A 1953 essay by Claude Lefort of Socialisme Ou Barbarie that represents part of the turn to the sociologically oriented approach to the working class fundamental for the group’s revolutionary project, in particular from 1953 through 1957.
There is no phrase from Marx more often repeated: “The history of all societies to date has been the history of class struggle.”1 These words have lost none of their explosive potential. People are continuously providing practical commentaries, charlatans have obscured their meaning, replacing them with more reassuring truths. Yet must we still say that history is defined entirely around class struggle, that history today is defined entirely by the struggles of the proletariat against the class that exploits it, and that historical creativity and the creativity of the proletariat are today one and the same? On these points, there is no ambiguity in Marx. He wrote: “Of all the instruments of production the greatest productive power is the proletariat itself.”2 But rather than subordinate everything to this productive power and interpret the development of society as a whole in terms shaped by that of the revolutionary class, pseudo-Marxists of all kinds have tried to base the conception of history on less moveable grounds. They have converted the theory of class struggle into a purely economic science and claim to have derived its laws in the image of those of classical physics, deducing a superstructure and thereby conflating class comportment3 with ideological phenomena. Taking an expression from Capital, they say that the proletariat and bourgeoisie are “personifications of economic categories,” the former of wage labor and the latter of capital. The struggle between them is the mere reflection of an objective conflict, the nature of which is tied to a given period as a function of the development of productive forces and existing relations of production. Because this conflict results from the development of productive forces, history is essentially reduced to it, and is in the process unwittingly transformed into a particular episode in the evolution of nature. Simultaneously, the role of class and of human beings is vacated. To be sure, this theory does not dispense entirely with interest in the development of the proletariat, but restricts it to objective characteristics – to extension, density, and concentration. In the best scenario, these characteristics are then brought into relation with large-scale proletarian actions. This theoretical viewpoint monitors the natural evolution of a proletariat that it casts as an unconscious and undifferentiated mass. The permanent struggle against exploitation, revolutionary actions and ideological phenomena that accompany them, are not the real history of the class. They are mere expressions of an economic function.
Not only did Marx distance himself from this theory, there is an explicit critique of it in the philosophical work of his youth. According to Marx, attempts to grasp social development in itself, independently of concrete human beings and the relations they establish amongst themselves – be they of cooperation or of conflict – are expressions of the alienation inherent in capitalist society. Because they are made strangers to their work, because their social situation is imposed on them independently of their will, people are inclined to grasp human activity in general on the model of physics and to grasp society as a being in-itself.
Marx’s critique did not destroy this tendency any more than he eliminated alienation by revealing it. On the contrary, this tendency developed out of other aspects of Marx in the form of a so-called economic materialism that, with time, came to play a specific role in the mystification of the workers’ movement. Its duplication of the social division within the proletariat between the worker elite associated with the intelligentsia and the masses fed into a command ideology the bureaucratic character of which is fully revealed in Stalinism. By converting the proletariat into a mass governed by laws and its agency into an economic function, this tendency justifies the reduction of workers to the status of executants within their own organizations, which have become instruments of worker exploitation.
The proletariat is the real response to this economic pseudo-materialism. Its response is elaborated through its practical existence. Anyone who looks at its history can see that the proletariat has not merely reacted to definite, external economic factors (degree of exploitation, standard of living, mode of concentration), but that it has really acted. The proletariat has intervened in a revolutionary manner based not on some schema provided by the objective situation, but on its total, cumulative experience. While it would be absurd to interpret the history of the workers’ movement without continuous reference to the economic structure of society as a whole at the time, to reduce workers to that structure is to condemn oneself to ignore three-quarters of its concrete class comportment. Who would try to deduce a century’s worth of transformations in worker mentalités4 , methods of struggle and forms of organization on the basis of purely economic processes?
Following Marx, it is essential to affirm that the working class is not merely an economic category, but the “greatest of productive forces.” We must show how this is the case both against critics and mystifiers and for the development of revolutionary theory. But we must also recognize that this topic was only broached in Marx and that its expression through his conception of the proletariat remained conceptually unclear. He was often content with abstract claims about the role of changes of consciousness in class formation without explaining what they meant. At the same time, in the interest of showing the necessity of fundamental revolution, he often depicted the working class in terms so dark that they lead one to wonder how workers could possibly acquire consciousness of their situation and their role in the management of Humanity. Marx argues that capitalism has transformed the worker into a machine and robbed it of “every human physical and moral characteristic” and that capitalism has removed from work all semblance of “individual interaction.” The result has been a “loss of humanity.” However, according to Marx, because it is subhuman, because it is totally alienated and an accumulation of all social distress, the proletariat’s revolt against its fate can emancipate all of humanity. (It requires “a class…for which humanity is entirely lost and which can only reconquer itself by conquering all of humanity” or “the proletariat of the present day alone, totally excluded from all personal activity, is able to realize its total personal activity and no longer recognize limits on the appropriation of the totality of collective forces.”5 ). At the same time, it is clear that proletarian revolution is not a liberatory explosion followed by the instant transformation of all society (Marx directed much sarcasm at this anarchist naïveté). Rather, proletarian revolution is when the exploited class assumes the management of all of society. But how could the proletariat successfully take on the innumerable social, political, economic, and cultural tasks that a successful revolution would bring if the night before it had been radically excluded from social life? One response could be: the class undergoes a metamorphosis through revolution. But even as there is an acceleration of historical processes in a revolutionary period, one that upsets existing relations amongst men and establishes communication that links each to society as a whole, phenomena which are required for the extraordinary maturation of the class that revolution brings, nonetheless it would be absurd, sociologically speaking, to see the class as born of revolution. Its maturation is only possible due to prior experience that it interprets and puts into a positive practice.
