‘The Proletariat and the Revolution, Will the Workers Bring Socialism?’ by Louis B. Boudin from International Socialist Review. Vol. 7 No. 3. September, 1906.

Comrade Boudin heads towards the climax of his epic literary battle with the Revisionism of the Second International in this, the penultimate article in two-year long series published in International Socialist Review beginning in 1905. What would later be gathered as the book ‘The Theoretical System of Karl Marx in the Light of Recent Criticism,’ these articles constitute one U.S. revolutionary Marxism’s great pre-World War One contributions and was studied and absorbed by the generation who would go on to found the U.S. Communist movement.

‘Will the Workers Bring Socialism? The Proletariat and the Revolution’ by Louis B. Boudin from International Socialist Review. Vol. 7 No. 3. September, 1906.

We now come to consider the active factor of the revolution from capitalism to socialism,— the Proletariat. It may be stated without any fear of contradiction that this question of the role of the proletariat in bringing about the transformation from capitalism to socialism, and how and under what circumstances it will execute this role, in which last is included the question of the so-called breakdown of capitalism, is the real bone of contention between the so-called old-school Marxists and the Revisionists; this being merely the reverse side of the question of the Social Revolution, and all other questions are only tributary to it. As was already stated before, the purely theoretical questions of philosophy and political economy are not the proper field of Revisionism, and these theories are drawn into the discussion only in so far as they have, or are believed to have, any bearing on the present question. The paramount question of revisionism is: Who is going to bring about the transformation from capitalism to socialism, and how will it be done? Everything else is only interesting in so far as it throws some light on this subject. We have already shown in the preceding chapters the role which some of our social elements, those which may be called passive, will play in this transformation and how the ground will be prepared and broken. Now we will consider the active factor, its development and the conditions under which the work can be successfully done by it.

Before proceeding any further, however, attention must be called to a peculiar feature of the discussion on this subject, which is the result of a basic misunderstanding of the Marxian theory.

Almost all of the Revisionists proceed upon the theory, more or less clearly expressed, that Marx expects the transformation from capitalism to socialism to be effected by at least two independent causes: the economic breakdown of the capitalist system, and the revolt of the proletariat against capitalism. Some go even so far as to split up the second cause into two: the growing weight of the burden of capitalism on the working class, and the growth of the power of the working class. Each of them therefore attempts to argue against the allowance of that particular cause, the admission of which he thinks would interfere with the method of fighting for socialism which he believes to be the best. Most of them are vehemently opposed to Marx’s supposed prediction of an economic breakdown of capitalism, the so-called Zusammenhruchstheorie, and try to prove that socialism will never be brought about by that “factor” and that we must, therefore, look to other factors if we want socialism. A good many of them are also opposed to the ascribing of any great importance to the increasing burdens of capitalism on the working class, the so-called Verelendungstheorie.

It is sometimes really amusing to see how they argue about these “factors” or causes as if these were absolutely independent of each other and could exist one without the other and without reference to each other. One of them, Rudolph Goldscheid, the latest in the field, has even managed to show that these various factors neutralize each other by working in different directions. And none of them has ever stumbled on the fact which is as clear as day-light to those who can see, that Marx presents only one argument showing only one cause for the transformation from capitalism to socialism— the economic development of society which evolves the economic conditions necessary for the change, and produces the social forces which will bring it about. The cause being one, its separate parts or aspects must be considered with relation to each other and with a view to the whole, and cannot be understood unless so considered. Of course the different points involved may be taken up one by one, but always bearing in mind the rest. So when we will consider here any one of these points it will always be with a view to what we have to say on the points considered before or to be considered later.

