Nos. 70 & 71, April 2018

Nos. 70 & 71 (April 2018)
India's Working Class and its Prospects

India's Working Class and its Prospects

IX. A composite proletariat

Size, concentration, and collective organisation
In this light, let us look at the second, third and fourth features of the proletariat we listed at the outset – namely, their growing proportion of the workforce, the growing sense of strength as they are concentrated, their disciplined, collective labour. The discussion above brings out the extreme fragmentation of even the wage labourers, subordinated as they are to different types of capital, and the steep hurdles the proletariat will have to overcome to unite as a class. Secondly, while wage labourers of one type or another form nearly half of India’s workforce, they and their families are not likely to depend solely on wage labour. (The underestimation of women’s subsistence labour [Hirway 2012] makes this even more difficult to perceive.) Less than one out of five in the workforce gets regular wage employment.

Hired labourers in small informal sector units (29 million), in construction (50 million), and in agriculture (80 million), are part of the working class, indeed, they are the bulk of the working class, making up over 160 million out of a total 226 million wage workers. To this figure we could add perhaps 10 million homeworkers (nominally self-employed).

However, among most such workers the process of concentration in greater masses, consequent growing strength, and growing sense of that strength, may be weak or absent. (In fact, Marx classifies the workers in the informal sector, which he terms ‘domestic industry’, as part of the reserve army of labour – the ‘stagnant reserve’.) In the case of these workers, the isolation of work in scattered farms, worksites or homes is not replaced with labouring in association, as part of an industrial army. In other words, contrary to Marx’s description of the proletariat, they are not “organised by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself”. Since consciousness is shaped by actual experiences, the concrete experience of labour of this vast mass of hired labourers does not lend itself as easily to generating proletarian consciousness.

At the same time, these statements need to be qualified. Each of the features Marx described does apply to segments of the workers. There are large industrial centres where workers are concentrated in large masses, working in large units. They sense their strength, and from place to place exhibit remarkable powers of self-organisation and discipline. One has only to think of industrial centres such as Gurgaon, Noida, Ludhiana, Neemrana, Sanand, Vapi, Morbi, Pimpri, Bengaluru, Sriperumbudur, Bhilai, Tirupur, and Chennai, to see that there is scope for these features to come into play. There are also large numbers of workers under single industries, such as the railways, docks, mines, and power, who too can sense their organised strength. These workers can play a role as part of a composite proletariat.

Degradation, dehumanisation and compulsion to revolt
Similarly, the fifth feature – the transformation of the worker into an appendage of the machine, and hence the degradation and dehumanisation of labour – is applicable in different ways to different segments of India’s working class.

For a worker to become an appendage of a machine, there must be a machine with its own motive force; this is so in the organised factory sector, more so in large-scale industry. Among workers of large-scale industry, particularly in the wake of import liberalisation, the technology employed is similar to that used in the developed capitalist countries. (Imported capital goods make up a large share of the domestic market for capital goods, and even in domestically produced capital goods, the import content is high.32)

There are industrial centres where large numbers of workers are concentrated, engaged in collective labour and capable of organising themselves. Vast numbers of workers here are indeed facing conditions Marx described, of extreme degradation, alienation, distortion, and despotic oppression.

The fastest rate of employment growth in the first decade of the present century was in fact in the most capital intensive industry, producing what is in India a luxury good, automobiles. (Kapoor 2016) Here the component of contract labour is particularly large. Apart from lacking job security, these workers earn much lower wages for the same work as the permanent workers. According to news reports, in the Gurgaon-Manesar-Bawal zone outside Delhi, which accounts for about 60 per cent of auto production in India, 80 per cent of the estimated one million workers are hired on contract. (Business Standard 2011) A painstaking study found that at Maruti Suzuki’s Manesar plant, in 2007, the permanent workers and contract workers constituted 15 per cent and 85 per cent, respectively; at Ford India, 25 per cent and 75 per cent; at Hyundai, 18 per cent and 82 per cent respectively. (Annavajhula and Pratap 2012) After a brief lull in the wake of violence in 2012, Suzuki revived the hiring of contract workers, under the label of ‘company temps’. (Raj 2016)

These workers work with some of the most advanced technology of production. Aman Sethi describes the labour process in the Manesar plant of India’s largest automobile manufacturer, Maruti Suzuki.

