Workers believed that if they partook in the terrifying march of progress, then the slaughter bench of history would cut down their enemies. The development of industrial civilisation would propel workers into a position of power. It was certainly true that in the decades before the Great War, trends seemed to be moving in the right direction. In the first decade of the 20th century, workers streamed en masse into organisations built around an affirmable workers’ identity. Social Democratic parties went from netting thousands of votes — as a minority formation within the workers’ movement — to acquiring millions, as that movement’s main line.
Meanwhile, in some countries, union membership surged: “By 1913, British unions had added roughly 3.4 million, German unions just under 3.8 million, and French around 900,000 workers to their membership of the late 1880s. Unions finally invaded the factory floor, as against the building site, coal mine, and small workshop, where they already had a presence.”1 The class had become a force to be reckoned with, and knew it.
Revolutionaries’ belief that trends would continue to move in their favour was enshrined in the policy of abstentionism. Social Democratic parties became the largest factions in parliaments, even if they remained in the minority; but those parties abstained from participating in government. They refused to rule alongside their enemies, choosing instead to wait patiently for their majority to arrive: “This policy of abstention implied enormous confidence in the future, a steadfast belief in the inevitable working-class majority and the ever-expanding power of socialism’s working-class support.”2 But that inevitability never came to pass.
The industrial workers never became the majority of society: “Even as industrial labour reached its furthest extent, long-term restructuring was already tipping employment toward white-collar and other jobs in services.”3 That was the movement’s external limit: it was always too early for the workers’ movement, and when it was not too early, it was already too late.
It was too early because the old regime persisted, in all its forms, despite the growing strength of the industrial working class. At the end of the 19th century, “it was undeniable that, except for Great Britain, the proletariat was not — socialists confidently claimed, ‘not yet’ — anything like a majority of the population.”4 The stalled growth of the working class was reflected in the obstinate continuance of peasants in the countryside, and in the tenacious holding-on of artisans and small shopkeepers in cities. It was also reflected in apparent quantitative limits to the movement’s growth: the unions were far from organising the majority of the population; Social Democratic voting percentages remained below 51 percent. Looking over these numbers, the parties decided to wait. And wait they did, even during those moments when the class bucked and tried to trample its riders. Supposedly, history would take its course — this was guaranteed. However, history took an unexpected turn.
Almost as soon as the old regime was cleared away, the semi-skilled industrial working class stopped growing. It then went into an unarrested decline. At first it did so only relative to the total workforce. But then, in the 1980s and 90s, and in nearly every high-income country, it declined absolutely. As a result, the industrial workers never made up more than, at most, 40–45 percent of the total workforce.5 A growing mass of private service workers expanded alongside the industrial workers and then overtook them as the largest fraction of the workforce.6 Likewise, many urban-dwellers came to find employment in the public sector — civil servants, teachers, etc — or else lived by neither wage nor salary: students, benefits claimants etc. All these groups were supposed to fall into the proletariat, but instead the proletariat fell into them.
That was the case, in spite of the fact that more and more of the world’s population was made dependent on the wage. But for the most part, this wage-earning population did not find work in industry. The appearance of factories in some places did not presage their appearance everywhere: “Dynamism actually required backwardness in [a] dialectic of dependency.”7 The success of the workers’ movement — in single-industry towns, or industrial cities — was not the realisation of the future in the present. The co-existence of massive factories and small shops was not a bug, but rather, a permanent feature of the system.
However, the deeper reasons for workers’ abiding non-majority are to be found in the “laws of motion” of capital’s dynamic. The key point, here, is that capital develops the productive forces in and through a massive increase in labour productivity. This has contradictory results with respect to the demand for labour: rising output causes employment to grow; rising productivity causes it to shrink. The balance between the two then determines the growth of the demand for labour. In the heyday of industrialisation, labour productivity rose quickly. However, industrial output rose more quickly, so industrial employment expanded. As we explore below, this overall relationship was reversed in the latter half of the twentieth century: output growth rates fell below rates of productivity growth; industrial employment growth steadily declined as a result. But even in the earlier period the balance between growth of output and growth of productivity presented real limits to the workers’ power.
Employment in many of the leading-edge industries of the pre-WWI period — such as textiles and steel, where workers had achieved the most gains — ceased to keep pace with the growth of the labour force after WWI. Some industries even laid off more than they hired. Meanwhile, new sectors, like consumer goods and automobiles, picked up some of the burden of generating employment in industry, but it took time for unions to organise them. Moreover, since they began at a high level of mechanisation, the expansion of these industries was less employment enhancing than the growth of earlier industries had been, for example, in the mid and late nineteenth centuries. Here was the phenomenon of technological ratcheting, and relatively declining demand for labour, which Marx, in the first volume of Capital, termed the rising organic composition of capital.8 In every country the industrial share of total employment remained resolutely below the 50 percent mark required to achieve a majority. Even in the most industrialised countries (the UK, Germany), it did not inch above 45 percent.