In order that we may bring out clearly before our readers the different points made, we will consider them from two points of view: first, as to how far Marx’s description of the tendencies of development of capitalist society, in so far as they affect the conditions of the working class, is correct; and, secondly, as to what conditions of the working class must exist, according to Marx, in order to make it a proper vehicle for carrying out the historic mission which Marx ascribes to it. Before going into details, however, we desire to place before our readers the description of the transformation from capitalism to socialism traced by Marx himself in one of the finest passages ever penned by mortal hand:

“As soon as the laborers are turned into proletarians, their means of production into capital, as soon as the capitalist mode of production stands on its own feet, then the further socialization of labor and the further transformation of the land and other means of production into socially exploited and, therefore, common means of production, as well as the further expropriation of private proprietors, takes a new form. That which is now to be expropriated is no longer the laborer working for himself, but the capitalist exploiting many laborers. This expropriation is accomplished by the action of the immanent laws of capitalistic production itself, by the centralization of capital. One capitalist always kills many. Hand in hand with this centralization, or this expropriation of many capitalists by few, develop, on an ever-extending scale, the co-operative form of the labor process, the conscious technical application of science, the methodical cultivation of the soil, the transformation of the instruments of labor into instruments of labor only usable in common, the economizing of all means of production by their use as the means of production of combined, socialized labor, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world-market, and with this, the international character of the capitalistic regime. Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolize all the advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labor at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.”

This passage which describes one process, clearly indicates that Marx distinguished three moments of that process which he evidently considered of importance: (1) The technical, and, so to say, purely material side of the process, the concentration and centralization of capital, which furnishes the technical and material (in the more limited sense of the word) basis of the future society; (2) The effect of the technical and material side of the process on the members of the society, particularly the working class, which creates the active force ready and able to make the change from the present system to the future; and (3) The resulting conflict of the technical and material side of the process and the needs of society in general and of the working classes in particular, which necessitates the change.

Lawrence 1912: The Bread and Roses Strike by Ralph Fasansella.

The first moment was considered by us at length in the preceding chapters, the third moment was already touched upon by us in a preceding chapter, and will be treated at length in the succeeding one; the second moment will be considered here.

Does the mass of “misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation” grow? The Revisionists say: No; the condition of the working class is not getting worse but improving. And furthermore, say they, Marx is wrong in asserting that the growth of misery, etc., of the working class is necessary for the transition from capitalism to socialism. How— they ask— can a miserable, oppressed, enslaved, degraded, and exploited working class fight the battle and win the victory for Socialism? In support of their contention as to the actual condition of the working class they point to the facts, or alleged facts, that the hours of labor have shortened and the wages have increased since the writing of that passage by Marx; that the workingmen are better housed and better fed now than formerly and that pauperism is on the wane rather than on the increase. They make those assertions in a manner as if they were stating undisputed facts which require no proof to support them. As a matter of fact, however, these assertions are very far from stating undisputed facts. It is sufficient to mention some very recent literature on the subject, such as Hunter’s “Poverty,” Spargo’s “The Bitter Cry of the Children,” and the articles of Theodor Rothstein,[1] to show that the question of poverty among the working class is as yet a much mooted question. The truth is that appearances, particularly the appearances of statistical figures in certain reports, on which the revisionists mainly base their contentions, are very deceptive.

To begin with, there are intentional deceptions in a good many of our official statistics. As an illustration in point may be taken a statistical report or abstract sent out recently from the Bureau of Statistics in Washington. It was to the effect that during the financial year closed June 30, 1906, wages had increased one and a half per cent, in certain leading industries, whereas the cost of living had increased only about one-half per cent. This report is false on its face, and it does not require long research to find its falsity. It is plainly based on false premises. To mention only one point: In estimating the cost of living the learned statistician based his conclusions on the prices of certain staples. It is notorious, however, that these staples form only a small part of the cost of living. In New York, for instance, from one-quarter to one-third of the cost of living is paid as rent. Rent has increased tremendously in New York during that period. And yet the increase of rent is not included by the learned statistician. Yet such intentional deceptions are of little importance when compared with the unintentional deceptions, owing to the deceptiveness of the facts themselves. The comparative welfare of the working population of a country is usually measured by the wages paid, where the cost of living is the same. But the height of his wages are by no means an index to a workingman’s prosperity.