On most days in this industrial suburb of Delhi, a phalanx of robotic arms weld sheets of pressed steel into silvery monocoque body shells that emerge from the paint shop in shades of arctic pearl white, glistening grey, blazing red and midnight black. A conveyor belt pulls the candy-coloured shells past 369 workstations, where men armed with whirring tools install engines, doors, windshields, and wiring. On days like these, a Maruti Suzuki rolls off Assembly Line A every 50 seconds in Manesar,Haryana, and the company sells every second car in India. ...

[A] Maruti worker spends 8 hours on the assembly, and breaks twice for a 7.5 minute tea break and once for a 30 minute lunch break. Those who arrive a minute after the shift's scheduled commencement are fined half a day's salary....

When a car rolls in, the worker looks at a large matrix pasted on the vehicle that indicates if the car is a left or right hand drive, powered by petrol, diesel or compressed natural gas engines intended for the domestic, European or general export market. Depending on his work station he chooses from 32 different upholstered seats, 90 tyre and wheel assemblies, and innumerable kinds of wire-harnesses, air conditioning tubes, steering wheels, dashboard trims, gearboxes, switches, locks, and door trims, in an average time of 50 seconds per car.

For parts like air conditioning tubes, the worker stands between a set of parts racks. As a particular car variant rolls in, a light above the corresponding parts rack blinks with increasing urgency as the worker runs to it, grabs a part and pulls a cord to acknowledge he has chosen the right part. He then steps onto the conveyor belt, fits the part and rushes back to match the next car to the next blinking parts rack before an alarm rings.

If the line halts, signboards across the shop floor light up – flashing the number of the workstation where the line has stopped and the duration of the stoppage. Another board displays the total time ‘lost' during the shift; a scrolling ticker lists the production targets at a given time of the day, the actual cars produced and the variance.
“For every fault, the feedback is recorded and the worker has to sign against it… it goes into his record,” said a worker, speaking on condition of anonymity as every Maruti worker must sign ‘Standing Orders' that, among 100 other conditions, bar them from slowing down work, singing, gossiping, spreading rumours and making derogatory statements against thecompany and management. The work record is examined during yearly appraisals. (Sethi 2011)

The Annual Survey of Industries shows a rising trend of contract workers, now one-third of the workers covered by the ASI (i.e., the ‘organised’ factory sector). Contract workers accounted for almost half the increase in employment in the organised factory sector between 2000-01 and 2010-11. (Kapoor 2016) However, the real situation is likely even worse: a 2009 ground-level study of Gujarat and West Bengal found that the actual percentage of contract workers was 70-75 per cent in organised factory units in the two states, nearly three times the levels recorded by the ASI for them in the corresponding year. (Maiti 2009)

Degradation of social existence
In a different way, the degradation and dehumanisation of the worker described by Marx’s related not only to the experience of being made into an appendage of the machine, but to the entire social existence of the worker, including living conditions, family life, leisure, the scope to develop the whole range of human capacities. The vast mass of workers in India, both within organised industry and in the informal sector, do experience such degradation and dehumanisation of work and living conditions, as is reflected in different pieces in this collection.

Let us take a glaring example of degradation of the living conditions of workers: housing. A slum is defined in India by law as a residential area where dwellings are in any respect unfit for human habitation (for reasons such as dilapidation, overcrowding, lack of ventilation, light, and sanitation facilities).33 The Census has been working with the definition: “A compact area of at least 300 populations or about 60-70 households of poorly built congested tenements, in unhygienic environment usually with inadequate infrastructure and lacking in proper
sanitation and drinking water facility.” All major Indian cities have slums, where large numbers of the working population stay. In Mumbai, the richest city in India, the 2011 Census says that 42 per cent of the city’s population (5.2 million people) resides in slums; this is likely to be an underestimate. In all 57 per cent of the city’s population live in one-room dwellings; another 8 per cent of families have no exclusive room.34

A study of Census 2001 data for Mumbai slum households found that, on the average, a water tap was shared by 52 persons; one-third of households did not have electricity; and nearly all slum households had access only to community toilets, which tend to be insanitary (forcing many to defecate in the open). Out of 23 wards with slums, only 10 had completely covered sewers, while the remainder had partly or wholly open sewers. (Mundu and Bhagat 2008) A study of 1,006 households in Mumbai slums found that the incidence of malnourishment among children in these slums was higher than that in tribal villages Jawhar (a perennially famine-affected tehsil in Thane district, north of Mumbai). Because of the sheer numbers involved, this gets translated into an alarmingly large number of estimated deaths in Mumbai from malnourishment-related causes; under conservative assumptions, the figure is as high as 2,000 per year. (Hatekar and Rode 2003)

