On Revolutionary Agency : Some Considerations on the Russian Revolution and its Legacies. Part Two : Class and Agency in Historical Context

On Revolutionary Agency : Some Considerations on the Russian Revolution and its Legacies. Part Two : Class and Agency in Historical Context

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It is undoubtedly true that socialism, as a theory of social development, was the product of the most advanced sections and ‘enlightened minds’ of the bourgeois intelligentsia. Both Marx and Engels and  their ‘utopian’ predecessors were born, reared and educated under the social and intellectual conditions of the bourgeois class. But today, at the commencement of the 21st century, it is the proletariat, incorporating its most class conscious sections educated and schooled in Marx, which now stands as the inheritor of the theory of socialism. It is the proletariat globally which takes on the historic role and responsibility of carrying forward the struggle to put an end to the age of capital.

This ‘intelligentsia’ is as much part of the proletariat today as the factory worker was in the 19th century. The university teacher, for example, is subject to the same precarious forces of capital’s structural crisis today as the factory or office worker. The intelligentsia is now, on the whole, a proletarian intelligentsia and an integral and indispensable part of the struggle of the proletariat for its emancipation from its subjugation under the yoke of capital. Those sections of the intelligentsia who are hostile to socialism are often found enthralled to various and sundry forms of the ‘vulgarities’ and ‘postmodernities’ of the bourgeoisie. We must not dismiss them but always endeavour to win them over to the side of the social revolution.

This tendency of worker intellectuals (manual or mental labour power for sale to the owners of capital and its various agencies) will become strengthened and more coherently expressed as the crisis of the capitalist order unfolds and deepens over the coming century. Kautsky’s notion of socialism being the creation of the sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie had a certain validity in 1900. It is now completely and utterly null and void. Marx’s conceptions belong to us now and from now onwards we develop them until there will no longer be any need for them.

If we look at and compare the global proletariat today in 2013 and the Russian proletariat in 1900, we are forced to recognise the radical differences between the conditions of existence of the two.

In Tsarist Russia, the proletariat was a minority fraction of the total population. Its social composition was largely industrial in the major urban centres. A significant portion of the proletariat was no more than second or, at most, third generation removed from its peasant or semi-peasant origins. During the civil war period after 1917, many were drafted in from the countryside to the cities/factories in order to replace the most class conscious and militant sections of the industrial proletariat who formed the shock troops and bulwark of the Red Army. Here, in essence, we have a picture of a relatively small and very young and historically immature proletariat impoverished in social composition and supplemented by conservative rural elements. Today, of course, with the unfolding of 21st century capitalist globalisation, we have a completely altered picture.

The Bolsheviks located the centre of revolutionary gravity, and more decidedly and prominently after 1917, within their own body as a ‘Party’ rather than it being centred within the revolutionary self-activity of the proletariat itself as with Marx’s conception. There was a shift away from the democracy of the Soviets towards the rule of the ‘Party’ and bureaucratic elite. This was a complex process which others have written about in detail and which is beyond the scope of this article. However, there is one observation which I would make. And this concerns the social composition and historical ‘maturity’ of the proletariat then and now and its relationship to revolutionary agency.

Firstly, we have to study the conditions under which the Bolsheviks were active in order to locate the source of the conception of ‘delivery of revolutionary consciousness from the outside’. It was not simply a ‘Kautskyan’ conception ‘ideologically’ adopted by Lenin. This locates the origins of Lenin’s What is to be Done? and the ‘delivery of revolutionary consciousness from outside the class’ by a centralised party of revolutionaries within the historical conditions where a very young and small proletariat had very recently just appeared on the scene. And where all its struggles and opposition to capital and the Tsarist regime were being subjected to the most brutal forms of persecution.

The Soviets established by the Russian Proletariat in 1905 (like the Paris Commune of 1871) sprang from the consciously organising, revolutionary activity, creativity and relations of this section of the proletariat in struggle, in its opposition to the ruling conditions of the day. It was the self-movement, self-organisation and self-activity of the class which established these bodies. These bodies – although containing both – were not the creations of the Bolsheviks or the Mensheviks. But Lenin and the Bolsheviks adopted a certain relationship with and to the Soviets. A relationship which contained an approach to the self-organising activity of the proletariat as something to be located within the ‘revolutionary gravity’ of Bolshevism. In my opinion, what arose in Lenin’s and others’ conception was that the Soviets were the ‘spontaneous’ products of the class movement which could only become ‘truly revolutionary’ if the Bolsheviks were at their helm. This served to validate any explicit or implicit conceptions of ‘vanguardism’ and ‘bringing revolutionary consciousness from the outside into the masses’ so that the whole relationship of Lenin’s party with the class operated, in my opinion, within the framework of this relationship. In Marx’s conception, the centre of ‘revolutionary gravity’ is located within the organising self-activity of the proletarian class itself so the ’emanicipation of the proletariat must be the act of the proletariat itself’. A fundamental question which touches directly on the question of revolutionary agency is, therefore, what does it mean to be an intrinsic, integrated, organic part of the class movement of the proletariat itself today in 2014?

