8. Proletariat and Communism

Communism is the negation of the proletarian condition by the proletarians themselves. The proletariat and communism are realities that are intimately and contradictorily linked. If we separate them we can understand neither the communist movement nor the proletarian revolution.

• Lenin

Lenin, following Kautsky, said that the proletarians are not capable, on their own, of going beyond a trade unionist consciousness. They can merely dream of selling themselves for the highest price, but not of the revolutionizing of society. Lenin was wrong. Proletarians are incapable of attaining a clear awareness of their economic interests. Proletarians are commodities but they are also unsuccessful merchants. In their struggle and in their business deals the proletarians endlessly demonstrate that they do not know what they want and that they mix up and confuse economic and human realities.

This is a drawback, because with respect to the defence of their economic interests, the proletariat is much less effective than the bourgeoisie. But we cannot judge the proletariat according to a bourgeois standard.

Lenin was right to emphasize the discontinuity between trade union consciousness and revolutionary consciousness. The latter is not merely the most extreme version of the former. Both go hand in hand. Revolutionary consciousness, however, and for us this means communist consciousness, does not have to be imported from the outside, it is not a product of the intellectuals as a social category. Lenin’s point of view is not stupid, as certain defenders of the people think, but merely takes account of what appeared to indeed be taking place. This appearance would be immediately contradicted by a period of revolution.

The proletariat shows every day that it is already beyond the economy. Its ineffectiveness and its naïve illusions are the negative and fleeting obverse of its humanity. In the struggle, and independently of the necessarily limited nature of its demands, the proletariat demonstrates in many ways, and with many lapses, its humanity and its aspiration towards communism.

What is of interest here is not what the proletariat is or seems to be when it is working, when it marches on May Day, or when it responds to opinion polls. Its fundamental situation will be require it, and already requires it, to act in a communist way.

In normal times the proletariat, in order to survive, must seek to compensate, in the thousands of ways that are available to it, for this fundamental privation. It finds interests, fatherlands, and drugs in the spectacle. It seeks to live vicariously through the power of its enterprise or of its trade union. Capital cannot abolish generalized prostitution, but it can entertain those who prostitute themselves. It consoles them by allowing them to “realize” themselves and deceive themselves in commodities and images.

The proletariat is not the positive embodiment of communism within capitalism. Nor is it permanently integrated for all of eternity within the system that sucks its blood and immiserates its life. Its reality is fundamentally contradictory. It seems to be integrated, while at the same time it blindly lurches towards communism. Suddenly it opens up a breach. It rushes in and enlarges it. The consequences of its actions push it forward. It discovers its power and does things that it never would have dreamed that it was capable of doing.

• Bourgeois and Proletarians

What is the proletariat? Where did it come from and where is it heading? What is its size?

With regard to the numerical significance of the working class, in the narrowest sense of the term, some assessments can be made on the basis of official statistics. It represents a small part of the world population; we can estimate it to consist of between 200 and 250 million individuals. This number, of course, does not account for the total number of proletarians insofar as it excludes the families of the workers, and due to the fact that it does not include a large number of proletarianized salaried workers, even in industry. In any event, the numerical significance of the working class, which is already enormous if we compare it to that of the bourgeoisie, does not tell the whole story regarding its real importance.

We must also point out that this importance, contrary to the theories that certain vanguard sociologists are advocating, is growing.

Like the bourgeoisie, however, the proletariat is not a thing that we can touch, define and count with precision. This does not diminish its reality at all, even if the sociologists cannot catch it in their academic nets.

We cannot reduce the proletariat to a standardized image: miserable starvelings, workers who are little more than monkeys, waving a red flag. It is only in certain situations that the workers’ outlines clearly emerge.

Just as the bourgeoisie is defined as a caste, by its privileges and its special characteristics, by how hard it is to join its ranks, instead of as a class, so, too, is the proletariat reduced to a socio-professional category or an aggregate of socio-professional categories.

On the basis of such a definition it is easy to show that it is difficult, if not impossible, to define the proletariat. Does it really exist at all? Is it not the case that technological progress and social welfare measures have caused it to disappear? The class struggle, even if it is granted any importance, is reduced to just another kind of conflict. Male and female, young and old, town and country, are all engaged in conflict with each other. So why shouldn’t the same be true of workers and employers?