Such degrading conditions indeed impel workers to revolt to emancipate themselves. (Indeed, it is a wonder that they have not done so in a more widespread way.) In the absence of a strong and struggle-oriented working class movement, however, these conditions may spark spontaneous upsurges and revolts from place to place. Such is the situation of garment workers, described in two articles in this issue. The movement in the Maruti Suzuki plant in Gurgaon, under independent leadership, is only the most outstanding example of a series of explosive upsurges that have taken place in various automobile plants in the last seven or eight years. The movement of women tea plantation of Kerala is an outstanding example of workers facing multiple oppressions (as Dalit women workers) organising themselves independently against exploitation and subjugation. The major central trade unions have not been at the forefront of these upsurges: in the main, the workers have organised these spontaneously.

In describing the features of the proletariat under capitalism, Marx was not spelling out a static category or a definition, such as one might use to classify a thing. Class, he made clear, is a relationship (there cannot be just one class, there are either at least two classes which define themselves in relation to each other, or no class at all). This relationship develops in a historical process. And so Marx’s writings reflect the richness of that still unfolding process, with all its specificity, its contradictions, its advances and retreats. Not only did he allow for a great range of actual paths of historical development,35 but the proletarian qualities of which he talked were to be developed in the course of the concrete struggle of the working class as such.

When capitalists employ wage labourers, the two classes enter into a relation with each other, and the working class is born as “a class as against capital”, a class counterposed with capital. But Marx draws a distinction between, on the one hand, this stage and, on the other, the stage at which the workers, in the course of struggle, become united as a class, defend their class interests. This latter he terms a class for itself:

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. (Marx 1847)

Before the workers begin to struggle, inevitably they are stamped with the ideas of the ruling class, since the ruling material force of society is also the ruling intellectual force.36 They can rid themselves of the ideas of the present ruling class (and any lingering traces of their predecessors) only in the course of a practical movement:

Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is, necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew. (Marx and Engels 1846, Part I, D)

In a sense, then, the proletariat makes itself in the course of its struggle. Hence it is an error to expect that the workers, when not in class struggle, would spontaneously represent proletarian politics. Rather, they would tend to reflect the ideas of the ruling classes, to one extent or another. It is only as they struggle that the come to proletarian consciousness.  

It was Marxists who embraced Marx’s historical approach, and applied it not mechanically but creatively to the specific conditions of different countries and eras, who succeeded in leading revolutions. There is no ‘pure’ working class in India, with fully formed proletarian qualities. Yet Marx’s concept of a proletariat is not obsolete, if we grasp the historical process unfolding in the present in this country in all its complexity.

Different components integrated through a process
From the earlier description of the state of the working class of India, we can see that the qualities of the proletariat we listed at the outset of this piece may not be reflected fully or ‘purely’ in any single section of working people in India. But different features are partly reflected in different segments.

Workers in large-scale industry are one of the essential components of the working class movement. Engaged in large-scale collective labour, this segment is important not merely for its numbers (in fact it is a small proportion of the workforce); nor simply because it generates the most surplus value; but in particular for political reasons. The concentration and collective labour of industrial workers are most conducive to their forging ties with one another, their sensing their collective strength, and their acquiring a collective consciousness. Periodic industrial crises help bring home to these workers more sharply the contradiction between the social character of production and the private ownership of the means of production.

Indeed millions of such industrial workers are concentrated in industrial towns or cities, engaged in large-scale collective labour, many of them with modern machinery, much along the lines Marx described.

Much larger numbers of workers, while working in construction work, brick kilns, micro-sized units, and as agricultural wage labour, face conditions of acute degradation and oppression. No doubt many of them may also be peasants or petty proprietors; thus ‘doubly free’ workers may not constitute the immense majority of the working people. Yet vast numbers of working people are at least partly wage workers, who have practical knowledge of capital-labour relations, whatever be the nature of the capital.

