Lately we hear people talking of a dictatorship of the proletariat as a political order under which the working class wields absolute power, without taking into account the level of its development and intelligence. Unlike democracy, we are told, such an order would be a dependable instrument for the building of Socialism, regardless of the element of maturity of the working class.
We need not dwell here on the possibility of establishing such an order in countries where the working class is too weak to establish or defend democracy. I have already emphasized that the working class requires much less power, intelligence and independence to attain democracy and political power through democracy than would be necessary for the establishment and maintenance of its own dictatorship over all other classes of society.
But let us assume, for the sake of argument, that such a dictatorship could be established after the working class will have crushed all its opponents. What would be the consequence?
A dictatorship is a state in which authority is centered in one will, in which any criticism of this will is treated as a major crime. A real dictatorship of the proletariat presupposes, therefore, the existence of a united will in Labor’s ranks. Many often assume as a self-evident fact that the working class constitutes a united, homogeneous mass, to be pitted against a homogeneous “reactionary mass.” The truth is, however, that the working class is not a self-evident phenomenon or a uniform, homogeneous, “totalitarian” mass, to use a German expression.
It is naive to conceive of the working class as synonymous with the mass of the poor and needy. Marx regarded the proletariat as consisting only of those workers who do not own or control the means of production they must use in order to live, and who are consequently obliged to sell their labor power. Strictly speaking, the small peasantry or farmers, artisans and petty tradesmen do not belong to the category of the working class, however needy they may be. These elements perceive their salvation not in a Socialist society, but in the rise of prices on commodities they offer for sale. Their ideal is to become bigger peasants or farmers, artisans and businessmen in the society based on private ownership.
On the other hand, the workers themselves are divided into two categories, neither of which own any means of production. But only under certain specific historical circumstances can they find buyers for their labor power. This becomes possible on a large scale only where capital has acquired control of industry and requires wage labor. Before this development becomes a fact the masses of the propertyless have but one recourse – to beg or steal. This type of proletarian is not necessary to the basis of society. On the contrary, they are an unnecessary burden. They live only upon the alms of the propertied classes or by plundering them. Such workers cannot grasp the ideal of a new, better social order, much less are they fit to fight for it. To the extent to which they are dependent upon the good will of the higher classes they become cringing and sycophantic. Individuals among them, those of stronger character, turn to violent resentment and become criminals. Such elements are easily disposed of by the state.
Due to particularly favorable circumstances, proletarians of this type attained to great political power in ancient Rome, which after prolonged struggles had established a democratic constitution, but a great portion of whose citizens had become impoverished as a result of continued civil wars. Under this condition the urban proletariat obtained the power in the state, but not knowing how to utilize it found nothing better to do than to sell its votes to those who paid the most in bread and circuses, or to sell itself as hired mercenaries to successful and ambitious military leaders.
It was this political and military assistance on the part of the proletariat that made possible the dictatorship of a single individual in Rome, which led to the rise of Caesarism and its development into a state form.
Marx differentiated sharply between the proletariat of this type, which he termed the Lumpenproletariat, and the wage earning proletariat. It was the latter type that he regarded as capable of developing, in the process of many struggles and through long experience, the requisite power and ability to emancipate itself, and thus move society forward to higher forms.
Hundreds of years of struggle were required before such consciousness became possible, and even then it was confined at the beginning to a small elite, which, perceiving its social power and significance, placed before itself the aim of achieving a fundamental social change.
Under certain circumstances this elite can develop rapidly in numbers, but behind this elite and the Lumpenproletariat there remains a mass which Marx well characterized as the “undeveloped figure” of the proletariat. Economically this mass performs the functions of the wage-earning proletariat, but intellectually and culturally it is not much above the level of the Lumpenproletariat. It no longer begs for alms but for work, perceiving frequently in the capitalist who employs it not the exploiter who lives upon its labor but the master, the philanthropist, upon whose good will the wage earner subsists. Occasionally, these proletarians begin to glean vaguely the real character of the situation, which in turn, leads them to manifestations of resistance. But they are not capable of continuous, systematic struggle.
