Part of the removal of doubt in my life involves clarifying why those doubts emerge in theories in which I am seen as a subscriber. In the last year, I have been amazed at the word games many socialists have used to avoid the hard work of actually clarifying their research project. The problem, it seems to me, mostly consists of terminology that has degenerated as the history that the jargon assumed has not played out the way that it was predicted. This gap means that the even harder task of working to build the movements and organizational party to dealt with these political realities–realities that were not completely imagined 100 years ago.
Let me point out a few things:
- The number of word games that Marxists I know use to hide that most fundamental prediction of theory–the politicization of proletariat as the revolutionary subject of history–has not yet happened is pretty good ammo for enemies of socialism. The left-communist critique is often infantile, but they are not wrong that “actually existing socialism” came about mostly through class collaborations in areas where the proletariat was not the majority of the population nor the majority of cadres in the communist movement.
- Every single Trotskyist stage theory of revolution has an idealist typology behind it, and every single explanation the different groups had for the “revolutionary spirit” returning to the Soviet Union, regardless of their theories about how the Soviet Union did not live up to being a truely revolutionary proletariat state–be it Cliff’s state capitalism, Grant’s version of the “deformed worker’s state,” or the theories of Bonapartism–were, frankly, disproven by the way 1991 went down. No trotskyist group predicted the kind of disillusion the Soviet Union actually had–although the Orthodox Trotskyists did seem come closest. The fact that these groups still exist despite this failure is an indication of a morbidity of thought and inertia in micro-institutions.
- Theories of labor aristocracy as an explanation for this generally ignore that peek of Maoist victories were also in places where the proletariat was not the dominant class, and, while labor aristocracies clearly exist, the idea that somehow the national bourgeoisie has conspired to over-pay a nation’s worth of workers is a conspiracy theory that has less of a chance of being true, or even consciously considered, than some of the more grandiose conspiracy theories of the past. So they aren’t answers to the “why hasn’t proletariat actually done why it was classically predicted to do” either.
Furthermore, we have to deal with the class nature of the people making these claims:
- While there is actual “working class” membership in Marxist organizations, most of them are not in the main full of people out of their 20s and in the “working class” full time. The largest groups consist mainly of students or in organizations like the DSA which do not have significant costs to entry and frankly do not require large commitments of time. This increase is explicitly not true for most Marxists “parties” which require more commitment but do not have the numbers to make such commitment effective beyond a small business model.
- The organizations I have known that are not highly historically like the IWW, which have large working-class membership are not Marxist. The most successful organizations either provide lots of mutual aid services and are slow but steady growth (but still require LARGE commitments of time), or have low cost and low commitment like the D.S.A., but are basically little more than local orgs with a national lobbying branch. Most of the other orgs with high proletariat membership don’t last, the membership does not have the skills or the time to maintain such an organization.
- The other successful organizations that are large consist mostly of students, often have funds from University student organizations, or run or collaborate with academic presses. The produce scholarly or semi-scholarly work. They also help to provide a niche section of semi-academic political writers exposure in party organs or editorial panels for socialist magazines. The student mass of the organization has lots more leisure time than the average worker to invest in the organization.
- That so many of who talk this about the proletariat are graduate students even when they are attacking academics has NEVER been lost on me.
This does not say the hypothesis of the politicization of the proletariat is wrong. Indeed, when Marx and Engels were writing, the proletariat, even though it was a smaller proportion of the population than now, was more politicized. It led to Engels and Kautsky both predicting significant socialist wins in the democratic polities because the size and politicization of the working class were growing, and they felt certain the socialists would have the vote. Answering what happened in an honest manner that deals with the Soviet Union, with some of the Maoist legitimate points about labor aristocracy, with the real conflicts of interest within the working class itself, becomes necessary.
I also don’t have good answers for these questions nor do I think even if we did, we would have all answers to all political questions. The questions of national tensions are not solved solely by economic questions nor is the tension between a universal political project and particularist identities which class solitary ameliorates but does not completely end.
We cannot construct new nebulous categories to get out this, such notions that are hidden in neologism like ‘precariat,’ ‘salaried bourgeoisie,’ and ‘the multitude’ or even classics like ‘the popular front’ and the “mass line’ do not get really get around the failure. Nor do ideas that somehow “class consciousness” or “false consciousness” explains conflicts in short interests between working-class groups pass muster.
We have to be honest with ourselves most of all.