Problems and prospects - Paul Mattick, Jr.

Paul Mattick, Jr. writes for Root & Branch in 1975. He writes on the growth of the public sector and passivity taught in schools and media and revolutionary organizations (unions, parties) as instruments for integration of the working class, and how left-pessimists mistake class analysis with the bourgeois status/income categories.

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on December 10, 2021

A cherished bit of trivia from the early '60s is the memory of a speech given by A.A. Berle, Jr., at Bryn Mawr College in 1962. Decrying those who were defensive about America's record, particularly in relation to Latin America, he observed that we had much to be proud of—in particular, that we were the first society in history to eliminate the working class. No doubt this would have surprised the building janitor already then, but today that halcyon era has gone even for the Berles and their children. On the one hand, the failures and collapse of the black and student movements of the '60s have broken hopes placed in new forces for progressive change in a period when the "middle Americans" seemed solidly for the status quo. On the other hand, the frequency and militance of strike movements throughout the capitalist world—particularly in Europe—and even in the state-controlled economies of the “East,” have forced renewed attention to the proletariat as an active social force. Now “everyone” is worried about the blue-collar blues and the white-collar blahs; governmental commissions to studies on job alienation; academics and other intellectual racketeers get busy studying “industrial democracy" and "workers' control.” Would-be revolutionaries, too, must think again about the working class and its relation to the problems and possibilities of communist revolution.

For Marx, the idea of communism had no real existence except as embodied in the actual practice of class struggle by the working class. In this he differed from his would-be disciples. Kautsky and Lenin, or whom the proletariat was rather the agency which by its numbers and key position in modern society could realize an idea worked out by middle-class intellectuals through their scientific critique of capitalism. Marx, in contrast, developed his concept of communism with his analysis of capitalism as an attempt to explain and give intellectual expression to the struggle of workers against the existing organization of society.

Marx defined "class" in terms of power over social decision-making. This means, essentially, the power of decision over the production of the goods—i.e., everything from butter and guns to books—that are the material basis of social life. This boils down to control over the means of production and so over the product they make possible. Capitalism began with the separation of the producers en masse from this control. This implied the transformation simultaneously of products and of the capacity to produce into commodities, goods for sale on a market. For when goods are available only when bought from the possessors of the productive apparatus, producers can exist only by selling their labor-power to the owners. Means of production become capital, then, insofar as their possessors are able to buy the labor-power necessary to operate them, an arrangement which permits them to keep the difference (surplus value or profit) between the amount produced and the amount demanded by the producers for their existence. The capitalist, possessing class comes into existence together with the working class.

At the same time, under this system (in which people do not produce for themselves directly) production as a physical process necessarily takes the form of a systematic inter­-relation between the producers, in which each person is dependent on the labor of vast networks of others for the means to live and to produce. This is true within the individual workplace, where now thousands may labor together, and between the various workplaces and departments of production. Nonetheless, since production is under private, capitalist control, it can appear to the producers as though their relation to each other exists only through their employment by their several masters.

Since the capitalists' profit consists entirely in the amount of social product withheld from the producers, there is bound to be conflict between the two classes over the division of the product, as well as over the conditions of work. Marx believed that this would lead to the growth, among the workers, of an understanding at once of their shared interest as exploited producers and of their ability to act together to protect that interest. The collective organization of work was expected to provide a natural framework for the development of conceptions and organizational forms of solidary struggle.

In addition, in Marx's view, the system's development over time is conditioned by capital's desire to maintain the existing class relations and individual positions of strength within these relations. The direction and rate of development of the system are determined, that is, by the need of each individual capital and so of capital as a whole to expand its value (and thus its economic and social power) by the production and accumulation of surplus value. But, Marx claimed to show, the private character of capital ownership conflicts over time with the needs of capital as a whole, threatening the stability of the social system. The process of capital expansion itself would create barriers to its continuation (in the form of a tendency for the rate of profit, and therefore of the rate of accumulation, to fall). The result would be a series of crises in the production of capital, each to be overcome only through a massive reorganization (primarily in the form of concentration) of capital structures, which would be paid for by enormous misery on the part of the working class.

In such a moment of crisis, Marx thought, the solidarity of the producers, developed in the long fight over wages, hours, etc., would come to the point of open struggle for control of the productive system, of society itself. The collective commonwealth of toil would liberate itself from the constraints on its well-being set by the private ownership of the means of production, to establish communism—the collective organization and direction of production by the producers themselves.