Marx’s characterizations of the total alienation of the proletariat are linked to the idea that the overthrow of the bourgeoisie is the necessary and sufficient condition for the victory of socialism. In these cases, he is preoccupied with the destruction of the old order and opposes to it communist society, like a positive is opposed to a negative. These points show that Marx was necessarily dependent on a particular historical situation. The unfolding of subsequent decades requires us to think otherwise about the passage from the old order into a post-revolutionary society. The problem of revolution has become that of the proletariat’s capacity to manage all of society. This requires us to think about the development of this capacity within capitalist society.
There is no lack of indications in Marx of the material that would be required to outline another conception of the proletariat. For example, Marx writes that communism is the actual movement of overthrowing the existing society that is presupposed by it. From a certain viewpoint, this indicates continuities that would link social forces in the existing capitalist stage to the future of humanity. More explicitly, Marx highlights the originality of the proletariat, which already represents the “dissolution of all classes,”6 he says, because, it is not linked to any particular interest, because it absorbs aspects of previous social classes and recombines them in a unique manner, and because it has no necessary link with the soil or, by extension, with any nation. What is more, while Marx insists – correctly – on the negative, alienated character of proletarian work, he also shows that this same situation puts the proletariat in a universal situation because of technological development which has enabled an interchangeability of tasks and a rationalization of production virtually without limits. This enables us to see the creative function of the proletariat within Industry, which he calls the “open book of human forces.”7 In this, the proletariat appears, not as subhuman, but as the producer of social life in its entirety. The proletariat fabricates the objects thanks to which human life continues in all domains because there is no one who does not owe his conditions of existence to industrial production. If the proletariat is the universal producer, it must somehow also be a depository of social and cultural progress.
In other places, Marx describes the development of the bourgeoisie and proletariat in much the same terms, as if the classes belong together not only because of their places in production, but also because of their mode of evolution and the relations they establish between people. For example, he writes: “The diverse individuals only constitute a class when they support a struggle against another class. The rest of the time, they confront each other in competition. At the same time, the class becomes autonomous relative to individuals, so that they find their predestined conditions of existence.”8 However, when he concretely describes the evolution of the proletariat and bourgeoisie he differentiates them radically. Essentially, the bourgeoisie compose a class because those who constitute it have a common economic function. Common interests and horizons describe their common conditions of existence for them. Independently of the politics each adopts, the bourgeoisie constitutes a homogeneous group with a fixed structure. Their commonalities of interest explain the ease with which the class can develop a specialized fraction to undertake its politics. Bourgeois politics are expressions and interpretations of these shared dispositions. This characteristic of the bourgeoisie is equally evident in the process of its historical development: “Because they were in opposition to existing conditions and the division of labor that resulted from them, the conditions of existence for isolated bourgeois became the conditions common to all of them.”9 In other words, the identity of their economic situation within feudalism unified them and gave them a class aspect, imposing on them from the beginning a simple association by resemblance. This is what Marx means by the expression the runaway serfs were already half-bourgeois. There was no continuity that linked serf and bourgeois. Rather, the latter simply legalized the former’s already-extant mode of life. As a group, the bourgeoisie insinuated itself into feudal society, and its focus was broadening its own mode of production. When this mode of production encountered the limits of the existing conditions, there was no contradiction; existing conditions merely impeded its development. Marx does not say, but enables one to say: From the beginning the bourgeoisie is what it will become, an exploiting class. Of course, it was initially underprivileged, but it already contained within itself all the characteristics that its history would simply develop.
The development of the proletariat is completely different. Reduced solely to its economic function, it represents a determinate social category. But this category does not yet posses a class direction. Its direction [sens de classe] is constituted by its original comportment: the struggle against all forms of class in the society which it confronts as adversarial strata. This does not mean that the role of class in production should be neglected; on the contrary, we will see that the role workers play in society, and those they will be called upon to play in becoming its masters, are directly rooted in their roles as producers. But the essential point is that their role does not give them the ability to act, but only an increasingly strong capacity to manage. The bourgeoisie is continually confronted with the results of its work: that is what gives it objectivity. The proletariat is raised up through its work without ever being concerned with its results. Both the objects it produces and the sequence of operations required to produce them are taken from it. While there is a progress in technical skill, this progress will only acquire a value in the future. In the present, it is inscribed in the negative image of an exploitative society. (The technical capabilities of the contemporary American proletariat have no common measure with that of the French proletariat of 1848, but both the former and the latter are equally without economic power.) It is true that workers, like the bourgeoisie, have similar interests imposed on them by their common working conditions – for example, they have an interest in full employment and higher wages. But these interests are of a different order than their most fundamental interest, which is to not be workers. It appears that workers seek higher wages in the same way as bourgeois seek profits, just as it appears both offer commodities on the market – the latter capital, the former labor-power. In fact, the bourgeoisie constitutes itself through this comportment as author of its class: it builds the system of production that is the source of its own social structure. For its part, while the proletariat seems only to react to conditions that are imposed on it, it is being matured by its exploiters. Even if the workers are points of departure for radical opposition to the system of exploitation itself, they nonetheless play an integral part in the dialectic of capital. In confrontation with the bourgeoisie, the proletariat only affirms itself as an autonomous class when it contests bourgeois power, which is to say its mode of production, or, more concretely, exploitation itself. Its revolutionary attitude constitutes its class attitude. Proletarian class direction is not developed through an accumulation of economic attributes, but rather through their radical denial in order to institute a new social order. From this follows that the proletariat, unlike the bourgeoisie, cannot cast off their chains as individuals because the fulfillment of their destiny cannot be located in what they already virtually are, but only through the abolition of the proletarian condition itself.10 Marx notes that the bourgeoisie are only of their class as “members” or as “average” individuals (that is, as passively determined by their economic situation) while the workers, forming a “revolutionary community,”11 are properly individuals to the extent they dominate their situation and immediate relations to production.
