Redefining the Proletariat

This is my first article detailing an aspect of my new Marxist theory, which I laid out the basic distinctions of here. This article focuses on the following point that was laid out there:

-The most basic contradiction in the world is between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The unpropertied strata are the proletariat and the propertied strata are the bourgeoisie. This is why communism has only taken root in poorer countries to date (with the exception of East Germany, but that was forced upon their people by a foreign occupation).


To begin, the historical basis for my alternate definition of the proletariat as the global poor instead of as the industrial wage-workers, that redefinition has its roots in the experience of the Chinese Communists under Mao. The Chinese Communists had initially attempted to loosely follow the Soviet model of how to make a communist revolution: first uniting the country’s socialist forces toward the achievement of liberal democracy, then establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat through urban insurrection. What they hadn’t counted on was the fact that the Chinese class enemy had learned from what had happened to their Russian counterparts and made preparations. The Nationalists (theoretically a democratic socialist party, though not so democratic or so socialist in practice under the leadership of Chiang Kai-Shek as it had been under Sun Yat-Sen) turned on the Communists whenever they wrenched control of a major city from the feudal warlords that had de facto control of the country, forcing the Communists out of the cities. Though the Trotskyists suggested that said defeats were consequential of ideological impurity on the part of the Chinese Communists (namely of trusting the Nationalists), it’s hard to 1) imagine how the Communists could have independently wrested control from the warlords in the first place, and 2) explain why subsequent attempts to overthrow the Nationalists’ government resulted in catastrophic failures that, taken together, nearly wiped out the CP if revolutionary struggle independent of the Nationalists was indeed the answer. Mao Zedong offered a different conclusion: that the Russian approach to making proletarian revolution (urban insurrection) simply couldn’t work in China because the political circumstances of the Chinese Communists were fundamentally different than those the Russian Bolsheviks had confronted. He advanced the idea that, based on this experience, each country needed to find its own distinct path to communist revolution, and he prescribed an outline for China that later became further developed and synthesized as protracted people’s war. Central to protracted people’s war was a concept Mao called the mass line, which is the doctrine of embracing a majoritarian orientation. Mao believed that the Chinese Communists could still achieve victory if they based themselves among the peasantry since the peasants composed the overwhelming majority of China’s population (as in well over 80%). This idea was seen as heresy by the Communist International. The strategic separation from the industrial wage-workers Mao proposed was taken as a fundamental betrayal of Marx’s famous call “Workers of the world, unite!” Accordingly, Mao’s forces received little aid from the Soviet Union. Mao and his forces were taken by both the Comintern and many in the West generally (including many in the American government) as, for all intents and purposes, simply agrarian reformers analogous to the American populists of the 19th century. Mao proved them all wrong though by successfully wresting control of the country, reorganizing it along socialist lines, and at least initially aligning with the Soviet Union. The Chinese peasantry had served as an effective social base for proletarian revolution! Where the Russian Revolution had first taken power in the cities among the workers and spread out to the vast countryside (where the overwhelming majority lived) from there largely by force, the Chinese communist revolution first gradually won over the vast countryside in general and the peasantry in particular before encircling and overrunning the cities from without. The two approaches were strategically opposite, yet both had produced a socialist outcome. This began to chip away the perceived centrality of industrial workers to communist revolution and the romantization of them and their role.

Although Mao had viewed protracted people’s war as a strategy applicable only to China, variations on it was spontaneously applied by radicals and communists in a whole range of other countries thereafter, often with success. (Just a few examples of victories resulting from the application of people’s war: Cuba, Vietnam, Nicaragua, and more.) Observing all this, the Chinese Communists began to see that there were many countries with conditions at least basically similar to China’s and that small tweaks of Mao’s version of people’s war seemed to work in all of them; in all of the generally feudalistic and backward countries of the world. The Russian approach started to be seen by the Chinese Communists as an aberration rather than the rule when it came to achieving success. Some (like Chen Boda, who would ultimately become head of the Cultural Revolution Group) went as far as to propose that people’s war was universally the best revolutionary strategy, even in more developed countries (where perhaps urban guerilla warfare might be pursued in place of rural guerilla warfare). But it was Mao’s top army commander, Lin Biao, who took the idea the furthest, proposing the idea of a single, unified global people’s war for the vanquishing of imperialism in general and American imperialism in particular. It was formulated this way:

“Taking the entire globe, if North America and Western Europe can be called “the cities of the world”, then Asia, Africa and Latin America constitute “the rural areas of the world”. Since World War II, the proletarian revolutionary movement has for various reasons been temporarily held back in the North American and West European capitalist countries, while the people’s revolutionary movement in Asia, Africa and Latin America has been growing vigorously. In a sense, the contemporary world revolution also presents a picture of the encirclement of cities by the rural areas. In the final analysis, the whole cause of world revolution hinges on the revolutionary struggles of the Asian, African and Latin American peoples who make up the overwhelming majority of the world’s population.”


This made sense to some Maoists at the time, considering that most of the world was indeed still rural at that time (as were particularly the general areas Lin highlighted). He also pointed out in that same document that…

“In committing aggression against these countries, the imperialists usually begin by seizing the big cities and the main lines of communication, but they are unable to bring the vast countryside completely under their control. The countryside, and the countryside alone, can provide the broad areas in which the revolutionaries can maneuver freely. The countryside, and the countryside alone, can provide the revolutionary bases from which the revolutionaries can go forward to final victory. Precisely for this reason, Comrade Mao Tse-tung’s theory of establishing revolutionary base areas in the rural districts and encircling the cities from the countryside is attracting more and more attention among the people in these regions.”

Here we are presented with both motive and opportunity for revolution: imperial aggression as the motive and the agrarian nature of its victims as the opportunity. Critics of trying to apply this strategy in the contemporary world like yours truly point out that conditions have fundamentally changed: that the world of today is primarily urban and that the class enemy has solid control most everywhere accordingly and that the aforementioned opportunity component has therefore diminished immensely since Lin Biao’s formulation of this strategy for world revolution in 1965. I firmly believe that world revolution remains inevitable, but that it will take a different form in today’s world that more generally resembles the old Russian approach of urban insurrection. Namely, while one opportunity component (physical space not controlled by the enemy’s state) has diminished, a new one has opened up in its place: the Internet, with its vast improvements in the ability of the masses to communicate with each other and the inability of the enemy’s states to adequately control the free-flow of said communication. Physical space for revolution may have diminished in the last 50ish years, but cyberspace for revolution has emerged to take its place. As a direct result of this new increase in opportunity for revolution, recent years have seen a major increase in global revolutionary activity, and namely in urban areas.

Anyway, I want to get back to a point Lin highlighted in the first quote: the idea that “Since World War II, the proletarian revolutionary movement has for various reasons been temporarily held back in the North American and West European capitalist countries, while the people’s revolutionary movement in Asia, Africa and Latin America has been growing vigorously.” This rang true to many and brought up the question of why in Maoist circles around the world. What exactly were these “various reasons” for the delay in the global northwest; in the countries that were mostly capitalist and urban rather than mostly feudal and agrarian? After all, when leading forces in the world communist movement start proposing that the world proletarian revolution take a shape opposite that which Marx proposed (from rural areas to urban areas instead of the other way around), clearly some explanation is required. One gathers from the way that Lin Biao words his document that he believed the main reason for the aforementioned delay to be the solid military control of the urban areas of the world that the class enemy had. However, some in the global Maoist movement dug deeper into this question. In the early 1980s, the Maoist Internationalist Movement emerged with the conclusion that the class enemy had simply bought the loyalty of most of the population in the imperial citadels of the world with the plunder they had extracted from the Third World nations. In other words, when it came to the global northwest and other countries like the global northwest, it wasn’t just the opportunity for proletarian revolution that had radically diminished, but also the motive. The MIM’s orientation contended therefore that the question of one’s wealth level was every bit as important to and defining of their class orientation as their formal relationship to production; that communist revolution had thus far only taken place (voluntarily) in Third World countries because the general populations there, including the peasantry, were more proletarian than the typical worker in the First World by virtue of being poorer. The term “proletariat” after all stems from an old Roman term that simply meant “poor”. Here (with highlights by yours truly) is how Engels defined the proletariat in The Principles of Communism:

“The proletariat is that class in society which lives entirely from the sale of its labor and does not draw profit from any kind of capital; whose weal and woe, whose life and death, whose sole existence depends on the demand for labor – hence, on the changing state of business, on the vagaries of unbridled competition. The proletariat, or the class of proletarians, is, in a word, the working class of the 19th century.

Given what I have just shared though, were workers synonymous with the proletariat in the 20th century? Are they today? Or is there more nuance? What is more fundamental here to one’s political orientation: the property-less condition or a certain relationship to production? The MIM had reached the conclusion that they were both at least equally important based upon the aforementioned research and real-world experience. The MIM’s ideological successor, the Leading Light Communist Organization — of which I was briefly a member for six months in 2011 — goes further, proposing that the properly-less condition is more decisive than any other factor in terms of one’s political orientation; their willingness to embrace and fight for socialism and communism. The LLCO accordingly has redefined the proletariat as the global poor. To explain some of their case for that, I used to be with the Leading Light Communist Organization and there was a mathematically gifted member of that organization known publicly by his screen name Serve the People who provided a credible estimate of the overall value of labor valid as of 2005:

“Comrade Marx pointed out that labor is the substance of value. He said that the number of hours of average abstract socially necessary labor needed to produce a commodity represents its value. That means labor of average productivity under the given working conditions for the specified type of work. Therefore, if traded at value, one hour of labor put into harvesting parsnips is exchangeable against one hour of assembling washing machines (if the labor in both cases is of average productivity).

Elsewhere I have seen estimates from the UN that the world’s nominal GDP in 2005 is about $36 trillion. That would put the value of labor at $8400 per year, or $4.20 per hour. What is the implication? In the US, the minimum wage is $5.15 per hour, and even higher in some states and cities. If average labor is worth $4.20, then even people making the minimum wage are overpaid on average by about 23%. The average wage in the US is about $18 per hour, which is more than 4 times the value of labor.”

In other words, if we were to redistribute all the wealth on this Earth equally, as of 2005, everyone would have received the U.S. purchasing power equivalent of about $8,400 for the year. Now we could update this, I’m sure, for subsequent increases in global production and inflation, but you can gather that the adjustment wouldn’t be massive and that what we’d be looking at here is universal poverty. That’s what equality looks like in today’s world in a material sense. That’s what communism would look like if applied globally today, which is precisely the reason why it’s not being applied globally today. How is that possible? Because, while the average American makes around $25,000 or $30,000 a year (and about $50,000 per household), the average person on this planet, by contrast, is living on the U.S. purchasing power equivalent of about $1,000 to $2,500 a year. The immense majority, in other words, lives in extreme poverty. That’s the cold, hard fact of the matter. An equal redistribution of wealth would not eliminate poverty, but only extreme poverty, and it would do so by making ‘ordinary’ poverty universal. That was LLCO’s orientation. They defined poverty relative to the value of labor instead of by an objective standard of what constitutes poverty: being able to make ends meet. LLCO thus wouldn’t acknowledge that theirs is a pauperist perspective (i.e. that they are advocates of universal poverty), though they objectively are. Pauperism here is favored based on the idea essentially just that it’s moral. …That’s not exactly a concept Marx would’ve agreed with. Reliance on moral arguments is one of the biggest shortcomings of the modern communist movement. It shows how far divorced the modern communist movement has become from a scientific understanding of the world. Marx’s historical materialism is a technologically deterministic theory in which the economic relations of production are functionally explained by the material forces of production and in which the political and legal institutions (the “superstructure”) are functionally explained by the relations of production (the “base”). The transition from one mode of production to another is driven by the tendency of the productive forces to develop. As for why this happens, I agree with G.A. Cohen’s reasoning provided in his 1978 book Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence, where he accounts for this tendency by reference to the rational character of the human species: where there is the opportunity to adopt a more productive technology and thus reduce the burden of labor, human beings will tend to take it. Thus, human history can be understood as a series of rational steps that increase human productive power. In abandoning Marxian economic determinism, writing it off as “economism” and “triumphalism”, the communist of today has, in its place, been forced to adopt a subjectivist rationale for being a communist: it’s morally right. Sounds pretty scientific, doesn’t it? Gee, why aren’t the global masses buying this?? Hmm, maybe it’s because 20th century communism (essentially the alternative these groups offer) proved less productive and efficient than the capitalist alternative, thus assuring a greater burden of labor! Think: why is it that in the world’s remaining socialist countries today (that would be Cuba and North Korea) the most economic growth is generated in the capitalist sectors of the economy (like tourism)? Why is that the workers there dream of working in capitalist tourism zones? Because the standard of living there is higher, that’s why! In other words, 20th century communism (state socialism) is historically outmoded, while capitalism is not yet historically outmoded. Communism WILL replace capitalism in the end, but not in its inefficient 20th century form. As I will explain more fully in another entry this week, the form 21st century communism will take — the one that corresponds not to the outmoding of feudalism, but of capitalism — has become apparent, but is not yet manifest. The productive forces have not yet been sufficiently developed, though they will be sufficiently developed well within this century. But anyway, my point here has been to make the case that we need to define the proletariat as the poor (and, in my opinion, the relatively poor as well (those who barely make ends meet) because overall they align the same way as the actual poor when surveyed).

