Back To The Future:
The Continuing Relevance of Marx
Martin Glaberman & Seymour Faber (2000)
In the Manifesto of the Communist Party
Marx and Engels wrote: “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly
revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations
of production, and with them the whole relations of society” Marx thought enough of these words to reproduce them in Capital.
Much of what has been written by Marxists since Marx has been to
document that statement, but not always with an understanding of its
total meaning. Some writers, of course, complain that Marx did not
document the working out of his predictions a century after his death.
What this position reflects is an unwillingness to understand and use
Marx’s methodology, as Lenin did in his work on imperialism.
What needs to be understood is that “revolutionizing... the whole
relations of society” includes the working class and Marx’s conception
of the working class was dialectical and concrete. In the passage that
provides a climax to volume 1 of Capital, on the general law of capitalist accumulation, Marx wrote:
“Within the capitalist system all methods for raising
the social productiveness of labour are brought about at the cost of
the individual labourer; all means for the development of production
transform themselves into means of domination over, and exploitation of,
the producers; they mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man,
degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every
remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil; they
estrange from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour–process
in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an
independent power; they distort the conditions under which he works,
subject him during the labour–process to a despotism more hateful for
its meanness; they transform his life–time into working time; and drag
his wife and child beneath the wheels of the juggernaut of capital ...
Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time
accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality,
mental degradation, at the opposite pole, i.e., on the side of the class
that produces its own product in the form of capital.”
Marx thought that the proletariat was revolutionary or it
was nothing. Was this Marx’s revolutionary proletariat? Where is the
socialist proletariat? Most Marxists, writing in the second half of the
twentieth century, do not understand Marx’s dialectical conception of
the working class. In The Holy Family Marx and Engels
say: “It is not a matter of what this or that proletarian or even the
proletariat as a whole pictures at present as its goal. It is a matter
of what the proletariat is in actuality and what, in accordance with
this being, it will historically be compelled to do.” This is difficult for intellectuals, trained in positivist science, to comprehend. But Marx and Engels carry it further in The German Ideology:
“Both for the production on a mass scale of this
communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the
alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can
only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution
is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be
overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it
can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of
ages and become fitted to found society anew.”
In other words, working class consciousness is not a
matter of verbal statements of belief, but of activity. Such things can
be difficult to document but there is a fascinating example of the
dialectical contradiction contained in working class consciousness in
the history of the American working class during World War II. Near the
end of the war the United Automobile Workers Union (UAW) held a
membership referendum on the question of the war–time no–strike pledge.
In a national vote through a postcard ballot, auto workers were asked to
vote on whether to retain or overturn the no–strike pledge. In the
vote, auto workers voted about two to one to retain the no–strike
pledge. However, at the same time that this vote was taking place, an
absolute majority of auto workers went out on wildcat strikes.
What was the consciousness of American auto workers? Was it patriotic
and conservative or was it militant? Which was more important, checking a
box on a postcard or an activity at work? You can be sure that the
employers were more interested in the latter than the former.
Hal Draper has made the point that “the proletariat is more than the sum of its individual atoms.”
A worker sitting at home alone or with his or her family is not the
same as a worker at work, bonded together with other workers. There is
another question involved. While an absolute majority of auto workers
went on strike, a majority did not vote. Most left activists would
assume that workers who did not participate in union activities, attend
union meetings, participate in the electoral process are more backward
than workers who do. The wartime referendum on the no–strike pledge
belies that understanding. Workers who didn’t vote but who were willing
to stand up to the pressure of politicians, union leaders, and
representatives of the military in the plants (risking being drafted
into the army) are not backward in any serious sense. Often enough, both
points of view existed in the same person. In my own experience, in a
major wildcat strike that shut down virtually all Chrysler plants in the
Detroit area in 1943, I saw union members who consistently favored the
no–strike pledge become militant participants in picket lines that kept
How did Marx and Engels apply their methodology, based on their
dialectic view of the working class? Engels pointed out that “[t]he
Communists know only too well ... that revolutions are not made
deliberately and arbitrarily, but that everywhere and at all times they
have been the necessary outcome of circumstances entirely independent of
the will and the leadership of particular parties and entire classes.” They based their theories on the peaks of revolutionary working class activity.
The Paris Commune of 1871 did not amount to too much. (Marx praised
it for ending night work for bakers. A century later Wonder Bread was
advertising “the bread that’s baked while you sleep.”) And the Commune
was crushed. But Marx made it the basis for his theory of the workers’
state. Thirty–four years passed before Russian workers invented soviets
in the 1905 revolution without the leadership of socialists or
communists. The 1905 revolution was also crushed, but Lenin added the
experience to Marx on the Commune and produced State and Revolution. He also learned from the experience to abandon the view he put forward in What is To Be Done that socialism can only come to the proletariat from the outside. But most Marxists chose to ignore that and stuck to the discarded views contained in What Is To Be Done.