If it is true that no class can ever be reduced solely to an economic function and that a description of concrete social relations within the bourgeoisie are a necessary component of a comprehension of that class, then it is even more true that the proletariat requires a specific approach that would enable access to its subjective development. Despite some reservations concerning what is entailed by this term, it summarizes better than any other the dominant trait of the proletariat. The proletariat is subjective to the extent that its comportments are not the simple result of the conditions of its existence: its conditions of existence require of it a continuous struggle for transformation, thus a continuous distance from its immediate fate. The progress of this struggle, sense of distance and the development of the ideological content that enables them comprise an experience across which the class constitutes itself.
To paraphrase Marx again, one must avoid above all fixing the relation of the proletariat to the individual as an abstraction. One must search for how its social structure emerges from the situations of determinate individuals because it is true, according to Marx, that in society it is the proletariat which represents a fortiori an eminently social force within the present historical stage as the group which produces collective life.
The indications that we find in Marx of an orientation toward the concrete analysis of the social relations constitutive of the working class have not been developed by the Marxist movement. The fundamental questions for us have not been directly broached – how do men, placed in the conditions of industrial work, come to appropriate that work? how do they build links between specific relations amongst themselves, and how do they perceive and fashion relations with the rest of society? and, in a singular manner, how do they compose the shared experience which makes of them a historical force? For the most part they have been left aside in favor of a more abstract conception, the object of which is, for example, capitalist Society (considered in its generality). The forces which comprise it are placed on the same level. So it was for Lenin, for whom the proletariat was an entity whose historical meaning had been established once and for all and which was, with some exceptions, treated as an adversary by virtue of its external characteristics. An excessive interest was accorded to the study of “forces of production,” which were conflated with class struggle itself, as if the essential problem were to measure the pressure that one mass exerted on an opposing mass. For us, this does not at all mean that we reject the objective analysis of the structure and institutions of the social totality, nor do we imagine, for example, that the only true knowledge that can be given has to be elaborated by the proletarians themselves as a function of their rootedness in the class. This “workerist” theory of knowledge which, it must be said in passing, reduces the work of Marx to nothing, must be rejected for two reasons: first, because all knowledge claims objectivity (even as it may be conscious of being socially and psychologically conditioned); second, because the aspiration to practical and ideological universality belongs to the very nature of the proletariat, which would identify itself with society as a whole. But the fact remains that objective analysis, even carried out with the greatest rigor, as it was done in Marx’s Capital, remains incomplete because it is constrained to be only interested in the results of social life or in the fixed forms into which it is integrated (for example technical development or the concentration of capital) and to ignore the human experience that corresponds to more or less external material processes (for example, the relations of men to their work in the steam age or the age of electricity, in the age of competitive capitalism and in that of state monopoly capitalism). In a sense there is no way to separate material forms and human experience because the former is determined by the conditions in which they are made, and these conditions, which are the result of social evolution, are the work of human beings. But from a practical viewpoint, objective analysis is subordinated to concrete analysis because it is not conditions that are revolutionary, but human beings, and the ultimate question is how to know about the ways that human beings appropriate and transform their situation.
The urgency of and interest in concrete analysis comes from another direction as well. Holding close to Marx, we have underlined the role of producers in the social lives of workers. It must be said, however, that the same could be said in a general way of any class that has played any role in the history of work. But the role of the proletariat in production is unlike that of any other class from the past. Its role is specific to modern industrial society and can only be indirectly compared with other social forms which have preceded it. The idea fashionable today amongst many sociologists, for example, that the most archaic forms of primitive societies are closer to feudal Europe of the Middle Ages than the latter is to the capitalism to which it gave way, does not pay adequate attention to the role of classes and their relations. There is a double relation in any society, one amongst men and another between men and the objects they transform, but with industrial society the second relation took on a new significance. Now there is a sphere of industrial production governed by laws that are to a certain extent autonomous. Of course they are situated in a total social sphere because the relations between classes are constituted through the relations of production, but not strictly so because the technical developments and processes of rationalization which have been characteristic of capitalism since its origins have had impacts that go beyond class struggle. To take a banal example, the industrial usage of steam or electricity entail a series of consequences – on the division of labor, on the distribution of firms – that are relatively independent of the general form of social relations. Of course, rationalization and technical development are not realities in themselves: there is so little to them that they can be interpreted as defenses erected by capitalists whose profits are continuously threatened by proletarian resistance of exploitation. Nonetheless, even if the motivations of Capital are sufficient to explain these origins, they still cannot account for the content of technological development. The deeper explanation for the apparent autonomy in the logic of technological development is that it is not the work of capitalist management alone: it is also an expression of proletarian work. The action of the proletariat, in fact, does not only take the form of a resistance (forcing employers to constantly improve their methods of operation), but also of continuous assimilation of progress, and even more, active collaboration in it. It is because workers are able to adapt to the rhythm and form of continuous evolution that this evolution has been able to occur. More basically, because workers carry within themselves responses to the myriad problems posed within production in its detail they make possible the appearance of the systematic response that one calls technological innovation. Explicit rationalization is the gathering, interpretation, and integration from a class perspective of the multiple, dispersed, fragmented, and anonymous innovations of men engaged in the concrete processes of production.
