Communists have spent enough time fighting against the myth of 'counter-powers' in order not to fall into the same trap themselves.
intellectuals, the technicians or technocrats, the 'new working class', or even (the ultra-left or semi-anarchist variant) the 'sub-proletariat', etc. All this implies, against the whole historical experience of the labour movement, that, aside from bourgeois ideology and proletarian ideology, 'another' ideology might emerge within society 'transcending' the conflict between them. Finally, it suggests the idea that capitalist exploitation might disappear otherwise than by the tendential disappearance of wage labour and thus of every class division in society. But whoever believes that, as Lenin pointed out, will have to stop calling himself a Marxist!
I know what objection will be made here: that by presenting the antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat as absolute, unavoidable and inevitable (as long as capitalism itself exists and develops), I deny the reality of history by presenting this antagonism as immutable. But do the 'facts' not show that the present-day bourgeoisie is quite different from its predecessors, that the present-day working class is quite different in structure and social status from the working class which Marx wrote about (or the one which we think he wrote about)? Am I, out of love for the concept itself, refusing to accept the consequences of these 'facts'? The problem about this objection, which actually means that it immediately destroys its own value, is that it is based on a complete misunderstanding of Marxist theory, and of its dialectical character. Marx's theory is not founded on the definition of some kind of 'pure' proletariat (standing against a 'pure' bourgeoisie): there is no 'pure' proletariat, there is no 'pure' revolution and there is no 'pure' communism. This theory does not depend on a picture of social classes with the fixed characteristics of a given epoch (the nineteenth century, or the beginning of the twentieth century, etc.). And for the excellent reason that the object of Marxist theory is not to paint such a picture, as a sociologist might do, but to analyse the antagonism itself, to discover the tendential laws of its evolution, of its historical transformation, and thus to explain the necessity of these transformations in the structure of social classes, ceaselessly imposed by the development of capital. Remember Marx, in the Communist Manifesto : unlike all previous modes of production, he says, capitalism is itself 'revolutionary'; it is constantly overturning social relations, including those which it has itself created.
It should now be possible to see why it is wrong to confuse the
absolute character of the antagonism between classes (which is the root of the whole question) with the idea of the immutability of social classes, an idea which can then be triumphantly 'disproved by the facts': this confusion actually amounts to a denial of the antagonism between the classes, to its progressive attenuation, and consequently to the conjuring away of the need for a revolutionary break with capitalism. Just as, in other circumstances, the transformation of the knowledge produced by the natural sciences allowed idealist philosophy to proclaim that 'matter has disappeared', we are here faced with a situation in which it is being ever more openly explained that classes are disappearing: no more 'bourgeoisie', in the strict sense, no more 'proletariat', in the strict sense. Power lies, so we are told, not with the bourgeoisie as a class, but in the hands of a few families, or rather of twenty-five or thirty individuals, the Company Presidents of the great groups of monopolies; that is, it lies nowhere, or rather in a simple, abstract politico-economic system which owes the persistence of its influence over men, over the people, only to the backwardness of their political consciousness! The antithesis to the capitalist system is no longer the proletariat, but everyone, or almost every one: for almost everyone, in one sense or another, is part of the working people! The proletariat is now interpreted simply as one category of working people among others.
The facts (since they have been mentioned) are quite different. They show that, with the development of capitalism, and especially of present-day imperialism, the antagonism is actually getting deeper and progressively extending itself to all regions of the world, leaving an ever narrower margin of manoeuvre to the social classes left over from the past in their attempts to provide themselves with an independent economic and political position. The centralization of the State power of the bourgeoisie and its dependence in relation to the proletariat on the process of accumulation of capital are increasing. The transformation of more and more working people into proletarians, even if it sometimes runs up against historical obstacles which slow it down, is inexorably running its course.
