“The worldview of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it.” (George Orwell, 1984).
Who moves the history forward?
Marx’s historical materialism has so far argued well how inevitable a flawed system should be replaced by a more progressive one. Just as feudalism gave way for capitalism, capitalism will in the end give way for a more developed one-which Marx called communism.
Although Marx believed that the transformation from one system to another is not always carried out by a violent revolution (as his belief in Britain’s peaceful development to socialism) as many of his followers claimed, it still must be done by the most progressive class in the society, who are normally the most oppressed.
Yet interestingly enough, if we look throughout the history of the human race, we might see that the most oppressed ones are usually not the key factor and beneficiary from a society’s transformation.
In the ancient society, slaves were the most oppressed, but it was the landlords who took the flagship of revolution (or maybe just wars?) to build the new feudal society. Then it was the capitalists who won the widespread “capitalist” revolutions from 17th century until today, not the mass, i.e. farmers, workers, and serfs, who were most repressed under kings and nobles.
Even if we count the Russian Revolution in 1917 as a child of “class struggle,” then the winners were again not the oppressed. The leaders of the revolution were the Bolsheviks, a group of radical intellectuals who want to make a social experiment of their own rather than pure proletariats as Marx expected.
Lenin would have argued that the Bolsheviks were the vanguard party, therefore well representing Russian workers and farmers. Yet during his lifetime, Marx at least once condemned the “arrogance” of the “bourgeois” intellectuals to lead the emancipation of the proletariats, like what the Bolsheviks claimed.
The proletariats could only be liberated by themselves. Otherwise, the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is only a favourable excuse for an elite group to justify their own vested interest. Marxism would then be a means to abuse power and deceive the mass, rather than reinforce social development. It is not completely wrong for Orwell to note: “The worldview of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it.” (George Orwell, 1984).
Yet how can they liberate themselves? It could only happen if the proletariats are the most progressive, intellectual, and powerful class in the society. The fall of Paris Commune in 1871, and Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies in the late 20th Century are the most evident examples for the fact that a system cannot be maintained purely by ideological belief and muscular power.
The mirage of Marx
Marx had a strong belief in the proletariat’s ability because they are the largest in population and increasingly connected to each other thanks to the restless extension of global capitalism. He thought they would soon not only large in number but also be more “class-conscious,” more educated, and then not only capable of overthrowing the ruling capitalist class but also build a greater stage of human history. The proletariats must be not only stronger in force, but also intellectually better than the bourgeois.
As a result, Marx, who cared for intellectual victory more than anything else, would not consider a successful violent proletarian revolution as a victory if it is still intellectually inferior to the “bourgeois.”
Imagined how Marx would have been furious with the Khmer Rouge regime, who executed nearly all intellectuals of his country in the communist-led genocide in Cambodia; or with Stalin, who ordered horrified purges of millions of intellectuals and dissents in the Soviet era.
In reality, Marx’s belief was a mirage. In his life, he tried relentlessly to teach the workers about the communist theory and politics, but it seemed a vain effort (Marxism is certainly not easy to grasp, even for the upper class). Most of communist theoreticians were in fact “bourgeois.” Karl Marx himself got a PhD in philosophy, worked as journalist, writer, editor, and politician, never experienced any kind of “proletariat” job all his life.
Even with veteran communist leaders rising from worker movement, Marx was sometimes mad at their failure of understanding revolutionary ideas, which resulted in some serious quarrels. One of them, August Willich, even challenged Marx in a duel after being disregarded several times for his lack of intellectual capability.
Therefore, to make the proletariats “class-conscious” and intellectually better than the capitalists as he wished would take forever to do.
Even if the unusual result would happen in the future, when all the workers are as intellectually capable as the bourgeois is, then they would not be proletariats any more. They would become intellectuals instead.
Where are the proletariats in the new post-material world?
In addition, it is worth noting that communist ideas blossom when workers get stuck in difficult situations (e.g. high unemployment rate, hazardous working environment, low payment, wartimes), rather than at the time when they are in good condition (when the economy is on the rise, for example).
When the situation is unacceptably bad, they would revolt given a promise and guarantee of a better life-no matter who are the leaders. Indeed, most revolutions could not succeed without a formidable mass of workers and farmers.
Yet that also means that as long as the capitalist system, with its capacity to constantly fix its flaws, can provide the proletariats with their basic needs, then they would have no motivation to revolt for their own sake. That point was not clear in Marx’s time when workers had to work more than 12 hours a day and seven days a week just to feed their starving family.
Now it is safe to say that most of the “proletariats” in advanced-capitalist countries, such as Germany and Britain, are freed from basic needs (food, shelter, and security for e.g.), and more usually than not they are even represented in the “capitalist” government by their own leftist parties.
Moreover, providing the increasing complex and defragmenting world today, it is a big question whether class solidarity based on material interest is still relevant. The working class is much divided by race, nationality, gender, and many other “imagined” communities.
Even for the working class with the same material interest, they are divided as well: as Joseph Schumpeter argued, workers try to be managers, then businessmen and capitalists rather than living in a world where everyone is a worker. A bank trader, literally a worker, is probably much less interested in “social change” than a factory proletariat.
To unite and teach them about “class-conscious” in the current post-material world would be therefore extremely difficult, if not impossible.
The inevitable historical mission of the proletariats might not be as inevitable as Marx argued.
Or is there another kind of “proletariats” Marx did talk about? Would it be a new class rising from the very core of capitalism, intellectually capable and large in number? Or would there come the time when the “classless” people-no matter what occupations they have-with their universal intelligence, self-consciousness of their roles in society as well as their power, would gradually challenge the power of capitalism and change it into something else better?
These are the questions that Marxism has to answer well to remain relevant. Yet to be sure, the proletariat as it used to be known would not be the key to social change any longer.