[Marx wrote (in Capital and the Grundrisse) of the Jews living ‘in the pores’ of Polish society. What did he actually mean by this statement? Did being in these ‘pores’ make the Jews an intrinsic, organic part of that society or were they merely in a state of semi-detached intercommunication with it through being in its ‘pores’? What is the character of the relationship of the left-wing groups, for example, to the class movement of the proletariat as a whole?]

In terms of the degree of richness and complexity of its social composition, the proletariat of today is virtually unrecognisable from that of Tsarist Russia. The vast majority of the world’s population is now proletarian, either urban or rural. And this number increases by the day. The transition from paternalistic rural social relations to urban proletarian can be rapid and disorienting. We only have to observe what is happening in China and India to see how and why this continuing process of proletarianisation is taking place.

What we are presented with today, globally and in each area of the world, is a picture of a proletariat which is far richer in its social composition, technical and mental capacities and in its geographical mobility. Of course, there are many divisions and even conflicts within the proletariat itself. But this, despite all the difficulties in regard to the question of revolutionary agency which that implies, can also constitute a source of its strength and political development. This heterogeneity and plurality need not necessarily mean internecinity. This diversity within and richer composition of the proletariat can actually serve to facilitate the emergence and development of the requisite forms of revolutionary agency in the course of the coming century. The evolution of capitalism itself and….

large-scale industry, through its very catastrophes, makes the recognition of the variation of labour and hence of the fitness of the worker for a maximum number of different kinds of labour into a question of life and death. This possibility of varying labour must become a general law of social production, and the existing relations must be adapted to permit its realisation in practice. That monstrosity, the disposable working population held in reserve, in nursery, for the changing requirements of capitalist exploitation, must be replaced by the individual man who is absolutely available for the different kinds of labour required of him; the partially developed individual, who is merely the bearer of one specialised, social function, must be replaced by the totally developed individual, for whom the different social functions are different modes of activity he takes up in turn.

[Marx, p.618, Capital, Vol 1, Penguin Edn]

The development of capitalism itself creates the conditions for turning the ‘specialised’ worker into one who can, indeed must, be able to adapt and alter his mode of labour in order to service the requirements, meet the needs of capital. But this tendency, taken in its fullest and broadest historical development and significance, implies the eventual general transcendence of the crippling division of labour which currently characterises social relations. It starts to create one of the operative conditions necessary for the human freedom which will prevail in the commune. This increasingly rich and diverse character of the global proletariat forms the ontological social basis for the direct origination of forms of revolutionary agency out of the struggle of the proletariat with capital and its state power.

The agency of revolution in the 21st century must, and can only be, the mode in which the revolutionary self-activity of the proletarian class itself as a whole manifests itself in its transitory organisation and struggle to terminate the very existence of capital itself and, in the course of this mighty historical process, the political rule of capital in the form of its state powers and global political agencies. This can only begin to come about now because of the historic ontological maturation of the proletarian class as a global class which has taken place over the last century.

This global quantitative growth, altered structure and social composition of the proletariat has very important implications for the question of agency. Whereas the ‘importation of consciousness from the outside’ possessed a certain legitimacy under Tsarist Russian conditions incorporating an historically immature proletariat, today this conception is totally and absolutely redundant. In many parts of the world the proletariat has a ‘proletarian pedigree’ that stretches back at least 150 years and even longer. In England, the industrial urban proletariat (not including its predecessors in the antecedent period of manufacture) started to emerge in the middle of the 18th century with the mechanisation of the forces of production. In other parts, like Western Europe, Japan, the US and sporadically in the colonies, we see the steady growth of an urban proletariat in the course of the unfolding of the 19th century.

Today the proletariat is a global class which can only survive by selling its labour power to the owners of capital and its various state or other agencies. It is the historical development of capital itself – now an actual and the dominant global relationship of production and distribution – which has been the source of this transformation in the character of the proletariat.