Of course, the history of capitalism does demonstrate a ceaseless
It is easy to appreciate the serious and solid nature of a theory which, having removed all those attributes of the working class which make it a potential ruling class, continues to talk about it as a ruling class.
evolution of the real relation in which the different fractions of the bourgeoisie stand to the State power of their class. There is an evolution with respect to the recruitment of the personnel which, through the State apparatus, guarantees this power in practice. There is -- which is far more important -- an evolution with respect to the manner in which the policies practised by the State favour the interests of this or that fraction of the bourgeoisie. But this absolutely does not mean that State power ceases to be the State power of the whole bourgeoisie, as a class, becoming in some sense the private property of a particular fraction of the bourgeoisie. This would in fact be a contradiction in terms and would inevitably lead in practice to the collapse of State power (which may happen in a revolutionary situation, provided that the proletariat and its allies know how to exploit it). State power is necessarily 'monopolized' by those who historically hold it, but it can only be monopolized by a social class.
In fact, in each epoch of the history of capitalism, there is always a profound political inequality between the fractions of the ruling class, even when this is expressed in compromises and unstable working arrangements. There is always a fraction which must, in order to maintain the State power of the ruling class, play in practice a role, a 'vanguard role', turning the State apparatus to its own profit, a fraction whose hegemony is the condition of the domination of the ruling class as a whole. The reason -- and this brings us to the essential point -- is that State power has no historical autonomy : it does not constitute its own source. It results in the last analysis from class rule in the field of material production, from the appropriation of the means of production and of exploitation. That is why, in the imperialist epoch, monopoly capital is dominant in the State, and transforms the instruments of the State's 'economic policy' in order to reinforce this dominant position. But it remains dominant just because, by force and material constraint, it asserts itself as the representative of the class interests of the whole bourgeoisie.
A very important consequence with respect to the proletarian revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat is that the bourgeoisie as a class is not a homogeneous whole; it is criss-crossed -- today more than ever -- by a multitude of contradictory interests, certain of them very deep-rooted, which set the big monopoly bourgeoisie against the middle capitalist bourgeoisie
and the productive or intellectual petty-bourgeoisie of proprietors or salaried employees. It is just the fact that the bourgeoisie holds State power which enables it to overcome these contradictions, obliging the middle and petty-bourgeoisie to accept the hegemony of great finance and industrial capital. As long as the bourgeoisie as a class holds State power, it is very difficult or even impossible to produce lasting divisions within the bourgeoisie, definitively to isolate the big bourgeoisie and to weld together the petty bourgeoisie and proletariat into a revolutionary unity. In any case, it is obviously not sufficient for this purpose to change the government, without touching the structure of the State: historical experience shows that every government, whether it likes it or not, is always subject to the relation of class forces; it does not stand above the State apparatus of which it is a part, but in a subordinate relation to that apparatus. 'The apparatus of State power', as Lenin sometimes put it, is not external to the unity of struggle of the ruling class, and this is all the more true the more centralized and authoritarian its character. Though apparently, in everyone's clear view, standing at the 'summit' of the State hierarchy, a government depends for its power on this apparatus; it is powerless against it, its 'authority' is empty. The fact that the government is taken over by representatives of the working people may constitute an important moment in the political struggle, but it does not mean that the proletariat together with the rest of the exploited people holds power. Those Frenchmen who have lived through the Popular Front government of 1936 and the Liberation will in this connexion recall not only the victories of these periods but also what we must accept (in order to draw the objective lessons) as a fact: that they were, for the time being, defeated, for they were unable to move forward from a popular government acting in favour of the working people, and in support of its demands, to the revolutionary seizure of State power. And if we look for a moment at the history of other countries, the examples of Chile with its Popular Unity alliance and Portugal with its Armed Forces Movement are more recent reminders, among others, of the existence of this critical threshold, below which all the victories won by the masses in struggle, however many and however heroic these victories may be, can always be reversed, and worse. But this is also the lesson of the Russian Revolution.