Only occasionally are they moved to outburst of despair, which is followed immediately by dejection and surrender. Higher aims than those of the moment are beyond the scope of the undeveloped proletariat.
This general analysis of the character and composition of the proletariat suffices to reveal its division into three big groups, each with its own mode o f thinking, its own capacity for struggle, its own aims and methods.
The development of capitalist industry makes possible the growth of the advanced portion of the proletariat over the other two – the undeveloped proletarians as well as the Lumpenproletariat. The World War and the world economic crisis, however, have stimulated the numbers of the last two mentioned groups at the expense not only of the proletarian elite but also of the artisan and small peasant elements. Moreover, the boundaries between the various elements are not sharply drawn. They overlap and vary with the changes in the political and economic situation.
Within the laboring classes themselves there are numerous differentiations of thinking and fighting capacity. These differentiations are partly local in character: city, town and country. There are also the differences of luxury cities and industrial cities: in the first, we find more corrupt servile, reactionary elements among the workers than in the second. Added to these local differentiations are many differentiations of occupation, some of which facilitate the work of education, enlightenment, organization and struggle. Others make it much more difficult. Women have always been more difficult to organize than men. The same is true of workers in isolated occupations, as compared with those in large-scale production.
Thus we have another division in the working class running parallel with the differentiations of the developed and undeveloped workers: that of the organized and unorganized workers. But the two differentiations are not identical. The elite of the workers have never sought to keep aloof from their undeveloped comrades. On the contrary, the elements comprising the labor elite have never tired in their efforts to elevate the whole of the working class. On the other hand, we have seen organizations of workers in certain crafts who, having managed to win very substantial advantages for themselves, have assumed a special character and have sought to exclude outsiders in the manner characteristic of any aristocracy. The unorganized workers are left to their fate. In such instances we find another clear break in the uniformity of the working class. This particular division continued for decades in England, for example, after the collapse of the First International.
In the continental countries of Europe we have had no such situation. In these countries the workers had been compelled to wage a bitter struggle for democracy before they could begin to organize. In that struggle as in all others, the labor elite took the lead. But its aim was one in which the entire working class, as well as the peasants and artisans, were interested, while the intensity of the political movement served to checkmate any manifestations of selfish group-thinking in the trade unions.
In the course of capitalist development, Labor continued to increase, while the workers who owned their means of production increased but slowly and, in some instances, actually decreased. As a general rule, the more developed elements of the working class showed the greatest proportion of increase, i.e. those who influence the less developed elements and stimulate the growth of general class-consciousness as against the influence of craft and other differentiations.
Yet, there are tendencies operating in the opposite direction and giving rise to ever new differentiations in the ranks of Labor.
In addition to those already mentioned there is the category of salaried employees, the so-called white collar workers. Salaried employees as compared with wage earners, perform functions of a mainly capitalist character. The productive capitalist is not merely an exploiter; he performs an important economic function. He organizes and directs enterprises, purchases and assembles the means of production and takes care of the disposal of commodities. The element of profit does not emanate from these activities, but depends rather upon the amount of capital, not upon the quantity of labor, furnished by the capitalist. Frequently he has to work much harder in a smaller enterprise than in a big one. But what constitutes the prerequisite of profit is the realization of the tasks of productive capital. This realization is not dependent, however upon the personalities embodied in capitalism. The functions of productive capital are merely transferred to the shoulders of hired help. Such help is required as soon as any given enterprise reaches a certain advanced stage of development.
Where an enterprise develops to the size of a shareholding undertaking, the entire activity of the capitalist is transferred into the hands of hired forces, i.e. of wage earners and other employees, who perform capitalist functions. These elements emanate from circles closer socially to the capitalist, command a higher culture and education and enjoy a bourgeois standard of living.
For a long time this category of employees were considered part of the middle class, enjoying the “protection” of capital as against the workers and the flattery of bourgeois economists and politicians. The more rapid the growth of capitalist enterprises, the wider has been the development of this new middle class, which grew more rapidly in numbers as compared with the old middle class than did the wage earning section of the working class.