Capitalist society did not evolve in the direction of an obvious polarity between a small group of rich capitalists and a mass of impoverished proletarians. While control over capital has been continuously centralized, the small group of the very rich and powerful are at the top of a continuum of wealth and degree of privilege (of which the permanently unemployed are at the bottom). In addition, after a history of crises every ten or fifteen years the Second World War permitted a reorganization of world capitalism which made possible rising or stable incomes for large numbers of workers in the advanced countries. The result was twenty­ odd years of a relatively high degree of social stability.

This situation allowed for a florescence of bourgeois theories of society in terms not of class but of status and income-level, linked in the association of status with amount of consumption. Residual problems—in general, “unfair” distribution of income and political and social power to the disadvantage of certain regional or racial groups—could be solved by "social engineering," possible within a pluralistic political democracy and an economy capable of infinite growth. The class war was over, in fact, and "ideology" had ended with it.

On the left, or what passed for the left, it was agreed that the working class, if not nonexistent, would no longer play a revolutionary role. In effect, the Marxian analysis was abandoned for or subordinated to the bourgeois interpretation of the situation, with class analysis giving way in analytical practice to status/income-distribution concepts. This pessimistic interpretation of bourgeois optimism was given a theoretical elaboration, for example, in the work of Herbert Marcuse, elevated by the press and the climate of the time into the “guru of the New Left.” Technological advance, by making possible the continuous expansion of productive capacity and so the satisfaction of workers' demands, had effected the political integration of the proletariat into what therefore became a “one dimensional” system. With capital­ism's material contradictions under control, opposition could arise only in the sphere of ideology—hence the concern with "alienation" or psychological malaise in a breadfull system—though Marcuse held that the ideological realm itself was largely absorbable in the pervasive one-dimensionality. Material opposition was thought restricted to developments outside the system proper; basically to the threat posed by the superior “rationality” of the so-called socialist systems, in which state control of production has taken the place of private capitalist control. Thus, to the extent that there was hope for change in the world at all, it lay not in the masses of “advanced industrial society” but among the peasants of the Third World, with—perhaps—stirrings in the developed countries among the disadvantaged minorities and the young intelligentsia, as represented by the civil rights and student anti-war movements. None of these groups could be identified with the revolutionary proletariat foretold by Marx.

On the other hand, it is clear that Marx's prediction of the proletarianization of the mass of the population has been fulfilled in all capitalist countries (and is a necessary corellate of the economic development which is the goal in the state­ directed systems). The process which began with the expropriation of the peasantry, carried out in the West under private and in the East under state auspices, has continued, as is clear from a glance at occupational statistics. Capital units survive and prosper by expanding into the social and economic space occupied by precapitalist forms of life, or by competing capitals. As the labor-employing, profit-producing enterprise becomes the dominant form in goods production, all forms of work took on the characteristics of the industrial wage-laborer. The small farmer becomes an agricultural wage-worker under a "checkbook farmer." Nonproductive workers—occupied with distribution of goods, "services," or the handling of economic value (as in banking)—are wage­ workers for firms who profit by the difference between what they must pay their employees and what they can extract from industrial capital for their services.

The concept of "middle class" is often used today by radicals—e.g., to describe themselves—who otherwise attempt to employ a Marxist terminology. The group thus referred to includes some members of what might be called a middle class-professionals like doctors, lawyers, and a few elite professors, as well as petty tradesmen—but it mostly includes people—managerial and supervisory personnel, engineers, technicians, teachers—who are workers in the Marxist sense: dependent for living on the sale of their labor power. Calling these people "middle class" only confuses class analysis with the bourgeois status/income categories. In the '50s we were told that “the workers” had become “middle class”: in fact exactly the opposite was and is going on. As the development of labor productivity in manufacturing through technology and speedup has made for slow growth in the numbers of blue-collar workers, a major share in labor force increase has come precisely from the proletarianization of formerly middle-class occupations and people (particularly due to the vast expansion of government employment deriving from the growing role of the state in social and economic life). This period has also seen a steady growth in the use of women as (cheap) wage-workers, in addition to their role in the home as maintainers of labor power.

So much for the illusion of status. With respect to income, a worker remains a worker no matter how much he or she is paid. He must be exploited "be his wages high or low" because only on this basis can the employer realize the profit which allows him to continue in business as an employer. Still, as the left pessimists pointed out, the existence of class is not sufficient. Revolutionary activity requires a consciousness on the part of workers of their position in society—not just a consciousness of exploitation but an understanding that as the producers of all wealth they have the power to order production and social life in general to meet their own needs. In Marx's words, "the proletariat is revolutionary or it is nothing."