I shall not go into this question, however, now, for the reason that, as the careful reader has undoubtedly observed, Marx does not speak of the growth of the poverty of the working class. The omission of any reference to poverty is very significant in so careful a writer as Marx. This alone would be sufficient warrant for us in assuming that Marx did not consider the growing poverty of the working class a necessary result of the evolution of capitalism, all revisionist assertions to the contrary notwithstanding. But Marx did not leave any room for speculation on the subject, for in another place in Capital he states clearly and explicitly what he summarized here in a short sentence. He says there:

Lorado, West Virginia miners.

“The law by which a constantly increasing quantity of means of production, thanks to the advance in the productiveness of social labor, may be set in movement by a progressively diminishing expenditure of human power, this law, in a capitalist society— where the laborer does not employ the means of production, but the means of production employ the laborer— undergoes a complete inversion and is expressed thus: the higher the productiveness of labor, the greater is the pressure of the laborers on the means of employment, the more precarious, therefore, becomes their condition of existence, viz., the sale of their own labor-power for the increasing of another’s wealth, or for the self-expansion of capital. The fact that the means of production, and the productiveness of labor, increase more rapidly than the productive population, expresses itself, therefore, capitalistically in the inverse form that the laboring population always increases more rapidly than the conditions under which capital can employ this increase for its own self-expansion.

“We saw in part IV., when analyzing the production of relative surplus value: within the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productiveness of labor are brought about at the cost of the individual laborer; all means for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination over, and exploitation of, the producers; they mutilate the laborer 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 labor-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 labor-process to a despotism the 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. But all methods for the production of surplus-value are at the same time methods of accumulation; and every extension of accumulation becomes again a means for the development of those methods. It follows therefore that in proportion as capital accumulates, the lot of the laborer, be his payment high or low, must grow worse. The law, finally, that always equilibrates the relative surplus-population, or industrial reserve army, to the extent and energy of accumulation, this law rivets the laborer to capital more firmly than the wedges of Vulcan did Prometheus to the rock. It establishes an accumulation of misery, corresponding with accumulation 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.”

March of the Weavers, 1897 by Käthe Kollwitz,

This is perfectly plain: the lot of the laborer, his general condition as a member of society, must grow worse with the accumulation of capital, no matter whether his wages are high or low. His poverty, in the ordinary sense of that word, depends on the amount of wages he gets, but not his social condition. And for two reasons. In the first place, because the social condition of any man or class can only be determined by a comparison with the rest of the members or classes of that society. It is not an absolute but a relative quantity. Even the question of poverty is a relative one and changes from time to time with the change of circumstances. But the question of social condition can never be determined except by a reference to the other classes of society. This is decided not by the absolute amount of worldly goods which the workingmen receive, but by the relative share which they receive in all the worldly goods possessed by society. Thus considered it will be found that the gulf between the capitalist and the workingman is constantly growing wider. This is admitted by all as an empirical fact, and it has been proven by us in preceding chapters as a matter of theory.

