, and poured into the armies, the villages, the factories, the streets. The thirst for education, so long thwarted, burst with the revolution into a frenzy of expression. From Smolny Institute alone, the first six months, went out every day tons, car-loads, train-loads of literature, saturating the land. Russia absorbed reading matter like hot sand drinks water, insatiable.61
Likewise, Victorian workers flocked to reading rooms, mechanics’ institutes, cheap libraries, athenaeums, and public lecture halls. The mechanics’ institutes, inspired by Dr. George Birkbeck’s famous 1800–04 lectures to Glasgow artisans, fed the popular hunger to understand the science of the new machines and prime movers. The first Institute was created in Glasgow in 1821; by the time Marx moved to Soho, there were more than seven hundred.63
By the 1850s, the scientifically literate sections of the working classes provided huge audiences for cutting-edge controversies, especially during the culture war that followed the publication of The Origin of the Species. The London mechanics and craftsmen who flocked to Thomas Huxley’s “Lectures to Working Men” were, according to Huxley, “as attentive and as intelligent as the best audience I have ever lectured to. … I have studiously avoided the impertinence of talking down to them.”64 Karl Liebknecht, the 1848 veteran and later founder of the SPD, fondly recalled attending six of these lectures with Karl Marx, then staying up all night excitedly discussing Darwin. The whole Marx household, in fact, was caught up in the great debates. (Mrs.) Jenny Marx boasted to a Swiss friend of the extraordinary popularity of the “Sunday Nights for the People.” “With respect to religion, a great movement is currently developing in stuffy old England. The top men in science, Huxley (Darwin’s disciple) at the head, with Tyndall, Sir Charles Lyell, Bowring, Carpenter, etc. give very enlightened, truly freethinking and bold lectures for the people in St. Martin’s Hall (of glorious waltzing memory), and, what is more, on Sunday evenings, exactly at the time when the lambs are usually grazing on the Lord’s pastures; the hall has been full to bursting and the people’s enthusiasm so great that, on the first evening, when I went there with the girls, 2,000 could not get into the room, which was crammed full.”65
The factory system and the world market give rise to crucial geostrategic nodes such as railroad networks, manufacturing supply chains, power grids, tool-and-die centers, war industry complexes and so on whose seizure or shutdown by even relatively small groups of workers can paralyze entire economies. The mass strike, pioneered by half a million British miners and textile workers in 1842 (the Plug Riots), was rare in Marx’s time but became increasingly common toward the end of the century, with the Belgian General Strike (for suffrage) in 1893 and the US Pullman Strike in 1894, just a few months before Engels’s death. European and American radicals, however, splintered over the social dynamics and strategic implications of such revolts. For Bernstein and other “Revisionists” in the Second International, the advent of the general strike ratified belief in a peaceful road to revolution, with trade-union power mobilized to ensure that a future social-democratic majority could nonviolently implement its platform in Parliament. (Indeed, Marx himself had speculated on precisely such a possibility in England and perhaps the United States).
