The Historical Precedence of the Question of Revolutionary Agency

The Historical Precedence of the Question of Revolutionary Agency

The question of agency is, in my opinion, the historically precedent question of the epoch and must be addessed by the class movement of the proletariat globally. This, of course, necessitates a concrete characterisation and grasp of the nature of the global situation in which the proletariat now finds itself.

And this, in turn, in my opinion, implies that we cannot move forward in practice (or perhaps only grope forward in a dim half-light) on this question of agency without a comprehensive revolutionary critique of Marx’s conception of the proletariat which is over 150 years old.

The changes in the character of the proletariat since Marx [regardless of the continuing relative correspondences between Marx’s conception and its current nature and social composition] is demanding such a critique. This work would serve to inform our work on the question of agency. In fact, it is absolutely indispensable in order to develop this question. Otherwise I think all work on agency rests on a somewhat shaky, hypothetical ground.

How can we develop the conception of revolutionary agency without a comprehensive re-characterisation of the current nature of the proletariat in its altered composition under the prevailing conditions of the global rule of capital? There is much work to be done using Marx’s conception of the proletariat as the point d’appui. Marx, of course, is the key to this work.

Marx’s thinking on organisation and agency necessarily arises out of his temporally-conditioned conception of the nature of the proletariat which is essentially one of nineteenth century industrialised workers exploited by productive capital i.e. an overwhelmingly surplus value producing proletariat as opposed to a revenue consuming one. Can we hold on to this conception today in regard to the metropolitan capitalist countries? Can we proceed on the question of agency on the basis of this conception of the proletariat? I think not.

And, as a consequence, the work of both Marx and Engels on proletarian organisation and agency are only helpful to us within certain limits, to a certain degree, because they arise out of their characterisation and conceptions of the nineteenth century proletariat and its historically-posited relation to productive capital. This is not to think that it is not important even today [e.g. the work done on the Paris Commune comes to mind, etc] but a comprehensive and detailed critique is, without doubt, required.

In regard to the current state of trade unionism in Britain. In my opinion, as the historically-prevalent form of organisation of labour’s ‘economistic’ struggle against capital, it is already heading for a very deep and profound crisis – under the impact of the unfolding structural crisis of capital – which can only be expressed in two ways. Firstly, its complete and utter corporatist integration into the capitalist order which will effectively render it into a ‘Providence’ existence and mean its effective end in its traditional ‘economistic’ role. Or, secondly, the deepening of its crisis must mean the transition to a higher form of unionism (social unionism) which will constitute the class’s organisational basis of and for revolution.

Accordingly, unless the deepening of capital’s crisis brings in a crisis within the trade unions themselves which propels them towards a radical re-structuring, de-bureaucratisation, etc, and pushes them onto the road towards a new, higher form of agency, then I can only see them – if they retain their current bureaucratised structure and form of organisation, tied to past, dead conditiopns – being sucked under completely into the quicksand of history. At best they would – in this form – probably become vestigial bodies and only survive as Provident/Insurance Societies bound to no strike agreements, etc. However, we must not dismiss the possibility that any real re-structuring of trade unionism in favour of the class could well be a stage on the road towards the establishment of a higher form of agency. A return to a higher form of unionism – towards social unionism?

Therefore, my position, theoretically, at the moment, on the question of revolutionary agency would be to consider three fundamental, interconnected questions…

[1] The theoretical and political characterisation of the current stage at which the capitalist order has now arrived in the course of its historical development.

[2] The current nature, social composition, occupational structure, limitations of its political organisations, etc, of the proletariat itself vis-a-vis Marx’s conception in the 19th century.

[3] The urgent need  to develop the conception of agency on the grounds of both [1] and [2]

Please feel free to circulate this correspondence and all other work on my two wordpress sites.

Shaun May

October 2013


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