The point is not to belabor readers with quotations from Marx, et al.
The point is that Marx had developed a theory of the proletariat that
worked. But it was only partly understood by his followers in this
century. In their influential work, Monopoly Capital,
Paul M. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy said that they were conscious that
their approach “has resulted in almost total neglect of a subject which
occupies a central place in Marx’s study of capitalism: the labor
process.” But then they went on to say: “Our neglect of the labor
process does not, however, mean that this book is not concerned with the
class struggle ... The revolutionary initiative against capitalism,
which in Marx’s day belonged to the proletariat in the advanced
countries, has passed into the hands of the impoverished masses in the
underdeveloped countries who are struggling to free themselves from
imperialist domination and exploitation.”
Two years after this book was published 10 million French workers
occupied all the factories of France and came close to overthrowing the
DeGaulle government. That Baran and Sweezy did not deal with the labor
process would have been acceptable, except that they did deal with
working class activity: they dismissed it. Class struggle and the
struggle against “imperialist domination and exploitation” in this
context are ambiguous. Peasant revolutions and national revolutions,
important and progressive as they are, do not substitute for the
proletarian revolution which Mart, Engels, and Lenin assumed to be
equivalent to socialist revolution.
Harry Braverman, in his important book, Labor and Monopoly Capital,
does not dismiss the working class or avoid the labor process. However,
he says, “No attempt will be made to deal with the modern working class
on the level of its consciousness, organization, or activities. This is
a book about the working class as a class in itself, not as a class of
itself.” As a result it is
mainly a book about the victimization of the working class. Both of
these books leave the door ajar for narrow, empirical studies of the
working class that find the working class backward and conservative. It
is not that such studies would not have been done in any case. It is
that a whole series of left academics can now find their work acceptable
to renowned Marxists.
How to apply Marxist methodology to our world, the post–World War II
world? What are the peaks that the working class of the industrial world
has reached? In 1953 there was a working class uprising in East
Germany. To make sure that
it did not spread, the western powers, England, France, and the United
States, and the West Berlin city government built a wall of police and
military to prevent West Berlin workers from marching to join their
brothers and sisters in the East. The East German revolt was crushed by
In the summer of 1956 working class resistance was beginning to form
in Poland, including the formation of workers’ councils, as a dispute
between the Polish and Soviet Communist Parties began to escalate.
Unrest in Poland was repeated in 1970–71 and 1980–81.
Unrest in 1956 was also evident in Hungary. On October 23 a
demonstration was organized by students and intellectuals. To show
support for the Polish resistance, it was held in a square in Budapest
graced by a statue of Josef Bem, a Polish revolutionary who had fought
in the Hungarian revolution of 1848. The Communist regime wavered but
finally allowed the demonstration to take place. At the end of the
meeting, not being sure of their next steps, the demonstrators decided
to march to the Budapest radio station to try to get their demands
broadcast. By this time it was late in the day and the marchers were
joined by workers getting off work. In the square in front of the radio
station the demonstrators were met with gunfire from the secret police.
The Hungarian Revolution had begun. Within 24 hours workers’ councils
blanketed Budapest. In another 24 hours all of Hungary was covered with
workers’ councils which had taken over all the productive facilities of
the nation. The Hungarian army had disintegrated. Soldiers had either
joined the revolution or had turned over their arms to the
revolutionaries and had gone home. Even significant sections of the
Soviet garrisons in Hungary defected. Ultimately much of the Soviet
occupying force was withdrawn and replaced by troops from the far East
who had had no contact with the people of Hungary. On November 4, after
two weeks of dual power, Soviet troops attacked. It took a week of
fighting to crush the revolution, although resistance continued
afterward. Nothing in Hungary could crush the revolution. It took an
invasion of Soviet tanks.
Since the beginning of the Cold War, Radio Free Europe and the Voice
of America had called on East Europeans to revolt. After tine Hungarian
Revolution, the call to revolt was never heard again. The West provided a
cover for the Soviet attack when Britain, France, and Israel invaded
Egypt to conquer the Suez Canal. The western press consistently tried to
diminish the significance of the Hungarian Revolution by emphasizing
the question of refugees and the freeing of the Hungarian Cardinal
Mindzenti. (Mindzenti had been freed from prison by several Hungarian
army officers – and had then disappeared into the American Embassy and
played no role in the revolution.) In 1968 Europe erupted again. After a
couple of weeks of street fighting between students and police in
Paris, a sit–in strike at an aircraft factory in Nantes triggered a
massive takeover of production by the French working class. In 48 hours
10 million French workers occupied all the factories of France and came
close to overturning the DeGaulle government. There were differences
from Hungary. The element of national liberation that was evident in
Hungary was absent in France. In addition the cracks that immediately
appeared in the military structure in Hungary did not appear in France.