From our viewpoint, this last remark is fundamental because it places the emphasis on experience that unfolds at the point of production and on the perceptions of workers. This does not entail a separation of this particular social relation from those of the global society that shape it, but rather recognition of its specificity. In other words, if we say that industrial structure determines social structure, which is the means by which it acquires permanence, so that any society – regardless of the class characteristics – models itself on certain of its characteristics, then we must understand the situation into which it places those who are integrated out of necessity – that is, the situation of the proletariat.
So what is a concrete analysis of the proletariat? We will try to define it by enumerating some possibilities and determining their respective interests.
The first approach would be to describe the economic situation in which the class finds itself and the influences that situation has on its structure. At the limit, it would require a total social and economic analysis. In a more restricted sense, we would want to talk about working conditions and those of the lives of workers, the modifications that have accompanied its concentration and differentiation, changes in methods of exploitation (intensity of work, length of the work day, wages and labor markets and so forth). This is the most objective approach in that it is focused on the apparent (but nonetheless essential) class characteristics. Any social group can be studied in this way, and anyone can devote a study to it independently of any revolutionary commitments whatsoever.12 There is nothing specifically proletarian about such work, even as one can say that it is or would be inspired by political forms opposed to the interests of the exploiting class.
A second approach, the inverse of the first, would typically be labeled more subjective. It would focus on all expressions of proletarian consciousness, or on what one ordinarily refers to as ideology. For example, primitive Marxism, anarchism, reformism, Bolshevism, and Stalinism represent stages in the development of proletarian consciousness. It is important to understand the meaning of their succession, to understand why large numbers of workers have rallied around them at different historical stages and why these forms continue to signify in the present context. In other words, it is important to understand what the proletariat is trying to say by way of these intermediaries. While we make no claim for its originality – many examples can be found in Marxist literature (in Lenin’s critiques of anarchism or reformism, for example) – this type of analysis could be taken quite far: the contemporary decline enables an appreciation of the transformations of doctrines despite the superficial appearances of continuities (that of Stalinism from 1928-1952 or that of reformism over the past century). However, whatever its interest, this approach remains abstract and incomplete. It remains external, using information that can be gathered through publications (the programs and larger statements of the movement in which one might be interested) that do not necessarily impose a proletarian viewpoint. And it allows what is arguably most fundamental about worker experience to escape. It is only concerned with explicit experience, in what is expressed and put into the form of programs or articles without being preoccupied with whether or how these ideas reflect the thoughts and intentions of the workers in whose name they speak. While there is always a gap that separates what is experienced from what is elaborated, it acquires a particular amplification in the case of the proletariat. This amplification follows from the fact that the working class is not only dominated, but is also alienated, totally excluded from economic power and by virtue of that excluded from being able to represent any status at all. This does not mean that ideologies have no relation to the class experience of working people, but the transformation into a system of thought presupposes a break with and anticipation of that experience which allows non-proletarian factors to exercise their influence and make the relation indirect. Here we encounter once again the basic difference between the proletariat and bourgeoisie noted earlier. For the latter, the theory of liberalism of a given period is a simple idealization and/or rationalization of its interests: the programs of its political parties express the status of certain strata of their organizations. For the proletariat, Bolshevism, although to some extent a rationalization of the worker’s condition, was also an interpretation of it elaborated by a fraction of the worker avant-garde13 associated with an intelligentsia that was relatively separated from the class. In other words, there are two reasons for the deformation of worker expression: that it is the work of a minority external to the real life of the working class or which is constrained to adopt a relation of exteriority to it; and that it is utopian, not in a pejorative sense, but in the sense that it is a project that would establish a situation all the premises of which are not given in the present. Of course, the various ideologies of the workers’ movement represent certain kinds of relations to workers, which the workers recognize as their own, but only represent them in a derivative form.
A third approach would be more specifically historical. It would consist in research into a continuity linking the great manifestations of the workers’ movement since it came into being, to demonstrate that revolutions and, more generally, diverse forms of worker resistance and organization (associations, unions, political parties, committees formed during strikes or in the context of particular conflicts) are part of a progressive experience and to show how this experience is linked to the evolution of economic and political forms within capitalist society.
Finally there is a fourth approach, one that we see as the most concrete. Rather than examining the situation of the proletariat from the outside, this approach seeks to reconstruct the proletariat’s relations to its work and to society from the inside and show how its capacities for invention and power of organization manifest in everyday life.
Prior to any explicit reflection, to any interpretation of their lot or their role, workers have spontaneous comportments with respect to industrial work, exploitation, the organization of production, and social life both inside and outside the factory. By any account, this is the comportment that most completely manifests in their personalities. At this level, the distinction between subjective and objective loses its meaning: this comportment includes ideologies which it constitutes with a certain degree of rationalization, just as it presupposes economic conditions. This comportment performs their ongoing integration and elaboration.
