The workers could have failed in their essay to defeat the old regime; we’ve certainly dwelled on the many obstacles that they faced. But in spite of all that, the movement was successful in achieving some of its goals. The labour movement shaped history (if not always as it had intended). That it did so, we argue, had everything to do with the emergence of infrastructural industries, that is, industries producing goods whose use depended on the construction of massive networked infrastructures: roads, electricity grids, plumbing, radio towers, etc.
If the persistence of the old regime set the scene or provided the stage on which the workers’ movement was born, then these infrastructural industries supplied the dramatic action. It was in and through their growth that the drama of the workers’ movement played out. These new industries came online just as those of the first industrial revolution — e.g., food processing, textiles, ironworks and railroads — were maturing. Taking their place at the leading edge, the infrastructural industries included, at first, everything to do with electrification and steel: safety razors, sliced bread, radios, and precision machines. There followed the heyday of so-called “Fordism”: cars, refrigerators, washing machines, and all manner of consumer durables. Altogether, these industries employed huge masses of semi-skilled workers.
It was because they employed so many workers, and made their employment so central to the functioning of the wider economy, that the infrastructural industries determined the course of the workers’ movement. The growth of these industries meant that, for a time, the development of the productive forces really did swell the size and power of the industrial workforce. Workers were also unified within massive factory complexes, which employed thousands of them at a time. Development therefore seemed to represent the growing strength of the proletariat and the shrinking relevance of its old-world enemies.
However, this growth in unity and power turned out to be a temporary phenomenon. Both were washed away in the 1970s, as industrialisation became deindustrialisation. Meanwhile, the expansion of infrastructural industries did not unify the wider class as expected. On the contrary, it deepened the imbrication of the proletariat within the unity-in-separation of capitalist social relations. Unity-in-separation was, at first, merely a formal feature of market exchange. But over time, this formal feature was “realised” in the transformation of the earth — a mess of steel and glass, concrete and asphalt, high-tension wires — taking place not only within the space of the factory, but also beyond the factory gates.
Production in infrastructural industries was not tendentially automated. That made these industries unlike the ones Marx was thinking of in his famous fragment on machines: once chemical plants had been constructed, for example, they mostly needed to be maintained or monitored. Unlike chemicals production, the industries of the second industrial revolution required huge quantities of labour, not only for the construction of the plants, but also, once constructed, for the assembly of goods. The result was, from the standpoint of Marx’s theory, a wholly unexpected support for the growth of labour demand.1 On that basis, two waves of strong industrial employment growth took place in the 100 years after Marx’s death: from the 1880s to 1914, then again from the 1950s to 1973. Both the fin-de-siècle upturn and the postwar boom seemed to confirm workers’ sense that the fate of capital and of labour were tied together: accumulation of capital was multiplication of the proletariat.
This proletariat was, increasingly, a respectable class. It became respectable in the figure of the male, semi-skilled, heavy industrial worker (which is not to say that all such workers were male, only that they were imagined to be so, ideally). This figure became hegemonic in the course of the workers’ movement: like the artisan, he really could define himself in relation to his work. That was because — at least until the 1960s, when the loss of shopfloor autonomy reached a tipping point — he was able to see his work as a source of growing collective power. He provided a model for the rest of the class: what it could be, what it was becoming.
Semi-skilled workers not only provided a model, they also had a measure of security denied to other members of the class. They were difficult to replace on a moment’s notice, and they set in motion huge quantities of fixed capital, which were worthless when left idle. That security provided a firm basis from which to fight for freedoms for the class as a whole. The time of the workers’ movement was simply the time of the rise and decline of the semi-skilled male worker and of the industries where he worked. Together they made it possible to imagine that capital was tendentially unifying the class by means of an affirmable workers’ identity. But it was only insofar as those industries were expanding that the workers’ movement could see the semi-skilled worker as its future being realised in the present. Once those industries went into decline, the glorious future declined as well.
