Duncan Hallas

Is the class contracting?

(November 1982)

From Socialist Review, No.48 (1982:10), pp.25-27.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Both The Guardian and Marxism Today have recently carried an article by the well-known CP historian Eric Hobsbawm, arguing that to see the working class as the agency of socialism is no longer ‘plausible’. Duncan Hallas examines his arguments.

‘We may begin with the obvious fact that world capitalism is in its deepest crisis since the 1930s... Whatever the short or long term future of capitalism, the age of economic miracles of the 1950s and 1960s is past. Mass unemployment is here again on a scale unimagined for more than a generation.

‘Meanwhile hard times are returning to the peoples of countries which had forgotten about them, and harder times to those which never had a chance to. Economically the international monetary and credit system is walking along the precipice of a major collapse.

‘Ought we not therefore to expect a major shift towards the Left, and especially towards the Socialists, whose claim that capitalism cannot manage its contradictions, now sounds much more convincing than it has done for along time? ... But there has been no major shift.’

Thus Eric Hobsbawm in Marxism Today. The only ‘evident advances’ of the left in Europe in the recent period are those of the ‘peace and ecology movements’ which ‘do not reflect, except very indirectly indeed, any mass response to the economic failures and social problems of capitalism in its time of crisis.’

It is, at first sight, rather surprising given his general political position, that Hobsbawm does not claim the electoral victories of Mitterrand and Papanadreou as ‘left advances’. Indeed his attitude towards them is cool to the point of realism! However, this is no quirk or aberration. It is necessary to his central thesis – the passing of the working class as the agency for the socialist reconstruction of society.

Hobsbawm is a skilful writer. His case cannot be better put than in his own words, and since it is important to confront the argument in its strongest form, I quote the core of it in full.

‘This disappointing situation of the Left in the midst of a great opportunity must be seen against the background of difficulties which have developed over a much longer period. The core of the Left, since the decline of nineteenth century Liberalism, consisted, and still largely consists of the working class parties and labour movements which developed on a massive scale in most of Europe before the First World War, splitting into Social Democratic and Communist parties after the October Revolution.

‘They grew up essentially as proletarian parties, a tendency intentified in the Communist Parties after 1917. That is to say, while also attracting – and seeking to attract – support from other strata and groups (for instance intellectuals), they were primarily based on manual wage earners, heavily preoccupied with the specific demands of this class, and they expected to achieve their triumph over capitalism essentially through the action of the working class.

‘They saw this class as inevitably growing in numbers and socialist class consciousness, as inevitably destined by history to rise and triumph, carrying with it the rest of the people, except for a steadily diminishing number of capitalist exploiters.

‘And, in fact, such parties grew and became mass forces, and attracted support from non-workers, inasmuch as they were seen as representing all that was progressive, and no other major parties existed around whom the alliance of workers and other progressive forces could rally. To this extent their historical confidence did not seem misplaced.

‘This is no longer such a plausible prospect. The late Rab Butler records in his memoirs that Aneurin Bevan told him in the 1930s “You represent a declining class: I represent a rising class”. It is not easy to imagine many young working class militants expressing such opinions with genuine conviction today.

Class of 1939

‘The manual working class, core of traditional socialist labour parties, is today contracting and not expanding. It has been transformed, and to some extent divided by the decades when its standard of living reached levels undreamed of even by the well-paid in 1939.

‘It can no longer be assumed that all workers are on the way to recognising that their class situation must align them behind a socialist workers’ party, though there are still many millions who believe this. In Britain today a large sector of the “affluent” or skilled workers, once the strongest supporters of Labour, are today politically unstable, as public opinion polls and electoral analyses demonstrate.’

There are two propositions here: there is the thesis of the inevitable growth of the working class in numbers and consequently in socialist class consciousness (‘inevitably destined by history’ etc) which a conveniently vague ‘they’ and by implication the rest of us are supposed to have depended upon, and there is the proposition that ‘the manual working class is today contracting.’

Now these are quite distinct questions. The thesis of ‘inevitable’, ‘inexorable’ proletarian advance as a function of the growth of capitalism itself is. of course, a species of economic reductionism. of what Trotsky called in 1922 ‘the mechanical, fatalistic and non-Marxist conception of revolutionary development.’

There were indeed people who held to it in the past. They were, most importantly, the leaders of those Social-Democratic Parties which still claimed to be marxists at that time and their theoreticians; most conspicuous of whom was – Karl Kautsky!

For what Hobsbawm presents here is pure, undiluted Kautskyism. It is ironic, after all it has done to publicise Gramsci and to promote a cult of (castrated) Gramscianism, that the right wing of the British CP, in the person of its most able publicist, should now descend to naked economic reductionism.

All social theories serve a purpose. They are functional, irrespective of their scientific content. What was the function of Kautskyism, of Second International marxism? It was to conceal a reformist political practice behind a screen of marxist phrases, to promote political passivity, to postpone the struggle for power to the indefinite future, and, in practice, to support the status quo.

