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Michael Lebowitz: What makes the working class a revolutionary subject?

Part of a mural by Crystal Howie.

By Michael Lebowitz

[Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal urges its readers to consider taking out a subscription to Monthly Review, where this article first appeared. For more articles by or about Michael Lebowitz, click HERE.]

December 2012 -- Monthly Review -- What makes the working class a revolutionary subject? Not Hegelian mysticism — that it is the universal class or the vulgar copy of the Absolute Spirit. Nor is the working class a revolutionary subject because of its physical location — that it is strategically placed to stop the wheels of industry.

From the sublime to the crude — there can be little surprise that these explanations convince few. Of course, there are some who had better explanations as to why the working class was revolutionary but who now say that the working class’s time has come and gone. For instance, some suggest that once upon a time, capital concentrated workers, allowed them to come together and to organise and struggle; today, though, capital has decentralised workers and turns them against each other in a way that prevents them from struggling together. Once upon a time, the working class had nothing to lose but its chains but now it has been absorbed within capitalism, is a prisoner of consumerism and its articles of consumption own and consume it.

Those who conclude that the working class is not a revolutionary subject because capitalism has changed the working class reveal that they do not understand the ABCs of Marxism. The working class makes itself a revolutionary subject through its struggles — it transforms itself. That was always the position of Marx — his concept of “revolutionary practice”, which is the simultaneous changing of circumstances and self-change. The working class changes itself through its struggles. It makes itself fit to create the new world.

But why do workers struggle? Underlying all the struggles of workers is what Marx called the “worker’s own need for development”. We know that Marx understood that wage struggles in themselves were inadequate. But not to engage in them, he recognised, would leave workers “apathetic, thoughtless, more or less well fed instruments of production”. In the absence of struggle, Marx argued that the workers would be “a heartbroken, a weak minded, a worn-out, unresisting mass”. Struggles are a process of production: they produce a different kind of worker, a worker who produces herself or himself as someone whose capacity has grown, whose confidence develops, whose ability to organise and unite expands. But why should we think this is limited to wage struggles? Every struggle in which people assert themselves, every struggle in which they push for social justice, every struggle to realise their own potential and their need for self-development, builds the capacities of the actors.

And, those struggles bring us up against capital. Why? Because capital is the barrier that stands between us and our own development. And it is so because capital has captured the fruits of all civilisation, is the owner of all the products of the social brain and the social hand, and it turns our products and the products of workers before us against us — for one sole purpose, which is its own gain, profit. If we are to satisfy our needs, if we are to be able to develop our potential, we must struggle against capital and, in doing so, we working people create ourselves as revolutionary subjects.

But who are we? What is this working class that is the revolutionary subject? You will not find the answer in Das Kapital. Marx’s Capital was not about the working class — except insofar as the working class was an object. What Capital explains is the nature of capital, its goals and its dynamics. But it only tells us about the working class insofar as capital acts against the working class. And, insofar as it does not present the working class as subject, it also does not focus on the way in which capital struggles against this subject. So, we have to look elsewhere in Marx for his comments about how the capitalist class maintains its power by dividing and separating workers (specifically Irish and English workers). And, although Marx explicitly commented that “the contemporary power of capital rests” upon the creation of new needs for workers, there is no place where he explored this question.

Thus, this critical question of the nature of the contemporary working class is one for which the answers will not be found in a book. We must develop the answers ourselves. Who is not-capital today? Who is separated from the means of production and must approach capital as a supplicant in order to survive? Surely, it is not only those who sell their labour power to capital but also those unable to sell their labour power to capital — not only the exploited but the excluded. And surely, it includes those who, in the context of a massive reserve army of the unemployed, work within the sphere of circulation of capital but are compelled to bear the risks themselves — i.e., those who struggle to survive in the informal sector. They may not correspond to that stereotype of the working class as male factory worker, but that stereotype was always wrong.

Certainly, we need to begin with the recognition of the heterogeneous nature of the working class. As Marx knew, differences within the working class make it possible for capital to continue to rule. But, as Marx also knew, in the process of struggle we build unity. And, we can build that unity by recognising as our common goal the need for our own development and by recognising that “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”.

Capital has been winning the battle of ideas by convincing us that there is no alternative, and those who dismiss the working class as revolutionary subject reinforce that message. We can fight the battle of ideas, though, by stressing our right for self-development. As Marx and Engels knew, for workers “this appeal to their right is only a means of making them take shape as ‘they,’ as a revolutionary, united mass.” We have a world to win — the world we build every day.

[Michael A. Lebowitz is professor emeritus of economics at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, and the author of The Socialist Alternative, Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class (winner of the Isaac Deutscher Memorial Prize for 2004), Build It Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century, Following Marx: Method, Critique and Crisis and his latest book, The Contradictions of "Real" Socialism: the conductor and the conducted. He was director, Program in Transformative Practice and Human Development, Centro Internacional Miranda, in Caracas, Venezuela, 2006-2011.]

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