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Mainstream, VOL LI No 21, May 11, 2013

Marx’s Discovery of the Most Revolutionary Class

Saturday 11 May 2013, by Anil Rajimwale


On May 5 this year was observed the one hundred and ninetyfifth birth anniversary of Karl Marx. On this occasion, while remembering the immortal revolutionary, we are publishing the following article.

Marx was giant of a scientist who put socialism on a scientific basis by criticising utopian socialism. In his scientific approach, he can be put along with Newton, Darwin, Einstein and most other natural and social scientists. In fact he discovered more than most of the other thinkers and scientists. He made several historic discoveries, which changed our thinking for-ever. Among his great scientific discoveries was the historical place of the working class or the proletariat in history. Quite often, Marx’s concepts and formulations are taken superficially, depriving them of their scientific content. But it has to be understood that his was a scientific discovery and not a figment of imagination or a sentimental statement. Using methods of objective science he determined the precision why and how the proletariat was the most revolutionary class. Thus, the use of the word ‘revolutionary’ was an objective act and not some wishful thinking.

It was a prolonged life-time work. Marx made his discovery not on some sentimental basis or because of sympathies driven by pity for the poor condition of the workers. This is a wrong impression born out of unscientific approach. These conditions, of course, were and are very much in existence, and Marx and Engels had all the sympathies for the workers and the exploited. But that did not render either them or the workers revolutionary. Unemployment, poverty, wretched living conditions, starvation and such other conditions are the result of certain processes in capitalism including of exploitation. Certain people, during Marx’s time, had the erroneous idea that the unemployed constitute the most ‘revolutionary’ class or section. The idea persists even today. In fact, Marx countered such ideas as expression of ‘poverty of philosophy’, as he did in his debate with Proudhon, Lassalle, Bakunin etc. Anarchism always held those outside the production process as a ‘revolutionary mass’.

Wretchedness itself does not make one revolutionary.

Materialist Concept of History

This was one of the greatest discoveries of Marx’s, which explained the emergence and develop-ment (motion) of society. His concept was simple, yet profound. In contrast to the animals, the human beings must first produce food in order to eat. And to produce they must create tools and means of production, known broadly as the productive forces when human beings are included. It is this development that led to the emergence of the structure known as the ‘society’. Its structures and ways of life are in the ultimate analysis determined by the productive forces, basically by the tools, and on the economic relations created by them. Thus, there is a conflict between the means of production (productive forces in the broader meaning) and the production relations. This conflict or contradiction determines the motion of the society.

This was a great discovery by Karl Marx. The society does not remain stationary because the productive forces, and consequently the production relations, keep on changing. The former changes continuously, the latter in stages. At a certain stage the new production relations have to take the place of the older ones because of certain critical mass and level of productive forces and the tools.

Thus it was discovered how society is in motion and never stationary. Critical develop-ments and changes take place at certain stages of society. Classes, family, private property, state, governmental structures, kingship, demo-cracy, machine-based production, industrial revolution, nations and so on develop at certain stages. Exploitation was not in existence earlier; it emerged and evolved later when certain critical mass of surplus was produced by the society. Various classes, exploiting and exploited, come into being at certain points; rich and poor emerge. So, according to the Marxist theory, the rich and the poor are not eternal categories; they were not in existence since the beginning of the society, and will at some point of social development disappear or dissolve gradually when the conditions emerge.

 Thus, Marx was the first to show that the social divisions had a scientific historical basis; they came into being at some point and will go away at another. His theory of revolution covered the drastic changes in society, and the most radical revolution would be the emergence of a society without exploitation and classes. Through class struggle there would be an end to it when the productive forces have matured to a certain point.

Revolutionary Forces

History and society in the course of their evolution and motion give rise to certain classes and sections, which become the vehicles for the basic changes in the society. Revolution is certainly a subjective act, but not against the general flow of society, not in violation of the objective laws of social development.

 It is a point to be pondered over as to why no socialist or communist revolution took place earlier in history. Many great revolutions have taken place, such as the slave revolts in the Roman empire, French revolution against feudalism, the English and American revolutions and many others. They solved several problems and took the society forward. They cannot be under-estimated in their importance.

 Yet, exploitation of human beings continued to take place and is still taking place. Revolts against slavery either re-established slavery in milder forms or gave way to feudalism; the great anti-feudal revolutions created favourable conditions for the development of machine-based industrial capitalist production, opening the flood-gates by removing hurdles. Yet, they could not do away with exploitation; the conditions had not yet matured.

The material and productive conditions for doing away with exploitation were as yet emerging. It was only during the capitalist-industrial age that these conditions came into being. The productive forces are such and the classes operating them are of such nature that one can foresee and prepare and work for changing the present capitalist order into a new one without exploitation through stages of revolutionary transformations. History for the first time created such productive forces that are operated by the mass of workers (proletariat or the working class). Marx, in his famous and seminal work Capital, discovers ‘aggregate labour’ as the source of commodities. It is different from the individual labour of the artisan or the peasant. Tens and hundreds of thousands of workers create a commodity, which cannot be identified as the product of this or that person.

