Demonology of the working class

One of the most common charges leveled at Marxists is that, for all their atheistic pretensions, they retain a quasi-religious faith in the revolutionary dispensation of working class dictatorship. “It’s become an almost compulsory figure of speech to refer to Marxism as a Church,” observed the French literary critic Roland Barthes in 1951. Barthes was reviewing a book by the surrealist author Roger Caillois, which had just been released, but if anything the use of this lazy metaphor has grown more frequent over time. Just a few years after Barthes’ review was published, the public intellectual Raymond Aron came out with a polemic cuttingly titled The Opium of the Intellectuals (1955). He’d lifted the title from a bon mot by the philosopher Simone Weil, who despite her youthful Bolshevism in the twenties had gone on to publicly debate Leon Trotsky during the thirties. Repeating this old anticommunist jibe, Aron quipped that “in Marxist eschatology, the proletariat is cast in the role of collective savior… that is, the class elected through suffering for the redemption of humanity.” Evidently, in Aron’s understanding, workers were held up as an object of mythic exaltation among the socialists.

To be sure, some of the language adopted by Marxists — e.g., heresies, dogma, sects, orthodoxy, schisms — is clearly borrowed from theological disputes. Furthermore, the recantations made by ex-communists at times seems to lend credence to this view. You need look no further than the famous 1949 essay collection The God that Failed for proof of this fact. Wolfgang Eckhardt’s newly-translated study of The First Socialist Schism (2016), on the split between Bakunin and Marx in the Workingmen’s International, is only the latest in a very long line of examples. André Gorz opened his Farewell to the Working Class (1980) with a chapter on “The Working Class According to Saint Marx,” riffing on the section of The German Ideology dedicated to a critique of “German socialism according to its prophets.” Gorz thus concluded that “orthodoxy, dogmatism, and religiosity are not accidental features of Marxism, since the philosophy of the proletariat is a religion.” More recently, the former Situationist TJ Clark confessed that his own Farewell to an Idea (1999) will likely be seen “as a vestige of early twentieth-century messianism.” Clark sardonically added that “if I can’t have the proletariat as my chosen people any longer, at least capitalism remains my Satan” (though he got this last part a bit mixed up, as we shall see).

Socialism, however, is not about worshiping but rather abolishing the worker. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, perhaps the two most prominent theorists of proletarian revolution during the nineteenth century, by no means deified the class they felt might lead to the socialization of humanity. In their first written collaboration, from 1845, the young firebrands maintained:

When socialist writers ascribe [a] world-historic role to the proletariat, it is not at all… because they regard the proletarians as gods. Rather the contrary. In the fully-formed proletariat the abstraction of all humanity, and even of the semblance of humanity, is practically complete. The conditions of life of the proletariat sum up all the conditions of life of society today in their most inhuman form; since man has lost himself in the proletariat, and at the same time has not only gained theoretical consciousness of that loss, but through urgent, no longer removable, no longer disguisable, absolutely imperative need — the practical expression of necessity — is driven directly to revolt against this inhumanity, it follows that the proletariat must emancipate itself. But it cannot emancipate itself without abolishing the conditions of its own life, and cannot abolish the conditions of its own life without abolishing all the inhuman conditions of life of society today which are summed up in its own situation.

Expanding on this passage, the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty insisted on the terrestrial foundations of the Marxist hypothesis. “If [Marxism] accords a privilege to the proletariat, it does so because on the basis of the internal logic of its condition… apart from any messianic illusion,” he claimed in Humanism and Terror (1947). “Proletarians, ‘who are not gods,’ are the only ones in a position to realize humanity. Marxists discern a mission in the proletariat — not a providential, but an historical one — and this means that, if we take the proletariat’s role in the present social constellation, it moves toward the recognition of man by man…” Nevertheless, in the meantime workers are hardly godlike; indeed, they’re barely even human, if Marx and Engels are to be believed. As the former would later explain in Capital (1867), “manufacture proper not only subjects the previously independent worker to the discipline and command of capital, but converts the worker into a crippled monstrosity.” His description is reminiscent of the lyrics to that old Tennessee Ernie Ford song “Sixteen Tons,” written about a Kentucky coal miner in 1947: “Some people say a man is made outta’ mud / A poor man’s made outta’ muscle and blood / Muscle and blood and skin and bones / A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong / You load sixteen tons, what do you get? / Another day older and deeper in debt / Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go / I owe my soul to the company store.”

Over and above the image of the proletariat as divine redeemer, here emerges a picture of the proletariat as beyond redemption. Workers have sold their souls to the company store. Consider the following lines from Marx’s Capital on the topic of automation: “An organized system of machines, to which motion is communicated by the transmitting mechanism from an automatic center, is the most developed form of production by machinery. Here we have, instead of the isolated machine, a vast mechanical monster whose body fills whole factories, and whose demonic power [dämonische Kraft], at first hidden by the slow and measured motions of its gigantic members, finally bursts forth in the fast and feverish whirl of its countless working organs.” Little wonder that the Italian left communist Amadeo Bordiga drew upon these words in elaborating his own “Doctrine of the Body Possessed by the Devil,” from 1951. Quoting Marx, who in turn was quoting Goethe, Bordiga explained how, “by incorporating living labor into capital’s lifeless objectivity, the capitalist simultaneously transforms value, i.e. past labor in its objectified and lifeless form, into capital, value which can perform its own valorization process, an animated monster which begins to ‘work’, ‘as if possessed by the devil’.” The dispossessed (which is, after all, just another word for “proletariat”) are thus demonically possessed by the alienated products of their labor. For Marx, this was all part of “the magic and necromancy [der Zauber und Spuk] that surrounds the products of labor on the basis of commodity production.”