For anarcho-syndicalists, on the other hand, the general strike promised to unleash militant spontaneity and social imagination far beyond the capacity of socialist politicians and trade-union bosses to channel and control. At the extreme, Georges Sorel theorized the general strike as both the apocalyptic door to a new world and the necessary “myth in which Socialism is wholly comprised.”66
Rosa Luxemburg, however, rejected both the Revisionist and syndicalist interpretations of the great strike waves of the early twentieth century. Analyzing the first Russian Revolution as well as the huge contemporary socialist demonstrations for suffrage in Central Europe, she wrote that the mass strike was “not an isolated act but a whole period of the class struggle” in which “the ceaseless reciprocal action of the political and economic struggles” created explosively unpredictable scenarios that elicited extraordinary rank-and-file ingenuity. She was one of the first socialists to pay attention to the microstructure of proletarian radicalization (what Trotsky would later call “the molecular work of revolutionary thought”) and, far from building a cargo cult to spontaneity, as she was often accused, her crucial insights about proletarian self-organization were part of a withering critique of the SPD’s self-image of its elected leaders as the general staff of an obedient army of trade unionists and socialist voters.67 (Ironically, it was Lenin, not Luxemburg, who asserted in light of the 1905 insurrections that the workers were “instinctively, spontaneously Social Democratic.”)68
Given the specialization inherent in the industrial division of labor and the loss of complex skills that follows the mechanization of the work process, where will workers find the competence to run the economy in a socialist commonwealth? In The Principles of Communism, Engels is blunt. “The common management of production cannot be effected by people as they are today, each one being assigned to a single branch of production, shackled to it, exploited by it, each having developed only one of his abilities at the cost of all the others and knowing only one branch, or only a branch of a branch of the total production.” His solution was a universal education system that develops individuals with many-sided competencies. “The communist organization of society will give its members the chance of an all-round exercise of abilities that have received all-round development.”69
But how, then, would the gap be bridged between capitalism’s deskilled workforce and a polyvalent socialist society? The answer, which Engels doesn’t provide, was the Industrial Revolution’s new elite of millwrights, patternmakers, fitters, turners, and other precision metal workers. The progressive subordination of the majority of the workforce to machinery was accompanied by the increased knowledge and bargaining power of those workers who built, installed, and maintained the machines: a phenomenon David Montgomery has characterized as the “manager’s brain under the workman’s cap.” Although their skills were new, their control of craft knowledge, much of it secretive, was patterned after the artisans they had superseded, with long apprenticeships, tribal rituals, and strictly maintained standards of a “fair day’s work.”70 Until college-trained engineers became a crucial part of the industrial hierarchy in the 1910s and 1920s and scientific management substantially captured and decomposed craft knowledge, complete capitalist control of the labor process (“real appropriation,” in Marx’s terms) was impossible.71
The metal crafts occupied a critical but often ambiguous position in the labor movement as a whole. Nelson Lichtenstein notes: “Because of their self-confidence and their vital place in the production order, skilled craftsmen could be found both in the vanguard of those who posed a radical challenge to the existing industrial order and, almost simultaneously, among those workers who were most entrepreneurial and career-conscious in their outlook.”72 Before World War I they were often reluctant to join in the struggles of the semi-skilled, but during the cataclysmic years of 1917 to 1919 — when women and youth were conscripted en masse to the war factories — the metallos provided leadership to the workers’ council movements in Barcelona, Berlin, Glasgow, Seattle, and Vienna, as well as to the proto-communist parties that emerged from the general strikes and insurrections. In Petrograd from 1917, briefly in Turin in 1920, and again in Barcelona in 1936 and 1937, workers’ committees and revolutionary shop stewards ran the factories to their own account, confirming the worst nightmares of the bosses.73
A Class for Itself
The bourgeoisie and the proletariat are the only “pure classes” in modern society, but they are not symmetrical in their internal formation or capacity for consciousness. Competition between firms and sectors is the iron law of capitalism, but competition between workers can be ameliorated by organization. Marx was explicit: “If all the members of the modern bourgeoisie have the same interests inasmuch as they form a class as against another class, they have opposite, antagonistic interests inasmuch as they stand face to face with one another.”74 Rational self-interest, argued Lukács, following Marx, means that individual owners of capital “cannot see and are necessarily indifferent to all the social implications of their activities.” The “veil drawn over the nature of bourgeois society” — that is to say, the denial of its own historicity — “is indispensable to the bourgeoisie itself. … From a very early stage the ideological history of the bourgeoisie was nothing but a desperate resistance to every insight into the true nature of the society it had created and thus to a real understanding of its class situation.”75 As soon as capital confronted a rising proletariat, moreover, it took off its republican toga and, at least on the Continent, ran into the arms of absolutism or embraced dictators like Napoleon III, and later Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco.