But we will come to that later. For now, it is important to point out that, on the continent, the new industries emerging in this era did so only in the context of late development. As we saw above, late development was rooted in alliances between aristocratic and capitalist elites. Those alliances allowed European powers to institute “the American system”.2 The American system had four essential components. Late-developing regimes had to: (1) erect external tariffs to protect infant industries; (2) abolish internal tariffs and support infrastructure building, to unify the national market; (3) fund big banks, both to stabilise inflation and provide a boost to national capital formation; and (4) institute public education programmes, to consolidate allegiance to the state, standardise the national language, and promote literacy (literacy was a prerequisite for a lot of semi-skilled factory work, as well as office work).
Late development commenced in the 1860s and early 1870s. Then, in the course of the First Great Depression (1873–96), many states dropped pretenses to Manchestertum; they began to intervene extensively in national economies. That they did so made it possible to build a vast infrastructure, on which the new industries ran. Here were the canals, railroads and telegraph wires; here, too, the roads, telephone wires, gas lines, plumbing, and electrical grids. At first, this infrastructure was one dimensional: railroads and canals cut through the landscape. Then, it became increasingly two (or even three) dimensional: networks of roads, electrical grids and radio towers covered entire areas.
These latter necessitated some sort of urban planning. For example, the laying down of tram lines was associated with the separation out, on the one hand, of working class neighbourhoods, and on the other hand, of industrial zones (it was no longer the case that workers had to live within walking distance of their places of work).3 Such residential and commercial districts had to be designated in advance, when the infrastructure was laid.
This sort of undertaking was often too difficult for capitalists, and not only because of the huge scale of investment required. To build a massive infrastructure requires an army of planners: to promote a wide reach, to prevent wasteful duplication and to decide on industry standards. That meant a growing role for the state, as the only part of society capable of becoming adequate to this task — the task of planning society. Late development occurred alongside a burgeoning state apparatus, at once more centralised and more dispersed than ever before (although this apparatus remained relatively small until the World Wars spurred its growth).
The changed role of the state dramatically transformed proletarian visions of communism. In Marx’s theory, there had been no role for the state to play, either before or after the revolution. Free-market capitalism was to be replaced by socialism: that is, the “conscious planning of production by associated producers (nowhere does Marx say: by the state).”4 Marx’s model of planning was not the state, but the workers’ cooperative on the one hand, and the joint-stock company on the other. Likewise, Engels famously suggested in Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State that after the revolution, the state was to find its place in “a museum of antiquities, by the side of the spinning-wheel and the bronze axe.”5 Neither anticipated the massive role that states would play in the near future, in capitalist societies. Nor did they therefore anticipate the role the state would play in the socialist imaginary. Here’s Kautsky:
Among the social organisations in existence today there is but one that has the requisite dimensions, that can be used as the requisite field, for the establishment and development of the Socialist or Co-operative Commonwealth, and that is the modern state.6
State-led infrastructural development revealed the irrationality of capital, but in a particular way. It seemed irrational to consume commodities privately when they ran on an efficient public infrastructure. Why sell cars to individuals, when it was possible to build networks of collectively utilised trams? Why not just plan everything? Socialism became a vision of the endless extension of the state — from partially to totally planned society.7
This new vision generated debates among revolutionaries: how would this total planner state come about, through nationalisation or socialisation? Would everything be directed from above, by national parliaments, or would it be necessary to wholly replace that bourgeois apparatus with one more appropriate to proletarians, for example, a federation of workers’ unions? In either case, the problem was to figure out how separate units — still organised around economic activity, and thus surviving more or less intact from the capitalist era — would exchange their products with one another, while putting aside a portion of their output for the growth of the productive apparatus. Of course, automation would eventually solve these problems, but what about in the meantime? There were no easy answers:
On the one hand, as Korsch … Wigforss … and others pointed out, direct control of particular firms by the immediate producers would not remove the antagonism between producers and consumers, that is, workers in other firms. On the other hand, transfer to centralised control of the state would have the effect of replacing the private authority of capital by the bureaucratic authority of the government.8
How one saw the future role of the state affected one’s strategy in the present. Is the state a committee for managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie, or a neutral instrument, reflecting the balance of class forces? This question was not merely theoretical. Alliances between Iron and Rye seemed to suggest the state could strike a balance between classes. Would it be possible, then, for the working class to enter the fray, to reform capitalism on the way — or as the way — to socialism? Such debates gave rise to fundamental splits within the workers’ movement, and later, to its fragmentation.