Marx and Engels have wonderfully and scientifically analysed the contradictory nature of such labour in their works like Capital, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific and many others. They made a beginning in their famous Communist Manifesto. The labour is both concrete as well as abstract at the same time: the former creates use value, the latter value. The labour of growing number of labourers is increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer and growingly bigger capitalists (today monopolists). This conflict cannot last forever. It must give to an overthrow of relations and such means of production will have to be owned and operated by the society. Industrial capitalists, beginning with the biggest ones, will be deprived step by step of their ownership. Collective labour and its individual appropriation are in conflict with each other.

The Working Class

It was Karl Marx who, for the first time, put the working class at the centre of history. That was because of the intricate and central position of this class in the entire intricate structure and configuration of labour and production system based upon machines. At last a form was found by history through which the mass of means of production and labour would be taken over by the social collective; not all the means but basically the mass collective capitalist production process with aggregate labour. The small or individual ownership will continue for a long historical period.

 And at last a class was found with such a position in the whole mode of production, in the course of and consequent upon the industrial revolution, who could directly replace and take over the means of production based on industrial machines, which were run by the collective labour. This class was the ‘proletariat’ or the working class. In the Marxist lexicon the word ‘proletariat’ was used in the sense that it was deprived of the very means of production that it was operating with or working upon. In the course of history the words ‘working class’ came to be used more and more, as its positive organised side, the side which was more conscious. The working class represents the creative force of history. It produces values, material as well as cultural, in the present society. So, it creates and re-produces the existing society.

 It is this very force that is most suited to the job of creating a new society. Marx and Lenin have described several criteria as to why the working class is the most advanced and most revolutionary, and not others like the peasants and the petty bourgeoisie. It is because of basically their ‘place in production’. The working class ‘by nature’ fights for collective ownership; it has to. Therefore, its view of socialism is collective. Marx in his Manifesto clarifies, and Lenin later elaborates, as to why the petty producers like the peasants, artisans and so on are not so revolutionary, not ‘entirely anti-capitalist production’. That is because they fight for liberation of their individual or private means of production from capitalism. As such they are themselves new sources of capitalist relations. ‘Petty-bourgeois production generates capitalism every minute,’ said Lenin. That is why, the petty-bourgeois view of socialism is limited and tends to get merged with some kind of capitalism, ultimately. Here the very nature and structure of a class is decisive. And by nature Marx means their place in production.

The working class is placed by ‘history’, that is, by the result of the previous historical development to overthrow the relations of exploitation, finally. It is also a collective class at the centre of modern production which is the very basis of society. It is a class in direct relation with and opposition to the capitalist class. Therefore, it is most suited for socialism and communism.

Marx and Engels did not emphasise unemployment, beggary, poverty, wretchedness and so on as the criteria for determining who is revolutionary. The unemployed are thrown out of production by the capitalist cycle, which keeps a certain minimum of them as the ‘reserve army’. They are important for mass movements and no doubt have a big role to play. But they are not builders of the present society nor of the future, because of their deprived position. Besides, Marx also criticised the role of the lumpenised and vagabond sections who become habituated to thrive on the society as ‘parasites’ and who would like to live on other classes. They often act as a reactionary shock force, as Lenin points out. They may even act as the base of fascism.

It does not mean that the unemployed are unimportant; in fact they are very important, but not from the point of view of ‘position in production’. They have to be organised by the working class to struggle for jobs and revolu-tionary actions. But a wrong reading of their role misplaces them in history, as the ‘new Left’ did in the 1970s and later, to the exclusion of the working class.

Marx has analysed the role and place of various classes in his Communist Manifesto.

STR and Working Class

The scientific and technological revolution (STR) has changed many features of the working class. The Marxists and scientific socialists cannot remain indifferent to the changes being brought about by the STR. It is having a deep impact on the nature and structure of the working class and other sections. It is also creating new sections. For example, the structure of the working class is changing from production to services and information, though the number of workers is increasing. This and other changes demand a thorough investigation and study of the social and scientific processes, as Marx and Lenin did in their days. We have to learn scientific methods of analysis.

 Today, the STR is causing deep-going changes in the structure and composition of the society, causing rapid urbanisation as never before, creating changes in the means of production and communication, etc. Today, the role of communication and information has increased as never before, and therefore the importance of sections and classes operating them has increased.

Information has entered production process as a key factor.

A scientific analysis of the new revolutions and discoveries in science and technology is needed for the sake of developing scientific theories in the manner of Karl Marx, whose scientific methodology needs to be mastered.

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