More recently, however, it has become apparent that the standard of living of this new middle class has been declining in proportion as higher education has ceased to be a monopoly of a small minority. The more extensive the administrative and commercial apparatus of an enterprise, the more pronounced becomes its hierarchical differentiation. Only a few leading elements reach the top, i.e. the elements who rise above the mass of the commercial and administrative employees. The latter move socially ever closer to the status of simple “wage earners,” while those above them develop increasingly the psychology of “masters,” to a degree even more pronounced than that displayed by the capitalist. That is why the directors and superintendents of plants and factories are so well paid.
Thus does the majority of the “new middle class” approach ever closer the status of the real working class, enlarging and augmenting its ranks. But within the working class it forms again a separate category, with its own peculiar psychology, standard of living and capacity for struggle, reflecting, in turn, a different approach and policy.
As soon as Labor attains a certain degree of intellectual, political and economic power it begins to exercise an increasing measure of influence upon some sections of the old middle class. Small peasants or farmers, and petty tradesmen find their immediate interests divided between labor and the capitalist class. Their allegiance vacillates at given moments between the two, depending upon the historic circumstances. The farmer and middle class elements in question cannot be characterized as dependable allies of labor, to which circumstance must be ascribed the fact that political development since the French Revolution has been alternating constantly between revolution and counter-revolution, progress and reaction.
Nevertheless, Labor has been acquiring the confidence of these elements in increasing measure, in proportion as these elements themselves have moved closer economically to the status of the working class and as the working class itself has gained in power and influence. On the other hand, the more these elements draw closer to Labor, the more complex and varied does the composition of the working class itself become.
Another differentiation to be mentioned is one that has acquired great significance in recent years: the differentiation between employed and unemployed workers.
Marx showed that chronic unemployment of part of the working class was an inevitable phenomenon of capitalism. But however painful unemployment was in the past for the individual worker, it was, as a rule, a temporary affliction. Since the World War, however, and particularly since the world economic crisis of 1929 unemployment has become a permanent curse for increasing masses of workers. This carries with it the development of a psychology among many workers unfortunately akin to that of the Roman proletariat who, as we have already pointed out, constituted one of the principal roots of the dictatorship of the Caesars.
There are many other differentiations within the respective component parts of the working class, upon which we will not dwell here but examples of which may be cited by anyone familiar with the problem.
But the differentiations already mentioned are the most important and make it impossible for the working class to form a solid, homogeneous mass capable, without the intervention of any other forces, of presenting a united mode of thinking and action. What we see, instead, is a heterogeneous mass, composed of variegated and uneven elements. It was the insight of a Marx that discerned the common interests which, in the long run, must animate all these elements. But the realization of their common tasks and interests depends in turn, upon intensive education and enlightenment.
The development of economic and political class struggles does, indeed, facilitate a closer approach of the various elements of the working class to one another, but this process is being constantly interfered with and vitiated by the influx of ever new elements into the body of the working class. Nor does this influx always imply a strengthening of Labor. It invariably complicates its policy and makes its formulation and application more difficult.
The influence of working class policy gains in strength only in proportion as Labor becomes more united and presents a common front, by which we mean united in more than one sense. It must avoid, first, a zigzag course which leads it into contradictory and unsuccessful experiments. Secondly, it must seek to overcome the many differentiations of craft and local interests, of tradition and capacity for struggle responsible for the temporary or more lasting differentiations in the thinking and aspirations of the respective elements comprising the working class and those closest to it.
Real unity of these various heterogeneous elements can be accomplished only by putting forward great noble objectives and high social ideals. The necessity of such a policy makes the formation of a Labor Party inevitable, sooner or later, wherever a Socialist Parry has not already preceded it. Any person who subscribes to the ideals of such a party is to be welcomed into its ranks, but the working class, which can develop its potential powers only as united force, remains the most important, the decisive element of such a party.
As regards the importance of democracy we cannot overemphasize the fact that higher social perceptions can be attained only through freedom and research. Only under such conditions, through free discussion, can the welfare of Labor be advanced.
Last updated on 27.1.2004