As we have said, such an approach has yet to be really explored. No doubt there are valuable lessons in the analysis of the 19th century English working class from Capital; however, to the extent that Marx’s preoccupation was to describe the working conditions and lives of workers, he operated within the first approach outlined earlier. Since Marx, there are only “literary” documents attempting to describe the worker personality. Over the past few years and primarily from the United States, a “worker” sociology has appeared that claims to do concrete analyses of social relations within production and to isolate their practical intentions. This sociology is the work of management. “Enlightened” capitalists discovered that material rationalization had its limits, that human-objects had specific reactions one had to account for if one wanted to get the most out of them – that is, to get them to submit to the most efficient forms of exploitation. This admirable discovery pressed into service a Taylorized form of humanism and made lots of money both for pseudo-psychoanalysts, who were called upon to liberate workers from their resentment as a harmful obstacle to productivity, and for pseudo-sociologists, who carried out studies of worker attitudes toward their work and their comrades in order to help implement the newest notions of social adaptation. The misfortune of this sociology is that it cannot get to the proletarian personality by definition and is condemned to remain outside by virtue of its class perspective, seeing nothing but the personality of the producing worker, a simple executant irreducibly linked to the capitalist system of exploitation. The concepts used in these analyses, like social adaptation, have for workers a meaning opposite to that of the researchers (for the latter, there can only be adaptation to existing conditions: for workers, adaptation implies a lack of adaptation for exploitation). The results generated are worthless. This failure shows the presuppositions that would shape a real concrete analysis of proletarian experience. It is fundamental that the work be recognized by workers as a moment of their own experience, an opportunity to formalize, condense and confront types of knowledge usually implicit, more “felt” than thought, and fragmentary. The distance that separates a sociology shaped by revolutionary aspirations from the industrial sociology we have referred to is that which separates the work of time-motion men from the collective determination of production norms in the context of worker management. To the workers, an industrial sociologist looks like a time-motion man trying to measure his “psychological durations” and the cooperative dimensions of his social adaptation. In contrast, what we are proposing presupposes that the workers are engaged in a progressive experience that would tend to explode the framework of exploitation itself. The work would only be meaningful for those who participate in that experience themselves. Chief amongst those people are the workers.
In this respect, the radical originality of the proletariat emerges once again. This class can only be known by itself, on the condition that whomever inquires about it acknowledges the value of proletarian experience, orients himself through their situation and makes his own their social and historical class horizons, and on the condition that he breaks with the immediately given, that is, with the framework of exploitation. This sort of work could go quite otherwise with any other social group. American researchers have studied with considerable success the Midwest petite bourgeoisie as if they were studying the Papou on the island of Alor. Whatever complexities were encountered (we are still discussing the relation of an observer to what is being studied) along with the necessity for the analyst to go beyond the simple analysis of institutions in order to constitute something of the meanings they have for concrete human beings, it is nonetheless possible to acquire a certain understanding of the group being studied without sharing their norms and accepting their values. This is because the petit bourgeois, like the Papous, have an objective social existence which, for better or worse, tends to perpetuate itself in the same form, one which is solidly linked to conditions in the present. As we have emphasized throughout, the proletariat is only defined in appearance by its condition as the collectivity of executants within capitalist production. Its actual social life is hidden: it is at once symmetrical with existing conditions and in stark contradiction to the system that determines those conditions (the system of capitalist exploitation itself). This opens onto a role that is different from that which contemporary society imposes on it at every point.
The concrete approach that we see as required by the very nature of the proletariat entails that we collect and interpret testimonies written by workers. By testimonies we mean especially narratives that recount individual lives, or, better, experiences in contemporary industry, made by the interested parties that can provide insights into their social lives. Let us indicate some of the questions that we think are the most interesting that can be posed by reading these testimonies, questions which have been shaped in significant measure by documents that already exist14 :
We would like to know about a) the relations of a worker to his work – his function within the factory, level of technical knowledge, and understanding of the production process. For example, does he know where the piece comes from that he works on? His professional experience – has he worked in other factories, in other branches of industrial production, etc.? His interest in production – what types of initiative can he bring to his work, is he curious about technical and technological developments? Does he have a spontaneous sense of the transformations that could be brought to the structure of production and rhythms of work, to the context and conditions that shape life in the factory? Does he have in general a critical attitude toward managerial efforts at rationalization? How does he welcome attempts at modernization?
b) Relations with other workers and elements from different social strata within the enterprise (differences in attitudes toward other workers, toward foremen, managers, engineers and executives), and understanding of the division of labor. What do hierarchies of function and wage represent? Would he prefer to do some of his work at a machine and some in an office? How does he accommodate his role as simple executant? Does he understand the social structure in the factory as necessary or at least as something that “goes without saying”? Are there tendencies toward co-operation, competition or isolation? Preference for working as an individual or in a team? How are relations amongst individuals divided up? Personal relations, the formation of small groups and the basis on which they are established? How important are these small groups for individuals? If these are different from social relations that take shape in offices, how are these perceived and evaluated? What importance does he attribute to the social physiognomy of the factory? Does he know about other factories and how does he compare them? Does he have exact knowledge of the wage levels attached to other functions throughout the enterprise? Does he compare pay stubs with other workers? Etc.
c) Life outside the factory and knowledge about what is happening in the wider social world. Impact of life inside the factory on life outside of it – how his work materially and psychologically influences his personal and family life, for example? Which milieu does he frequent outside the factory? To what extent are these patterns imposed on him by his work, or by the neighborhood in which he lives? What are the characteristics of his family life, relations with his children and how he educates them, his extra-professional activities? How does he occupy his leisure time? Does he have predilections for particular types of distraction? To what extent does he use mass media: books, newspapers, radio, cinema? What are his attitudes about them? What are his tastes… not merely what newspaper does he read, but what does he read first? What interests him (accounts of political or social events, technological developments, bourgeois scandals)? Etc.
d) Links to properly proletarian history and traditions: knowledge of the history of the workers’ movement and familiarity with it; participation in particular social or political struggles and the memories they have left with him; knowledge of workers in other countries; attitudes toward the future independently of any particular political estimation, etc.