But, you may ask, what then is unique about our era that renders communism inevitable if not the existence of an historically new and unique class (the industrial wage-worker)? After all, the poor have been with us forever and poverty has always been the rule for the human species! Doesn’t such a redefinition of the key class therefore effectively negate Marx’s whole case for communism? No, it doesn’t. What is unique about our era that renders a communist future inevitable isn’t the existence of an historically new and unique class, but the advanced and onward marching development of the productive forces in general and of communications in particular. Improvements in communications tend to yield more egalitarian movements and outcomes. In ancient human societies for example, the development of language yielded uprisings by the lower ranks that forced primitive communism into existence, whereupon it became the rule for our species for most of our history until societies of a larger scale were established. In today’s world, we see a communications revolution of similar potential getting underway (one which is already yielding a major uptick in revolutionary activity around the world), accompanied by the emerging developmental possibility of a society wherein production occurs for use rather than for exchange, as well as the protracted re-proletarianization of the bourgeois nations (including this one, the United States). Inevitability is the convergence of possibility and necessity. Just such a convergence is developing right before our very eyes in this century.

There are also other, more personal reasons I believe in defining the proletariat differently than Marx did: I’m a woman and a teacher. Women have not traditionally been allowed into the formal workforce, at least as a career option anway, but they’ve nonetheless been both poorer and responsible for most of society’s labor. For example, in today’s world overall, the United Nations has found that women that women do 66% of the world’s work (which includes responsibility for producing 50% of its food) and for it receive just 10% of its income and 1% of its property. Women are still, even today though, far less likely than men to be permitted into the formal workforce in general and manual labor fields like industrial work in particular. I therefore find it rather demeaning, dishonest, and frankly sexist for Marx to have proclaimed industrial workers specifically the source of all value in capitalist society simply because it is more productive! If not for the labor that women have traditionally performed in the main — things like maintaining the household, raising the children, etc. — then would men have had the same opportunity to engage in industrial work in the first place?? I think not! Whose labor then has really been central?? Or take my current job for example. I’m a teacher. Modern industry increasingly involves the use of advanced machinery that requires education to master. …Okay not that I personally teach that stuff (I’m a history teacher!), but I think you get my point. Marx’s way of defining the sources of value was rather sexist (which shouldn’t be at all surprising considering the age in which he lived) and also quite belittling of the contributions that other workers contribute to the production of value, including indirect but absolutely vital contributions to industrial production.

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