Definitions: The Proletariat

By: Gaither Stewart

work_or_riot

“Suppose that some great disaster were to sweep ten million families out to sea and leave ‘em on a desert island to starve and rot. That would be … an act of God, maybe. But suppose a manner of government that humans have set up and directed, drives ten million families into the pit of poverty and starvation? That’s no act of God. That’s our fool selves actin’ like lunatics. What humans have set up they can take down….Whoever says we’ve got to have a capitalist government when we want a workers’ government, is givin’ the lie to the great founders of these United States….”

(A Stone Came Rolling, Olive Tilford Dargan)

Years ago I visited my native Asheville, N.C. I found her gravesite in the obscure Green Hills Cemetery on the West Bank of this mountain city, across the French Broad River that the Cherokee had called Tahkeostee.

OLIVE TILFORD DARGAN

JAN. 10,1869

JAN.22, 1968

HER HUNDREDTH YEAR

The poet is now forgotten. Her tomb lies far from the monumental cemetery-resting place of more famous Asheville writers such as Thomas Wolfe and O. Henry. She was neglected because she was a proletarian writer, no easy undertaking in her times in Western North Carolina. For Dargan literature was secondary to her social commitment to the workers’ struggles: ‘The struggles lie closer to real experience than the flutter of an eyelid which has occupied bourgeois writers ….’ A widely traveled Radcliffe graduate, Olive Tilford Dargan lived most of her life in Asheville, NC. Acclaimed poet and novelist and in Who’s Who, she was blacklisted during the McCarthy Communist Scare in the 1950s. Even other writers labeled her writings propaganda because she “hobnobbed” with Communists.

Dargan described her first novel, Call Home the Heart, published in 1932 by Longmans, Green and Company, under the pseudonym of Fielding Burke, as ‘a proletarian novel depicting the role of mountain folks in the Gastonia, North Carolina cotton mill strikes.’ Largely forgotten is the wave of violent textile worker strikes that swept through North Carolina in 1929. The strike in Gastonia reflected the tensions rising from the industry’s rapid development in the South after World War I when ‘northern’ capitalists took over the southern mills to exploit cheap labor. Since Gastonia was the epicenter of the phenomenon, mountaineers from the Smoky Mountains swept into town to work in the mills. The Loray Mill (pronounced Low-Ray) was the first in the South to undergo new “techniques” such as speed-ups forced on the worker rather than new technology. That exploitation of labor ignited the anger of textile workers until walkouts began. The strike in the Loray Mills was the most famous and the most violent.

Mill owners and state law enforcement officers crushed those strikes so viciously that subsequent attempts to organize labor in the North Carolina textile plants were unsuccessful. Yet the history of the strike remains, recorded in novels like those of Dargan and in the writings of one of the organizers of the Gastonia strike, Vera Buch Weisbord, a Communist and member of the National Textile Workers Union, NTWU. No less than Marxist writings, such histories of the battles for social justice throw light on the eternal struggle between labor and capital.

The history of the clash in Gastonia is the perfect setting for an epic film or a social play of an insurrection, resembling Eizenstyn’s Battleship Potemkin. All the classic characters are present: evil capitalist mill owners, exploited workers in hot dusty factories, tiny ragged children and their emaciated mothers living in square wooden houses in Loray, strikers, scabs and strike-breakers and both dedicated and corrupt union leaders.

Dargan claimed the sequel to her first novel—A Stone Came Rolling, same publisher, same pseudonym—was even more proletarian. She said she strove not to write propaganda while she fought with conflicting feelings about writing poetry and her social responsibility. Can one combine the two? Or are fiction and social reality destined to take separate paths?

Dargan was an idealistic dreamer. To the end she continued to see good in a southern folk that has always been not only violent and brutal but also lacking in any kind of class-consciousness. They were no shield against the capitalism she detested. Neither her own Asheville nor strike-ridden Gastonia 100 miles away were safe places for radicals.

