Nos. 70 & 71, April 2018

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

India's Working Class and its Prospects

I. The proletariat, as Marx saw it

Marx declared that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” To change the world requires a subject, i.e., a consciously acting agent, which would act upon the existing circumstances, as given and transmitted from the past. Marx and Engels asserted that the subjective force which would lead the revolt against capitalism was the proletariat.

It was not an obvious conclusion. Kautsky observed that the young Engels (and this of course applied equally to Marx) was unusual in that he “saw in misery not merely the misery, as did the socialists of his time, but the germ of a higher form of society which it bore in its bosom.” (Kautsky 1887) Why did Marx and Engels consider the proletariat, and in particular the most wretched and dehumanised of its ranks, the revolutionary subject?2

Why did they not place their hopes instead in an enlightened section of bourgeois intellectuals (from which they themselves hailed), since it would already be equipped with the necessary scientific knowledge to conceive of socialism? Or the class of independent artisans and skilled craft workers? Or the independent peasantry, whose uprooting and destruction in England is described so vividly, and with sympathy, in Capital, vol. I? 

Marx and Engels did not present this view of the proletariat as their proposal or personal preference, but as their analysis of the objective historical process underway. They gave an interlinked set of reasons for arriving at their view; or rather, an integrated account and its different facets:3

(i) The proletariat is the dialectical counterpart of the bourgeoisie: In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed – a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. All other classes decay and finally disappear into either of these two modern classes. Hence only the proletariat can be really revolutionary.

(ii) In the process of capitalist development, the proletariat, always increasing in numbers, becomes the immense majority of society.

(iii) But not only does the proletariat increase in numbers; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more.

(iv) In place of working as isolated small producers (peasants or artisans), who are proprietors with individual and competing interests, labourers now labour in association. They are disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. This creates the basis for their revolutionary combination.

(v) The labour of the proletariat in modern industry makes it a mere appendage of the machine. This further drives down the value of labour power. Indeed, not only the labour of the proletarians, but all the elements of their existence (their living conditions, their family life), are completely degraded, to the point of extinguishing their very humanity, compelling them to revolt against this inhumanity.

(vi) The proletarians have nothing of their own to secure and to fortify. By the very nature of capitalism, the proletariat cannot emancipate itself without abolishing private property, thereby permanently emancipating all of society from exploitation and oppression.

The first five points are observations regarding the objective processes unfolding; the last point is an application of dialectics to this entire historical process. And it concerns a special quality of the proletariat, but not one which can be empirically observed at present; it is a quality determined by its objective condition.

Although this division into separate points is somewhat artificial, it is useful to keep these different features in mind when we look at the actual historical process that unfolded since Marx wrote, and how these different features manifested themselves in one or the other country.

Striking confirmation, and yet simultaneous contrary trend
In one sense, the analysis of Marx and Engels was borne out with remarkable rapidity. In 1871 the working class of Paris carried out the world’s first proletarian revolution. Though the Paris Commune was soon crushed, it demonstrated the revolutionary political qualities and potential of the proletariat beyond doubt. Again, just 50 years after the publication of the first volume of Capital, the urban industrial workers of Russia, under the leadership of a Marxist party, seized power and established a proletarian State.

And yet, at the same time, the revolutionary urge of the working class in the most advanced societies was palpably receding. This was manifested first of all in England itself, the “classic ground” of the capitalist mode of development, and the birthplace of the first working class political party (the Chartists). From the 1790s to the 1830s England experienced a surge of working class agitation. (Thompson 1963, 191) In 1845 the 24-year-old Engels, surveying the condition of England’s working class, had declared that it was too late for a peaceful solution, and anticipated an imminent revolution.4

But in fact the retreat had already begun, and by 1858 Engels remarked that “the English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois” as England “exploits the whole world.” (Engels 1858)

Looking back in 1885 on the expectation of his youth, Engels gave a penetrating account of the changes in the English working class in the preceding  four decades. “Trades Unions, hitherto considered inventions of the devil himself, were now petted and patronised as perfectly legitimate institutions....” They formed “an aristocracy among the working-class; they have succeeded in enforcing for themselves a relatively comfortable position, and they accept it as final.... The truth is this: during the period of England’s industrial monopoly [on a world scale] the English working-class have, to a certain extent, shared in the benefits of the monopoly. These benefits were very unequally parcelled out amongst them; the privileged minority pocketed most, but even the great mass had, at least, a temporary share now and then. And that is the reason why, since the dying-out of Owenism, there has been no Socialism in England.” (Engels 1892)

Developing this insight further in the era of imperialism, Lenin pointed out in 1917 that “capitalism has now singled out a handful... of exceptionally rich and powerful states which plunder the whole world simply by ‘clipping coupons’.... Obviously, out of such enormous superprofits... it is possible to bribe the labour leaders and the upper stratum of the labour aristocracy” of the imperialist countries. (Lenin 1917, Preface to the French and German Editions) In other words, there is a direct connection between the cooling  of the revolutionary urge among workers in the metropolitan countries and the imperialist exploitation carried out worldwide by their own rulers.