The workers’ movement was born not only in the context of a growing role of the state, but also of the nation: late development was national development. That explains why, when the Great War arrived, socialists were largely willing to jettison their internationalism. They justified their support for war by reference to the movement’s success, following the wars of national consolidation in the 1860s and 70s.9 Most assumed that the return of war merely presaged another wave of national consolidation, which would remix the interstate framework and set up the conditions for the further expansion of the industrial proletariat. By supporting the war effort, workers would prove themselves respectable. They would inch closer to power, or maybe even obtain it for the first time, during the next cycle of economic growth.
Luxemburg bemoaned this interpretation of the war in her Junius Pamphlet. She saw — almost uniquely among Social Democrats — that the 1914 war would be different: it would be a long one, and it would leave massive destruction in its wake. She scolded her comrades for their failure to understand the changing nature of war: “Today war does not function as a dynamic method of procuring for rising young capitalism the preconditions of its ‘national’ development. War has this character only in the isolated and fragmentary case of Serbia.”10 The implication was that war really had functioned that way in the past.
Indeed, in the 1860s and 70s wars of national consolidation had ushered in a period of rapid growth for the labour movement. Social Democratic parties and Anarchist federations were founded throughout Europe (and even beyond, e.g. in Argentina). Movement strategists knew their success was tied to the framework of the nation. If the accumulation of capital was the multiplication of the proletariat, then the strength of the nation was the degree of organisation of its working class: “the alternative to a ‘national’ political consciousness was not, in practice, ‘working class internationalism’, but a sub-political consciousness which still operated on a scale much smaller than, or irrelevant to, that of the nation-state”.11 The labour movement swelled with the consolidation of national languages and cultures, both of which were in large part effects of public education (and the associated growth in literacy), as well as of rail networks. The link between the fate of the nation and that of the class was clearest for those sections of the workers’ movement that were able to contest national elections. Of course, these were the very same sections that patriotically voted for war credits in 1914.
Here is the point: in many ways, it was state-led infrastructure building, in the context of national development, that created a growing role for parliaments. Those parliaments had the power of the purse. They controlled taxation. It was because states were able to raise taxes regularly, via parliaments, that they were able to borrow on bond markets to fund their infrastructure projects: “The maintenance of the special public power standing above society requires taxes and state loans”.12 Thus, it was in the interest of the old regime to share power with national parliaments, in order to foster development. In return, the old regime got a massive boost to its military power. As a result the importance of parliament rose steadily (even though the levels of taxation involved remained low, compared to what would become possible in the course of the World Wars).
That was why it was worthwhile for the workers’ movement to break into parliaments. From the perspective of the middle of the nineteenth century, that workers might have representatives in government was a fool’s dream. However, by the century’s end, Engels was publicly calling for a peaceful transition to socialism. The ballot box replaced the barricade: “the two million voters whom [the SPD sends] to the ballot box, together with the young men and women who stand behind them as non-voters, form the most numerous, most compact mass, the decisive ‘shock force’ of the international proletarian army.”13 The peaceful victory of socialist electoral parties seemed all but assured (even if it might be necessary to rout the counter-revolution by force):
It was only a question of time, according to systematic and statistically minded German socialists, before these parties would pass the magic figure of 51 percent of the votes, which in democratic states, must surely be the turning point.14
That hope survived down to the Great War. After the war, attempts to roll back constitutionalism and democracy proved successful (especially in Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe, where both were of recent vintage); by contrast, before the war, the expansion of the franchise through struggle had seemed inevitable. Social Democracy became the dominant form of the workers’ movement in countries where workers had been enfranchised. In states where workers had not won the vote, they could look to those where workers had, in order to see their own future emerging in the present. In that way, stagism extended itself: Russia looked to Germany as a model, both economically and politically.