This circumstance, that the welfare or misery of the working class must be considered and determined with relation to the wealth of society as a whole, and the share of the different classes therein, has been pointed out by Kautsky and Cunow. But Bernstein calls this “explaining away” the Marxian statements in Pickwickian manner, and points to the fact that Marx speaks also of “slavery, degradation, and exploitation.” We confess that we cannot see the incongruity which Bernstein seems to see here. But we do see here once more how incapable Marx-critics are of grasping even comparatively simple points of Marxian theory. Franz Oppenheimer raises the point of the growing “exploitation” of the working class in a theoretical way. Says he: “Since Marx does not set a limit to the wages which may be paid except the profit of the capitalists, nor the depth to which the rate of profit of the capitalist may fall except that it must permit the capitalist to accumulate, it is quite possible that the wages should rise to such an extent that the rate of profit of the capitalist should fall from say 10 to 0.001 per cent. In such an event”— he concludes triumphantly what he evidently considers a great argument— exploitation would, of course, be of no practical importance, and the necessity of an economic revolution would be out of the question.” One only marvels how a man of ordinary intelligence, not to speak of such an undoubtedly bright man like Oppenheimer, could have written down such an absurdity. Oppenheimer seems to have been so much impressed with the “fairness” of such a profit as the infinitesimal 0.001 per cent. that he forgot the little circumstance that in order that the rate of profit should fall to such an extent, and capitalistic accumulation continue with such a rate of profit, the amount of capital which a workingman must be able to set in motion, and the surplus value produced by him, must be so enormously large, that the “exploitation,” as Marx understands the term, will not only be of “practical” importance but will actually be very much greater than it is with a 10 per cent. profit! This, by the way, is an additional illustration of the oft-repeated truth that facts or figures in themselves are absolutely meaningless and get their meaning only from their relation to other things.

The second, and chief reason, however, why the level of wages received by the workingman does not determine his social condition is that the high level of his wages does not in any way carry with it the security of his employment. And by this is not merely meant the fact that the weekly wages which a laborer receives is no index to his yearly earnings, by which alone his real income can be measured. Aside from this very important fact, which must always be borne in mind, there is the still more important fact that, no matter what the yearly income of the laborer is, the fact that he does not earn it by steady employment at 1⁄52 part of his yearly income, but by intermittent employment at irregular and never-to-be-foreseen intervals, has in itself a determining influence on his social condition. It is this fact that makes the means of production in the hands of the capitalist a means of domination over the working class; it is this fact that turns the accumulation of capital into the accumulation of “oppression, slavery and degradation” on the side of the working class. The insecurity of the laborer’s employment is the secret of the power of the capitalist class over the “free” workingman, it is the source of the mental and moral degradation of the working class which makes of them willing and obedient slaves, ready to kiss the hand that chastises them. For it gives the capitalist a far greater power over the life and liberty of the “free” workingmen than was ever enjoyed either by feudal baron over his serf or by the slave-holder over his chattel-slave.

That is also the secret of the great power of attraction and the great social and cultural importance of the labor-union. It is not the increase in wages which it may bring about that makes it the great factor in the life of the working class which it is. It is not for that that the great modern battles between labor and capital are fought, no matter what their ostensible purpose might be. It is the protection from the grosser forms of arbitrariness on the part of the employer which it affords its members, thus increasing their security of employment, that forms the essence of the labor union; and it is for this that the great sacrifices are undergone by the workingman in fighting for the “recognition of the union” or in the “sympathetic strike,” the two forms of fighting most odious to, and least understood by, our “ethical” peacemakers between labor and capital, who would secure to each its “proper rights.” Going out from the assumption that the workingman is nothing more than the beast of burden into which capitalism strives to convert him, they cannot understand why he should kick when the fodder in his trough is left undiminished. But the workingman knows instinctively the secret power of the chains which keep him in bondage, and he tries to break them, or at least weaken them. He is not content to be converted into, or to remain, a beast of burden; he wants to regain his moral courage, his manhood; and he knows that this can only be gained by organizing a social power which would do away with or at least lessen the insecurity of his employment, the source of his slavery. Hence his fight for the union as such, which the good people cannot understand. But the capitalists understand it, hence their savage fight just at this point. They will pay higher wages, and work their men shorter hours, and grant a lot of other “just and reasonable demands,” if necessary, but they want no union, or at least the open shop, for they want to remain “master of their own house.” In other words, they are content to keep their slaves a little better, but they will fight to the last ditch against the tampering with the chains of slavery, against the installing of moral courage, the fostering of the spirit of manhood in their slaves.