The global proletariat is highly mobile, adaptable, technically and socially diverse and proficient in the latest forms of communication. Globally, the ‘productive’ surplus-value producing proletariat is now augmented by a growing ‘service sector’ revenue-consuming proletariat. Marx distinguishes between ‘productive labour’ (labour producing surplus value) and ‘unproductive labour’ (labour which does not produce surplus value and is paid out of the surplus value (revenue) ‘productively’ produced by the former.) The so-called ‘service sector’ is an area of this ‘unproductive labour’ because it does not directly produce surplus value as in production. Marx writes, in the middle of the 19th century, that

the extraordinary increase in the productivity of large-scale industry, accompanied as it is by both a more intensive and a more extensive exploitation of labour power in all other spheres of production, permits a larger and larger part of the working class to be employed unproductively

[Marx, p. 574, Machinery and Large-Scale Industry, Vol 1, Capital. Penguin Edn]

How much more germane and applicable is this conception today compared to its location within the context of English capitalism in the mid 19th century. Capitalist integration and exploitation on a global scale has created an increasing polarisation between, on the one hand, the productive labour of Latin America, Asia and parts of Africa and, on the other, the increasingly unproductive labour of Europe, Japan, US, Australia, etc. The actual source of this polarisation is the obscenely high rate of surplus value to be found for capital in the regions of Asia and Latin America compared to those in Europe, the US and elsewhere. The global transfer of value from its regions of production to its regions of consumption – becoming increasingly wasteful and destructive with what Meszaros refers to as the decreasing rate of utilisation (pp. 547-596, Beyond Capital) – to a certain degree ‘featherbeds’ the existence of the proletariat in these regions. The implications of a disruption in this dynamic are absolutely explosive for the capital order, dynamite, and especially for the historically-established proletariat in Europe and the US. Today we are witnessing the widespread destruction of social provision and services as a consequence of the global crisis of banking capital. But the disruption of this dynamic of value transference will light the touch-paper of a historic gunpowder keg under the life of the proletariat in Europe, the US and elsewhere. The global articulation and expression of the irrepressible and untranscendable logic in the existence of capital will, under these conditions, make the social manifestations of the recent banking crisis look like the sweetest of mercies.

Mediating this transference is, as Marx wrote, the incredible increase in the productivity of labour. We mention here the tendency which Marx noted, namely that…

every advance in the use of machinery entails an increase in the constant component of capital [……] and a decrease in the variable component […..]. We also know that in no other system of production is improvement so continuous and the composition of capital employed so subject to variation as in the factory system. This constant variation is however equally constantly interrupted by periods of rest, during which there is a merely quantitative extension of factories on the existing technical basis. During such periods the number of workers employed increases.

[Marx, Capital, Vol 1, ibid, p.578]

Capitalist globalisation has actually served to accentuate this trend. A relative decrease in variable capital (relative to constant capital employed in the process of production of capital) is accompanied by an absolute increase in variable capital which expresses the unceasing drive of capital to increase the absolute mass of surplus value produced whilst, at the same time, compensating for the historic tendency of the rate of profit to fall. This trend, noted by Marx in the middle of the 19th century, now replicates itself on a global scale with the most profound implications for the capitalist order and the life of the global proletariat.

As capital, driven by the intensification of its structural crisis, tends towards the absolute limits of this trend, we simultaneously see the entrenchment of global structural, irredeemably persistent, mass  unemployment. This phenomenon of the unfolding historic logic of capital embraces and includes all sections of the proletariat, highly skilled or “unskilled”. This is the ‘truth’ (outcome) of the unfolding of this trend of the capital order. This ever intensifying increase in the ratio of constant to variable capital, in what Marx refers to as the organic composition of capital. It is driving humanity towards a ‘black hole’ of history. Towards an abyss into which it is drawing the whole of human culture unless humanity embarks on and prosecutes a global revolutionary struggle to terminate the capital relation once and for all. This relation being the indispensable cube root of capitalism itself.

The proletariat today remains a proletariat but it is not the proletariat of 1900-20 Tsarist Russia or of the world in that period. The ‘globalisation’ of capital has simultaneously created a global proletariat which is far richer, more sophisticated and complex in terms of its altered structure and social composition. This, in itself, requires new perspectives on the question of revolutionary agency because this change in the proletariat is an intrinsic part of the change in the conditions of capital’s existence and rule as a whole. In the documents of the First International, Marx speaks of the emancipation of the proletariat being the act of the proletariat itself. His implicit conception of the proletariat in this statement was the existence of a globalised proletariat that was not that of a backward, semi-feudal country but rather of the globalised rule of capital which we see today in 2014.

Shaun May

October 2013




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