As it turned out, the trajectories of late-late developing countries did not actually replicate those of the late developing ones. Outside of Western Europe, movements had to have a more revolutionary orientation, since the old regime was more resistant to recognising workers’ interests. Anarchism was strongest in Southern and Eastern Europe for that reason (and also because, there, advance was impossible without the peasantry). But stagism was also wrong for another reason: with the further advance of the technological frontier, catch-up was no longer possible on the basis of late development: “In the 20th century, the policies that had worked in Western Europe, especially in Germany, and the USA proved less effective in countries that had not yet developed.”15 The only way forward was through big push industrialisation. As we will see later, the latter required not alliances with the old regime, but rather its liquidation as the very precondition of catch-up growth.
As the workers’ movement developed within national zones of accumulation, it also fractured (that was true even before the Great War broke the movement apart). The movement became destabilised because — at least in the most “advanced” capitalist countries — it proved possible to ameliorate workers’ conditions via national development in a way that dispelled workers’ revolutionary energies. Reform and revolution split off from one another. Social Democrats had initially argued that such a split was impossible:
The elevation of the working-class brought about by the class-struggle is more moral than economic. The industrial conditions of the proletariat improve but slowly, if at all. But the self-respect of the proletarians mounts higher, as does also the respect paid them by the other classes of society. They begin to regard themselves as the equals of the upper classes and to compare the conditions of the other strata of society with their own. They make greater demands on society [which society is unable to fill] … increasing discontent among the proletarians.16
According to Kautsky, it was a “children’s disease” to think that reforms would make exploitation more palatable; reforms were necessary for the revolutionary effort — they afforded workers a little security, so they could focus on organising for the final battle.17
Kautsky could say so only because, like all Second Internationalists, he still believed in the Kladderadatsch, the coming collapse of the system, which was going to unfold regardless of what reforms were won. The onset of the First Great Depression, in 1873, seemed to confirm that belief. In the course of the Depression, capital centralised to an extreme degree; it concentrated in industrial combines, linked together through cartels. On that basis, socialists announced that proletarians — along with most capitalists, peasants, artisans and small-business owners — would soon find themselves thrown out onto the street.
The connection socialists perceived between industrial concentration and unemployment was the key to their revolutionary position: technical development would force capitalists to replace men with machines. In societies organised around the capitalist mode of production, that reduction necessarily issued in unemployment for many people. As it turned out, further technical development in the infrastructural industries did not generate unemployment, especially in large manufacturing combines. Instead, the growth of the productive forces created jobs — and even more so after the end of the First Great Depression in 1896.
Simplifying somewhat, we can explain this phenomenon as follows. Although there were huge technical advances in production in the course of the nineteenth century, few such advances took place in assembly. Here, human hands were still needed. As a result, infrastructural industries absorbed huge quantities of both capital and labour. They required a small army of engineers, but also a large army of hired hands, who actually put together all the precision-made parts. Moreover, the infrastructural industries were organised in such a way that whenever those hands obstructed the assembly process, they forced machines worth huge amounts of money to stand idle. Development thus created not impoverishment, but the possibility for some workers to win higher wages through work stoppages.
Under these changed economic-political conditions it was moreover the case that some workers were able to win dignity while remaining tethered to capital. Thus, the working class was no longer the class with radical chains — the class as a purely negative force which was going to rise up and negate society. Instead, the working class was integrated, slowly and haltingly (and, it should be added, far from completely), into society as a positive force for change. As Paul Mattick argued in 1939: “consciously and unconsciously, the old labour movement [came to see] in the capitalist expansion process its own road to greater welfare and recognition. The more capital flourished, the better were the working conditions.”18
The consequences of this new situation were immense: the organisations of the workers’ movement were able to gain recognition as part of society, and they won gains for their members on that basis. However, to accept social recognition required that they no longer promote revolution as their goal. It wasn’t possible to accept the constitutional framework and simultaneously, to argue for its overthrow. That risked the possibility that the movement might lose its recognition and therefore also the gains that it had won: “the choice between ‘legal’ and ‘extra-parliamentary’ tactics had to be made.”19 This dilemma was clearest in the case of the unions, the key molecules that make up the collective worker.