Gáspár Miklós Tamás, the Hungarian communist dissident turned born-again Marxist, is one of the only theorists in recent memory to have grasped the demonic character of the working class. In his brilliant 2006 essay “Telling the Truth About Class,” Tamás framed his view by contrasting it with that of the British cultural historian EP Thompson:

There is an angelic view of the exploited (that of Rousseau, Karl Polányi, E.P. Thompson) and there is a demonic, Marxian view. For Marx, the road to the end of capitalism (and beyond) leads through the completion of capitalism, a system of economic and intellectual growth, imagination, waste, anarchy, destruction, destitution. It is an apocalypse in the original Greek sense of the word, a “falling away of the veils” which reveals all the social mechanisms in their stark nakedness; capitalism helps us to know because it is unable to sustain illusions, especially naturalistic and religious illusions. It liberated subjects from their traditional rootedness (which was presented to them by the ancien régime as “natural”) to hurl them onto the labor market where their productive-creative essence reveals itself to be disposable, replaceable, dependent on demand — in other words, wholly alien to self-perception or “inner worth.” In capitalism, what human beings are, is contingent or stochastic; there is no way in which they are as such, in themselves. Their identity is limited by the permanent reevaluation of the market and by the transient historicity of everything, determined by — among other contingent factors — random developments in science and technology. What makes the whole thing demonic indeed is that in contradistinction to the external character, the incomprehensibility, of “fate,” “the stars,” participants in the capitalist economy are not born to that condition, they are placed in their respective positions by a series of choices and compulsions that are obviously manmade. To be born noble and ignoble is nobody’s fault, has no moral dimensions; but alienation appears self-inflicted.

Marx is the poet of that Faustian demonism: only capitalism reveals the social, and the final unmasking; the final apocalypse, the final revelation can be reached by wading through the murk of estrangement which, seen historically, is unique in its energy, in its diabolical force. Marx does not “oppose” capitalism ideologically; but Rousseau does. For Marx, it is history; for Rousseau, it is evil.

Here Tamás was somewhat unfair to Thompson — not to mention Rousseau — but his caricatured presentation served to throw their perspectives into sharper relief. Thompson may have been guilty, from time to time, of romanticizing the English working class, but he entertained no illusions as to the hellish conditions out of which it emerged. After all, it was Thompson who wrote of “the denizens of ‘Satan’s strongholds’ [inhabitants of proletarian neighborhoods in industrial cities], of the ‘harlots, publicans, and thieves’ whose souls the evangelists wrestled for in a state of civil war against the ale-houses.” Every religious doctrine of the age, stated Thompson, had to be “held up to a Satanic light and read backwards” so as to properly grasp their context. One popular Methodist refrain, which he noted in his Making of the English Working Class (1963), spoke of factories as follows: “There is a dreadful Hell, / And everlasting pains, / Where sinners must with devils dwell, / In darkness, fire, and chains.” Regarding “that monstrosity, the disposable working population held in reserve” (to quote Capital), Thompson echoed Marx’s military metaphor in describing “…an unsettling element in the formative working-class community, a seemingly inexhaustible flow of reinforcements to man the battlements.”

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Against inadvertent climate change; for великое преобразование природы instead

Even casual readers of Marx will likely know that his favorite figure from antiquity was Spartacus. In his responses to one of the questionnaires that periodically circulated — or “confessions,” quite popular during the nineteenth century — he listed the great leader of the Roman slave revolt as his hero. Johannes Kepler was his modern idol. What is less widely known, however, is that Marx’s favorite figure from classical mythology was Prometheus, who revolted against the gods. Marx did mention Aeschylus, author of the famous tragedy Prometheus Bound, as his favorite ancient poet in the 1865 “confession.” Shakespeare took the title as greatest of the moderns; Nietzsche would have approved of both choices. He went so far as to quote Aeschylus’ Prometheus in the introduction to his dissertation, in March 1841: “Philosophy makes no secret of it. The confession of Prometheus — ‘in a word, I hate all gods’ — is its very own confession, its own sentence” (MECW 1, pg. 130).

Franz Mehring later pointed out the affinity Marx felt with the fallen Titan, who stole the technology of fire from the gods and bestowed it upon humanity. Edmund Wilson would expand on this motif in his outstanding intellectual history To the Finland Station, placing Lucifer alongside Prometheus as one of Marx’s twin patron anti-deities. Both challenged the gods. “In one of Karl Marx’s ballads,” Wilson explained, “a Promethean hero curses a god who has stripped him of his all; but he swears that he will have his revenge, though his strength be but a patchwork of weaknesses: out of his pain and horror he will fashion a fortress, iron and cold, which will strike the beholder livid and against which the thunderbolts will rebound. Prometheus is to be Marx’s favorite myth” (To the Finland Station, pg. 116).

