As I understand it, the orthodox communist belief in proletarian revolution comes from three major claims:
1) The proletariat has the capacity to revolutionise society, due mainly to its central place in economic production, and to its concentration in cities and large businesses (in contrast to the isolation of peasants or small artisans);
2) The proletariat has the motivation to revolutionise society, because capitalism necessarily frustrates its interests and locks it in a class struggle that it is constantly losing;
3) If and when the proletariat revolutionises society, the result will be socialism – a society without systematic class oppression, because insofar as someone’s economic role is proletarian, it doesn’t imply a subordinate person of another class (in the way that a lord’s role implies serfs, etc).
It’s a nice collection of theses, but clearly something is missing, or needs to be said more fully, because the supposed conclusion hasn’t been reached yet. Of course, perhaps we shouldn’t expect it to have been so soon, but it’s still striking that our closeness to it seems by many standards to have substantially declined.
What interests me is the possibility that one of these three points may be in conflict with another – in particular, that the motive mentioned in point 2. may conflict with the end postulated in point 3.
I certainly believe that workers have a rational interest in socialism – but really, so do capitalists, if we allow ourselves to talk melodramatically about what sorts of life might be ‘truly fulfilling’. The mere interest though, doesn’t automatically generate a motive, because people aren’t perfectly rational.
The reason that proletarians are seen to have a class interest that motivates socialism while other classes don’t is that they are involved in a constant class struggle in which their immediate and obvious and explicit interests (higher wages, fewer redundancies, more workplace control, etc.) are tied to their self-assertion in such a way that satisfying them progressively more moves them progressively closer to, and into, socialism.
But do they? What if those ‘immediate interests’ are of a sort that cannot be satisfied under socialism? We have just said, after all, that the transformation of rational interests into effective motives works through concrete social relations. But what sort of form might those relations give to the motives they produce?
To put it another way, what precisely is the motive mentioned in point 2.? What desire is supposed to drive the proletariat to revolution? Here are three possibilities (which are likely combined in some variable ratio):
A) It’s the desire for particular goods. Hunger drives them to seek food, cold drives them to seek housing, the love of beautiful things drives them to seek nice places to live, etc. The have-nots want to have what the haves have.
B) It’s the desire for power and freedom, in some broad and intuitive sense. The workers rebel against the condition of being managed and ruled, in pursuit of freedom for individual and collective self-rule. In this sense, power can include power over yourself, over the circumstances of your life, power together with others, and…
C) It’s the desire for domination, for power over others. I offered something like a definition of this yesterday (along the lines of being able to make people do something without them having to understand why and agree), but I think that definition isn’t quite suited to its use here, since one can feel the pleasure of ‘domination’ not from making someone do anything but from hurting or even destroying them. But let’s use the word ‘domination’ here for something a bit wider and more subjective, and let no-one accuse me of seeking to appear more consistent than I am.
Domination is a variety of power, and often the most intense – nothing assures us of our power swiftly and easily as dominating someone else. So motivations B and C are very closely related, very close cousins.
BUT their implications for socialism are polar opposites. People in a socialist society have abundant power – individual power over their own lives, and collective power over their shared lives. But they have very little outlet for domination. As a non-hierarchical society, socialism in fact tends to make domination very hard.
If the primary component in the motives that led a movement of the proletariat to revolutionary activities (or just general insubordination) was C rather than merely A or B, then it would be liable to deflect itself from genuine socialism, or allow itself to be deflected (let’s set aside questions of agency or responsibility here).
What would this deflection look like? Next post will continue this discussion.