The main problem faced by unions was the same as that faced by every organisation of workers: “class interest is something attached to workers as a collectivity rather than as a collection of individuals, their ‘group’ rather than ‘serial’ interest.”20 Workers’ class interest had to be instantiated in some way. Towards that end, unions created organs to punish behaviours that maximised individual well-being (e.g. scabbing) at the expense of the collective. They then began to exert power by threatening to withdraw collective labour, and sometimes, by actually withdrawing it. Here was the crux of the issue: in a context where unions set out to improve workers’ wages and conditions, while remaining roughly within the bounds of legality, unions needed to demonstrate not only a capacity to strike, but also a capacity not to strike, so long as their demands were met. Otherwise, they could not gain leverage.
For that reason, unions had to develop disciplinary mechanisms which, in addition to suppressing behaviour that maximised workers’ serial interests, ensured that the collective acted in line with negotiated settlements. Developing such mechanisms did not necessitate a stable separation between an organisational leadership and the rank and file. However, that separation could be avoided only where rank and file militancy was continuously operating. Since struggles tended to ebb and flow, the only way for unions to remain effective, over time, was to build formal structures that allowed negotiators to appear as if they had the capacity to turn rank and file militancy on and off at will (when in fact, they could do neither).
At this point, the interests of leaders and of the rank and file diverged. Rank and file militancy became a liability, except when under the strict control of the leadership. Meanwhile, the leadership became a permanent staff paid from union dues, and no longer depended on employers for wages. Leaders’ interests were increasingly identified, not with the defense of union members, but with the survival of the unions. Leaders thus tended to avoid confrontations with employers that put the future of the union at risk. In this way, substantive reform, let alone revolution, became an increasingly distant goal.
The very organisations that workers had built up to make the revolution possible — the organisations that instantiated the collective worker — became an impediment to revolution. For “a party oriented toward partial improvements, a party in which leader-representatives lead a petit-bourgeois lifestyle, a party that for years has shied away from the streets cannot ‘pour through the hole in the trenches’, as Gramsci put it, even when this opening is forged by a crisis.”21 From here on out, revolution emerged not as an internal tendency of capitalist development, but rather, as an external effect of geopolitics. Revolutions occurred only where capitalist development destabilised national frameworks of accumulation, pitting nation-states against one another.
In the background was also this gnawing predicament: as the productive forces developed, it became increasingly difficult to know what it would mean to win, to run all these massive apparatuses in the interest of the workers. Just as the galaxy, when seen dimly, appears as a single point of light, but when seen up close turns out to consist mostly of empty space — so too the productive forces of capitalist society, when seen in miniature, appeared to give birth to the collective worker, but on a larger scale, gave birth only to the separated society.
The workers’ movement promoted the development of the productive forces as a means of pressing the collective worker into being, as a compact mass. As it turned out, the extension and intensification of the factory system failed to have the desired effect; the collective worker really existed only in and through the activity of the workers’ movement itself. But the mediations of the workers’ movement did make workers’ collective interest into something real. As we have argued, unions and parties constructed a working class identity as a key feature of their organising efforts. This is not to say that class unity, or the identity with which it was associated, was somehow merely imposed by union and party leaderships; that unity and identity were integral to the project of the labour movement itself, in which millions of workers participated.
Within the labour movement, workers claimed that the class identity they promoted and affirmed really was universal in character. It supposedly subsumed all workers, regardless of their specific qualities: as mothers, as recent immigrants, as oppressed nationalities, as unmarried men (and at the outermost limit: as disabled, as homosexuals, and so on). In fact, the supposedly universal identity that the worker’s movement constructed turned out actually to be a particular one. It subsumed workers only insofar as they were stamped, or were willing to be stamped, with a very particular character. That is to say, it included workers not as they were in themselves, but only to the extent that they conformed to a certain image of respectability, dignity, hard work, family, organisation, sobriety, atheism, and so on.22
Earlier, we examined the historical genesis of this particular class identity — in the struggle against the old regime, and with the expansion of the infrastructural industries. It is possible to imagine that, in changed conditions, certain particular features of this identity may have turned out differently. To be sure, even within Europe, one would find many completely contradictory characteristics ascribed to workers as a class in different national and regional contexts. In that regard, however, we should exercise some caution. Even in the United States, where universal manhood suffrage was achieved early, and there was no old regime to defeat, a worker’s identity was still constructed in the late nineteenth century around a similar set of markers: productivity, dignity, solidarity, personal responsibility. In a nation of immigrants, where African and Native Americans were at the bottom of the social hierarchy, whiteness represented an additional marker, sometimes complimenting class identity and sometimes competing with it. The latter partly explains the weakness of a worker’s identity in the US, and its earlier demise. But it also points to the deeper structural factors that gave rise to that identity, in spite of vast national and cultural differences.