In both revolutions there was no evidence of any support by the
traditional organizations of the proletariat. The French Socialist and
Communist Parties and the unions they controlled fought bitterly to get
the workers out of the factories and to limit the struggle to
traditional union demands. They also fought to prevent significant
contact between. the workers and the students. As a result, the French
revolt receded without the workers being defeated but with the winning
of only limited demands, such as wage increases. Further working class struggles took place in 1968 in Czechoslovakia.
These are only truncated summaries of the highlights or the
experience of the international working class in the last half of the
twentieth century. But the history of working class revolt presents us
with some interesting questions. Why did the Left, on the whole, insist
on ignoring these events? In 1963, Everett C. Hughes gave an important
presidential address to the American Sociological Association. He raised
the question of why sociologists, with all the research they had done
on the question of race, could not predict the explosion of the civil
rights movement. He wrote:
“It is but a special instance of the more general
question concerning sociological foresight of and involvement in drastic
and massive social changes and extreme forms of social action ... Some
have asked why we did not foresee the great mass movement of Negroes; it
may be that our conception of social science is so empirical, so
limited to little bundles of fact applied to little hypotheses, that we
are incapable of entertaining a broad range of possibilities, of
following out the madly unlikely combinations of social circumstances.”
Do leftists suffer from the same limitations that Hughes
attributed to sociology? It might be too much to ask why left
sociologists, political scientists, economists, or historians failed to
predict the Hungarian Revolution or the French Revolt.
After all, these were, like all popular uprisings, massive spontaneous
events. (Spontaneity should not be thought of as rising with the sun one
morning. A spontaneous revolt could not take place if it was not
preceded by a generation or so of resistance, day–to–day struggles, both
defensive and offensive, involving small gains, victories and defeats.)
But it is not too much to ask why these events did not become the
subject of intensive study and theoretical analysis.
There are two answers. One is that the events contradicted the
received wisdom of the Left: proletarian revolution is impossible
without the leadership of a revolutionary party, without a press and the
ability to communicate, without a depression or other major crisis in
society. Two, is that these events did not lend themselves to the
limited empirical analysis which passes for science in the academy.
Empirical research is the necessary foundation for any theory. Problems
arise, however, when the only theory is empiricism. Then it becomes easy
to discover that revolution is impossible, that the working class is
incapable of massive social change: There are any number of works, such
as those by Mike Davis and Michael Burawoy, that show workers as
essentially conservative and backward. They have plenty of evidence. The
working class is divided by race, by gender, by age, by skill, by
ethnic group, etc., etc. All true. However, if some social scientist had
examined the workers in the industrial suburbs of Budapest in September
of 1956, or the industrial suburbs of Paris in April of 1968, the same
would have been found. There would have been no evidence of the coming
social upheaval. How could there be? The workers themselves did not
Does anyone seriously believe that the Russian workers who invented
soviets in 1905 or overthrew the Tsar in 1917 were free of bigotry, of
anti–semitism, of sexism, of national chauvinism? Or the Hungarian
workers of 1966? Or the French workers of 1968? (In France there had
been considerable display of racism toward African immigrants, a racism
that was significantly reduced for a while during the events of May
1968.) Were the Polish workers who created Solidarity in 1980 free of
anti–semitism, sexism, the influence of the Catholic Church? What is
missing in most of these empirical studies is the theory of Marx. They
are based on the depths the working class has reached under capitalism,
not the peaks. As a result, they are inherently conservative.
This is not to say that most empirical research is useless. But
unless it is infused with the theoretical understanding of the nature of
the working class integral to Marxism, it becomes quite limited. There
are left academics doing fine work in analyzing working class activity.
But that work needs to become part of a fundamental understanding of
the capacity of the working class, the real, existing working class, to
How does this relate to the united States? Can American workers do
what Hungarian workers or French workers did? That cannot be answered.
It should be clear that none of this assumes that radicals have to
accept the divisions in the working class as an absolute. Working class
unity is a relative value. Radicals should (and have) supported black
struggles against white workers, women’s struggles against male workers,
and so on. Changes in the relationship of forces within the working
class have been made. African Americans and women have penetrated the
bastions of the white working class to a considerable degree. What
leftists should not assume is that all of these problems must be solved
before substantial social change is possible. First, that is impossible.