PROLETARIANS, THE PROLETARIAT AND CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS

This article should be dedicated to wage earners—especially in the USA and Europe—as well as to those exploited underpaid peoples of the world or those who have no wages at all, the potentially class-conscious proletarians who have the capability of changing today’s social-economic order.

The prologue to a potential historical play begins in ancient Rome where the proletariat was the lowest class, the plebs, the masses. Then, a jump forward through the English Revolution to the French Revolution where the spectator finds the same lower classes represented by the sans culottes, the ragged have-nots of society, ruled over by the bourgeoisie and the royalty. Then, a half century later, on center stage, Marx attaches the old label of proletariat to the workingmen and the downtrodden masses capable of war against the bourgeoisie. By the time of the Russian Revolution the working class there has become class-conscious and as the “industrial proletariat”—no longer simply ignorant masses—executes its revolution.

Ten years later, when those textile workers’ strikes spread over the American South, bombs flew, agitation was real and the potential for proletarian revolution was in the air. The missing factors in America were effective leadership such as existed in Russia and class-consciousness. There were only strikers for more pay, strikebreakers, scabs and suffering people.

Online I found this eloquent testimony in the book by John A. Salmond, The General Textile Strike of 1934, From Maine To Alabama, University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London.

“WE DIDN’T HAVE NO BACKING…. WE SHOULDN’T
have done it. The South hadn’t even begun to organize
well by then, ” remembered Kasper Smith, former textile
worker and striker. “What happened in 1934 has a whole lot to do with
people not being so union now.” The veteran organizer, Solomon Barkin,
made much the same point at a 1984 symposium commemorating the
strike’s outbreak. The strike’s leaders had had little “experience with lead­-
ing large strikes”, he asserted; there was no money to sustain the effort;
“organizational preparation was practically nil”; there was little support
from other unions, the federal bureaucracy or the president, “preoccu-­
pied” as he then was “with recovery rather than labor relations.” More-­
over, the AFL generally had failed its local union base, especially those
“which had been spontaneously formed” in the wake of the NIRA’s pas-­
sage. They were essentially left to their own resources during the strike.
There was no national direction, no widespread public or union support.
This was not a national strike at all, but rather the sum of thousands
of essentially local efforts, often with differing impulses and aims, and
this was especially true of the cotton textile south, the strike’s supposed
epicenter, where the workers’ sacrifices were the greatest, the repression
the most severe, and the consequences of failure the most long-lasting.”

Many people object that times have changed. That the world and society have become so complex and multilayered and people’s interests so diverse that old ‘class’ categories no longer apply and that only in certain places and under certain circumstances are old class divisions even clear. Some critics maintain that labels such as proletariat and bourgeoisie and capitalists are obstacles to the message such words offer because they alienate a section of the population such as the middle class in the USA today, who might comprehend their shared identity with the traditional working class if addressed in a different language. For example, the use of euphemisms for wage earners or for capitalists.

Yet, no! In my opinion, neither the word proletariat  nor the word capitalist are passé. Why not be also primitive? There are words and names that convey clear meanings. We need to know our history. The word proletariat still conveys the sense of resistance to oppression, of action, of force and strength, of an ideal. Working class is fine … though somewhat weaker. The words labor and capital, as Marx used them, are real-life categories. The capitalist and the wage earner are the personification of capital and wage labor. To disparage such words or use them in derision is to deny the dignity of human existence. For today as yesterday the proletariat is no less than the great masses of the world. It is the people. It is one of those words that are exciting and stimulating and sends chill bumps down your spine. But today it exists in the abstract. The concrete proletariat is hard to touch.

Although the masses personified by the term proletariat constitute a class, they themselves are seldom aware of it. To become a class of action the proletariat requires leadership, something those furious, hungry, striking textile workers did not have.