After his journal, the Rheinische Zeitung, was suppressed by state censors in 1843, Marx was depicted in a contemporary cartoon as Prometheus chained to a printing press, being disemboweled by a Prussian eagle. There’s also a squirrel holding a rifle featured in the upper left of the picture, the symbolism of which has been lost to time. Regardless, Marx was quite flattered by the comparison.

One of the more controversial subjects within Marxist discourse over the last forty or so years has been Marx’s relationship to what is commonly called “Prometheanism.” Following the appearance of the Club of Rome’s neo-Malthusian study The Limits to Growth (1972) and the Romanian mathematician Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s ruminations on entropy (1970, 1975), optimistic visions of mankind’s mastery of self and world were generally frowned upon. Since this time, many sympathetic to Marx tried to distance the his theories from more Promethean strains of applied Marxism or actually-existing socialism. They stress Marx’s ambivalence toward large-scale machinery in heavy industry, marveling at its productive powers while also decrying their effect on the humans who operated them.

John Bellamy Foster, for example, tries to turn the tables by revisiting Marx’s critique of Proudhon, supposedly on grounds of the latter’s “Prometheanism.” In his book, Marx’s Ecology, Foster claims that Marx impugned “Proudhon’s fetishistic approach to machinery, which gives it a reified ‘Promethean’ character” (Marx’s Ecology, pg. 131). Foster fails to produce textual evidence that Marx argued in these terms. Marx’s argument, in fact, is not that Proudhon is too Promethean. If anything, he is not Promethean enough. Ever the dialectician, Marx recognized the dual-sided character of progress in capitalist society: “In our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary,” wrote Marx. “Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labor, we behold starving and overworking it…At the same pace that mankind masters nature, man seems to become enslaved to other men or to his own infamy. Even the pure light of science seems unable to shine but on the dark background of ignorance” (MECW 14, pgs. 655-656).

Clearly, there is a dimension of the old man’s thought that is far from being naïvely enthusiastic about newfangled industrial technologies. He can hardly be called a vulgar technocrat. But it is not so easy to disaggregate Marx’s own Prometheanism from that of his so-called “epigones.” Quite plainly, if one looks to his writings, Promethean undertones are readily apparent. For example:

Herr Daumer’s cult of nature…is a peculiar one. He manages to be reactionary even in comparison with Christianity. He tries to restore the old pre-Christian natural religion in a modernized form. Thus he of course achieves nothing but Christian-Germanic patriarchal drivel on nature…[T]his cult of nature is limited to the Sunday walks of an inhabitant of a small provincial town who childishly wonders at the cuckoo laying its eggs in another bird’s nest, at tears being designed to keep the surface of the eyes moist, and so on, and finally trembles with reverence as he recites Klopstock’s Ode to Spring to his children. There is no mention, of course, of modern natural science, which, with modern industry, has revolutionised the whole of nature and put an end to man’s childish attitude towards nature as well as to other forms of childishness. But instead we get mysterious hints and astonished philistine notions about Nostradamus’ prophecies, second sight in Scotsmen and animal magnetism. For the rest, it would be desirable that Bavaria’s sluggish peasant economy, the ground on which grow priests and Daumers alike, should at last be ploughed up by modern cultivation and modern machines. (MECW 10, pg. 245)

Marx had very little patience for reverential attitudes toward nature, or romantic anticapitalism in general. As he saw it, the main problem faced by society under the capitalist mode of production was the subjugation of all its efficiency toward ends foreign to itself. Humanity, which is able to marshall wondrous materials and energies in pursuing its productive enterprise, nevertheless does not produce for the good of society. Social production serves an end outside of itself, namely the valorization of capital. Other considerations take a back seat to the primary goal of capitalization, so it is seldom that the unintended consequences or harmful byproducts of this process (such as climate change) are questioned. This is one of the ways production is “alienated,” to borrow the terminology of the young Marx.

In fact, the character of Prometheus reappears in Marx’s Capital. Here Prometheus stands in for enchained humanity: “[T]he law which always holds the relative surplus population or industrial reserve army in equilibrium with the extent and energy of accumulation rivets the worker to capital more firmly than the wedges of Hephaestus held Prometheus to the rock” (Capital, pg. 799). The implication is that capitalist production after a time actually constrains the creative capacities of mankind, instead of cultivating them. This was the sense of the metaphor summoned up by the revolutionary leader Clara Zetkin almost sixty years later, discussing Comintern’s need to “accelerate the advent of the proletarian world revolution.” Zetkin implored her audience to “learn from Lenin to believe implicitly that within the bosom of every proletarian and of every oppressed human being, there dwells the titanic promethean defiance which says to the strongest oppressors: ‘And yet you cannot slay me!’ Let his spirit teach us to snap the chains of Prometheus and forge them into weapons for freedom and into tools for construction.” Once again, the technologies which today constrain the proletariat tomorrow may just liberate them, effectively repurposed to serve society.

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