Lenin described it thus:

‘By means of patent sophistry, Marxism is stripped of its living revolutionary spirit; everything is recognised in Marxism, except the revolutionary methods of struggle, the propaganda and preparation of those methods and the education of the masses in this direction.’

There was, and is, another tradition; Hobsbawm’s ‘they’ are not ‘us’. That other tradition emphasises politics, the formation (or decline) of class consciousness as the product of struggles (or the lack of them). the heterogenity of the working class and the indispensability of the revolutionary party in the formation of socialist class consciousness.

It is the tradition of Bolshevism, the Communist International (including the British CP) before it succumbed to Stalinism, of Trotskyism at its best. It is not a voluntaristic tradition but it rejects entirely the simple-minded economic determinism of Kautsky-Hobsbawm. It recognises that there is no mechanical connection between movements in the economy and the class struggle but rather a complex dialectical interdependence which is always changing. But for that very reason Hobsbawm’s second proposition, the decline of the working class, must be carefully and objectively considered.

Smaller, weaker

To say that the industrial working class is shrinking, is, for Britain, a statement of fact. Thus, before the impact of the present slump, the percentage of the workforce employed in industry (manual and non-manual alike) fell from 47.5 in 1961 to 42.3 in 1974 to 39.7 in 1978. Since then the slump has caused a further sharp contraction in industrial employment.

Leave that aside for the moment and look at the pre-slump trend. Between 1961 and 1978 the proportion of the workforce in industry fell by 7.8 per cent, but the total workforce grew from 24,436,000 in 1960 to 25,487,000 in 1977. This still represents an abolute fall in the industrial workforce, but combined with a small growth in the total of workers.

At any rate, the pre-slump trend is an international one, although there are important exceptions to it. Thus, the EEC countries as a whole ‘lost 2.5 million jobs in industry and gained 3 million in services’ between 1974 and 1978 (N. Harris De-industrialisation, IS Journal 2:7). The same source gives data from the United States showing a relative decline but absolute increase in industrial jobs between 1961 (22 million, 32.5%) and 1973 (26.7 million, 31.6%) followed by both absolute and relative decline. In Japan, on the other hand, the industrial workforce increased both relatively and absolutely throughout the period to 1978.

The same is true of the Asian boom economies, which Harris regards as ‘offshore extensions of Japan, and to a lesser extent, the United States.’ In South Korea the industrial workforce grew from 8.7% of the total in 1963 to 22.8% in 1976. in Taiwan from 9.3% in 1952 to 38.0% in 1977. Similarly there was uneven but considerable growth of the industrial working class in some important Latin American countries and some East European ones (notably) between 1961 and 1978.

To summarise; the fifties and sixties saw a massive growth in the industrial workforce on the world scale and. at the same time, escalating productivity of labour in industry. In the seventies the latter trend began to prevail over the former, but the overall level of economic activity was still high enough to increase the total number of jobs, while the percentage of industrial workers tended to decline in the older industrialised areas.

The absolute numbers of both industrial workers proper and of all workers on the eve of the present world slump was. however, massive – far, far, bigger than in the thirties. Even in Britain, with one of the worst records of economic growth, the workforce grew from nineteen and three-quarters million in 1939 to twenty-five and a half million in 1977. If we can regard the workforce as a whole as largely proletarian, then, far from a decline the whole period from the end of the Second World War until the present slump saw an explosive growth of the working class worldwide.

But can we so regard it? There are respectable precedents for the view that the only ‘real’ proletarians are manual workers in industry. For example. Lenin:

‘The Proletariat is the class which is engaged in the production of material values in large-scale capitalist industry.’

This is from a speech on the New Economic Policy in 1921, and it continues:

‘Since large-scale capitalist industry has been destroyed, since the factories are at a standstill, the proletariat has disappeared. It has sometimes figured in statistics, but it has not been held together economically.’

The emphasis was entirely justified in the given context – the ruin of industry in an overwhelmingly petty-bourgeois (peasant) country, but it is excessively restrictive, in deed misleading, in a developed economy. It would, for example, exclude from the proletariat such groups as dockers and railwaymen, amongst many others.

Marx’s definition of the proletariat was that class which lacks ownership of the means of production and is dependent on the sale of its labour power (to those who control the means of production) for wages in order to live. In Marx’s own time the factory worker was indeed the typical proletarian (although there were important groups of non-factory proletarians, some of declining importance, some destined to grow in numbers).

Any definition is an approximation, compressing of complicated and untidy reality into a conceptual box. and therefore to be used with caution. That said, Marx’s definition remains the best guide. The great mass of ‘service’ workers clearly fall within it. Equally, the upper echelons of the administrative hierarchies (public and ‘private’, civil service and ICI) must be excluded -whether or not they have means independent of the sale of their labour power – because their social function is that of agents of capital, controllers of the workforce.


But where is the line to be drawn? It cannot be drawn in terms of formal definition. That is largely a scholastic exercise. It is drawn in terms of struggle and so is continually shifting. Are the mass of hospital workers proletarians? Yes in terms of the broad definition, certainly not in terms of the narrow one. Are they capable acquiring class consciousness in struggle? Yes, in principle; sometimes yes in practice, sometimes not.