Our sociologists accuse Marx of having invented the class struggle and of not understanding the concept of social class. He contradicted himself because sometimes he spoke of the peasants as a class and at other times he spoke of them as divided into opposed classes.

The fact that the peasants can be considered to be a single class because they have common interests and illusions, because they want the same things, and that these same peasants can be divided into poor and rich peasants, into farmers and landowners, transcends the understanding of a sociologist. The sociologist is not capable of understanding that a class cannot be defined, from either the intellectual or the practical point of view, independently of the activity that constitutes it as a class. There are no classes independent of the class struggle.

To reduce a class to a socio-professional category is to give the illusion of science and rigor. In fact, everything depends on two more or less arbitrary criteria that are chosen to divide the social body. Above all to reify reality.

Everything is reduced to the place that capital attributes to humans. A particular division is frozen in time: intellectuals, workers, residents of the poor suburban concentrations, those who earn minimum wage. In this way, neither the cause of these situations nor how they can be overcome is perceived.

Nor are those hypotheses any better which, accepting the fact that “classes” will always be classes, imagine that some classes will defeat others. In this view, in the west the bourgeoisie rules while in the countries of the east the proletariat establishes its dictatorship.

For us, the proletariat cannot be defined separately from its struggle against capital, that is, separately from communism.

This does not mean that a class is constituted by all the people who fight for the same cause. In that case, the bourgeois who sympathizes with the revolution is transformed into a proletarian and a reactionary street sweeper would be a banker. Anti-capitalism, that is, communism, can become a cause for many people but by its very nature it is not a cause. It is an activity linked to a particular social situation.

The proletariat is that fraction of the population that produces capital, and is separated from its ownership and control. The nightmare of self-management is making the proletarians perform bourgeois functions. This chimera is being implemented without having to abolish classes. The bourgeoisie and the proletariat contradictorily coexist as a single group. The same man who tends to his machine will be his own enemy on the management council.

It is sometimes the case that, from time to time, children of the bourgeoisie ruin their health in the factories and workers increase the number of their possessions at the cost of some sacrifices. This has nothing to do with the abolition of classes.

There is a solid line of demarcation between the managers and the slaves of capital. It just so happens that some people have one foot inside that border and one foot outside of it. They have to choose one or the other.

Will it be necessary to define the dividing line? One could attempt to clarify it with reference to one’s attitude towards money. It is of course true that bourgeois and proletarians can be distinguished by the quantity of money that passes through their hands. This is not good enough, however. Basically, the proletarian does not see money as just money. For him it represents a certain number of goods. For the bourgeois, money is money-capital. He uses money to make more money. He invests it and, lo and behold, it multiplies! It is this aspect that, spanning the centuries, unites the bourgeois of the middle ages with the modern manager. Today, however, we have to add hypocrisy.

To define the bourgeois class we also have to take into account its family relations and the sociological factors that transform its children and wives into bourgeoisie.

In economic life and in the environment of the enterprises, the border is between those who have access to financial knowledge and decisions—not necessarily the technicians and accounting staff—and the others. There are those who know that an enterprise is money that is momentarily immobilized, whose purpose is to produce more money. And there are those who, comprising the great mass, see a factory above all as an affair of use values.

Pigeonholing an individual in any given class is sometimes difficult. Any given manager, any engineer, or, why not, any worker, can, due to his family background, his chances for promotion, his position in the hierarchy, his wealth or his property, be co-opted by the ruling class. On the other hand, small businessmen are connected by a thousand connections to the ruled class.

From the revolutionary point of view it is important not to reject, from the start, and consign to the bourgeois camp, the wealthy proletarians. The engineer connected with the bourgeoisie and, for even more powerful reasons, to his colleagues who do not make as much money as he does, or who do not exercise his leadership role, or who do not have his connections, can feel the contradiction between his professional and human interests and the limits imposed by financial considerations. This could cause such people to sympathize with communism, and with a world in which technical planning is not subject to the dictatorship of exchange value.

Their knowledge and abilities are necessary. We must nonetheless be careful of those who might mistakenly choose to join the revolutionary side because they are aware of the fact that their condition is being proletarianized and they ingenuously expect to become new authorities.