The proletarian, poor and shirtless, has better vision. “As the bourgeoisie,” says Lukács, “has the intellectual, organizational and every other advantage, the superiority of the proletariat must lie exclusively in its ability to see society from the center, as a coherent whole.” In a famous but variously interpreted passage in History and Class Consciousness, he introduces the idea of “imputed class consciousness” — the objective and ripened possibilities that the proletariat must recognize and act upon in order to bring about the revolution. In pre-crisis periods, however, the working class tends to be dominated by the “petty bourgeois attitudes of most trade unionists” and mystified by the conceptual and real “separation of the various theaters of war.” (“The proletariat finds the economic inhumanity to which it is subjected easier to understand than the political, and the political easier than the culture.”76
) The primary obstacle to class consciousness, moreover, is less bourgeois ideology (or the ponderous operation of Althusser’s “state ideological apparatuses”) than “the actual day-to-day workings of the economy and society. These have the effect of causing the internalization of commodity relations and the reification of human relations.”77 In depression and war, however, contradictions fissure this crystal palace of reified economic and political realities, and the deep meaning of the historical moment “becomes comprehensible in practice.” It is finally “possible to read off from history the correct course of action to be followed.” The reader? “The workers’ council spells the political and economic defeat of reification.”78
If unions and left parties constituted the quasi-permanent institutions of the proletarian public sphere, the class struggle episodically generated ad hoc forms such as general strike committees, workers’ councils, and soviets that dramatically expanded popular participation in debate and decision-making to include the nonparty proletariat and unorganized workers as well as in certain instances the unemployed, students, working-class mothers, and soldiers and sailors. Whether in Bremen, Glasgow, Petrograd, or Winnipeg (with its 1919 general strike), “movement democracy” reproduced many of the classic features of 1792 and 1871: great contests of oratory, unruly audiences and strong voices from the floor, delegates reporting back to their factories or neighborhood branches, all-night meetings, a blizzard of pamphlets and manifestoes, the unceasing work of committees, the organization of flying pickets and worker guards, rumors and battles against rumors, and, of course, competition between parties and factions.
The predictable opposition of conservative trade-union bosses and moderate socialists to radical tactics like factory occupations and mass strikes, and especially to arming the workers, precipitated new leaderships, often from the anonymous shop floor. A paradigmatic example was the antiwar underground inside Berlin’s huge armament factories. The nucleus (which, according to Pierre Broué, “never numbered more than fifty members”) consisted of skilled turners, supporters of the far left, who built
a unique kind of organization, neither a trade union nor a party, but a clandestine group in the trade unions and the Party [SPD] alike. … They could set in motion, with the help of some hundreds of men whom they directly influenced, tens and later hundreds of thousands of workers, by enabling them to make their own decisions about active initiatives. … Unknown in 1914, by the end of the War they were to be the accepted leaders of the workers of Berlin and, despite their relative youth, the cadres of the revolutionary socialist movement.79
Indeed, Broué considered them “the finest people in Social Democracy.”Despite the legend of being an ultra-centralized party operating with perfect conspiratorial discipline, the Bolsheviks, with majority support in the big factories and the Baltic fleet, were the most consistent promoters of direct democracy in the larger revolutionary movement of 1917. For example, when liberals and moderate socialists proposed a Democratic State Conference to design a new parliamentary regime, Lenin (fresh from writing State and Revolution) urged an all-out mobilization to expand popular participation:
Let us take it more to those down below, to the masses, to the office employees, to the workers, to the peasants, not only to our supporters, but particularly to those who follow the Socialist-Revolutionaries, to the non-party elements, to the ignorant. Let us lift them up so that they can pass an independent judgment, make their own decisions, send their own delegations to the Conference, to the Soviets, to the government and our work will not have been in vain, no matter what the outcome of the Conference.80
In his celebrated study of the revolutionary process in Petrograd, Alexander Rabinowitch stood the Bolshevik stereotype on its head. Explaining the party’s attractiveness to a majority of the city’s working class, he pointed to its “internally relatively democratic, tolerant, and decentralized structure and method of operation, as well as its essentially open and mass character … within the Bolshevik Petrograd organization at all levels in 1917 there was continuing free and lively discussion and debate over the most basic theoretical and tactical issues.”81 Indeed, this was exactly how Preobrazhensky looked back on October, when attempting to explain in 1920 the relationship between the recent erosion of party democracy and the “decline of spontaneity” in the proletariat:
Comparing the party life of late 1917 and 1918 with party life in 1920, one is struck by the way it has died out precisely among the party-masses … Previously, rank-and-file Communists felt they were not just implementing party-decisions, but were also originating them, that they themselves were forming the Party’s collective will. Now they implement party-decisions taken by committees that often do not bother to submit decisions to general meetings.82
Labor, Marx argued, can wrest significant reforms from capital in boom periods, but each bust strips away gains and reveals rising base levels of unemployment and misery. Although he left confusing clues about the exact mechanisms of economic crisis, there can be no doubt that his theories of revolution and rising class consciousness assumed the increasing intensity, frequency, and geographical range of industrial downturns, perhaps even a “final economic crisis.” This, of course, was a generally accurate forecast of the business cycle from the 1870s to 1940. No Marxist, however, predicted the long postwar boom — or, for that matter, the radical uprisings of students and workers in 1968 and 1969 amid relatively full employment in Europe and North America. The “affluent worker” briefly became a popular academic explanation for the deradicalization of labor movements in some advanced countries. But history has come full circle in the early twenty-first century; a world economy that cannot create jobs in pace with population growth, guarantee food security, or adapt our habitats to catastrophic climate change might reasonably be judged as a failure.