* * *
We can now return to the question of the proletariat. If the class structure of the bourgeoisie is historically transformed as capital is accumulated and concentrated and extends its field of domination to the whole of society, the proletariat does not stand outside of this process, unchanged. It is all the time becoming, tendentially, the social class whose original core was created by the development of manufacture and the first industrial revolutions. In fact the historical tendency to the dictatorship of the proletariat could never have become a reality without this historical transformation of the proletariat. Marx realized this at the moment when the practical experience of the revolutions of 1848-50 produced at one and the same time both the problem of proletarian power and the scientific theory capable of providing the concept with which to formulate this problem: 'We tell the workers: if you want to change conditions and make yourselves capable of government, you will have to undergo fifteen, twenty or fifty years of civil war' (Marx, to the Central Committee of the Communist League, September 1850). As soon as you pose the problem of the dictatorship of the proletariat, you have to provide a historical (and dialectical) definition of the proletariat.
To define classes, and in particular the proletariat, in a historical manner is not to come up with a sociological definition, a structure within which individuals are classified -- even one in which 'economic', 'political' and 'ideological' criteria are added together -- and then to apply this definition to successive 'historical data'. It is something quite different: it is to study the process of their tendential constitution as classes, and its relation to the historical struggle for State power. 'Every class struggle is a political struggle', wrote Marx in the Communist Manifesto -- which does not mean that it is expressed only in the language of politics, but that the formation of the antagonistic classes is the effect of the struggle itself, in which the question of who holds power is from the beginning already posed as the main stake. You cannot study the 'polarization' of society into two antagonistic classes separately from the historical struggle for-State power.
The proletariat is not a homogeneous, unchanging group which bears its name and its fate clearly inscribed once and for all, for all
Marx, The Revolutions of 1848 (Political Writings, vol. 1, Penguin ed., p. 341).
to see. It is the historical result of the permanent process by which it is constituted, which is the other side of the process of accumulation of capital. An uneven, contradictory process, but one which is in the last resort irreversible.
Is there any need to remind ourselves of the material foundations of this historical process, in its continuity? It is the development of wage labour in the sphere of production, at the cost of individual and family production. It is the concentration of the workers in the great enterprises under the impact of the concentration of capital: and therefore the subordination of labour power to the 'machine system' in which the relations of exploitation, now irreversible for each individual, take on material form. It is therefore the formation of the 'collective labourer' of great capitalist industry, whose productivity is ceaselessly growing to the rhythm of the technological revolutions, while these become themselves so many means of pumping out his labour power; thus the expanded accumulation of capital is guaranteed. It is also the tendential extension of the industrial forms of the exploitation of labour power to other sectors of social labour, whether 'productive' -- in order directly to increase surplus value (agriculture, transport) -- or 'unproductive' -- in order to reduce to a minimum the inevitable 'invisible costs' of capitalist production (trade, banking, public and private administration, but also education, health care, etc.). And therefore, at the social level, it is the reduction of the individual consumption of the workers to the simple reproduction of labour power, in given historical and national conditions -- not excluding the form of 'mass consumption', i.e., of forced consumption, in which the needs of the reproduction of capital determine not only the quantity but the 'quality' of the means of consumption necessary to the reproduction of labour power. Finally, it is the constitution of the industrial reserve army, developed and maintained by the relative overpopulation provided to capital by periodic unemployment, the ruin of the small producers and colonialism and neo-colonialism.
These elements do not all work together evenly, although they are linked within a single mechanism, historical effects of a single production relation. Do they seem to have become weaker, less important in the imperialist epoch in which we are living? Are we not rather experiencing an enormous leap forward in the continuing process of the constitution of the proletariat, a process each of
whose new high points is marked by a 'crisis' and 'restructuring' of capital? And in particular, in a country like France, whose position in the group of imperialist powers, with its colonial preserves, allowed it for a long time to retard and limit this process, and therefore to maintain a petty-bourgeoisie which, though large and economically 'inefficient' is politically indispensable to capital, are we not faced with a breakdown in the traditional system of balances and with a brutal acceleration of the transfer of these groups into the proletariat?