There was something necessary, something spontaneous, in the narrowing of the class identity that took place in the workers’ movement. The key point here is that the collective interests of workers cannot be determined simply by adding up their serial interests as individuals. This fact distinguishes workers from capitalists, and also puts the former at a disadvantage in negotiations. After all, the collective interests of capitalists are, to a large extent, simply a matter of arithmetic (or more accurately, a matter of solving complex systems of equations): costs must be kept as low as possible, while keeping profits as high as possible. There aren’t, for example, environmentalist capitalists and feminist capitalists, who come to blows with other capitalists over the way a company should be run. Such considerations come into play only insofar as they do not affect a company’s bottom line.23
Workers, by contrast, face much harder sorts of calculations: “how much in wages, for instance, can ‘rationally’ be given up in exchange for which amount of increase in job satisfaction? The answer to this question cannot be found by any calculus that could be objectively applied; it can only be found as the result of the collective deliberation of the members of the [workers’] organisation.”24 The answers that any particular workers might give to such a question depend on their individual preferences, as well as on the vagaries of their situations: young unmarried men have different interests from single mothers.
And yet, to deliberate every point, to reach some sort of consensus or compromise, which would ensure that every worker got at least something they wanted, would make workers’ organisation difficult. The “costs” of organising would be too great. The solution is to be found in the formation of a collective identity: “only to the extent that associations of the relatively powerless succeed in the formation of a collective identity, according to the standards of which the costs of organisation are subjectively deflated, can they hope to change the original power relation.”25 That is precisely what the unions achieved, by promoting the workers’ identity: by getting workers to perceive their interests through this identity-lens, the unions “simultaneously express[ed] and define[d] the interests of the members.”26
Individual workers had to recognise the union as acting in their interests, in a broad sense, even when their own, particular interests were not being served by the union’s bargaining strategies. This is a feature of all routinised, demand-based struggle: insofar as a collective wants to make demands, and in that sense, to engage in a sort of bargaining, the members of that collective must either share an immediate interest, or else they must be capable of forming an identity to plug gaps among their overlapping interests (paradoxically introducing a non-utilitarian element into a demands-based struggle).27 It is because workers’ organisations had to partly redefine interests in order to meet them that they were forced to rely on “non-utilitarian forms of collective action”, based on “collective identities”.28 Indeed, the capacity for demand-making in a given struggle may be grasped as structurally linked with its capacity to draw upon an existing — or forge a new — collective identity; demand-making and composition are two sides of the same coin.29
In the context of the workers’ movement, this point applies not only to negotiations with bosses, but also to the expansion of political parties, and to the growth of all other organisations existing in urban environments full of ex-peasants and/or recent immigrants. The sheer number and diversity of situations makes it hard to decide on common “intermediate” goals (that is, prior to the conquest of power). But even if this wasn’t a problem, the costs of organising remain high in other ways. Workers have few monetary resources; they pay the costs of the class struggle mostly with their time and effort (joining a demo, attending a meeting, striking). If one has to work 12 hour days, or to look after children, as most women workers did, all of this is extremely difficult. Moreover, there is no way for workers to monitor each other’s contributions. Together with the sheer size of the movement, that creates massive collective action problems. We see this in the moral centre of the workers’ movement — cultivating a sense of duty, solidarity — but also in the means of discipline — the closed shop, attacks on scabs. Even with these assets, the attraction of workers’ organisations varied greatly, as did their organisational capacities. It still usually took a tragedy, such an industrial fire or a massacre by company goons, to bring the majority of workers out onto the street.