External limits set boundaries on the growth of the workers’ movement by limiting the size of the movement’s constituency. However, the movement faced internal limits as well: only a portion of the proletariat ever identified with the programme of the workers’ movement. That was because many proletarians affirmed their non-class identities — organised primarily around race and nation, but secondarily around gender, skill and trade — above their class identity. They saw their interests as adding up differently, depending on which identity they favoured.
To speak of a “class identity” in this way would have seemed to the theorists of the workers’ movement to be a sort of contradiction in terms. They saw identity and class as opposed concepts. Class was supposed to be the essence of what people were; to identify primarily with one’s class was to have “class-consciousness”. To identify oneself along some other line was to have “false consciousness”. Non-class identities were seen as inessential traits which divided workers against one another, and so also as against their real interests (that is, their class interests). But it was only from inside the workers’ movement that the horizontal struggle between political groups, organised around different identities, was perceived as a vertical struggle between a depth category — the class essence — and a variety of surface categories.
The worker’s identity could function as a depth category because it seemed to be at the same time both a particular and universal identity. The particular identity was that of the semi-skilled, male industrial worker: “The working class was identified too easily with the wage relationship in a pure form: the authentic worker, the true proletarian, was the factory worker”, and we might add, more specifically, the male factory worker.9 Although it often held their needs to be secondary, the movement did not ignore women: among workers, Engel’s Origins of Private Property, the Family and the State, and August Bebel’s Women and Socialism were more popular than Marx’s Capital. Of course, women did work in factories, particularly in light industry (textiles, electronics assembly), and were often important labour organisers.
Yet it remained the case that the particular identity of the semi-skilled, male industrial worker was seen as having a universal significance: it was only as the industrial working class that the class approximated the collective worker, the class in-and-for-itself. This significance was not just political. During the ascendency of the workers’ movement it seemed that all non-class identities — even gender, insofar as it served to separate out certain tasks into male and female labours — were dissolving in the vast army of semi-skilled factory workers.
The theorists of the workers’ movement saw the collective worker emerging from the bowels of the factory and envisaged the extension of this dynamic to society as a whole. Due to the division of labour and the deskilling of the worker, the sort of work that industrial workers did was expected to become ever more fungible. The workers themselves would become interchangeable, as they were shuffled from industry to industry, in accordance with an ever changing demand for labour and for goods. Moreover, in the factories, workers would be forced to work with many other members of their class, irrespective of “race”, gender, nationality, etc. Capitalists were expected to pack all sorts of workers into their gigantic combines: the capitalist interest in turning a profit would overcome all unprofitable prejudices in hiring and firing, forcing the workers to do the same. As a result, workers’ sectional interests would be short-circuited. Here were the solids melting into air, the holies profaned.
In reality, the homogenisation that seemed to be taking place in the factory was always partial. Workers became interchangeable parts in a giant machine; however, that machine turned out to be vastly complex. That in itself opened up many opportunities for pitting different groups against each other. In US auto plants, black workers were concentrated in the foundry, the dirtiest work. Southern Italians equally found themselves segregated from Northerners in the plants of Turin and Milan. Such segregation may appear inefficient, for employers, since it restricts the pool of potential workers for any given post. But as long as the relevant populations are large enough, employers are able to segment the labour market and drive down wages. If differential sets of interests among workers could be created by the internal divisions within the plant (as in Toyota-isation), so much the better. Capitalists were content for the labouring population to remain diverse and incommensurable in all sorts of ways, especially when it undermined workers’ organising efforts.
Given that the expected homogeneity of the semi-skilled workforce failed to fully realise itself, it became part of the task of the workers’ movement to realise that homogeneity by other means. As we saw above, organisation requires an affirmable identity, an image of working class respectability and dignity. When workers failed to fit this mold, the champions of the workers’ movement became champions of self-transformation. The workers’ movement was a sect — with DIY, straight-edge sensibilities, a particular style of dress, etc.10 Yet the predicates of the dignified worker (male, disciplined, atheist, expressing a thirst for scientific knowledge and political education, etc.) were often drawn by analogy to the values of bourgeois society. “The party activists wanted to live worthy, upstanding, moral, moderate, and disciplined lives: on the one hand, to show the workers who were not yet organised a good example; on the other hand, to show bourgeois society that one was up to all tasks, that one deserved good standing and respect.”11 In other words, party activists were quite often killjoys.12
It is easy to point out that there were many workers to whom such a self-understanding could never appeal. The internal limit of the workers’ movement was the limit of workers’ capacity or desire to identify as workers, to affirm that identity as something positive, but more than that, as something essential, something that fundamentally defined who they were. That meant that the workers’ movement came to include always only a fraction of the working class. On the outside there forever remained “the superstitious and religiously devout, the sexually transgressive, the frivolous young, the ethnically different and other marginalised minorities, and the rough working class of criminal subcultures, casualised labour markets and the migrant poor.”13 Political factions arose that tried to appeal to workers on the basis of some of these identities, which the workers’ movement left out. Thus the movement found itself competing with nationalist, Christian or Catholic parties. But it was nevertheless the case that, in the era of the workers’ movement, all those factions found that they had to define themselves with respect to the workers’ identity in order to matter at all. The workers’ movement hegemonised the political field (even if from the sidelines of official politics).