However, this is also true of ‘narrow definition’ proletarians. Hobsbawm tells us ‘a large sector of the “affluent” or skilled workers, once the strongest supporters of Labour, are today politically unstable.’ Is that because they have ceased to be proletarians?

Actually the reason is in large part connected with politics, with the recent experience of Labour government, with the repulsive face of Stalinism in Poland shown on TV screens.

To a limited extent Hobsbawm admits this:

‘For. unlike the 1930s, the Left today can neither point to an alternative society immune to the crisis (as the USSR seemed to be) nor to any concrete policies which hold much promise for overcoming it in the short-term (as Keynesian or similar policies seemed to promise then).’

Thirties myth

Yet he twists the truth. The myth of the thirties is especially pernicious. It was a time ‘of catastrophic defeat for the workers, especially in Europe, thanks to the politics of the Stalinist and Social-Democratic parties. Even in Britain, which escaped the worst of both the slump and fascism the Tories won easily both general elections held in the decade – with bigger majorities than Thatcher’s – and the unions were vastly weaker even than today. There were no national strikes.

The myth of the ‘golden past’ is conjured up to ‘prove’ that the present situation is hopeless – unless we adopt policies which turn out. on examination, to be even more bankrupt and right-wing than those that led to disaster in the 1930s. The method, as well as the history, is false to the core.

None of what has been said here is meant to downplay the importance of the industrial working class. It remains the heart of the working class, although a minority of the whole class. Changing techniques of production and a decline in recent years of the average size of units of production (in terms of workers employed) do present problems for revolutionary socialists. They make the development of the party, as the unifying factor amongst advanced workers, more not less important and they impose the need to learn how best to struggle in changing circumstances.

The impact of the slump has been to shift the balance of class forces in favour of the capitalist class – for the time being. That is what we mean by the downturn. Although in Britain the downturn preceded the slump by several years, it has been greatly intensified by the slump.

This is an entirely different matter from the longer term trends we have been discussing. The onset of mass unemployment over the last three years is not explainable in terms of long term trends in technology and the changing structure of the workforce but by the slump in the world economy (and in part, very much the smaller part, by British government policy).

Previous experience indicates that, after a shorter or longer period, the downturn in the class struggle created by, or intensified by, a slump, gives way to sharp struggles. These are commonly associated with the first signs of economic upturn, even if slight, in which the accumulated bitterness bursts forth. What happens next depends on many things, but first of all on the political forces inside the working class movement. The reformists, the labour bureaucracies and their friends will try to damp down the struggles. or, if that is too difficult, to put themselves at the head of them in order to abort them.

Hard intervention

Whether they succeed or not depends on both the scale and bitterness of the struggle and on the ability of revolutionaries to intervene effectively. That, in turn, depends on how successfully the revolutionary party has been developed in the previous period i.e. now.

There is of course a rich literature on this subject, starting with discussions at the Third and Fourth Congresses of the Communist International, through to the experiences of the French, Polish and American mass strikes of the late thirties, the rise of the American CIO and so on.

Hobsbawm will have none of this.

For him the key question is not the consciousness and confidence of the working class, however defined, but unity with ‘other strata and groups’. Even verbal leftism à la Benn may repel these (undefined but in reality middle class) forces and must be avoided. Thus ‘the Labour Party is so disrupted and demoralised and on the defensive that most of its members act as though they have written off the chance of defeating the government.’

As noted earlier. Hobsbawm is less than enthusiastic about the ‘neo-socialist’ parties in France. Greece etc – ‘it is sometimes by no means clear what their leaders represent other than, say, a handsome face with great public relations potential.’

Nevertheless, ‘both kinds of socialist party (new and traditional) belong to the left as indeed do most British Social Democrats’ (my emphasis – DH). So there we have it. ‘Rebuilding the left’ means unity with the SDP (and surely the Liberals too – for are they to the right of the SDP?). And that might well be possible – on the SDP’s own terms.

‘The left in the Socialist parties, which has sometimes captured decisive influence in them has often failed to be aware of the need for broad unity.’

Unity with middle class parties that is. Hence the whole elaborate attempt to establish the withering away of the proletariat!

Not only Benn but even the Mitterrand of 1981 is too left-wing for Hobsbawm’s taste. The logic is clear enough – it is identical with the logic of Denis Healey and Peter Shore, though neither would be so openly polite to the SDP. There is, though, a glaring contradiction, a gaping hole, in this position. For Hobsbawm. if not Healey. accepts – tells us – that ‘Keynesian or similar policies’ do not offer ‘much promise.’ But what other policies will the SDP (and in particular, the Labour right) be prepared to even consider? Thus, on his own showing ‘broad unity’ cannot offer a way forward.

That a man of Hobsbawm’s ability can serve up such a sorry mess of pottage is a striking testimony to the political degeneration of the CP.


Last updated on 31.12.2004