Among the ideas of the left pessimists, strangest of all, perhaps, was the view that the integration of the working class, its acceptance of the capitalist system, is a novel phenomenon, produced by a new (super-technologized) state of capitalism. The capitalist system consists of workers and capitalists together; one can speak of opposition to the system, as contrasted with opposition to some of its effects, only when the wages-system, the capital-labor relation itself is threatened. Such moments of revolution or near-revolution have been mighty few and far between in capitalism's history. The everyday struggle between employers and workers over the conditions and remuneration of wage labor, a necessary feature of a system in which the interests of the two groups are opposed, in itself threatened capitalism's existence no more yesterday than it does today, so long as demands could be kept at this level by their momentary and partial satisfaction.

What gave the appearance of a non-integration of the working class in the past was the existence of ideologically revolutionary organizations “of the working class”—the social democratic trade unions and parties, the Communist parties and unions of the Third International (and Soviet Russia itself in the age in which it was easier to believe in it as a bastion of world revolution). In fact these very organizations were, at their moments of strength, also instruments for the integration of the working class. Here three aspects of the development and functioning of the labor organizations, in America and Europe, may be noted. To begin with, until recently capitalism was in a period of growth (despite its interruption by periodical crisis). As the productive apparatus grew, raising the productivity of labor, capital was able to meet both its needs for profit and workers' demands for a better life. Thus the labor organizations, in government and at the workplace, could function as structures through which the power of the workers secured real gains. In America this effect was strengthened by the fact that the special conditions of this country until recently made movement upward, even—for a few—into capitalist ranks, a real possibility for workers.

Second, the organizations which supervised the winning of demands, operating of necessity within a situation defined by the existence of the labor “market,” channeled and controlled oppositional energies by institutionalizing the inevitable conflict of classes. This process was carried farthest in America in the modern collectively bargained contract, complete with grievance procedures and no-strike clauses. Finally, as the leaders of these organizations in their activity became de facto and then de jure part of the social and political structure of the capital-labor relationship and thus, whatever their (usually negligible) purity of heart, a part of the ruling apparatus, their immediate personal interest became tied to the maintenance of the status quo. This element of “corruption” is not, however, as important as the general effect of institutionalization of the struggle, which took not only the direction of the struggle but even in large part the activity itself out of the hands of what thus became the rank-and-file, substituting for their activity that of the union or party professionals. From the revolutionary point of view, the chain of labor's parliamentary and trade union victories made one long defeat.

The integration of the proletariat is the result, not of some new and peculiar circumstance but of a natural adaptation to the realities of its daily life. To speak crudely, we may say that we derive our ideas from our experience of the world. Grow­ing up in capitalist society, with the lessons of daily life methodically reinforced by schools and media, it is hard to take seriously the possibility of some other way of living together, just as the idea of a slave-free society occurred to no Greek. And the desire for an alternative is bound to be weakened when things are improving or at least not getting much worse. In general, we are more likely to submit to bearable evils than to try to tear everything apart, destroying all our daily routines and personal security, for something we can hardly believe in.

Similarly, workers' understanding of their collective power to determine their own destiny comes only from experience of it. This means experience of solidarity, of their capacity to decide on and take action without the supervision of political or other “representatives.” Such experiences are to be had in every strike, in every shop-floor struggle. But ordinarily they are experiences of joint action among only the workers in one department, one factory, one industry, against a particular capitalist, and not of something like the class as a whole against capital as a whole. Seemingly, these experiences develop the force to call into question the whole of the existing society only at moments of great social crisis. At such moments, the inability of the existing order to satisfy even minimal needs forces people to go beyond the ordinary boundaries of struggle to take class-wide action in organizing some alternative forms of social life. This was true, at any rate, for the European revolutionary wave of 1917-1923 (Russia, Germany, Italy) which arose out of the world crisis which took the form of world war. The Spanish Revolution of 1936 came out of years of turmoil, capped by the opening of the civil war.

While the mechanics of failure were different for each of these cases, each left capitalism able to reorganize itself economically and politically, and go on. However, the period between the two wars seems to have been a turning point in the history of the capitalist economy. Just as they misunderstood the character of working-class activity in the past, the left pessimists missed the novelties of the new situation. It is becoming clearer that pessimism about the possibility of proletarian revolution has been based on a too-ready acceptance of the bourgeoisie's self-satisfaction, though it has taken today's rocketing inflation, monetary difficulties, and mount­ing unemployment to draw people's attention to what amounts to a new stage in the unfolding of capitalism's contradictions.