It was primarily in response to its external limit that the workers’ movement developed divergent strategies. How were the workers going to overcome this limit and become the majority of society? In retrospect, we can see the external limit as an absolute barrier, but it was impossible to make that judgement during the era of industrialisation. For workers, it seemed likely that in one way or another industrialisation would take its course, or else that by various means the forces of production could be made to expand, thereby increasing the size and unity of the proletariat. Of course, those who believed that the project of the workers’ movement would never realise itself under existing conditions simply left the movement, entering one or another utopian tendency lost to history, or giving up on politics.
For those who remained, the external limit presented itself as a set of strategic quandaries. These debates mostly concerned forms of struggle, as opposed to its content: (1) the form of revolution — insurrection or the ballot box? (2) the form of the organisation — direct action or parliamentary and union representation? and (3) the form of the state — tool of the ruling classes or a neutral instrument reflecting the balance of class forces?
In any case, the point for us is to see that the key strategic debates of the workers’ movement emerged in relation to the specific limits that movement faced. Our own strategic debates, in our time, stand in relation to the limits we face or will face, which are rather different (this intuition should not be read as implying, pessimistically, that our limits will also turn out to have been insurmountable barriers). Any attempt to reactivate the strategic horizon of the workers’ movement today is either based on a false reading of a similarity between eras, or else it is a delicate and difficult leap across the chasm of time, which knows itself to be such.14
On the right of the workers’ movement, the social democrats were compelled to face the facts. They were waiting for their time to come, but everywhere they hit ceilings in terms of voting percentages, often significantly below 51 percent. They decided that they needed to prepare for the long road ahead. That meant, in particular, holding their membership in check when the latter tried to jump the gun by risking the organisation’s gains too soon in a “test of strength”.15 Social democrats (and later, communist parties) were always motivated by this fear of the too soon. Instead of jumping the gun, they would bide their time and moderate their demands in alliance with other classes. In the past, social democratic parties had been strong enough to have a share in power but did not take it based on the policy of abstention. Now, they would begin to use the power they had: it was time to make compromises, to cut deals.
It was this compromising tendency that split the workers’ movement. To many workers, giving up on abstentionism and making alliances was a “betrayal”, signaling in particular the corroding influences of other classes (petit-bourgeois intellectuals), or of certain privileged, pro-imperialist sectors of the working class (the labour aristocracy). In fact, this turn within social democracy had more prosaic roots. In the first instance, it was the only way to give the voters something to celebrate, once voting percentages stopped rising so quickly. Second, and more importantly, once the social democrats could see that they couldn’t reach the crucial numerical majority on the basis of workers alone, it made sense that they would begin to look for voters elsewhere: socialists had to “choose between a party homogeneous in its class appeal, but sentenced to perpetual electoral defeats, and a party that struggles for electoral success at the cost of diluting its class character.”16 Increasingly, all social democratic parties chose the latter. The “people” tended to be substituted for the working class (although social democratic rhetoric also tended to flip back, at crucial moments), with victory over the old regime within grasp, democracy became an end in itself. Socialists dropped any reference to violence, and then eventually, to revolution, in order to establish themselves in parliament, hunkering down for the long road ahead.
The problem is that appealing to the people requires diluting the programme.17 Their expanded constituency of small shopkeepers, peasants, and so on experienced the problems of modernity in a number of different ways that were difficult to add up. The parties became containers for a set of sectional interests, tied together more by political maneuvering than by any internal coherence. The social democrats were forced to fight over the centre with other parties, nationalist and religious: “as class identification [became] less salient, socialist parties [lost] their unique appeal to workers.”18 Thus even with an expanded constituency, they still struggled to attain the elusive 51-percent majority.
The social democratic parties initially justified their reformism by saying the time was not yet ripe, but starting from the 1950s they gradually dropped the idea of socialisation of the means of production altogether. They had come to see this move as not necessarily a retreat. This is because, for many social democrats, a working class party at the helm of the state is socialism, or at least, all that is left of this idea: the state organises all the activities of the working class, not via their separate interests as workers in different factories or sectors, but rather, as a whole, as the collective worker, which then hands down orders to the different sectors. The workers’ world, from this perspective, is not a far off dream, but an actually existing social democracy.