Whatever the interest of these questions, it is nonetheless important to ask about the weight attributed to individual testimonies. We know that we will be able to gather a relatively limited number of texts: on what basis can one generalize from them? A testimony is by definition particular: that of a 20- or 50-year-old worker who works in a small plant or large facility, a developed militant, someone with extensive trade-union and political experience, one with rigid opinions without benefit of any particular training or experience in particular… without resorting to artifice, how can one discount these differences of situation and derive from such differently motivated narratives lessons of universal import? On this point, critique is largely justified, and it seems clear that the results it would be possible to obtain would necessarily be limited. At the same time, it would be equally artificial to deny all value to these texts. First, no matter how significant the differences amongst them, all these texts are situated within a single frame: the situation of the proletariat. This allows us to see much more than the specificity of a particular life in the reading of these texts. Two workers in very different situations have in common that both have endured one or another form of work and exploitation that is essentially the same and absorbs three-quarters of their personal existence. Their wages might be very different, their living situations and family lives may not be comparable, but it remains the case that they are profoundly identical both in their roles as producers or machine operators, and in their alienation. Every worker knows this: it is what enables that sense of familiarity and complicity (even when the individuals do not know each other) which is evident at a glance for a bourgeois who finds himself in a working-class neighborhood. It is not absurd to look amongst these particular characteristics for those with a more general signification, given that they all have resemblances which are sufficient to distinguish them from those of any other social group. To this it must be added that this approach to testimonies would be susceptible to critique if we were interested in gathering and correlating opinions because these would necessarily be of a great diversity – but as we have said, we are interested in worker attitudes. These attitudes are sometimes expressed in the form of opinions, and are often disfigured by them, but they are in every case deeper and more simple. This would present a considerable obstacle were we to try to use a limited number of texts to infer the proletarian view of the USSR or of wage hierarchies in general. But it is a much simpler matter to isolate worker attitudes toward bureaucracy spontaneously developed from inside the production process. Finally, we should note that no other mode of knowledge would allow us to respond to the problems we have posed. Even if we had available the materials required for a vast statistically-based investigation (the data for which would be gathered by numerous comrades who would pose thousands of questions to other workers in various factories, given that we have already excluded any investigation carried out by researchers from outside the working class), the results would be useless, because results based on responses gathered from anonymous respondents that could only be correlated numerically would be without interest. Only responses attributed to concrete individuals can be brought into relation with each other; their convergences and divergences enable the isolation of meaning and invoke systems of living and thinking that can be interpreted. For all these reasons, individual narratives are invaluable.
This does not mean that we would use this approach to define what the proletariat is in its reality after having rejected all representations that have been made of its situation as perceived through the distorting prism of bourgeois society or the political parties that purport to speak in its name. A worker testimony, no matter how evocative, symbolic or spontaneous it may be, remains conditioned by the situation of its author. We are not referring here to the deformations that can arise in the particular interpretations given by an author, but rather to those which testimony necessarily imposes on the author. To tell a story is not to act within it. Telling a story even entails a break with action in ways that transform its meaning. For example, writing an account of a strike is not the same as participating in that strike simply because as a participant, one does not yet know the outcome of one’s actions, and the distance entailed by reflection allows for judgments about that which, in real time, is not fixed as to meaning. In fact, there is in this case something much more than a separation of opinion: there is a change of attitude, that is, a transformation in the mode of reacting to situations in which one finds oneself. In addition, a narrative puts the individual in an unnaturally isolated position. Workers typically act out of solidarity with the other people who are caught up in the same situation; without even talking about open social struggles, there is the ongoing everyday struggle within the production process to resist exploitation, a struggle hidden but continuous and shared amongst comrades. The attitudes most characteristic of a worker toward his work or toward other social strata are not found in him, as would be the case with the bourgeois or the bureaucrat who see their own actions determined by their individual interests. Rather, the worker shares in collective responses. The critique of a worker narrative must make visible within individual responses that aspect which leans on collective comportments; however, in the final analysis, these registers do not entirely overlap in a narrative, with the result that we can only derive an incomplete knowledge from them. To finish – and this critique connects back to the first at a deeper level – the historical context in which these narratives are published must be clarified. There is no eternal proletariat that speaks, but a certain type of worker who occupies a definite historical position, situated in a time characterized by a significant retreat of worker forces all over the world as the struggle between two types of exploitative society little by little reduces to silence all other social manifestations, as a function of its tendency to develop into both an overt conflict and a bureaucratic unification of the world. The attitude of the proletariat (even the attitude that we are searching for which transcends to some extent this particular historical conjuncture) is not the same in a period in which the class works with an anticipation of emancipation in the short term, on the one hand, and one in which it is condemned to momentary contemplation of blocked horizons and to maintain a historical silence, on the other.