Indeed, capitalism never rose from its Great Depression ashes as it had recovered from previous crises. That is to say, the reorganization of capitalism effected through the depression and World War II did not succeed in raising the rate of profit to a point where the system could continue to expand at the rate imposed by the previous level of development. As a result the measures of state interference in the economy introduced by the New Deal and its (fascist) equivalents in other countries, in the form of relief, public works, and war production, could not be abandoned after the war. Massive unemployment and social convulsion could be averted only by the state's utilization of capital value (insufficient for investment purposes) to take up the slack left by the low level of private capital investment. This procedure, hailed as the mechanism which had overcome the gloomy predictions of the Marxists, represented a confirmation of the theory of capitalist development laid out in Capital.

The steady growth of the "public" sector bears witness, that is, to the inability of the private sector—i.e., the capitalist economy proper—to achieve an adequate rate of growth.

The state-controlled sector of the economy is necessary to the continued existence of capitalism as a social system. In the first place it provides employment and therefore means of existence for the millions who would not otherwise be employed. In addition, it provides the materials—primarily weaponry—with which possibly a secure American empire can be built as a field for future investment to offset the decline of profitability of American capital at home and in Europe.

At the same time, the “public” sector is parasitic on the private property capitalist economy. Since the government is not an owner of capital, the funds disposed of in its projects must be taxed or borrowed from the private sector (i.e., from profits: either directly or by the sleight-of-hand of "taxes on wages," which in fact amounts to a reduction of wages since money never seen by the workers can hardly be considered a part of the wages-fund). Thus government transactions fall outside the market, i.e., out of the capitalist economy proper. For as the state pays for goods from a capitalist with money provided by the capitalists themselves, production on government account effects not the creation of new value and profit but merely the transfer of pre-existing value from the capitalist class as a whole to some favored members of it. Hence state-run production cannot offset the decline in the profit rate of the private economy.

Since the state sector is growing faster than the private sector (indeed it grows just because the private sector can­ not) there must come a time when its further extension, while necessary to avert social crisis, would mean the pre-emption of economic space still open to private capital. State­ controlled economy, fought under the name of socialism as incarnated in the Ruisian, Chinese, and allied regimes, is rightfully seen as a danger to corporate capitalism internally as well. For this reason, capital periodically attempts to slow down the expansion of the state sector, despite the leeway that still remains before the “public” sector enters into serious conflict with the private, offering the ruling class the choice between massive depression and the complete abandonment of the private property system. (1)

(1) For a detailed exposition of this argument, see Paul Mattick, Marx and Keynes (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1969).

The result is the situation of continuous tension suffered today by the working class. The attempt to raise the profit rate has meant longer hours of work, the intensification of labor on the job, and for some a steady fall in living standards since the end of the Second World War. State spending goes on at the cost of wage cuts, in the form of taxes and inflation, while the attempt to slow down state-sector growth means recession (i.e., conrolled depression). In the mean­time, the use of state funds to secure the empire spells death and destruction for working-class youth. To this must be added the continuing destruction of the environment, which affects health and destroys sources of leisure-time pleasure; the degradation of the urban centers into which the population is crowded; and the inability of a stagnating system to offer any relief to masses of black people.

These pressures affect various sectors of the working class in different ways and to different degrees. On the one hand, large numbers of white, male workers, now middle-aged or over, have since the end of the Great Depression been in quite a stable position, with job security and a “reasonable” standard of living. On the other, black, young (of all colors) and the increasing number of female workers face low wages, high unemployment and steadily deteriorating conditions of life (as evidenced in high death rates, undernourishment, effects of psychological stress, etc.). As one researcher has put it, this part of the working population has been living in depression even while the first group experienced the boom of the '50s and '60s.(2) It is this which accounts for the apparently contradictory appearances both of a reactionary “working class” and of an increasing hostility to “the system” among young people, women, and blacks. The importance of phenomena like the present recession is the promise they hold of a worsening of conditions for the so-far favored group in the class—happening now even for high status and income technical and managerial people—with the potential of a class-wide opposition replacing the sectoral struggles of the last years.

(2) Joe Eyer, "Living Conditions in the United States," this volume.