This struggle between capital and labor is the other side of the shield which Marx has described. It is the growing revolt of the working class which, as Marx says, is disciplined, united, and organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. This is not an independent process working independently of the so-called “impoverishment” or, rather, increased-exploitation process which we have described before, as some Revisionists seem to think, but, on the contrary, accompanies it, and is partly its result. Nor is its effect necessarily or even usually such as to counteract the effects of the first process, as some other Revisionists, notably Rudolf Goldscheid, the latest writer on this subject, think. While the growth of the discipline, union and organization may do away with a good deal of the poverty of the working class by forcing higher wages and better conditions of labor, and would therefore have the tendency of suspending in whole or in part the “impoverishment” tendency of capitalistic accumulation, as that term is used by the Marx critics, it can have no such effect on the tendencies described by Marx. That is to say, it cannot have the effect of removing the causes of the enslavement process; it cannot secure employment for the working class; it cannot suspend the operation of the economic laws which create an over-population, a reserve army, although it can organize rationally the distribution of the employment that there is, thereby palliating somewhat the sharpness of the economic process. But it can counteract the results of the economic process on the psychology of the working class. In the breast of the slave who is riveted to his master capital there still may develop the spirit of a freeman and the courage to fight for freedom. The discipline, union, and organization of the working class cannot give him any freedom under capitalism because the economic conditions enslave him to capital, but they enable him to fight for some liberties while in slavery and for better conditions of servitude. This fight, however, in itself develops the desire for ultimate freedom and educates the workingman to an understanding of the causes and the conditions of the struggle, thus making of him an active and intelligent opponent of the present order. At the same time the struggle must be growing more intense as time passes on. For the fight only affecting the results of the downward tendency, and being powerless to remove its cause, whatever gains are made cannot be kept unless the fight for them is kept up, and the fight must be intensified as the tendency increases. Hence the growing revolt of the working class of which Marx speaks. Hence, also, the absurdity of the passage quoted below from Rudolf Goldschied’s very recent booklet: “Impoverishment or Amelioration Theory?” which forms a new departure in Revisionism. This latest manifestation of Revisionism is in effect an admission of the fiasco of the old-style Revisionism, and proceeds in different manner. But only the form has changed; the substance, however, remained the same. Particularly the metaphysical way of looking at things from their formal, stagnant, so to say, separatist, point of view, and the failure to see the inner connection between them while in motion. So says Goldscheid:

Louis Boudin.

“First of all there can be no doubt that, no matter how much alike the purely economic tendencies and the psychological counter-tendencies evoked by them may be in forcing the development toward socialism, there still exists a certain antagonism between them. It is quite possible, for instance, that during long periods of time the psychological counter-tendencies may not be strong enough to exert any considerable influence on the purely economic tendencies, the concentration of industrial undertakings, the accumulation of capital, and the impoverishment of the masses. Where the circumstances have thus shaped themselves the hope for socialism lies principally in the economic tendencies. It is different, however, where the purely economic process has an equally strong psychological process to counterbalance it. There the growing accumulation of capital in the hands of the capitalist class will be accompanied by the growing political and economic power of the working class. And this growing political and economic power of the working class will manifest itself by checking more or less effectively the purely economic process of concentration and especially the process of impoverishment. Whoever, therefore, desires to uphold the Marxian theory of concentration and accumulation to its full extent in the face of the daily power of the organized proletariat, does not realize that he has undertaken a quite hopeless task: For he asserts that the purely economic tendency of the capitalistic mode of production necessarily produces psychological counter-tendencies, and at the same time denies to these psychological counter-tendencies any real influence. It is therefore evidently very unwise in the socialist theoreticians to continue to expect the expropriation of the capitalists through the independent action of the inherent laws of capitalist production. On the contrary, the psychological counter-tendencies must paralyze the purely economic process with increased vigor and with the force of a natural law; that is to say, the breakdown of the capitalist system by its own weight must be steadily removed further and further from the realms of possibility.”