Nevertheless, this process does not automatically lead to the constitution of the proletariat as an independent class, or rather it only leads to such a thing through the interplay of contradictions intrinsic to its tendential law. That is just why it is not possible to present the proletariat simply as the 'core' of the constellation of working people, as something unaffected by these contradictions. The exploitation of wage labour rests on the competition between working people, without which there would be no wage-earning class; this explains the essential role played by the industrial reserve army in the capitalist mode of production. This competition takes new forms in every epoch, which depend on the class struggle fought by the capitalist class (concentration, industrial revolutions, skilled workers thrown on the shelf), but also on that of the workers themselves (as soon as they combine against capital in order to defend their conditions of work and life). Imperialism aggravates this competition. In the sphere of production itself, the new technological revolutions and the 'scientific' organization of labour made possible by monopolistic concentration completely transform the system of qualifications, and finally deepen the division between manual and intellectual labour. At the same time employees and technicians are pulled back into the ranks of the proletariat, while we also see the formation of new 'labour aristocracies' These divisions are complicated and exacerbated by the manner in which capital now exploits a world market in labour power, whether by exporting whole industries to 'underdeveloped countries' or by importing whole industrial armies of 'immigrant' workers, isolated and super-exploited. To talk about the proletariat is also to take into account the divisions induced by capitalism among the working people, especially within the working class.
But it is also to take into consideration the struggle of this people
against such divisions, an economic and a political struggle: a struggle which, as an economic struggle, is already as such a decisive political phenomenon on the scale of the entire history of capitalism, because its primary objective and principal result is to transcend these internal divisions, to unite the exploited masses against capital, in short precisely to create a class antagonistic to the bourgeoisie. The existence of organizations of the working class, trade unions and political organizations, and their transition from the corporate to the class point of view, from sects to mass organizations, from reformism to revolutionary positions -- these are not things which come to pass after the proletariat has already been formed: on the contrary, they are themselves moments in its constitution as a class with direct influence on the conditions of exploitation and the reduction of the population to the ranks of the proletariat. The bourgeoisie has to take account of these factors, and find new means of struggle, more efficient than those used against individuals, even against a large number or indeed a 'majority' of individuals.
So you see: to define the proletariat in accordance with its complete historical concept leads straight to a double conclusion which is of direct importance to us.
First : the development of the State power of the bourgeoisie, the reinforcement of its material means of intervention and the increased use of such intervention is in no way the consequence of simple technical and economic requirements, nor of the inevitable evolution of political power in general, but a direct function of the historical constitution of the proletariat as a class. The State of the imperialist epoch is not only the product of the class antagonism built into the capitalist production relation right from the beginning: it is the State of the epoch of revolutions and counter-revolutions ; it is expressly organized as the State of pre-emptive counter-revolution.
Second : the process of constitution of the proletariat as a class is, for the fundamental reason indicated above, an unfinished process, counteracted by the very capitalism which sets it in motion. This process precisely cannot be brought to a conclusion without the proletarian revolution : the proletariat can only finally complete its constitution as a class in so far as it succeeds in constituting itself as the ruling class, through the dictatorship of the proletariat. But this suggests that the dictatorship of the proletariat must itself be a
contradictory situation, in a new sense: a situation in which the proletariat can finally succeed in overcoming its divisions and form itself into a class, yet in which at the same time it begins to cease to be a class to the extent that it ceases to suffer exploitation. Thus we can understand why, as we are now seeing, the arguments about the dictatorship of the proletariat immediately involve arguments about the proletariat itself, and why the abandonment of the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat immediately causes the concept of the proletariat itself to 'disappear'. The circle is closed: the working people, if they do not constitute a proletariat, cannot hold State power as a class; they simply need the State to provide for their needs. It is a nice dream, but it is unfortunately only a dream.