From Chapter One of Mandel's Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx:
....The Condition of the Working Class in England is not a work of historial materialism in the strict sense. It is still moral indignation rather than understanding of the social process that inspires the young social critic. But this moral indignation is already revolutionary, already linked to a boundless devotion to the class exploited and crushed by capital, the class which has created all that wealth whose enjoyment capital reserves to itself.40 Most important, the book already leads to the realization that the actual struggle of the proletariat is the only possible vehicle for socialism. In this sense it marks Engels’s definitive break with utopian socialism and forms at the same time an essential weapon against it.
In recent years this conception has been subjected to critical examination because of the obvious historical delay in the victory of socialism in the industrially developed countries of the West. Some of the critics—either explicitly, as with Frantz Fanon, or implicitly, as with the theoreticians of the Chinese Communist Party—strive to show that the revolutionary potential of the peoples of the Third World is greater than that of the Western proletariat. Moreover, within the peoples of the Third World they assign the chief role in the revolution to the peasantry and the revolutionary intelligentsia, and consider that in those countries the industrial proletariat is to some extent a privileged social class in relation to the landless peasants.41
Other critics question not the revolutionary capacity of the Western proletariat in comparison with that of the peoples of the Third World, but its revolutionary capacity as such. They regard the Western proletariat as being in practice integrated into capitalist society, especially through its atomization (in semi-automated industry), the growth in its consuming capacity, and the opportunities that exist for manipulating its ideology and its needs.42 They do not deny that the mass of those who are obliged to sell their labor power continues to increase both in absolute numbers and relative to the total working population. They do deny that this numerical increase strengthens, either directly or indirectly, the challenge to Western capitalism or even the likelihood of seeing it overthrown by the Western proletariat.
Both types of critic tend to refer more often to the youthful writings of Marx and Engels than to the writings of their maturer years. In these youthful works, and in particular in the Introduction to the Critique of the Hegelian Philosophy of Right, the revolutionary role of the proletariat is essentially deduced from the negative characteristics of this class in bourgeois society. It is presented as the culmination of a Hegelian triad, as a veritable “negation of the negation.” It is because the proletariat’s chains are radical that it can get rid of them only through a radical revolution. This leads contemporary critics to conclude that since the proletariat’s chains have today become a great deal less radical, the hope of a radical revolution being carried out by this class has become largely utopian.
A more critical analysis of the youthful writings of Marx and Engels—and especially of the origin of their ideas regarding social revolution—shows, however, that behind the brilliant style there was still, at that stage, a lack of empirical knowledge. A remark Engels formulated forty years later, writing about The German Ideology, applies equally to the famous phrase about “radical chains”: “The finished portion consists of an exposition of the materialist conception of history which proves only how incomplete our knowledge of economic history still was at that time.”43 The modern proletariat is not, in fact, the social class which has borne the heaviest chains in the history of the world. That definition would better fit the Roman slaves between the 1st century BC and the 3rd century AD. History has shown that it is not enough for a class to have nothing more to lose, and not to possess private property, for it to be capable of carrying out a social revolution abolishing all private property. When they later made their diagnosis more precise, Marx and Engels assigned the proletariat the key role in the coming of socialism not so much because of the misery it suffers as because of the place it occupies in the production process and the capacity it thereby possesses to acquire a talent for organization and a cohesion in action which is incommensurable with that of any oppressed class in the past.
There is no reason to deny the revolutionary capacity of the landless peasantry of the countries of the Third World or to doubt the fact that these countries have brought forward the largest number of participants in the revolutionary struggle, on the world scale, during the past twenty years. Two points need to be made, however, if this fact is not to be transformed into a false picture of the overall reality. First, this peasantry, as the Marxists foresaw, is in itself unable to take power and found new states; for this it needs a leadership which, by origin, composition, and inspiration, is proletarian.44 Further, this poor peasantry alone is unable to build a socialist society in the sense that Marx understood it—that is, a society which insures a full and complete blossoming of all human potentialities. It is precisely because the infrastructure of such a society can only be the product of modern large-scale industry, brought to its highest level of development, that the socialist revolution, conceived as a worldwide process,45 though it may begin in underdeveloped countries, cannot be completed—that is, assume its full development—until it embraces the countries that are most industrially advanced.
Furthermore, when various sociologists and economists express doubt as to the role of the proletariat as the vehicle of socialist transformation in the West, they usually make one of two mistakes: they either presuppose Marx guilty of alleging an automatic relationship between the degree of industrial development and the degree of class consciousness,46 or they consider the development of this class consciousness (and, in general, of the subjective conditions needed for the overthrow of capitalism) as proceeding in a straight-line fashion.
It is obvious that when Marx and Engels reached maturity they clearly grasped the dialectical relationships between the level of development of the productive forces and that of class consciousness.47 What Engels wrote about the British proletariat of the nineteenth century applies, mutatis mutandis, to the American proletariat of the twentieth century. In order to show that the latter will prove unable to fulfill its revolutionary mission, it is not enough to describe the present mechanisms of integration, ideological manipulation, and so on. It is necessary to show that the factors which, in the long run, work in the opposite direction—increasing international competition, which operates to erode the American monopoly on high productivity and the superiority in wages that the American workers enjoy as a result of this monopoly—will not alter the behavior of the proletariat of the United States. It is above all necessary to show that automation, which is merely the most radical form assumed by the historical tendency of capital to substitute dead labor for living labor,48 will in the long run be accompanied by full employment and will not lead to recessions that growing inflation will be unable to hold in check. This has not yet been shown.
As to the hope of seeing the emancipating role of the proletariat carried out by “unintegrated minorities” (radical minority groups, students, the infra-proletariat, or even elements which are plainly anti-social), this comes up against the same obstacle on which the slave revolts of ancient Rome stumbled and fell. These groups are capable, at best, of desperate outbreaks. They do not possess either objective social power (either to insure or to paralyze production as a whole) or the lasting ability to organize themselves collectively—two characteristics which are necessary if they are to transform present-day society.
We shall see later that Marx and Engels quickly became convinced that the objective and subjective conditions favorable to the overthrow of capitalism do not develop in a straight line, but follow a curve which is distinctly influenced by the fluctuations of the industrial cycle (both the seven-year cycle and the long-term cycle).49 What is essential is not to know whether or not the working class of a particular country or group of countries is temporarily passive,50 but to know whether the objective and subjective conditions under which it lives impel it periodically to take the road of a general challenge to the capitalist order.
The objective conditions for such a challenge are those that result from the very functioning of capitalism—in particular, the regulation of wages by means of the industrial reserve army, the resulting insecurity, the inadequacy of wages in relation to the needs aroused by social circumstances, the alienating nature of work, and so on. The subjective conditions are, in the last analysis, those which cause the worker to regard his situation as inferior and unsatisfactory. A mass of recent publications shows that this is true in the society called the “consumers’ society” no less than in the nineteenth century.51