Though isolated from the mass of the production processes of modern society, students have little social power, the problem of their relation to a future working-class movement must be taken seriously. In the age of mass education it is no longer possible to think of students as petty or just plain bourgeois "elements." At the same time, they are not workers; though they may toil and spin they receive no wages and produce no value. What they are—here I mean the vast majority, not the future board chairmen and/or politicians­ is future workers, workers-in-training. This training is only partly in skills yielding a higher productivity; its function is largely to justify restricted access to certain jobs and salaries. In addition, much of collegiate (as of all school) education is purely ideological, teaching through both the content and the organization of school work a healthy passivity and intellectual respect for the status quo. Mass education exists because of the importance of all this training—both technical and attitudinal—for modern production. A large portion of the "knowledge" factory's product takes the form of teachers: expanded reproduction of channels for the transmission of skills and ideology. The schools also serve as research centers for industry and government. All these social functions of institutional education determine the existence of the student, forming the context within which the student movement can be understood.

The immediate interest of students is to remain students­ i.e., first, not to work, and then, when a job is necessary, to get a good one. The first is obviously limited by time; the second less and less meaningful (objectively as the jobs available to an expanding number of degree-holders become scarcer; subjectively as the value-system fails to hold up in the face of reality). At school, students are simultaneously given great freedom of movement and subjected to bureau­cratic administration, simultaneously urged to "develop their minds" and fed a lot of crap in preparation for stupid jobs. The results are the mysterious student malaise, conflict with authority, rejection of “professional” careers and life-styles, radicalization and—among the radicals—a tendency to accept the idea of “alliance” with the working class. In the absence of a radical working class this remains an attitude, or becomes a sterile ideology, reflecting the aims of sectarian groups rather than the development of the movement. But it acquires practical content as soon as it is possible (as in France, Italy, and on a few minor occasions in the U.S.). The students, as one formula has it, are not workers, but the workers' struggle is of necessity theirs.

The extent to which the submission of the working class to capitalist conditions is the result of its internal division by formidable barriers of experience and special interest cannot be overemphasized. People work in the country and in the city; in big towns and small; in production, office work, education, and services; for private capital and for the state. With each of these divisions, within each workplace, we find a multitude of (generally spurious) skill grades and classifications, expressed as a hierarchy of wages and statuses. These divisions, which extend well into life off the job, hide the common position of exploited wage workers that unites the members of the class.

An important role in the maintenance of these barriers is played by numerous ideological and institutional factors (as well as by the general competition for jobs). Education or seniority is supposed to justify the hierarchy of grades and wages. The feeling that woman's place is in the home has made it difficult for men workers to support their women colleagues' struggles for equal pay, and for women themselves to be aggressive vis-a-vis their employers (or to support their husbands' fights with theirs). The most blatant of these factors at the present time is the racism which makes it nearly impossible for whites and blacks alike to view each other as class comrades.

These barriers, with the accompanying inhibitions of class solidarity and combativeness, have been particularly reinforced by the labor unions. These have functioned within the workplace to sanctify the hierarchy of position and wage, and through their craft or industrial structure to segregate and weaken the struggles of different groups. They have consciously attempted to exclude blacks, and indeed the majority of workers, from participation in their struggles and benefits won. To break through the divisions between workers will require rejection of the representative authority of the unions, and indeed, sooner or later, fighting against them. The restrictions which will undoubtedly be put on union activities by employers and the state must be met not by attempts to defend the unions but by efforts of the class to defend itself through the creation of forms of organization­ presumably various sorts of workplace committees—over which the men and women on the job have direct control and which make possible the greatest unification of the class possible at any given time.

One of the most promising novelties of our situation is in fact the obsolescence of the traditional labor organizations, both political and syndical. In Europe, the mass Com­munist, Social Democratic and Labor parties are losing their proletarian mantles, while in the U.S. the Democratic Party has ceased to appear the workingman's friend. What remains of the workers' identification with the unions can only con­tinue to decay. Of course, the new rank-and-file caucuses, committees, and networks of such can be expected, if the struggles thus organized are successful in winning demands, to become new structures of integration—most likely by their absorption into the existing unions (with the rise to syndical power of a new, militant leadership). But this depends on the ability of capitalism to achieve a new prosperity.

It is unlikely, if the past is any guide, that we will be able to participate in mass revolutionary action before a moment of real social collapse—though a period of resistance to increasing stress will doubtlessly help to ready the proletariat for such a time. The immediate prospect, indeed, is for a consolidation of capitalist forces to try to get by its impending squeeze, including severe repression of whatever left may exist. Yet the real possibility of a future reopening of working-class struggle on a large scale leaves radicals with both hope and the obligation to achieve the understanding of current realities necessary to taking active part in the development of that struggle.

Root & Branch: The Rise of the Workers' Movements (1975), pp.111-122.