By Bob Avakian
Revolutionary Worker #905, May 4, 1997
This is the fourth in a series of commentaries by Bob Avakian on some features of the imperialist economy and the mood of the people. Here, he returns to some themes from "There Is a Real Proletariat" (RW No. 885) and discusses how the changes in industrial production are impacting on the proletariat.
There Has To Be a Proletarian Class For There To Be a Proletarian Revolution--and There Is Such a Revolutionary Class.
In Reflections, Sketches, and Provocations, one of the pieces in that book is called "The Heartland...of Babylonian Madness." It was speaking to the phenomenon where some of these intellectuals and artists were trying, from their own viewpoint, to address some of the contradictions that are very sharply affecting the "heartland" and the "rustbelt" strata--farmers, blue-collar workers, and others who are suffering the effects of the changes in the economy, in the material base of society. And one of the points which is made in that piece, which is a very important theme, is the question: where are your feet planted?
It's not wrong, in fact it's very important, to try to reach out to these strata, but where are your feet planted when you do this? If your feet are not planted in the right place, you're going to fall over, one way or another. This applies to our Party, both in terms of the its work as a whole, as well as ideologically--if your feet are not firmly planted in the proletariat and its interests and outlook, you're not going to be able to correctly speak to these other strata. You're not even going to be able to address and move them in a direction to resolve the contradictions they're experiencing, let alone the more profound and central contradictions in society.
One of the things that was brought out in that piece was the line from the Melle Mel rap "World War 3." (This is a very striking, a very interesting rap from a lot of different angles. I think it was done in the mid-'80s--which is also interesting in terms of showing that we were not the only ones who were thinking about the real and immediate danger of World War 3. This question was on the agenda, you know. This rap by itself doesn't prove the case, but it is indicative of something.) One of the lines in that rap talks about when WW3 hits: "Just one big boom and whaddya know/the world is a ghetto, high and low." And what was pointed out in "The Heartland...of Babylonian Madness" is, not that we want the world to be reduced to just rubble, but the point is if you're going to have a proletarian revolution, there has to be, and you have to base yourself among, that stratum of people for whom (to echo another song title), the world has always been a ghetto.
Now, within that, there's also the question of understanding the different strata and the stratification within the proletariat. It's not simply the case that the people who are most desperate are, in a one-to-one sense, the most revolutionary. But there is something that was brought out in the Morality* writings, which is very important. It's also something that the comrades in Peru have emphasized: they call it the scientific organization of poverty. I think they may be referring to the statement by Marx when he's criticizing Proudhon in the "Poverty of Philosophy." Marx says Proudhon's failure was that he didn't see the revolutionary destructive aspect in poverty. He only saw the misery. This is a problem for a lot of intellectuals, including some of the people who do some very good work--people like Jonathan Kozol and others--they don't see the revolutionary destructive aspect in poverty. In other words, they don't see the revolutionary potential that arises from, and is bound up with, the impoverished condition of the proletarian masses. And this is what we have to see, scientifically--and, in fact, especially today, it can only be seen, at least in any kind of thorough and consistent way, by applying our science.
So, there does have to be a class for whom the world is a ghetto, but also people whose material interests correspond in a general way--not some abstract, absolute "pure" way--to the outlook and the interests of the proletariat. And the point is, there is such a force. With all the dislocations, upheavals, with all the disastrous consequences for the masses that they're being dragged through and the disorientation and demoralization spontaneously arising in connection with this, there is a class, a class whose objective interests and outlook--together with our work to give this class-conscious expression as a material force--represent the bridge across that yawning chasm between what's needed to resolve the contradictions, not only in a particular country but on a world scale, and what, in fact, the conditions are today and how they are impinging upon the lives of the people, the great majority of humanity.
In this connection, it's important to speak a little bit about the question of socialization of production. One of the things that's being written about in terms of the demise of communism and some of the more "sophisticated" refutations of "Marxism" is the idea that, with all these high-tech changes, one of the main characteristics of the proletariat, as Marxism conceives of it--namely its socialization and the general phenomenon of the socialization of production--no longer applies, that this is being eliminated by all these technological changes, the "high-tech revolution," etc. etc.
