Monday, January 01, 2007


Extra note: more on "why the working class"

Some people on the would-be revolutionary left - notably those connected in some degree with the SWP-UK - often argue that the central reason for socialists to turn the working class is that the workers are the people who have the power to change society. Nothing can be produced without workers; if the workers stop work, everything stops.
Nothing resembling this argument can be found in Marx's writings. The argument became well-known in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a lot of students were radicalised, and there was an argument among them between those who wanted to stay within the student milieu and those who wanted to go out to the factories and offices and working-class communities.
Yes, said the go-out faction, activity in the working class can be arduous and slow to yield results. But it is worthwhile because the workers have more social power than students.
As far as it went, the argument was right, I think. But it did not go very far. To cite it as the central argument for an orientation to the working class is wrong. In Hal Draper's summary on "Why the working class?", used as a basic educational text by Workers' Liberty, the "workers-have-power" argument appears as only no.5 of five reasons adduced, and that seems about right to me.
The "workers-have-power" argument begs at least three questions:
1. Obviously workers have, and use, power to win better wages and social conditions, and to make some limited social reforms. But what reason is there to think that they - as a class - will want to use that power for revolutionary socialist measures, which are a very different matter?
2. Even if the workers want to use that power for revolutionary socialist measures, can they? Socialist revolution cannot be made just by stopping production.
3. What reason is there to suppose that the workers will be able to reconstruct society after they have used their power to destroy the capitalists (even assuming that the first two questions are somehow answered, i.e. that we can see why the workers should want to be able to do that, and how the power referred to should be sufficient for not only partial improvements but also revolution)?
The "workers-have-power" argument, if used as the central or first argument for turning to the working class, also has harmful political implications. It suggests a scenario in which socialists ("the brain") look round for muscle to help them, and decided that the workers are the most plausible foot-soldiers - a scenario contrary to the basic Marxist idea that:
The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of masses lacking consciousness is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must also be in on it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are fighting for, body and soul. (Engels, Introduction to The Class Struggles In France).
As to the connection between the use of this defective argument by the currents linked to the SWP-UK, and the politics and political methods of those currents, that is another discussion.
Hal Draper, in another text, spelled out clearly what is wrong with seeing the case for orientation to the working class as residing in the fact that it constitutes a powerful "army".
Different socialist or revolutionary sects have oriented themselves... to the intellectuals and intelligentsia, and still others to the working class. They oriented themselves in these directions because they believed that these were green fields for recruitment. Now, that is one way of looking at social sections. It is not the movement of a class itself which will re-make society – it is your 'army.' And for the purpose of recruiting your army, you orient yourself to different sectors of society.
There is a difference between such orientations. For example, the first socialist to decide to adopt the working-class orientation was Saint-Simon. He was very clear in his mind – he was addressing himself to the working class, saying: 'My ideas are right, you adopt them and then convince your boss to do what he should do in order to carry out the ideas of Saint-Simonism.'
Lassalle very consciously oriented himself to the working class because he believed the liberal bourgeoisie was hopeless. He oriented to the working class to recruit the Lassallean army...
Now, that whole approach is completely alien to Marxism. For Marx and for Marx alone the significance of working class socialism was not simply that you orient to this class because you can get the most out of them, but that it is this class which, when it gets into motion, shakes the foundations of capitalist society. This is a statement about the working class which has no equivalent for these other orientations.

Marx himself put the case for seeing the working class as central to socialism in two ways. The first is negative - the working class as the totally-oppressed absolute negation of existing society - as expressed in Marx's 1844 Introduction to a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right. The other is positive - the working class as a class with great skills and propensities generated by its inevitable struggles within capitalist society.
The second argument begins with Marx's discussion of trade-union struggles in The Poverty of Philosophy, but is expressed most vividly, perhaps, in the Grundrisse.
The second argument was much developed by the Marxists of the Second International. By some of them, to be sure, to a degree which reduced the socialist aim to a mere culmination of the economic and cultural progress which they saw the workers as making, bit by bit, within capitalism. Rosa Luxemburg referred scornfully to the "socialist" professors [who] acclaim the wearing of neckties, the use of visiting cards, and the riding of bicycles by proletarians as notable instances of participation in cultural progress".
But the reverse tendency - to fade out the second argument, and place almost all emphasis on the first argument - can be as grievous; and has been more grievous in the history of the Marxist movement over most of the last century.
After World War One, facing a capitalist system wallowing in crisis, the Communist International understandably and reasonably put its main emphasis on the way in which the sharper oppression of those crises could and would stir the working class to revolution. It took it for granted that in the main capitalist countries it was talking about a working class that had already been organised and educated by modern industry and by decades of labour-movement activity.
Then the Communist International succumbed to the leadership of Stalinists who saw the working class precisely as foot-soldiers, as a powerful lobby to be deployed to secure partial measures desired by its preordained leaders. The Trotskyist movement, beleaguered and after 1929 facing an even more drastically crisis-wracked capitalism, more or less inevitably put its emphasis on the hope that the whip of crises would spur an ever-more-oppressed working class into revolutionary explosion.
Grievously, Marxists in the long epoch of capitalist expansion that started in the late 1940s or early 1950s have remained stuck in the mindsets of the Trotskyists, or even sometimes of the Stalinists, of the 1930s.

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