It is enough to say that the approach that we characterize as concrete remains abstract in many respects given that the three aspects of the proletariat (practical, collective, historical) only emerge indirectly and are thereby deformed. In fact, the concrete proletariat is not an object of knowledge: it works, it struggles and it transforms itself. One cannot catch up with it at the level of theory, but only at the level of practice by participating in its history. But this last remark is abstract because it does not take into account the role of knowledge in history itself, as a mode of integration along with work and struggle. It is a fact as manifest as others that workers pose questions about their condition and the possibilities for transforming it. One can only multiply theoretical perspectives, which are necessarily abstract, even at moments of their convergence, and postulate that progress in the clarification of worker experience will advance that experience. So it is not by way of a standard formula that we say that the four approaches we criticized in succession are in fact complementary. This is not to say that their results can be usefully added together, but rather that their convergence across different paths communicates, in a more or less comprehensive manner, the same reality that we have called proletarian experience, for lack of a better term. For example, we think that the critique of the evolution of the workers’ movement, of its forms of organization and struggle, the critique of ideologies, and the description of worker attitudes necessarily all confirm one another. Because the positions that expressed themselves in systematic and rational ways in the history of the workers’ movement and the organizations and movements that have followed one another all coexist, in a sense, as the interpretations and possible accomplishments of the proletariat today. Beneath (so to speak) the reformist, anarchist, or Stalinist movements, there is a projection amongst the workers, proceeding directly from the relation to production, a projection concerning their fate which makes these elaborations possible and contains them at the same time. There is a similar relation to forms of struggle that seem to be associated with phases of worker history (1848, 1870 or 1917) but which express types of relations between workers that continue to exist and even to manifest themselves (in the form of a wildcat strike without any organization, for example). This is not to say that the proletariat contains by its nature all the moments of its history and all possible ideological expressions of its condition. Following on what we have been saying, the material and theoretical evolution of the proletariat has led it to be as it is and the ways in which the past has come to be condensed in its comportment today have opened whole new fields of possibilities and reflections. In analyzing worker attitudes, what is essential is not to lose sight of the fact that the knowledge obtained through it is limited and that, more profoundly and comprehensively than is the case with other forms of knowledge, while this does not undermine its validity, it must be connected back with the workers or risk becoming unintelligible.
Now that we have enumerated a series of questions that concrete analysis should enable us to answer or to pose better, we will turn to how concrete analysis might reorganize and contribute to a deepening of revolutionary theory, after first formulating some reservations. The following seem to us the main problems: (1) Under what form does the worker appropriate social life? (2) How does the worker integrate himself into his class? That is, what are the relations that unify people who share this condition and to what extent do these relations constitute a delimited and stable community in society? (3) What are his perceptions of other social strata, his communication with society globally, his sensitivity to institutions and to events that do not directly concern him or his everyday life? (4) In what ways does he submit materially and ideologically to the pressures brought by the dominant class and what are his tendencies to escape from his own class? (5) Finally, what is his awareness of the history of the workers’ movement? To what extent does he feel integrated with the past of the class and what are his capacities to act with a sense of class tradition?
How could these problems be broached and what would be the interest in doing so? Take for example the appropriation of social life. The initial approach would be to detail the skills and technical capabilities of the worker: there is no doubt about the need for information that directly concerns his professional aptitudes. But research should also be done into how technical curiosity appears outside of the workplace, in leisure activities ( in all the forms of bricolage, or in the interest accorded to scientific and technical publications, for example) and should clarify the understandings of technology and the industrial organization of work that the worker has, as well as his awareness of everything that touches the administration of things more generally. Without losing interest in an evaluation of the cultural level of the worker (in the narrow sense that the bourgeoisie typically gives the term – extent of literary, scientific and artistic knowledge), one would describe the field of information to which he is open: newspapers, radio, cinema. At the same time, we would want to know whether the proletarian has a specific way of envisioning events and outcomes and which interest him (whether he hears about them in the course of everyday life or reads about them in a newspaper, whether these are of a political order or, as the expression goes, entertainments). The essential would be to determine whether there is a class mentalité and how it differs from a bourgeois mentalité.
We merely provide some indications on this point: developing them here would run us ahead of the testimonies themselves, and these texts allow not only for an interpretation but also the reconsideration of the extent and order of the questions involved in our approach to research. The revolutionary interest of such research is evident. In short, this would be a way to know whether the proletariat has or has not submitted to the cultural domination of the bourgeoisie and whether its alienation has robbed it of an original perspective on society. The answer to this question could either enable one to conclude that any revolution is doomed to failure because the overthrow of the State would only bring back a cultural hodgepodge of the previous society, or it could allow one to perceive the direction in which a new culture may develop in the scattered and often unconscious elements that already exist.
Again, we must emphasize, against the all too predictable accusations of bad faith, that this inquiry into the social life of the proletariat will not study the class from the outside and will not reveal its nature to those who do not know it. It is a response to a series of questions posed explicitly by the worker avant-garde and implicitly by the working class more generally in a situation where a series of revolutionary defeats and the domination of a worker bureaucracy have undermined the confidence of the proletariat in its capacities for creativity and in its own emancipation. Still dominated by the bourgeoisie on this point, workers do not believe that they have any knowledge of their own. They see themselves as the pariahs of bourgeois culture.
In fact, their creativity is such that there is no need for it to show itself according to bourgeois norms; their culture does not exist as an order separated from their social lives, it does not take the form of the production of ideas. Proletarian culture exists as a certain power in the organization of things and an adaptation to progress, as a certain understanding of human relations, a disposition toward social community. As individuals, workers have only a confused sense of this: because it is impossible for them to give their culture objective content in a society based on exploitation, they have come to doubt it and to believe in the reality of bourgeois culture alone.