Eastward shift
Marx and Engels had hoped that the bourgeois revolution of 1848 in Germany would be “but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution.” (Marx and Engels 1848) However, by 1882, they placed their hopes in Russia to be the “vanguard of revolutionary action in Europe”. This despite the fact that Russia was relatively backward, and its industrial working class was a small minority of the workforce. But at the same time, they hoped that a Russian revolution would become “the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other”. (Marx and Engels 1882)

Such a complementary development is precisely what Lenin and the Bolsheviks banked on when they seized power in 1917. They did not anticipate having to build socialism in one country. Their hope was not without basis. In the wake of the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution, there were abortive revolutions in Germany (and later Bavaria) and Hungary; and the factory councils uprising in the north of Italy. However, in a few years it became clear that the Soviet Union would have to construct socialism on its own for some time.

Over the course of the 20th century, the class structure of the imperialist countries changed, so that the industrial proletariat became, not the “immense majority”, but a shrinking minority of the workforce (as the services sector grew), and less and less revolutionary in spirit. Yet the class contradiction in capitalist society was not resolved; its sharpness was merely displaced to other sites. For the time being, the main centres of revolutionary struggle shifted to the east and south, first to China, then other countries of what came to be known as the Third World. In these countries the working class was a small minority of the population, and industrial workers were generally a minority even among Communist Party members. That is, (i) and (ii) among the six features listed above did not really hold. It was the peasantry that became the main force of these revolutions.

As a result, some schools of Marxism, quoting chapter and verse, claimed these revolutions were not proletarian, but aimed at merely re-ordering property relations, from one form of private property to another.

On the other hand, certain serious Marxist thinkers drew a very different conclusion: that the shift showed that now the great mass of the working people – agricultural and industrial – in the Third World had become “an agent of revolutionary change in precisely the sense that Marx believed the industrial proletariat of the mid-19th century to be.” (Sweezy 1967)

However, this last was not the position of the Marxist parties themselves of these Third World countries. Despite the distinct class structure of such societies, these parties of these Third World countries continued to consider the proletariat to be the leading class in their revolutions (distinguishing it from the peasantry which was the ‘main force’), and referred to themselves as ‘parties of the proletariat’.

Nor was this merely a mantra, to display formal allegiance to Marxism. Recall feature (vi) listed above, namely, the historical mission of the proletariat to abolish private property. In socialist China, a sharp struggle broke out within the Communist Party on the question of whether to consolidate the re-ordered system of private property (“new democracy”), or to proceed further in the direction of building socialism, progressively narrowing class differences. This struggle culminated, in 1966, in what was consciously called the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Thus the concept of the leading role of the proletariat, and within that, the party of the proletariat, continued to be taken seriously, not as a mantra, at least in some countries.

If we turn to India, the proletariat here may lack some of the six features listed earlier, or these may exist in a different form. Particular features may be exhibited more in one section or the other of India’s working class. Such varying specific features will have implications for the political role that can be played by India’s working class, including what obstacles it would have to overcome, and what strengths it can bank on. We will return to this question at the end of this piece.


2. It is worth recalling the words of Keynes, explaining why he was not attracted to Communism: “How can I adopt a creed which, preferring the mud to the fish, exalts the boorish proletariat above the bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia, who with all their faults, are the quality of life and surely carry the seeds of all human achievement?” Quoted in Heilbroner 1999, p. 279. (back)

3. At some places in this article, in summarising the views of Marx and Engels, we have taken phrases or sentences from their writings without a citation. We wanted to avoid cluttering the text even further with quotation marks and footnotes. If the reader finds a particularly felicitous or profound expression in this text, the credit is probably due elsewhere. (back)

4. “the war of the poor against the rich now carried on in detail and indirectly will become direct and universal. It is too late for a peaceful solution. The classes are divided more and more sharply, the spirit of resistance penetrates the workers, the bitterness intensifies, the guerrilla skirmishes become concentrated in more important battles, and soon a slight impulse will suffice to set the avalanche in motion. Then, indeed, will the war-cry resound through the land: ‘War to the mansion, peace to the cottage!’ – but then it will be too late for the rich to beware.” – Engels,1845. (back)

NEXT: II. What Capital says, and does not say

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