The proletariat is complex. It comprises much more than the elusive industrial proletariat of the Russian Revolution. It comprises any wage earner, the property-less class, which sells its labor to the class of property, money and power. Capitalism too is complex but exploitation remains. Yes, enterprise needs capital and it still today needs employees. One asks if anyone who employs someone else a capitalist? In the long run, yes. Inevitably, history, shows, they clash. Greed is inherent in man.

Thus those two classes—those who work and those who exploit the wage earner worker—stand face to face on the stage of life, interdependent, but forever at war with each other. The capitalist class understands instinctively this dichotomy that has divided men since the Persians, Mesopotamians and the Greeks. But the super-indoctrinated American working class dulled by the “American dream” does not get it. Nor has the “former” middle class in America and Europe grasped that they too are now part of the proletariat.

Having a mortgaged home, a car and a TV does not change the proletarian’s status because his very lifestyle depends on wages determined by the capitalist class which controls property, power and money. The wage earner depends on money lent him by the capitalist bank to buy his home, his car and his TV. The subprime crisis of 2008 demonstrated eloquently that those loans make the wage earner a prisoner of his employer, be it industry or banks or the state bureaucracy.

Though the man who works for wages, blue collar or middle class, is a member of the working class, his wage earner status does not make him automatically a class-conscious revolutionary. He can be anything, from a priest to the blackest reactionary, which unfortunately is often the case in the USA.

Modern history shows that the American wage earner—the potential proletarian—is in reality the staunchest flag-waving defender of the same capitalist system that exploits him, does nothing for him except pay him unfair wages, send him to war to defend capitalist interests, and toss him aside at will as many war veterans testify. American wage earners are so amorphous, so blunted in their ballyhooed ignorance, so unstructured and ill-organized that they do not even constitute a class in the political sense of the word. Their ignorance and their acceptance of their situation represent the great victory of capitalism.

The arrangement does not make any sense at all.

The frequent transportation strikes in Italy show that some Europeans workers are still class-conscious. But not the reactionary American workingman. The absence of class-consciousness of the American workingman exemplifies Marx’s statement that “the working class is either revolutionary or it is nothing.”

Even more: not even the mildly class-conscious workingman is aware that he is by definition engaged in a war with the capitalist class. He continues to accept his role as an indistinct part of an illusion of a society, as an abstraction of a cradle-to-grave category, destined to make no mark on society, to leave no traces of his passage though life.

However, the 1930s textile strikes throughout North Carolina show that his illusions may one day fall away. The day he and his new middle class companions wake up from their incubus and genuine, fully developed class awareness arrives, the newborn proletariat can then become revolutionary.

That day will be the death of American capitalism, as we know it.

Meanwhile, let’s not confuse revolution with either liberal reform or armed insurrection. Reform is adjustment made by the rulers in order to maintain power, as happened for decades in Tsarist Russia. As a rule, reforms are too little and too late. Insurrection on the other hand is a local, spontaneous and one-issue matter, as was the 1929 Gastonia cotton mill strike. Insurrection is not revolution.

Since drastic and radical social-political change should be the goal of thinking world citizens today, everything that inhibits social solidarity, the blossoming of resistance, the redistribution of wealth, and the creation of a rebellious mindset against a negative myth are obstacles to be overcome.

But wait a minute! What myth? In this case—the myth is America itself. We now see that peaceful, anti-war, mankind-loving America is a myth. A parallel violent world lives within American society. The United States of America has always harbored violence in its soul. In America, violence and war are so much a part of life that non-violent opposition to its inbred violence seems to be folly and unreason. In comparison to America’s homebred terrorism and violence, just a heartbeat away from mainline life, ISIS is stuff for children. In comparison to today’s institutional terrorism, past student non-violent protest or even pistol-armed Black Panthers and Weather Underground insurrections appear as innocent as breaking plate-glass windows.