Let’s take a second example: how to describe the integration of the proletarian into the class? In this case, the question is knowing how, within the factory, the worker perceives those who share his work, as well as the representatives of all other social strata; of knowing the nature and meaning of the relations he has with his coworkers; whether he has different attitudes toward workers of different professional grades (Professional, O.S., or semi-skilled, and manoeuvre, or unskilled); whether these relations of camaraderie extend beyond the factory; whether he tends to seek out work that require cooperation. If he has always worked in a factory, in what situation he began to do so; whether he has considered the possibility of doing something different or whether the chance has ever presented itself to change trades? It would be good to know whether he frequents milieus that are not working-class and what he thinks of them, in particular whether he has interactions with the peasant milieu and how he evaluates it. It would be necessary to juxtapose this information with responses concerning quite different topics. For example, one might use the familiarity of the individual with the traditions of the workers’ movement, the acuity of memories associated with episodes of social struggle, the interest that he takes in this struggle independently of the judgment he might make of it (a condemnation of a struggle inspired by revolutionary pessimism and an enthusiastic narrative of the events of 1936 of 1944 can often be found together). Or one might locate a tendency to the history and, more particularly, the future of the proletariat, noting his reactions to foreign proletarians, particularly to a relatively well-off proletariat like that in the United States. In other words, look for everything in the worker’s personal life that might show the effects and sense of belonging to the working class and also attempts at escape from from the condition of being a worker (attitudes about children, the education they receive and projects oriented toward the future are particularly significant in this respect.)
From a revolutionary viewpoint, this kind of information would have the interest of showing the manner in which a worker is joined with the class and whether his belonging to his group is or is not different from that of a petit-bourgeois or a bourgeois to his group. Does the worker link his fate to all levels of his social existence and, consciously or not, to that of his class? Can one confirm concretely classic, but too-often abstract, phrases class consciousness or class attitude, and the idea from Marx that, unlike the bourgeois, the proletarian is not only a member of his class, but an individual within a community and conscious of only being able to go beyond that by acting collectively?
Socialisme ou Barbarie would like to solicit testimonies from workers and publish them at the same time as it accords an important place to all forms of analysis concerning proletarian experience. In this issue the reader will find the beginning of such a testimony, one that leaves aside several of the points we have outlined.15 Other such texts could broach these points in ways that go beyond those envisioned in this issue. In fact, it is impossible to impose an exact framework. If we have seemed to do so in the course of our explanations, and if we have produced nothing but a questionnaire, then this work would not be valuable: a question imposed from the outside might be an irritant for the subject being questioned, shaping an artificial response or, in any case, imprinting upon it a character that it would not otherwise have had. Our research directions would be brought to bear even on narratives that we provoke: we must be attentive to all forms of expression that might advance concrete analysis. As for the rest, the problem is not the form taken by a document, but its interpretation. Who will work out the relationships understood as significant between such and such responses? Who will reveal from beneath the explicit content of a document the intentions and attitudes that inspired it, and juxtapose the testimonies? The comrades of Socialisme ou Barbarie? But would this not run counter to their intentions, given that they propose a kind of research that would enable workers to reflect upon their experience? This problem cannot be resolved artificially, particularly not at this first step in the work. In any case, the interpretation, from wherever it comes, will remain contemporary with the text being interpreted. It can only impress if it is judged to be accurate by the reader, someone who is able to find another meaning in the materials we submit to him. We hope it will be possible to connect the authors with texts in a collective critique of the documents. For the moment, our goal is to gather these materials: in this, we count on the active support of those sympathetic with this journal.
—Translated by Stephen Hastings-King
- 1Translator’s Note: This article originally appeared in Socialisme ou Barbarie no. 11, dated July, 1952. It was reprinted in the collection Eléments d’une critique de la bureaucratie (Paris: Droz, 1971). A scan of the original can be consulted at the Projet de scannerisation de la revue Socialisme ou Barbarie. In composing this text, Lefort used L’oeuvre completes de Karl Marx published in Paris by Alfred Costes between 1948 and 1953. For reasons of consistency in terminology and tone, I have translated quotations directly from the French and left the original pagination. Socialisme ou Barbarie operated in Paris from 1948-1966. This essay is part of the turn to the sociologically oriented approach to the working class fundamental for the group’s revolutionary project, in particular from 1953 through 1957. My thanks to Kelly Grotke.
- 2Marx, La misère de la philosophie, Costes ed, 135.
- 3Translator’s Note: I retain the phenomenological term “comportment” throughout this piece. The term refers to the structure of behaviors or attitudes toward an environment or situation. It is symmetrical with the emphasis on overall historical direction that one encounters in this essay as well.
- 4Translator’s Note: I left this in French. It is associated with the Annales School of French history. There is no good English equivalent: I have seen “cognitive toolbox” used. The term “worldview” used in translations of Wilhelm Dilthey’s hermeneutics is logically closer, even as the social-history oriented methodologies pioneered by the Annales School made of mentalité a quite different category that refers to a more material orientation toward a historically-specific world.
- 5Idéologie allemande, 242.
- 6Cf. The Communist Manifesto.
- 7Economie politique et Philosophie, 34.
- 8Idéologie allemande, 223.
- 9Ibid., 229
- 10Ibid„ p. 229.
- 11Ibid., p. 230.
- 12I am thinking of the work by Georges Duveau, La vie ouvrière sous le Second Empire (Paris: Gallimard, 1946).
- 13Translator Note: The worker avant-garde is the center of Socialisme ou Barbarie’s construction of revolutionary theory. I kept the term “avant-garde” in favor of “vanguard” – an alternate possibility for rendering the term in English – in order to avoid confusion with Lenin’s Vanguard Party.
- 14Paul Romano, “The American Worker,” translated in Socialisme ou Barbarie no. 1, and Eric Albert, “Témoignage” in Les Temps Modernes, juillet 1952.
- 15G. Vivier, “La vie en usine” in Socialisme ou Barbarie no. 11.