In a normal period, and primarily outside of the process of production, the situation might not appear to be so well defined. Society seems to be composed of particular individuals who wander about in one direction or another. The worker and the bourgeois seem to disappear in order to be nothing but equal voters or consumers who have more or less money. When a conflict breaks out, when revolution makes its appearance, the particles group together around antagonistic poles.

The proletariat is not an undifferentiated mass. Certain social layers and individuals play a crucial role by virtue of their place in production and due to their own particular qualities. They more or less help the class to constitute itself as a class.

Some social layers are more restless than others or assert their discontent more openly. Appearances, however, can be deceiving. A group that is more turbulent than another could prove to be hardly revolutionary. There are those who protest for their own very personal reasons. They want to rebel because their status has declined inside the system. But they do not take aim at the foundations of society. They might even be more afraid of the prospect of a revolution than capital is.

Those who seem to be the most integrated, the most tranquil because they are spoiled by the system can, upon awakening, go right to the heart of the matter. The power and the self-confidence that their situation allows them could permit them to go on the offensive without any concessions to capital.

The development of individuals in social classes cannot be considered independently of the depth of the conflict and the situation as a whole. Some social layers, such as students, intellectuals, or executives cannot rise by their own efforts beyond a corporative consciousness or, even worse, a pseudo-revolutionary consciousness. If communism develops, these layers, by virtue of the lack of autonomy that characterizes them, will be radicalized. If they do not have the power to defend their real interests, they can only obtain that power by joining with and supporting the workers.

Will the immense mass of peasants of the third world be able to participate in the communist revolution? Is it part of the proletariat? Yes, but not due to the degree of its poverty. The more direct the influence of capital is over its existence, the more this mass of peasants is a part of the proletariat.

Even if the peasant is not a wage worker, he tends to join the class of the workers due to the increasing influence of the commodity economy on the totality of men and resources. The offensive of the wage earning proletarians will help him identify his enemy and the solutions to his problems.

Wage labour is, in a way, the ideal relation for the exploitation of capital. It is therefore not possible to identify proletarians as wage earners in general. We have already shown how the relations of slavery were integrated into the capitalist universe and were therefore transformed with regard to their content. Countless small proprietors are directly subjected to capitalist exploitation and are often more oppressed than wage workers. The directors of large enterprises are paid wages. Therefore, they are not bourgeoisie. They lay claim to a wage and this wage is only a small part of their real contribution.

Certain professions develop more revolutionary attitudes than others. It all depends, for the most part, on the degree of identification that exists between the worker and his function.

Some play the game. They do not distance themselves from the work they perform. That is when their work, as in the case of teachers, transforms them into its own instruments. That is why their professional role becomes, by their own efforts, their own role. This is the case when the product of their labour is not a product and contributes directly to the functioning of their enterprise.

In these two cases, there is a tendency for a justificatory ideology to develop from their professional function and its contradictions. The most alienated workers end up believing that, thanks to their own abilities or to the general usefulness of their work, they are revolutionizing society.

The most lucid workers are often those who do not feel connected to their enterprise or to the function that they exercise there. And this is true of most of the workers.

By virtue of their place in production, and the solidarity that is generated by their place in production, and from their human qualities, the workers are at the heart of the communist revolution. The American or Soviet worker, while it is easier for him to survive than it is for an Indian beggar, even if he is more corrupted, also occupies a better vantage point from which to recognize the nature of the oppression that weighs upon him and how to put an end to it.

It is customary to deny the working class its central role in the revolution.

Emphasis is placed on his absence from the struggles for national liberation that are in the meantime being waged by the Marxist states.

The absence of revolutionary consciousness among the masses of workers of the rich countries and the advantages they derive from the system are highlighted.

Other social categories are entrusted with the role that the workers seem to be unable to fulfil. The revolutions of the 19th century were the work of artisans. In the 20th century, the Leninist intellectuals had to take their place. In the countries of the third world it is the peasants who now play that role.

If one carefully examines these matters one will see that the workers were regularly at the heart of attempts to radically transform reality. They are accused of not having been involved in revolutions that were, in the final analysis, bourgeois. When they did intervene their activities played a secondary role behind the actions of the socialist groups that, from the beginning to the end, showed that they were hardly communist at all. This or that characteristic of the proletarians who participated in the revolutions is highlighted and exaggerated to show that they were workers of dubious backgrounds or marginals, farmers, petty bourgeoisie, soldiers, or rioters passing themselves off as workers.

