Whatever Happened to the Proletariat?

The Left Forum was held in New York on the May 29th-31st weekend and thousands attended.  It offered numerous panels led by academics, activists and independent thinkers of every strip as well as film screenings and public plenaries.  Everyone ran into someone they knew from a past life or started a new friendship.  While a lot of grey-haired veterans of the ‘60s were present, a strong turn out of millennials confirmed that the left is alive in America.

The one thing missing from the gathering was “the proletariat.”  Remember in The Communist Manifesto when Marx warns: “Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution.  The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”  The word proletariat was never formally mentioned during the weekend.

What happened to the proletariat?

The Forum was a joyous gathering hosting diverse discussions involving critical social, political and intellectual issues.  Topics ranged from Black Lives Matter to anti-fracking, the national security state and the $15-hr minimum wage to the Islamic State, Cuba and even Victor Serge.  In one panel on women & the Red Scare, 99-year-old Miriam Moskowitz talked about having been railroaded by the FBI, convicted of espionage and served 2 years in a federal penitentiary; her conviction was overturned, yet she has not received justice, an exoneration.  Individually, each session had value.

The conference confirmed that the left serves two important roles: it articulates a critical perspective on key issues and it champions individual and collective activism.  Unfortunately, the left is playing a mostly defensive role, trying to preserve lost gains as global economic reorganization remakes the country.  As many presenters made clear, the tyranny of finance capital, old-time racism, carbon polluters and the national-security state dominates American politics.

Sadly, the conference offered no revolutionary vision to inspire the vast American populace to change the system.  A host of trying concerns knit together a loose confederation of different interests that share one underlying belief: there’s a need to create a more equitable society, one based on a more humane, non-racist and environmentally-sound redistribution of wealth.  Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), the Democratic Party’s quality conscious, articulate this vision.

The media regularly reports on political bribery scandals, secret campaign funds and luxury speaking-engagement junkets.  Today’s ruling class, the 1 percent is not – in Marx’s words – “trembling.”  Like robber barons of old, today’s ruling class is laughing all the way to the bank.

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For a century, the concept of proletariat anchored radical analysis and politics, theory and practice.  Its now all but disappeared.

From European revolutionaries of 1848 to victims of the ‘50s Red Scare, it was a concept understood by radicals of every strip.  The proletariat was the vanguard of struggle, at once the most advanced sector of the capitalist system in terms of generating profit as well as the most exploited.  Given Marx’s dialectic thinking, the proletariat prefiguring a utopian future, suggesting new forms of social organization.  Today, the proletariat has vanished from radical discourse.  But has it disappeared from the historical stage?

Marx was a student of Hegel and believed in the dialectic, that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction.  In the Communist Manifesto, he defines the proletariat in the following terms:

The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.

Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.

Who was Marx’s proletariat?  He was an industrial workingman (we’re dealing with 19th century conventions):  “Owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman.  He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him.”  He also was an individual, a man:  “The proletarian is without property; his relation to his wife and children has no longer anything in common with the bourgeois family relations; modern industry labour, modern subjection to capital, the same in England as in France, in America as in Germany, has stripped him of every trace of national character.  Law, morality, religion, are to him so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests.”  The proletariat knew the system was rigged.

Often forgotten, for Marx the proletariat was not the “dangerous class,” the lumpen-proletariat.  He called the lowest class, “the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society ….”  He did acknowledge, that they “may, here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution; its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.”

The same year Marx issued the Communist Manifesto, 1848, Pierre Proudhon, France’s leading revolution and an anarchist, insisted,

“the proletariat must emancipate itself without the help of the government.”  He saw the proletariat remaking society: the “problem before the labouring classes . . . [is] not in capturing, but in subduing both power and monopoly, – that is, in generating from the bowels of the people, from the depths of labour, a greater authority, a more potent fact, which shall envelop capital and the state and subjugate them.”

The proletariat was a shared concept among the 19th and early-20th century left.  Where Marx called for the end of exploitation, Proudhon called for an end to domination; where one saw class, the other saw hierarchy.  Both saw the proletariat as the revolutionary force that could overthrow the tyranny of the capitalist system, both exploitation and domination.  The proletariat was at once the most exploited sector of capitalist society and, in breaking its chains, ushered in a utopian, “communist,” society.

No one speaks in these terms anymore.  Over the last quarter-century, the political imagination of the American left has withered, become instrumentalized into do-good activism.  Not that this activism is unimportant.  Battles against racist cops, antiabortion ravers, environmental criminals, corrupt banksters or revolving-door government cons are but a few of the fronts in with the broad left is confronting a system in crisis.

In Marx’s day, the proletariat was the industrial working class.  Remember, it’s 1860s London of the early factory system and steamship imperialism.  Marx identified the proletariat as those who generated the most surplus value (i.e., profit) and, thus, experienced the greatest degree of exploitation.  They had the most to loose, thus most challenged the owners of the means of production, the capitalist.

Is there a proletariat today?

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Once upon a time, the left — whether Marxists, socialists, anarchists or social democrats — shared a common understanding of the proletariat.  It meant the most exploited, thus most pivotal, thus the most revolutionary sector, of the working class.  But it also meant something more, a force that prefigured new forms of cooperative social relations, communism.

The Bolshevik Revolution killed the proletariat.  First under Lenin, then under Stalin, the centralized party, claiming leadership as the vanguard of the working class, superseded the proletariat.  In the U.S., from the 1930s to 1950s, the proletariat became just another sector of the fragmented working class, organized by often-corrupt unions and those aligned with the Soviet Union, thus decried as “national security threats.”  The proletariat was jettisoned from political discourse during the tumultuous ‘60s like so much historical dead weight.

Now, a half-century later, is there is a proletariat in the U.S. today?  It’s easy to say, “No!”  The traditional industrial working class has all but disappeared and the social struggle is varied and diverse.  The left seems bound together with little but a shared hope that activist intervention and grassroots politics can contain the next crisis let alone right the wrongs that so oppress contemporary American social life.

But if “Yes,” who is it?  Is it the increasing number of inner-city African-Americans and others fighting police lynchings?  Is it the increasing number of rural and suburban Americans fighting fracking?  Is it the growing number of whistleblowers and journalists defending the right to know?

Often overlooked, is the new proletariat the legions of contingent – i.e., freelancers, contractors, consultants — workers hungry for a paycheck and willing to work for what’s been dubbed “the sharing economy?”  There are the estimated 9,000 companies identified with the new for of high-tech innovation.

This new form of exploitation, of turning oneself into a commodity, is spreading throughout the economy.  Its gaining ground within transportation, with companies like Uber and Lyft; apartment rentals with Airbnb; good and services, like designer clothes from RentTheRunway; and odd jobs with TaskRabbit.  And don’t forget adjunct faculty, the exploited intellectual labor force who keeps the billion-dollar collage education racket functioning.

Once upon a time, in Marx’s day, workers sold their labor power; today, everyone sells their personal surplus value, whether a room in their apartment, their car as a driver or their blood by the liter.  Today, nothing is not for sale.

More troubling, capitalism has evolved from an industrial to a financial system, from a nation-state operation to a global enterprise.  The revolutions of 1848 that inspired Marx and Proudhon took place at the dawn of industrial capitalism, a century-and-a-half ago, and the world has changed since then.  However, the tyranny imposed as the fundamental conditions of modern life – exploitation and domination – persist. The question remains: What happened to the proletariat?

David Rosen is the author of the forthcoming, Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com





David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.