The question of the breakdown of capitalism will be treated later, as already stated. But we want to point out here in addition to what we have already said, the dualism of the conception which regards the economic conditions and the psychological effects which these conditions produce upon the workingman, as two independent motive powers, working not only without each other but neutralizing each other; the inability to grasp the process in its entirety and in its oneness, to see the monism of the process.

Maximillian Luce, The Pile Drivers, 1904.

We also want to call attention here to the fact that the learned Marx critics who insist that by accumulation of misery as one of the tendencies of capitalistic accumulation, Marx meant the accumulation of poverty, and then try to disprove such tendency by pointing to the supposed ameliorated condition of the working class, fail to take into account the fact that whatever amelioration there is was brought about by the struggles of organized labor, which Marx also predicted. The present condition of the working class is not merely the result of the tendencies of capitalistic accumulation, but of the tendencies of capitalist accumulation as modified by the struggle of organized labor against them. So much for Marx’s proper prognosis of the tendencies of capitalism. As to the effect of amelioration on the evolution to socialism, such amelioration, if any there be, would only be significant if Marx had expected the advent of socialism from a net result of poverty; that is, if there were something in poverty itself which were favorable to socialism, an idea which no Revisionist has so far ascribed to Marx. But as we have seen, it is this very struggle for amelioration, no matter what its immediate result during the progress of the struggle, that is the most important factor from the Marxian point of view in the final overthrow of capitalism, in so far as the active force which is to do the work is concerned.

While the spirit of revolt is growing and maturing in the working class this class evolves a new ideology. Living in constant struggle with the capitalist class and capitalist institutions which must array themselves in the struggle on the part of the capitalist class, the workingman learns to hate these institutions and the whole ideology of the capitalist class. Being thrown on his own resources, he begins to think for himself, to form his own ideology. But every ideology must have its base in the material conditions under which it is formed. The new ideology is based on and is the reflection of the new economic forces, the socialized means, modes and methods of production and distribution, and the growing collective control over them. His ideology is collectivism. In forming his ideology he is aided, on the one hand, by the very form of his struggle against the old order, which is the collective mass struggle, and the benefits derived therefrom which can only be enjoyed while acting collectively and when organized in accordance with collective principles, and the well organized and developed democratic forms of government and activity; and on the other hand, by the dissolution of the old ideology in general, and in particular by its abandonment by the middle class, the class with which the working class comes into closest contact.

Telephone switchboard operators, Salt Lake City, ca.1914.

At the same time the working class is steadily advancing in economic power and independence in the sense that it takes possession of more and more responsible positions in the economic life of the nation, diverts to itself, by means of the corporation and otherwise, all the growth of the concentration and centralization of capital; and particularly with the development of the corporate form of economic activity, the capitalist class abdicates its functions, the proper functions of a ruling class, those of economic management, into the hands of the working class. The working class thus not only becomes revolutionary in its ideas, desires and aspirations, but it has the organized power to carry the revolution into effect, and is fully equipped to take hold of all social and economic activities and functions the day after the revolution, and carry them on successfully.

Note: Robert Hunter, Poverty. Macmillan, 1905. John Spargo, The Bitter Cry of the Children. Macmillan, 1906. Theodor Rothstein, in Neue Zeit (1906).

The International Socialist Review (ISR) was published monthly in Chicago from 1900 until 1918 by Charles H. Kerr and critically loyal to the Socialist Party of America. It is one of the essential publications in U.S. left history. During the editorship of A.M. Simons it was largely theoretical and moderate. In 1908, Charles H. Kerr took over as editor with strong influence from Mary E Marcy. The magazine became the foremost proponent of the SP’s left wing growing to tens of thousands of subscribers. It remained revolutionary in outlook and anti-militarist during World War One. It liberally used photographs and images, with news, theory, arts and organizing in its pages. It articles, reports and essays are an invaluable record of the U.S. class struggle and the development of Marxism in the decades before the Soviet experience. It was closed down in government repression in 1918.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/isr/v07n03-sep-1906-ISR-gog-Harv.pdf

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