The modernists replace a bourgeoisified proletariat with new categories. The revolution will be the work of the young people because they are not yet domesticated, the women because they are closer to life, the hippies and other marginals because they are outside the system, the blacks because they enjoy music and have rhythm in their blood … while others do not see the need to privilege any particular category. Capital is a non-human power at the hands of which everyone is a victim and it is therefore humanity as a species that must revolt. There is no longer (or almost no longer) either a bourgeoisie or a proletariat.

This highlighting of the role of this or that social group or category of age or sex, is carried out on the basis of the values of which these groups are allegedly the bearers. There will not be so much an alteration of the choice of revolutionary subject as an implicit recognition of reality as it is. Young people will be revolutionary as young people, women as women, and as for the proletariat, which includes young people and women, it is revolutionary to the extent that it ceases to be a proletariat. The proletariat is not a social group. It is a movement. It is that which is transforming itself. It exists by virtue of its possibilities for self-destruction.

It is not that young people, women, sick people … do not have specific interests or that they are incapable of transforming reality. It is just that, except as proletarians, they can hardly defend their interests as young people, women, sick people, within any given reality. The proletarian revolution provides them with the means, without denying their ideas, to go beyond their specific demands and to surpass them. It is the young people, the women, and sick people, who act, but no longer for youth or femininity, or, on the other hand, for state subsidies and the respect of the citizens.

And the intellectuals?

In a way, the revolution demands that the proletarians become intellectuals. They must become capable of going beyond their immediate situation. Everyone knows that, at the high point of revolutions, debates are carried on in the streets concerning questions that were previously the preserve of the philosophers.

The revolution also means the end of the intellectuals as a separate social category. If the intellectuals participate in the revolution they can do so only by negating their own condition, by recognizing their partial, mutilated character. Eventually, measures must be taken to prevent them from even continuing to be intellectuals.

Intellectuals have often been attributed with a privileged role as the bearers of consciousness. By itself, consciousness is nothing and can do nothing. The intellectuals, who often think that they can rise so high as to achieve a general and objective understanding of things, often line up behind the established powers. They are subject to the worst illusions and they defend—with a critical spirit, of course—the worst outrages. They are ready to justify everything in the name of Reason, of History, of Progress.

The demands of the intellectuals serve more to encourage the bourgeoisie than the workers. It is much more noble to demand freedom of expression than to demand bread. The intellectual appears to be a defender of the general interest. The worker seems to be an egoist who is only concerned with worldly matters.

Proletarian demands, however, are more profound than those of the intellectuals. The latter specialize in demanding empty forms. When the workers demand or even impose freedom of expression, it is because they have something to say. Otherwise, the question is of relatively little interest to them. Their ability to refrain from dissociating form and content, to not fight merely for hot air, is a sign of communism. The problem with the intellectuals is that they often make their money from wind.

Young people are often the most active in revolutions. That this is perhaps due to biological causes rather than to their social situation is sufficient as an explanation. Even the ones who come from the privileged classes are less connected to the interests at stake. They have to wait for their inheritance! Capitalist society fetishizes youth and renewal but separates young people from positions of responsibility and property. They are therefore the most eager for revolution.

Besides the young, the marginal elements of the population are sometimes emphasized. They do not live like other people; are they not the future? In this case, too, there is an inability to understand that the revolution can and must arise from the heart of the system itself. This view reflects an inability to think dialectically regarding the proletariat and illusion concerning the level of independence of the marginals with respect to the system.

Will capital itself abolish the social classes, thus bypassing revolution? It has long been claimed that the bourgeois revolution would finally allow for all human beings to be equal.

The division of society into classes is healthy. Perhaps society has never enjoyed such good health, just as it has never used so many means to cause this fact to be forgotten.

Capital is, of course, an impersonal force. Everyone, to one degree or another, feels its effects. Even the poor bourgeois who works himself to exhaustion, who fights with his children, who breathes polluted air!

