A Controversy About the Transformation of the Working Class


Advocom/Echanges et Mouvement

Published for Echanges et Mouvement

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United Kingdom



The nature of class struggle and the way the working class/the capitalist class are transformed in the process have always been highly controversial subjects. The more the course of world history is dominated and accelerated by class antagonism, the more certain people who would want to see themselves as social critics develop a tendency to proclaim the end of classes, class antagonism and class history.

Such proclamations have taken on very different forms: A lot of ink has been wasted in the 50s and 60s, in particular in the United States, Great Britain, France and Germany, on theories of the ‘affluent worker’ and the ‘embourgeoisement’ of the working class. In many instances this has been accompanied by triumphant claims about how Marx was completely wrong with all this nonsense he wrote about the immiseration of the working class. Nowadays it is easy to see, e.g. in the United States, why theorists are much more reluctant to spread all that rubbish about affluence.

In a slightly different perspective others have argued in the 60s and 70s that the majority of the working class was no longer interested in radical social change or was unable to initiate it because of internal differentiations brought about by capitalist development. Again Marx was criticized for having been wrong in assuming the existence of a united and strong proletariat. Thus theorists began to ponder about the ‘new working class’ or, in a different context, about the ‘mass worker’ and the positive role they could play in attacking the bastions of the capitalist system. In the meantime we know only too well what has become of these supposed vanguards of class struggle.

Others were prepared to declare the entire working class to be too conservative for change since their only interest resided in defending the status quo of their conditions of employment. Consequently any theory of revolution ascribing a central role to the proletariat like that of Marx was to be regarded as completely outdated. If the main aim was less work for everybody in the future, then the non-class of non-workers would inevitably replace the working class as the agent of social change.

Some of the latest variants of such wild phantasies about a mythical proletariat (of which I could not even give a complete account here) go as far as diagnosing the gradual disappearance of the working class and the complete atomisation of what is left of it. The subjectivity of the traditional working class, or some of its sections, is seen as being destroyed through a double strategy of capitalist management: the introduction of the decentralised factory/of dispersed Fordism, and the use of modern electronic equipment/the introduction of a new system of industrial communication. As a result it is assumed that there is no longer a fundamental contradiction between working class and capitalist class, there is only a kind of dispersed conflictuality. It is only logical in this perspective that Marx’ theory has to be thrown on the scrapheap.

That is the position defended by Carlos in the first article of this small collection, and again in a subsequent letter to Henri Simon. Both pieces led to a renewed discussion inside Echanges et Mouvement about transformations fo the working class in recent decades. Fundamentally it was accepted by those involved in the discussion that major transformations had in fact taken place in the antagonistic relationship between capitalists and the working class (and not just inside the working class) although the nature of these transformations still needs to be clarified. However, we were convinced that the description as given by Carlos entirely missed the point, not only disregarding current changes in class relations but also rewriting the history of past struggles along lines of a most superficial interpretation, in contradiction with any kind of most elementary experience.

Opposing the idea of an atomised working class and of dispersed conflictuality, it was thus necessary to emphasize the elements of continuity in (working-) class struggle and (working-) class structure. This is the major aim of a letter Henri Simon wrote to Carlos and which is reprinted as the third text in this brochure. It insists on analysing capitalism as a world system, on the increasing homogeneity of living conditions of workers, on an increasing centralisation of factory command with the decentralisation of production, etc. He concludes that a new society could arise out of the dynamic of present-day society, almost without the knowledge of the participants, as a result of a myriad of minor conflicts which taken individually might seem harmless but then add up to a major contradiction: the traditional contradiction between capitalists and workers.

But there were also some basic theoretical problems involved in Carlos’ discussion of the tendency towards a new type of struggle under the heading of ‘dispersed Fordism’. These problems were discussed in a letter by myself in a letter to Henri Simon (text no. 4). It was argued that Carlos completely ignored tendencies of the production of surplus value and the inherent self-destructive mechanisms, instead reproducing modern management-produced lyrics about the valorisation of capital. It was further claimed that his analysis of Fordism, the elimination of living labour from the production process and the development fo class relations was based on a point of view regarding automation as a technical, organisational and management problem, not as part of a struggle between two antagonistic classes. It was finally maintained that his concept of the totalitarian tendencies of capital and the ‘repressive unification of a world being subordinated to capital’ was nothing but the unavoidable result of his failure to offer any kind of realistic analysis of class struggle, or perhaps of his offering no analysis of class struggle at all.

Both pieces of critical commentary were sent to Carlos in order to have his reactions. In his response he once again explains his attitudes concerning what he calls the ‘methodological limitations in Marxian analysis’, ‘economic reductionism’ and ‘teleological assertions’ (text no. 5). These arguments are of course not very new nor very well founded but form part of the standard weaponry of many decades of sociological critique of Marx in the vein of people like Theodor Geiger, Ralf Dahrendorf, Cornelius Castoriadis, André Gorz, Daniel Bell, C. Wright Mills, John Goldthorpe, Anthony Giddens, etc.


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