A reply to Reidkane on the class character of proletarians

by Jehu

In 1846, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels met together with a few other communists to lay out their common approach to the social revolution then developing in Europe. The results of their work, hqdefaultas we all know, was an unpublished manuscript now known as the German Ideology. In it Marx and Engels elaborate on a method of social analysis we now refer to as historical materialism.

That document makes a number of claims about the proletarians which we today might consider heresies. Three in particular are the subject of the commenter, Reidkane:

  1. The working class has no particular class interest to assert against the ruling class;
  2. the rule of the proletarians can only be effected through a universal union; and
  3. the proletarians participate in the social revolution as individuals, not as members of a class.

The comment is very long, covering four entries and raises important objections to my post on the so-called “workers’ state”. I have posted it as a single post, because it addresses what can only be described as staggering ambiguities in Marx’s and Engels’ writings that begin as early as two years later in the Communist Manifesto.

Now, we know for a fact, based on any fair reading of the German Ideology, that Marx and Engels believed the working class was not a class, that it did not act as a class and that its association was not a state. Yet, over their long careers, there are so many statements made by the two where Marx and Engels appear to assert exactly the opposite.

When Marx and Engels sat down to first work out their common view of history, they were unambiguous in their assertions on these points. Yet less than two years later, when they compose the Communist Manifesto, they appear to reverse themselves on many of the very points made initially in the German Ideology. This abrupt about face requires some explaining, since, as any objective reading of the German Ideology will confirm, I am not putting words in their mouths. Which is to say, in the German Ideology, a. Marx and Engels plainly state the working class is not a class; b. the working class state is not a state, but a union, an association; and, c. the workers do not act in the social revolution as a class, but only as individuals. Not only this. At various points in their careers, the two make statements that certainly are consistent with the German Ideology even as they make statements that appear to contradict it.

In their reading of Marx and Engels most Marxists make their point of departure the statements that appear to contradict the German Ideology; which is to say, unless directly challenged, most Marxists assert the proletarians are a class with a class interest to assert against the bourgeois class; that proletarians act as a class; and that they rule through a state form. And these Marxists can produce multiples quotes from Marx and Engels supporting this interpretation of their writings.

It would seem then that the texts can be interpreted in multiple ways depending on which quotes you favor and which you dismiss. As a result often this sort of discussion very quickly deteriorates into dueling quotes, where each side employs its favorites quotes. Some people call this method of argument, “exegesis”, where the words of the prophet are studied in minute detail for any hints that might help resolve ambiguities in the prophet’s meaning.

Frankly, I think this method is bullshit and a waste of time. Even if Marx and Engels had never been born and had never left a very large body of work in their studies of historical materialism, society has not disappeared; it is still here and we can make our own independent analysis. The measure of the value of any particular reading of Marx and Engels is history, not the particular text itself.

My argument has been very simple all along: Based on the mainstream (post-war orthodox) reading of Marx and Engels, it is very hard to explain this history. Marxists have constantly sought to work around this problem through any number of special theories — a theory of imperialism, a theory of the vanguard party as bearer of working class socialist consciousness, a theory of non-commodity money, a theory of a labor aristocracy, and many others too numerous to elaborate here — to deal with the fact that their reading of Marx and Engels doesn’t fit what we know of actual historical events.

The largest and most glaring failure of the mainstream reading of Marx and Engels is, of course, the entire inter-war period from 1914-1945, including the rise of fascism and Keynesian fascist state management of national capitals. There is not a single mainstream Marxist reading of Marx and Engels that can satisfactorily explain what took place during this period. Everything appears fine until we begin to approach the outbreak of the Great War period and then our analysis starts to break down. The proletariat appears to act as a class, but then it acts like a German or American; money suddenly and inexplicably begins to lose its commodity character; the “workers’ state” appears but soon acquires a form that more and more resembles the existing (bourgeois) state. Most of all, after decades of progressive intensification, the class struggle begins to peter out. It can hardly bears mentioning that during this period the proletarians of each country marched into war not once, but twice, behind their respective bourgeoisie in an orgy of obscene global violence against the workers of every other country. This behavior is hardly characteristic of a class as the term is usually employed by Marxists, it seems to me.

So here is my question:

Which reading of Marx and Engels better explains history since 1914? The one that assume the working class is a class; or the one that assumes it is not? I have nothing really to add to what I have already written on this subject; do the math yourself — look up from the books and try to reconcile your understanding of what you have read in Marx and Engels texts with what you know of history. If the proletarians are not really a class, over time, with the development of the forces of production bound up with the world market, this non-class should more and more exhibit symptoms of that material underlying reality.