Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Carl Davidson

Which Side Are You On?

First Published: The Guardian, December 6, 1972.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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One theory which needs to be laid to rest within the U.S. left is that of the “new working class.”

It has appeared and reappeared in various guises in the past decade or so: first in the rough through the work of C. Wright Mills and later in the propaganda of several SDS new left activists–including this writer–who were influenced at the time by certain European “Neo-Marxist” revisionists. It is still being tossed around today in several left intellectual journals, such as New Politics and Socialist Revolution.

Put in extreme terms, the theory takes two apparently opposite forms in its view of contemporary class structure: either “the proletariat is disappearing” or “everyone is a proletarian.”

The first variant superficially observes the decline over several decades of the number of blue-collar workers relative to the rising size of white-collar and service employees as a percentage of the entire labor force. The “old working class” is thus seen as a minority past its prime and decisively diminished in its strategic political importance. Replacing it are various white-collar strata subjectively welded together as the emerging “new working class” bearing the greatest potential for socialist consciousness.

The second variant proceeds from the same data but–rather than run up against the obvious problems of positing a new class–sweepingly redefines class lines to include practically anyone who earns a wage or salary within the working class. The “new working class” now appears in these subjectively broadened ranks as a key advanced sector or strata.

Both of these approaches–the first rightist, the second “leftist” in form–are united on two key points:

–The liquidation of the strategic role of the masses of the industrial proletariat within the working class as the main force for socialist revolution–both objectively in its diametrical opposition to the monopoly bourgeoisie and subjectively in the potential of its advanced contingents for a political class consciousness capable of carrying the revolution through to the end.

–The obfuscation of the position and dual character of the intelligensia as a social strata standing between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, serving both as an organizer of capitalist rule and as a potential ally of the working class.

While many of the issues and statistical interpretations related to this question can only be touched on here, an important contribution to the discussion can be found in the May-June issue of Albania Today, a new bimonthly political review published in Tirana, Albania. The relevant article, “The Intelligensia and Its Present-Day Role” by Bajram Abdiu, is a critical survey of the “new working class” theory as it applies to the U.S., France and the Soviet Union.

Abdiu examines the same data as the “new working class” theorists and arrives at quite different conclusions. In the U.S. in 1960, he argues, “the intelligentsia of all categories ... represented about 22 percent of the able-bodied population” while “the working class and the other laboring people constitute the overwhelming majority.”

“The bourgeois statistics,” he points out, “do not provide the possibility of seeing directly the class relations within the population; what is more, they aim to conceal the division into classes.”

Since the federal government’s categories are obviously inadequate, what then is meant by “intelligensia” and “working class?”

“Marxism views the intelligensia,” Abidu explains, ”as a large group of people mainly engaged in mental work, in the organization and management of work and production, of the affairs of state and society, who engage in creative work and not in manual work or merely carrying out instructions. The intelligensia constitutes a special social stratum and not a class in itself because, unlike the classes, it has no independent relation of its own to the means of production, it stems from and is formed by various classes and in every historically given system it mainly serves the class in power.”

Abdiu points out that the intelligensia has grown significantly with the development of science and technology. “At the beginning ... the exploiting class made mental work a monopoly of its own.” But the strata acquired its modern form “because the capitalists relieve themselves of the technical functions of the management of production, of the affairs of state and society,assigning such functions to hired specialists. Here lies the most fundamental cause and this explains the phenomenon of the growing ’proletarianization’ of the intelligensia in present-day capitalism.”

To those who incorrectly define the working class in order to diminish its role, Abdiu states: “It must be emphasized that Marxism-Leninism has never identified the worker with the physical laborer. It considers as workers all those who are deprived of the ownership of the means of production, who sell their labor power to the capitalist, who directly participate in productive work or in the sphere of circulation and who create surplus value for the capitalist.”

From this viewpoint Abdiu explains that one group of workers–probably amounting to less than 4 percent of the labor force in the U.S.–are neither part of the intelligensia or the “new working class.” “A section of the production technicians, those who directly produce and are not engaged in the work of management or organization, cannot fail to be considered a part of the working class. But this category of workers ... is very small in number.”

Because of the size and social influence of the intelligensia in this country, the various theories related to the “new working class” concept are bound to have a grip on a section of the revolutionary movement for some time to come. Yet it is important to struggle against them in a scientific spirit because, as Abdiu sums it up, it brings liberalism into Marxist-Leninist theory and “creates confusion in some untempered militants and among various sections of the population, especially among the student youth and the young intellectuals.”