Some people have, more than others, the possibility of remedying the effects of capital. Unlike the general living conditions, these possibilities are today quite manifold. The opportunities for product diversification, the development of trade, are making it possible for certain groups of the population to have a level of consumption and a quality of life that are very different from and higher than that of their contemporaries. Maybe the bourgeoisie are not the happiest people but at least they can choose to cease to be bourgeois. An analogous decision is not possible for the street sweeper. If the bourgeoisie are not content with their own lifestyle, this is all the more reason to abolish this class and its society.

The bourgeoisie is not exhibitionist. It leaves exhibitionism to the nouveaux riche. Nor does it have any interest in showing off the life it leads in its dachas (Russian vacation homes in the country) and its private beaches. The proletarians have the habit of overestimating the wealth of the social classes with whom they associate in their everyday lives and underestimating the wealth of the real bourgeoisie.

Even if the bourgeoisie were to live a frugal and austere lifestyle, this would not make it disappear as a class. What counts is, above all else, its economic and social function. Their wealth is obviously connected with this function. A part of their consumption, even in western countries, is conflated with the expenses of doing business. They travel, they eat and they have sex on behalf of and at the expense of their companies.

Capital has a tendency, today more than ever, to corrode the identity of social groups. This is as true of the bourgeoisie as it is of the working class. The voter or the consumer is beyond class. The pleasure that he takes in his purchases is not linked to a status but to impersonal money. This capitalist negation of classes is helping to pave the way for a classless society. But this trend is itself negated by economic need, which tends to make wealth hierarchical and to separate functions.

The struggle of communism is not waged on behalf of any particular class but rather on behalf of humanity. This struggle is, however, directed against those who seek to negate all of humanity. The revolution will not be universally accepted and it would be dangerous to try to make people believe that it will. Maybe some bourgeoisie will join the movement but this will not alter in the least the fact that the interests of the bourgeoisie and of communism are mutually opposed. The proletarian revolution will gain immediately as the bourgeoisie are dispossessed. Communism is about the human species; but while there will be people who can identify their immediate interests with the species during a period of rupture, there will be others who cannot.

• Waiting for Godot

What do revolutionaries propose to do whilst we are waiting for the big night?

We have no silver bullet for hastening the moment nor do we have an ideal line of conduct to defend. The communists are stuck, like everyone else, to the capitalist glue and are therefore incapable of designing a pure and universal strategy that would make the best use of individual interests, abilities and conditions. In any event, we do not propose that the “masses” should do anything we would not do, and vice-versa. We can merely point out differences in behaviour.

We are not at all purists and we accept reforms, however limited, if they are real. It is easy to show how strict one is when one is talking about the great victory, when it is paid for with a lot of hot air.

We are not at all purists and we accept action from the base with those who do not share our views, as long as the perspective of the action are clear.

It is advisable to be flexible on the practical level in order to be able to take advantage of constantly changing and unpredictable situations. We have to know how to compromise and, above all, how to recognize compromises for what they are. We do not have recipes to offer and we criticize those who need them. No robotic commandos!

Those whose action is accompanied by an obsession about being recuperated will be recuperated immediately, and radically. Sectarianism is, above all, a way for someone to protect himself against his own uncertainties. On the other hand, when one has profound convictions, not ideologies, one can innovate, improvise, and take action without feeling that one’s purity is threatened. And if we make mistakes? It is not by wrapping oneself up, immobilized, in the truth, that the truth is preserved.

This pragmatic flexibility must be accompanied by a great deal of strictness and—we say this to shock the “free spirits”—even doctrinal dogmatism. Theoretical clarification and soundness are essential. We have to know where we are going and let other people know as well.

Our era is characterized by rigid behaviour patterns and flabby thinking. We need to break with this trend. Ideas only have interest if they provide sufficiently solid points of reference.

A classic question: should we participate in trade union activity? It all depends on the circumstances and on the people involved. But the trade unions are integrated into the system!? Maybe that would be a reason for someone to participate in them. He might want to take advantage of the benefits that trade union organizations provide, or he might want to demonstrate the limits of these benefits. Sometimes one can take a position right in the middle of the street and clearly show the contradiction between the revolutionary content and the trade union form.

While participation in the trade unions is acceptable, the conquest of the trade union apparatus for the purpose of transforming it in a revolutionary sense must be rejected.