In a composite way, then, these various fragments of the Indian working class can reflect the various features of the ‘proletariat’. However, whether they actually do reflect them, and whether they integrate into a composite whole, depends on the actual course of their struggle, and whether their composite features actually get integrated. For example, it depends on whether they fight for the interests of the worst paid workers, such as the contract workers.37

Similarly, it depends on whether  they fight against discrimination and oppression on the basis of caste, community and gender. Marx’s principle that “Labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin,” applies as well to all these forms of oppression, exclusion, and discrimination. As noted above, these oppressions and stratifications enable much greater exploitation of all the workers. But further, unless workers of dominant communities, castes, and gender, in the course of struggle, rid themselves of the ‘master’ mentality, they retain the illusion of a stake in the existing hierarchy. And thus they wind up “forging their own chains”, as Marx put it.

Forging ties with the peasantry
We saw earlier that in the existing set-up the workers’ agrarian ties and their semi-peasant character act as a deadweight on the workers and benefit the capitalist. But in the process of the workers’ movement these handicaps can be turned into their opposite, a strength. For these ties to the countryside can help workers empathise with, and forge bonds with, the peasantry; and it is only in alliance with the peasantry that the Indian working class can hope to defeat the ruling class. Such bonds are necessary not merely for the petty tactical aim of boosting the numerical strength of such an alliance. Rather, they are necessary basically for political reasons. Such an alliance would lend a thoroughgoing radical nature to the peasant movement, and a broader emancipatory character to the workers’ movement, without which they both would be restricted to agitations for immediate, narrow gains.

Historically, forging such ties has proved a very difficult task. And yet the penalty for failure, or for not even attempting this task, has been severe. The failure of the working class movement to grasp the central importance of the agrarian question in India, forge an alliance with the peasantry and lead their struggle meant that it could never stake an effective claim to leadership of the freedom movement under colonial rule. This gap remains even today.

The process of integrating various segments of the working class, and the process of uniting the working class and the peasantry (and other toiling sections, such as various types of petty producers/proprietors), are interdependent. In India (and countries similar to India) agrarian relations shape the thinking of not only peasants but workers as well. The agrarian sphere is the stronghold of caste oppression and retrogressive thinking in general (including patriarchal values), and of what Engels called “the old habit of submission inherited from generation to generation”. (Engels 1850, chapter I) The aborted transformation of agrarian relations in India has helped keep workers divided and their consciousness compartmentalised. And so the struggle would have to advance simultaneously in both spheres. Moreover, in countries like India, it is in the countryside that class struggle can advance most rapidly and assume its most serious forms.

The exact course such a complex and many-layered struggle will take place can hardly be laid down in advance, but it cannot take place spontaneously. As Marx and Engels asserted 170 years ago, the working class requires a vanguard, one which fights “for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.” (Marx and Engels 1848)



32. Chaudhuri 2015. Reduced protection to domestic capital goods industries made imported capital goods cheaper (in relation to wages), and capital intensity grew in almost all organised sector manufacturing firms, not only in the capital-intensive but even the labour-intensive sector. (Sen and Das 2015) (back)

33. Section 3 of the Slum Area Improvement and Clearance Act, 1956. Source: Primary Census Abstract for Slum, 2011. Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, India. (back)

34. “The Census definition of ‘Identified Slums’ is narrowed down by the condition that a slum must be a compact area of atleast 300 people or 60‐70 households. Thus, a collection of poorly built/serviced tenements that do not satisfy this condition are not counted as a slum enumeration block in the Census, resulting in possible underestimation of the slum population.” (Praja Foundation 2014) (back)

35. Thus, in Marx’s letter to Vera Zasulich in 1881, he clarifies that when he talked of the “complete separation of the producer from the means of production” being a historical inevitability, he was only referring to Europe; elsewhere, implicitly, historical development might follow other paths. (back)

36. “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.” – Marx and Engels 1846, Part I, B. (back)

37. By considering themselves champions and representatives of the whole working class, and acting accordingly, the trade unions must succeed in rallying round themselves all workers still outside their ranks. They must carefully safeguard the interests of the workers in the poorest-paid trades, as, for example, the farm labourers, who due to especially unfavourable circumstances have been deprived of their power of resistance. They must convince the whole world that their efforts are far from narrow and egoistic, but, on the contrary, are directed towards emancipation of the downtrodden masses.” – Marx 1866. (back)




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