Now, I think what's important to bring out in relation to this is that, first of all, the fundamental contradiction of capitalism remains--the contradiction between socialized production and private appropriation, or private accumulation. This contradiction hasn't been resolved by capitalism and it can't be resolved by capitalism. In fact, the further development of technology only heightens and intensifies this contradiction. There is even an interesting discussion by Marx or Engels--I tried to find it and couldn't. But it's somewhere in either one of the volumes of Capital or somewhere else (maybe Theories of Surplus Value or The Grundrisse or the correspondence of Marx and Engels). There is a statement to the effect that even if the entire world, all of production, became automated, even if it involved only machinery and no people, there would still be no basis under capitalism for operating other than according to the laws of commodity production and the law of value. (I'm not sure of exactly how this was formulated, but that's the essence of what was said.) Even if you literally had no wage labor--even if all human labor had been replaced by machines--all this would do would be to make the fundamental contradiction of capitalism all that more acute. This is something that's worth thinking about--it's a very interesting and strategically important point, I think. But the fact is, we're a long way from that.
There is a lot of wage labor and exploitation of proletarians in socialized conditions in the U.S. and all over the world. So, one essential point to bring out in connection with these technological changes associated with the current crisis and major transition in the U.S. and world economy, is that it's still the case that there is a proletariat that engages in productive labor in socialized conditions. And even those sections of the people who are unemployed, but who own no capital and depend, in a fundamental and overall sense, on their ability to work in order to live, are part of this proletarian class. And under this system the unemployed are a part of, an essential and integral part of, the overall accumulation of the capitalist class and the attempts of capital to maximize profit.
An important angle is this: many of the features of the proletariat and its conditions of exploitation under the so-called "new" technological "mix" and organization of work today may be a departure from familiar features of mass production in the 20th century, to a large degree--and more particularly a departure from the features of the first few decades after WW2. Nevertheless, the conditions of the proletariat today do call to mind much of the description of the proletariat and its fundamental condition that's in the "Communist Manifesto" and other writings by Marx and Engels. In other words, there was a conventional wisdom (or at least a conventional notion) of what the proletariat and socialization is--in the International Communist Movement from the '30s on. And it's important not to confuse that concept with the question of what the fundamental contradiction of capitalism, and in particular the aspect of socialization of production, is all about.
There are significant changes taking place in the composition of the work force. The big smoke-stack industries are undergoing major transformations, and those that remain are becoming more high-tech while a lot of jobs are being eliminated. The fact that things like the U.S. Steel works in Chicago are gone is to me a concentration of some very significant things that are happening and changing.
When I first heard that the massive U.S. Steel works on the South Side of Chicago was no more, I had a hard time believing it. I remember one time I was talking, back in the mid-'70s, to one of our comrades who worked there, at U.S. Steel, and he was telling me about a lot of the backward responses that he was getting from the workers--they were insisting that they were doing well and "it's a great system" and so on. "Well," I said, "Tell them to be a little bit careful--they're like pigs being fattened for the slaughter." I actually didn't realize at that time, how true that was going to be.
So these are important changes, but again the point is we shouldn't confuse the socialization of the proletariat with the exact forms that this has taken through a good part of the 20th century, and particularly the initial post-WW2 decades, in the U.S. and other imperialist countries. There is some significance to the role of large-scale production, but we shouldn't one-sidedly identify that with socialization. There's plenty of socialized production--for example, in sweatshops, from Thailand to the L.A. garment district. And, again, even the people who are shut out of production play an important role. Even those who are declared "marginalized" by the system actually play an important role in relation to capitalist production. And we need to study and do more investigation and understand more deeply exactly how they play this role in relation to the overall process of accumulation and the attempts at maximizing profits on the part of capital, with all the changes that are going on. And, of course, we need to understand more concretely and more deeply their potential and role in the relation to the revolutionary struggle to overthrow the rule of capital and to establish the rule of the proletariat and move on toward the final goal of communism, worldwide.
*"Preaching from a Pulpit of Bones: The Reality Beneath William Bennett's `Virtues,' Or We Need Morality, But Not Traditional Morality" and "Putting An End to `Sin' Or We Need Morality, But Not Traditional Morality (Part 2). Excerpts from these essays--including a series on "What is Communist Morality"--appeared in the RW from January 28, 1996 through May 12, 1996.
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