Another illusion to be overcome is that the abstract workingman-proletarian can develop class-consciousness alone. Class-consciousness must be instilled from outside the class. That role inevitably falls to the intelligentsia and activists. Marx wrote in German Ideology that “one of the most difficult tasks confronting philosophers (educated people) is to descend from the world of thought to the actual world.” That is, to the world where the workingman lives.

Yet proletarians reject interference by intellectuals. The American workingman appears allergic to knowledge and history. Therefore he is the most truant in class awareness. The American working people have forgotten that they constitute a class … that classes even exist. They act as if the class idea belongs to another planet. To the world of Communism! That it too is an illusion.

Moreover, the poor economic classes of America accept the American Dream rhetoric that the rich deserve to be rich because they are smarter. Wealth is proof of their virtue. It is good to be rich. The poor are guilty for their poverty. The American poor produce and reproduce the values of the rich ruling class. The poor live in the illusion of real choices in life while in reality they live their lives in servitude.

In Nazi Germany it was “we didn’t know.” In America today it is “we don’t want to know”. No false airs, please. That’s un-American. Who cares about social theories? Who cares where Laos is located? Or Georgia? If Saddam Hussein wasn’t responsible for 9/11, he could have been, which is the same thing. Only evildoers and anti-Americans believe he didn’t have weapons of mass destruction. The wide admiration for ignorance is an imitation of the ignorance of the nation’s leaders. And, as has been said, ignorance is the handmaiden of the crime of Fascism.

By a strange coincidence I opened at random the book The Origins of Bolshevism by one of the forgers of the Russian Revolution, the Menshevik Theodore Dan, and found his remark about the “open war of the Orthodox folk (in pre-revolutionary Russia) with educated people.” Also in the different but analogous circumstances of pre-revolutionary Russia, educated people were isolated from the masses. From that perspective the working class in the US has become politically worse than nothing. As a collective it has been molded into a reactionary force that keeps the power elite in power. Conditioned, brainwashed and hoodwinked, the bribed workers seem to believe ignorance is for their own good.

One wonders what happened to the collective. Or, did it never exist? Except for sporadic insurrections in face of starvation in the depression years and isolated periods of resistance, the American collective has never emerged.

Therefore Marx said that if the proletariat is not revolutionary, what good is it? And that is the pertinent question today. Is the American workingman, the wage earner, the proletariat, reformable? That is the question the American wage earner does not pose to himself.

At this point we can’t go much further in the American part of the proletarian tragedy without some class distinctions. Today, up there on the political stage we see the prancing billionaire puppets of the capitalist class who control property, money and, consequently political power. Whom they decide to place at the top of the pyramid today to represent their interests and misrepresent the masses should be a matter of indifference to the blue collar-middle class wage earner masses. In my mind not voting for any of them is an acceptable choice if accompanied by compensatory revolutionary activity. The most one can say is that a growing number of Americans, now approaching a majority, through choice or indifference, have opted for the non-vote route, while a tiny minority finds satisfaction in minimal grassroots agitation.

And here, another character mentioned above steps on stage. Today, as in recent centuries in the Occident, there is an in-between class. It is part of the middle class, elsewhere and at other times called the petty bourgeois, from which emerge America’s liberals and progressives. Many petty bourgeois beyond America’s borders, chiefly in Europe, prefer to label themselves Social Democrats. Far from wanting to transform society in the interests of revolutionary proletarians, they aspire to making the existing society tolerable … for themselves. In their own interests they want to counteract the rule of capital by the transference of as much power and employment as possible to the state of which they are an integral part.

HOWEVER, in the petty bourgeois conception of state and society, the workers, the wage earners, the proletariat, are to remain forever workingmen, wage earners, proletariat. Therefore the petty bourgeois (again, the liberals and progressives) social programs for better wages and security for the workers, with which they bribe the workers to stay in line. That was the warning Marx and Engels brought to the Central Committee of the Communist League in 1850. But how modern it rings.

That’s where the proletariat must step forward and shout, NO!

