In the past few columns I have tried to argue that democracy, and the universalisation of the democracy idea, demands a rethink from Marxists and communists about their political practice. Today, I will try to conclude this series of articles by attempting to show that it is not merely the question of democracy, but the very development of capitalism which demands such a rethink.
When Marx identified the working class as the “agent of history” he did so not because his heart beat for the poor or because he concocted some fancy social engineering model in his head. Rather, a study of history and an examination of the capitalist economy convinced him that desirable social change, which will emancipate human beings from want and give freedom, can only occour through the agency of the working class.
Let us retrace the intellectual steps which led Marx to this conclusion.
Marx argued that economic and political conditions prevalent under capitalism render the working class both capable and willing to overthrow this exploitative system. In other words, the working class had both the means, as well as the desire to overthrow capitalism.
Let us first see the weapons to overthrow capitalism, which Marx identified with the working class. The working class was numerically the largest in society. Even where industrialisation was yet nascent, the trend was clearly towards the division of society between those who owned capital and those who worked for capital, with the latter comprising an overwhelming majority of the population. The structure of modern industry was such that it concentrated massive numbers of humans inside large factories and mega cities, thus welding them into a coherent social class. Their numbers and concentration in centres of economic activity allowed them to bring the entire economy to a stop if they all went on strike at the same time. Therefore, for most communists, the general strike, where the entire country’s workforce downs tools for political demands, has been identified as the ultimate weapon of the workers’ revolution. Therefore too, most communists have spent much of their time organising the workers into a coherent and self-conscious group (class) and aligning the poor peasants and landless agricultural workers with the urban industrial workers to build this large political constituency.
This strength in numbers and their ability to strike (in both senses of the word) was what, for Marx, gave the working class and its allies, the capability of being the destroyers of capitalism. No other class in society possessed this strength.
But Marx went on to demonstrate that, the working class also possessed the desire to destroy the system called capitalism. This was because the workers were exploited and oppressed. Their labour produced the wealth of society and made the capitalists super rich, but they themselves were given starvation wages, lived degrading lives and had negligible legal and political rights and low social status. This provided the workers with a desire to use their weapon of numerical majority to strike at the capitalist system. Therefore, the rule of the working class (“dictatorship of the proletariat”) was conceived as the rule by the majority which had till then been denied political rights and which would end exploitation and oppression.
One must remember that for Marx, there is a clear distinction between exploitation (which is an economic relation) and oppression (which is a social relation). Exploitation occours when one person sells his or her labour power to another. This labour power creates value, which becomes the property of the person who hired the labourer. However well the labourer may be paid, his wage will always remain a fraction of the total value his labour creates, as otherwise it would not be economically viable to hire him. That the labourer gets paid less than what he has produced, and the surplus value remains with the person who has hired him, is defined as exploitation. Oppression refers to the extra-economic measures which maximise the difference between the total value produced by the labourer and the wage s/he gets, like long working hours, starvation wages, child labour, hazardous working conditions, lack of political and legal rights, social discrimination, etc. Exploitation, in this definition, can only occour when the worker is working as only then does s/he get paid a wage which is less than the total value his labour creates, whereas oppression can occour irrespective of employment.
But for workers in 19th century Europe, exploitation and oppression were unified in actually lived life, even if they were theoretically distinct, just like it is for workers in countries like Pakistan and India today. To recap, industrial capitalism had created large armies of labourers who had no option but to sell their labour power to survive. These workers formed a clear majority in society and any precipitate action by them could destroy the foundations of the system. Further, they were grossly exploited and oppressed which gave them a strong incentive to do precisely this. Therefore, Marx’s famous statement “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains; you have a world to win”.
Over the past century and a half, all these four characteristics which made the working class the transformative agent of history, have themselves been radically transformed.
In countries of advanced capitalism, technology has advanced so far that very few workers are now needed for producing goods. They are not anymore a numerical majority as in earlier times. Further, the successful working of democracy has fractured the structural unity of the working class as a political unit which it was in the days before universal franchise. The trade union has been supplanted by the parliamentary constituency as the primary vehicle of the working class’s political agency. Therefore one finds the inexplicable phenomenon of strong communist party led trade unions, but weak communist parties in all functional democracies. The same worker, who is the backbone of the trade union, does not vote for the working class party in the elections. If communists have failed to uphold democracy in societies they controlled power in, they have failed even more abysmally to understand the implications for their politics of the success of democracy in bourgeois societies.
Further, exploitation and oppression have been de-coupled. Those who are exploited (the industrial working class) are not the really oppressed in our societies. In fact, the industrial working class is (despite their poverty relative to the vulgar accumulation of wealth by the capitalists and their hanger-ons) far better off than those who are outside the economic system of industrial capitalism, like the agricultural worker, small and medium peasant and the tribal who are thoroughly oppressed. Similarly, in the advanced capitalist countries the workers are doing very well compared to the chronic unemployed, single mothers, ethnic minorities, blacks, etc. Protest of the oppressed is just rebellion, often only riot, but never a revolution. The exploited, who can bring revolution, have been co-opted politically. As G.A. Cohen, the well known Marxist philosopher put it, “If you cannot convince the worker / peasant to ballot for revolution, how are you going to convince him to take a bullet for revolution?”
This, in my view, is the great challenge before communists today. Are the material bases for emancipatory social transformation in today’s world the same as they were in Marx’s time? Has history been stagnant for a century and a half? Can we transcend this fracture of the political constituency of the revolution? Or has the transformative agency in history transformed itself into something we are not able to identify? Can we really be good disciples of Marx and engage in ruthless criticism of our own ideology and political legacy? In answers to these and similar questions will the future of communism be decided in the present century.
~ ~ ~
This was also published in The Post on 18 April, 2007.