J.R. Johnson

From the Master-Slave Dialectic
to Revolt in Capitalist Production

(January 1946)

Extract from Historical Retrogression or Socialist Revolution, New International, Vol.12 No.1, January 1946, a polemic against the IKD.
Republished in Scott McLemee (ed.), C.L.R. James on the “Negro Question”, Jackson (Miss.) 1996, pp. 132–134.

In The Phenomenology of Mind (one of the three basic books used by Lenin in his studies for Imperialism), in the section on Lordship and Bondage, Hegel shows that the lord has a desire for the object and enjoys it. But because he does not actually work on it, his desire lacks objectivity. The labor of the bondman, in working, in changing, i.e. in negating the raw material, has the contrary effect. This, his labor, gives him his rudimentary sense of personality. Marx hailed this and continued the basic idea in his analysis of handicraft and the early stages of capitalist production (simple co-operation). The laborer's physical and mental faculties are developed by the fact that he makes a whole chair, a whole table, a piece of armor, or a whole shoe.

With the development of the stage of manufacture, however, there begins the division of labor, and here instead of making one object, man begins to produce fragments of an object. In the process of production, there begins stultification, distortion, and ossification of his physical and intellectual faculties.

With the productive process of heavy industry, this stultification is pushed to its ultimate limit. Man becomes merely an appendage to a machine. He no longer uses the instruments of production. As Marx repeats on page after page, the instruments of production use him. Hegel, who had caught hold of this, was completely baffled by it and, seeing no way out, took refuge in idealism. Marx, using the Hegelian method and remaining in the productive process itself, discovered and elaborated one of the most profound truths of social and political psychology. In the very degradation of the workers he saw the basis of their emancipation. Attacking Proudhon in The Poverty of Philosophy (1847) for misunderstanding dialectic, he wrote of the laborer in the automatic factory: “But from the moment that all special development ceases, the need of universality, the tendency towards an integral development of the individual, begins to make itself felt.” This need of the individual for universality, for a sense of integration so powerful among all modern oppressed classes, is the key to vast areas of social and political jungles of today. The fascists, for example, understood it thoroughly.

Twenty years later, in Capital, Marx developed the political results of the argument in full.

#8220;It is as a result of the division of labor in manufactures, that the laborer is brought face to face with the intellectual potencies of the material process of production as the property of another and as a ruling power.” He does not need revolutionary parties to teach him this. [The labor process] is his revolutionary education. It begins in manufacture. “It is complete in modern industry ...”

This is the misery that is accumulated as capital is accumulated. It may not be formulated. But the moment bourgeois society breaks down and the worker breaks out in insurrection, for whatever incidental purpose, resentment against the whole system explodes with terrible power.

The babblers who think that all the American workers want is “full employment” are in for a rude awakening. That capitalism increases the use-values (radio, education, books, etc) that he uses outside of production only increases his antagonism.

The educational process is not individual but social. As Marx insisted and Lenin never wearied in pointing out, in addition to this personal, individual education, capital educates the worker socially and politically. In Capital, Marx quoted a passage he had written twenty years before in the Manifesto. Former systems, all of them, aimed at conservation of the existing mode of production. Far different is capital:

“Constant revolution in production, uninterrupted disturbances of all social conditions, ever-lasting uncertainty and agitation, distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen prejudices, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

The very climax of Marx's chapter on The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation is the warning that “This antagonistic character of capitalist accumulation is enunciated in varied forms by political economists, although by them it is confounded with phenomena, certainly to some extent analogous but nevertheless essentially distinct and belonging to pre-capitalist modes of production,” i.e. the Middle Ages. And why essentially distinct?

Because in capital alone the degradation and its historical conditions also create in the workers the determination to overthrow the system and acquire for themselves the intellectual potencies of the material process of production.

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