Concluding his speech to the inaugural supper of the Fraternal Democrats in London in September 1845, the Chartist George Julian Harney declared, “We repudiate the word ‘foreigner’ — it shall exist not in our democratic vocabulary!” Engels, who reported on the meeting (he called it “a communist festival”) in the Rheinische Jahrbücher, noted that Harney’s remark was greeted with “great cheers” by the delegates from nine nations. There were repeated toasts to Tom Paine, Robespierre, and the recently deported Chartists. “The great mass of proletarians,” Engels wrote, “are, by their very nature, free from national prejudices and their whole disposition and movement is essentially humanitarian, anti-nationalist.”83 This sounds incredibly naive today but may have been a reasonably accurate observation on the eve of the “springtime of the peoples.”
Indeed, the early workers’ movement generally followed the well-worn tracks of revolutionary democracy, celebrating international fraternity in the confident belief that the social revolution would necessarily be a world revolution in the mold of 1789. Conspiratorial revolutionary groups like Louis Auguste Blanqui and Armand Barbès’s Society of the Seasons were defiantly cosmopolitan in membership, and tramping artisans and migrant workers carried subversive ideas back and forth between major cities and industrial centers. German artisans, the largest pool of labor immigrants in the Europe of the Holy Alliance, established radical outposts in Britain, Switzerland, and North America, but the true capital of the first German proletariat in the 1840s was Paris, where some fifty thousand German-speaking “undocumented immigrants” toiled in garrets and sweatshops.84
In his writings and speeches about the American Civil War and the founding of the First International, Marx argued that international solidarity is the crucial precipitant of class consciousness and that the mobilization of labor on a national scale is accelerated by the international organization of its most advanced detachments. But he also warned that no labor movement could ever emancipate itself as long as it participated politically or materially in the oppression of another nation or race. In some of his most fiery articles and speeches, he argued that black freedom was the precondition for an independent American working-class politics, as was Irish freedom for a radical British working class. On the Continent, the independence of Poland, of course, had long been the touchstone of democratic and then socialist internationalism.
In biology, one learns about a certain species of caterpillar that can only cross the threshold of metamorphosis by seeing its future butterfly. Proletarian subjectivity does not evolve by incremental steps but requires nonlinear leaps, especially by way of moral self-recognition through solidarity with the struggle of a distant people. Even when this contradicts short-term self-interest, as in the famous cases of Lancashire cotton workers’ enthusiasm for Lincoln and later for Gandhi, such efforts not only anticipate a world beyond capitalism, they concretely advance the working class’s march toward it.
Socialism, in other words, requires nonutilitarian actors, whose ultimate motivations and values arise from structures of feeling that others would deem spiritual. Marx rightly scourged romantic humanism in the abstract, but his personal pantheon — Prometheus and Spartacus, Homer, Cervantes, and Shakespeare — affirmed a heroic vision of human possibility. But can that possibility be realized in today’s world, a world where the “old working class” has been demoted in agency? This article does not answer that question. I hope it will help stimulate an ongoing exchange that can point the way forward.