In the struggle, provided that possibilities arise for us to organize in a broader and less specialized way, the trade unions must be rejected. The trade union form can be used in a situation of retreat but must not impede the further development or the intensification of the struggle. Action on behalf of the class must not be opposed to action on behalf of an organization of specialists in the formulation of demands or the conduct of negotiations. In any event, it is certain that as long as the workers are commodities whose price is subject to negotiation, the trade union structures will have a reason to exist.

Limited struggles that prepare the way for the final struggle must not be renounced. Nor should wage struggles be scorned, which constitute steps towards the abolition of wage labour. The economic bottom line manifests the capacity for resistance and can become dangerous for the system by threatening its heart, which is its wallet. They are poor revolutionaries who want to fix the attention of the proletarians on distant questions wreathed in ideological smoke. To renounce the struggle because “it’s not worth the effort” is often the expression of a more generalized passivity.

Are we to fall into the trap of efficacy for efficacy’s sake, into economism? No, but we do believe that class action tends to create its own content. That is why powers of every kind seek to suppress it.

Supporters of the most immediate and most varied possible forms of pressure and reaction on the part of the working class, we distrust many of the reform-oriented goals that are dissociated from immediate possibilities and relations of force. Even, and above all, when this involves a transitional program with a Trotskyist flavour. These performances, which allegedly have the goal of unifying and clarifying the proletariat, merely obscure the picture.

If it is true that it is right to struggle, and to struggle in the most generalized possible ways, in order to reduce working time, it is also true that it is hardly beneficial to set goals concerning the length of the working week or on the retirement age. This would merely be to accept them at face value and to internalize capitalist limitations and separations. The choice is between working time and free time, the condition of a convict or that of an inmate in a nursing home. The struggle is channelled and latent communism is sterilized.

The only acceptable perspective is communism. It is not a distant abstraction but the human solution for all problems. It involves the making manifest of the meaning of the proletarian movement, of showing the power that it possesses.

It is often the case that wars are not declared: absenteeism, interfering with the speed of the assembly line, sabotage, theft … are the most effective. We do not turn them into fetishes. Capital can tolerate them and turn them into pressure valves. They cannot replace a more generalized struggle—but they do sustain fighting morale, they develop initiative and provide healthy and immediate satisfactions.

We have to popularize the means of action that, by putting immediate pressure on the exploiters, announce the communist world. It is often possible, in a hidden way but also massively and openly, to freely distribute products and perform services for free. The postal workers might deliver mail without stamps, the railroad conductors might not collect tickets. If the most militant workers are fired it will be necessary to reintegrate them in the struggle, by employing sabotage if necessary.

Our strategy can be expressed as: less useless talk, less spectacle, but the working class will use the countless means that it has at its disposal in order to make itself respected and to prepare the future. A little less of the spirit of serious reformism and a little more provocative and joyful laughter.

On the historical scale, the communist revolution is imminent. We are not writing for future generations.

By saying this, we know full well that many revolutionaries have already proclaimed the imminence of the revolution and were deceived. They regularly underestimated the system’s capacities for adaptation. It seems that today, however, the shoe is on the other foot. Is it not the case that the capital’s most recent bogus public image, that of its power and of its immortality, has been implanted in everyone’s minds?

Machine technology having developed to the point of automation, it tends to unify the planet; it is at the peak of its power but it has also encountered its historical limits. It has no more answers for the destruction of the social fabric or for the degradation of the natural environment that it engenders. It cannot trim its own fat. It is its own power, its own concentration, that is rendering it powerless.

The crisis of economic civilization has gradually taken shape as an economic crisis. Poetic justice! But the current phase cannot be reduced to a temporary period of economic difficulties.

To escape from its crisis it is necessary to increase the rate of surplus value, and to restore the depressed profitability of capital. Many technical, ecological and human obstacles stand in the way of this goal. They can only be overcome by enormous struggles and changes. The proletariat is now showing, in a thousand ways, that it will not let history pass it by without its involvement. It is also showing that it will not settle for a reformist solution. A solution that would merely consist in assuring the proletariat’s complicity in its own defeat and burial that would be worse than the defeat inflicted upon it by Stalinism and fascism.