It is true that every event that happens leaves traces. It is something like mirrors and their reflections. In the mirror’s reflections, the left is right and the right is left. Illusions! Illusions are like words unspoken that are no longer words at all. Sometimes we have to banish all possibilities of illusion. Sometimes we have to allow ourselves to see real reality. Free of brainwash. Free of all the words and euphemisms we hear on TV and read in the establishment press. We can trust none of it.

Still, there remains another problem facing the wage earner-proletariat: the lack of a suitable program.  What should be done to create a just society?

Sometimes it is comforting—but not much more than that—to recall that though protest movements of the past have been broken and scattered by Power, many of those people and like-minded others are still out there in society. They could rejoin the growing number of mature people with eyes to see and ears to hear.

But what are they to do?

That has always been the question.

Studies show that the class of Power in the USA is surprisingly small, numbering in the tens of thousands. The potential opposition on the other hand is enormous, including all those Che Guevara had in mind when he quipped, “If you tremble in indignation at injustice then you are my comrade.” El Che had in mind the proletariat of the world.

Though much of the ruling class is stashed away in corner offices on top floors behind batteries of secretaries, apparently in hiding, out of vanity it still wants to be seen. For what is Power if no one knows YOU hold it? Members of the Power class are visible on stage each day, in TV, in Congress, in the military hierarchy, in diplomacy, multinationals, religions and the universities. The higher they ascend the ladder of Power, the more entrenched in the Power system they become. However, those at the very summit are in hiding, the rulers who really rule. The most dangerous are those who meet in various secret societies like the Bilderbergers and Trilateralers. We can suspect who they are.

Since it seems that some persons sitting in the higher tiers of our political-social theater have abdicated from the struggle, we tend to underestimate their power. For they too have a stake in the land. One forgets the potential force of those textile strikes of the 1930s. One forgets that organized workers can bring a small city like Asheville in North Carolina or a metropolis like New York or a company like General Motors to a standstill in a matter of hours. The reason that seldom happens is because the people have forgotten their own strength.

People don’t think about their strength because of Power’s astute use of myth and illusion: the myth of freedom and the illusion of happiness made of comfort and ease. And today, above all, more and more out of fear. Though most people seem to prefer ignorance, some people are learning to distinguish between myth and reality. For many issues are glaringly real and evident: the worldwide wars, globalization, US imperialism, legalized torture and genocide, the American police state, and the degradation of social life in the West in general.

Sometimes in overly optimistic moments I think or dream that resistance is spreading and that a collective is being born. The superiority of “the American way of life” has revealed itself to be a great lie. The result of extended and prolonged resistance is inevitably state violence against dissent we experience today. State violence in turn has a multiplier effect: when Power tasers dissenters, it either intensifies or quells resistance to which some kind of explosion becomes inevitable: dialectically, first come civil disobedience, then state violence, then the explosion. Police state laws (the stage of today) change our thinking about legitimacy. This time round the explosion can become something much different than Power imagines. An organized people could shut down the nation even without firing a shot, but in the long run arms will be used.

Meanwhile, the proletarian people: today the American proletariat seems broken, fragmented and bewildered, devoid of unity of purpose such as existed briefly for a limited number of people, during the Vietnam War. Yet, according to recent studies the vast majority of American people are still unaffected by America’s ongoing permanent war. The discussion about whether 70,000 or over one million Iraqis were massacred has a certain theoretical-academic air about it. Not even the mothers of the American dead in Iraq can get organized.

At the same time however more and more people have lost faith in the electoral system. Some of them have taken on the job of breaking down the natural passivity of the dissatisfied and fragmented people who, though in potential agreement with revolutionary analyses, are unused to resistance because of the illusionist spin conducted by Power. Therefore the suggested antidote of not voting for any of them.

Then there are the wars to be ended. If the proletarian people can’t share the government’s war effort, it can share in anti-war objectives. There is vast and growing poverty and social injustice to be resolved. There is a dramatic need for universal health care. There is a corrupt and mean political class to be removed. All of it. Both parties. There is every need to give power back to the people.