Second, if that were possible, capitalism would not have to be
What made it possible for the French working class to take over all
the factories of France in opposition to their leaders and their
organizations? Why is hardly anyone interested in finding the answer?
What made it possible for the Hungarian working class, male and female,
blue collar and white collar, to take over all the workplaces of the
country and run most of the towns and cities outside of Budapest? Why is
hardly anyone interested in finding the answer? It should be remembered
that what the Hungarian and French workers did was thought to be
impossible. What can be predicted is that there will be another rising.
Its time or place cannot be predicted. The fundamental source of working
class resistance to life under capitalism is alienation.
If someone can prove that alienation can be done away with under
capitalism, that workers no longer resist their conditions of life and
work, then we will be open to a theory that announces the end of the
working class as a force for social change. All of the new names for the
society in which we live, post–industrialism, post–capitalism, the
information society, globalization, do not get rid of the working class.
They simply make it easier not to think about the proletariat. But that
is what we all have to think about – and Marx still makes that thought
and study fruitful.
1. Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Marx–Engels Reader, New York: Norton, 1978, p.476.
2. Karl Marx, Capital, vol.1, Moscow: Progress Publishers, undated, p.457.
3. Ibid., p.604.
4. Tucker, Marx–Engels Reader, pp.134–35: Emphasis in original.
5. Ibid., p.193. Emphasis in original.
6. Martin Glaberman, Wartime Strikes, Detroit: Bewick Editions, 1980.
7. Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol.2, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978, p.40.
8. F. Engels,“Principles of Communism, in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976, vol.6, p.349.
9. See, e.g., Lenin, The St. Petersburg Strike, Collected Works, vol.8, p.9; Revolutionary Days, Ibid., pp.113,117; Two Tactics, Ibid., pp.154–55; and The Reorganization of the Party, Collected Works, vol.10, p.32.
10. Baran and Sweezy, Monopoly Capital, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966, pp.8, 9.
11. Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974, pp.26–7. Emphasis in original.
12. See Rainer Hildebrandt, The Explosion: The Uprising Behind the Iron Curtain, New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, and Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1955; and Arnulf Baring, Uprising in East Germany: June 17, 1953, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1972.
13. See Informations Correspondence Ouvriere, Poland: 1970–71,Capitalism and Class Struggle, Detroit: Black and Red, 1977; Henri Simon, Poland: 1980–82, Class Struggle and the Crisis of Capital, Detroit: Black and Red, 1985.
14. See Bill Lomax, Hungary 1956, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1976; Bill Lomax, ed., Hungarian Workers’ Councils in 1956,
Highland Lakes, N.J.: Atlantic Research and Publications, and Boulder,
Colorado: Social Science Monographs, 1990, distributed by Columbia
University Press; Andy Anderson, Hungary ’56, London: Solidarity and Detroit: Black and Red, 1957; and Melvin J. Lasky, ed., The Hungarian Revolution, New York: Praeger, 1957.
15. See, Daniel Singer, Prelude to Revolution: France in May 1968, New York: Hill and Wang, 1970; Patrick Seale and Maureen McConville, Red Flag/Black Flag: French Revolution 1968, New York: Ballantine Books, 1968; and R. Gregoire and F. Perlman, Worker–Student ActionCommittees: France May ’68, Detroit: Black and Red, 1970.
16. See, Vladimir Fisera, ed., Workers’ Councils in Czechoslovakia, Documents and Essays 1968–69, London: Allison and Busby, 1978; and Robin Alison Remington, Winter in Prague: Documents on Czechoslovak Communism in Crisis, Cambridge, Mass.: The M.I.T. Press, 1969.
17. Everett C. Hughes, Race Relations and the Sociological Imagination, American Sociological Review, vol.28, no.6, Dec. 1963, pp.879, 889.
18. There was one
Marxist theoretician who did see the possibility of events like the
Hungarian Revolution. C.L.R. James, in abstract, theoretical form,
prefigured what happened in Hungary in a study of how to apply the
dialectic to an examination of working class organization, in Notes on Dialectics: Hegel, Marx, Lenin, London: Allison and Busby, 1980 (1948), pp.175–76.
19. I would like
to call attention to a few whose work has not been widely acknowledged:
James W. Rinehart, Ken C. Kusterer, and Tom Jurovich.
20. See Martin Glaberman and Seymour Faber, Working for Wages: the Roots of Insurgency, New York: General Hall, 1999.