In the centre of the workers’ movement were the romantic revolutionaries. They argued that power should be seized now, precisely in order to complete the transition that capitalism failed to produce. Thus the Bolsheviks in Russia and the Maoists in China took it as their task to ensure that the working class became a majority, in spite of rather than in line with capitalist dynamics in their “backward” countries. In order to achieve this goal, the workers would have to complete the bourgeois revolution in place of a weak and servile bourgeoisie.
In undertaking this task, the revolutionaries in the poor countries confronted a real problem. Due to ongoing capitalist development in the West, the technological frontier had continued to be driven outward. Catch up became much more difficult to achieve. It was no longer possible to catch up to the technological leaders in the West by means of the “American System”. Allowing capitalist industries to develop on that basis would simply take too long: catch up would take hundreds of years, rather than decades.19 Under these conditions, the only way to advance was to suspend the logic of the market completely. All the infrastructure and fixed capital had to be built at once. Prices had to be artificially deflated to their expected future level, a level that would not really be achieved until the whole interconnected industrial system had been more or less entirely built up. This very complex industrial strategy has been termed “big-push industrialisation”.20 It was only possible in countries where extreme forms of planning were permissible.
Yevgeni Preobrazhensky, in essence, discovered the possibility of big-push industrialisation, based on his analysis of Marx’s reproduction schemes.21 He developed his findings into a new sort of anti-Marxist Marxism: catch-up development via central planning. Thus, in an emerging “communist” bloc the figure of the technocrat-planner came into its own. However, setting up a technocratic planner state meant uprooting traditional agrarian relations, something old regime elites, as well as many peasants, would bitterly oppose. Marxism-developmentalism thus depended on getting rid of the old elites and reorganising life in the countryside; compromises were no longer an option.
In the end it was this aspect of the strategy that would pay off. In the twentieth century, only countries that wiped out the old regime elites were able to catch up: Russia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.22 Of course, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan were able to achieve this result without turning communist, but their ability to do so had everything to do with a wave of revolutions that swept East and Southeast Asia (the main sites of victorious peasant wars), and also with assistance received from the US. Where romantic revolutionaries did not come to power, and old regime elites were not deposed, in India and Brazil, etc, developmentalism ran aground. They had to do it in the old way, via compromise and corruption, and that just wouldn’t cut it.
We can see in this tendency the extreme form of the paradox of the workers’ movement. Under the social democrats support for the development of the productive forces primarily meant constructing the image of the collective worker, calling for discipline, building the institutions to see workers through the long haul. With the romantic revolutionaries we find the workers’ movement not merely waiting for the development of the productive forces, having faith that they will develop, but actively developing them, with the iron discipline of a centralised state apparatus.23
Lastly, there was the left-wing: the anarcho-syndicalists and council communists. The left began from the fact that the working class was already a majority in the industrial towns, where the social democrats and unionists held power. In this narrow context, the external limit was invisible. To workers in these areas, it was clear that they were the ones building the new world. All that was left to do was seize control of the production process directly — not through the mediation of the state, but by means of their own organisations.
In this way, the left rejected the problem of adding up the class to get a 51 percent majority at the national level. There was no need for compromises with other parties, no need to appeal to the people instead of the class. That explains the increasingly anti-parliamentary character of a sizable fraction of the workers’ movement after 1900: they rejected the parliament as the place where the entire country is added up and somehow the workers come up short. The left rejected the problem of the real majority — but they did so only in favour of so many local ones.
That was because the anarchists and the communist left, more than anyone else, really believed in the collective worker.24 They saw the mass strike as the stirring of a sleeping giant, tugging at the ropes with which formal organisations had diligently bound it. The collective worker had to be encouraged to throw off the mediations that divided it, that trapped it in unions and parties, with their fixed focus on this world and winning gains for workers qua commodity sellers.
In that sense, the left implicitly recognised that the development of the productive forces was leading to the separated society. They rightly saw this as, in part, the work of the workers’ own organisations, their attempt to empower the class via integration with the state.25 The left criticised the realities of the workers’ movement in terms of its ideals, taking refuge or finding solace in the logic of Marx’s purer, more revolutionary analyses. But in doing so, they sought mostly to turn back the clock. They didn’t see that it couldn’t have been otherwise: it was impossible to build the collective worker without, on the one hand, defeating the old regime, and on the other, building up class power through all these different mediations. They saw the mass strike as a revelation of the true essence of the proletariat. But what were those strikes for? Mostly, they either sought to secure political rights for workers’ parties and unions, or else they sought to renegotiate, rather than overturn, the relationships between workers and their leaderships.