At the same time a growing number of people are losing faith in non-violence. Capitalism itself is more and more violent. If you’re not nice and polite, some people consider that violence. But most violence is in business as usual and capitalism grinding on, killing blacks and the poor, the forests and the oceans. We’re surrounded by normalized violence and don’t recognize it for what it is. Confronting this normalized violence in a direct way is not only potentially violent; it is necessary.

While liberals and progressives argue that you have to work within the system, the modern activist is mutating because the political climate has changed. The violence of government repression creates violent reaction in the same way war against Iraq has created new shahids. Violent resistance is nothing new: Black Power backed up the Civil Rights movement. Historically, the US government didn’t grant more workers rights because it became good but because people rose up and demanded their rights. People organizing to defend themselves reaches back through the history of man. Some people are coming together and developing new ideas of resistance. Their number is destined to grow to the degree that government repression grows.

After my youth in America I have lived my adult life abroad. Traveling to the USA today is to go abroad. I realized I have acquired a double sensibility about my homeland. When I arrive there, abroad, but also at home, I feel double tensions in the air: the tension connected with the widespread fear of losing “the American way of life” and the tension of a minority of dissatisfied people also fearful because it knows it is living an illusion, and that mutiny—still so nebulous as to appear a chimera—will be necessary to change things. In America I sense both a fear of action and a fear of non-action. Perhaps also a fear of change, fear that things can only get worse. The fear that something very bad is about to happen to America. A fear like that of a people inhabiting the wrong house, or the haunting fear that the real house it once inhabited is today occupied by usurpers and has lost its soul.

One senses also a disturbing atmosphere of sick pragmatism and a depoliticization coupled with widespread contentment with just analyzing the current situation rather than challenging it.

It is a good sign that across the land some grassroots activists are working to break down indifference. Radical change presupposes an end to blind acceptance of Power’s fictionalized version of reality. Activists no longer need feel alone. Symbolically many people are kneeling across the country. Each person arrested in anti-war demonstrations acquires new faith in resistance and each of them creates new converts.

Acceptance of the legitimacy of Power, indifference to Power’s deviations and passivity in the face of Power’s threats against external enemies seems to have peaked. More and more people seem to believe that Power gone mad has to be put aside. The eventual end of acceptance and passivity could result in a kind of explosion that the world has never seen.

Today, however, that clash is still more hope than reality. Hope that a new strategy of liberation from the oppression of American Fascism will mushroom. In other times, in an older language, that strategy would be called revolutionary theory. The old Leninist concept is apt here: there can be no revolutionary movement without a revolutionary theory. The theory here, the strategy, must explain that it is not just the system’s current representative who must go, but the system itself run by that tiny minority at the top.

But people don’t rebel easily. People prefer reforms. People do everything possible to avoid social convulsion and upheaval, even compromising with a Fascist police state, precisely as happened in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

On the other hand, not only observers but today’s US government is aware that the spirit of mutiny is brewing. That is why it has armed itself with a set of illegal and anti-constitutional laws to crush it. That is the reason for America’s 800,000 policemen, many of whom are militarized. At this juncture the alternative to ousting today’s corrupt American system is acceptance of a permanent police state, which if it becomes any more fixed than it is now just might last a thousand years.

The American people will have to decide what to do and how to act. Meanwhile many non-Americans agree that the most extreme problem of this century for mankind is the confused, powerful and violent United States of America.

Finally, as an epilogue, see what Henry David Thoreau (1817-78), great American author and philosopher, wrote in his “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”:

“All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable. Those who, while they disapprove of the character and measures of a government, yield to it their allegiance and support, are undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious obstacles to reform. 

“If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go…. if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong, which I condemn.

“But what shall I do? You ask. My answer is, If you really wish to do anything, resign your office. When the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned from office, then the revolution is accomplished.”       

 

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