Michael Heinrich on the "Revolutionary Subject" - Red May
Updated: Jun 16, 2021
This class struggle is a necessary class struggle for the working class in order to exist inside of bourgeois society. It is not at all a revolutionary struggle. At this point, starts the discussion of the “revolutionary subject”. Very often, when we talk about the revolutionary subject, the question is not what could be the revolutionary subject. Rather, the question is: who is the revolutionary subject? To put the question in this way presupposes that there already exists a revolutionary subject. Maybe it is a sleeping subject, or a subject who is not recognizing the task (to do revolution), but a subject already exists. Many Marxists then, see their task in precisely determining who this revolutionary subject is and why this is the case. A lot of different answers are given of course, all of them with the intention of contributing to the awakening of the revolutionary subject and preparing it for its historical task.
Already, the Young Marx started with such attempts in 1843. He thought that the working class is the revolutionary subject because it is the suffering class, the class which is excluded from society, and only through revolution could it obtain its human existence. In 1844 it was the alienation of the workers. Only through revolution, the alienated existence could be overcome and thus the alienated class must revolt. In Communist Manifesto in 1848, alienation was no longer an issue. Here, it was the immiseration of the working class. The need for revolution was caused by the need to survive. In the 1850s, Marx believed (as he expressed in Class Struggle in France) that with the next crisis, the next revolution would come.
Later, especially after 1857, Marx became more cautious, and I think this had to do with the insights of his form analysis (which only developed after 1857 with the Grundrisse and preparatory work for Capital). The form aspects of the working class in capitalism are enormously important. The workers act as free and equal persons (though they are also under economic pressure as we should never forget) and this is not just an illusion. It brings possibilities which are very important for the action and the consciousness of the workers. Workers can dissolve contracts, they can get rid of awful capitalists and, when there is a period of prosperity, there is even a chance to get better paid jobs etc. The workers can organize in unions, they can act collectively for their interests and as citizens (though they needed the whole 19th century to reach this point) they can even vote for political parties and participate in political processes. All this, of course, is not abolishing capitalism but it gives real possibilities to workers that are not just illusions we can dismiss. This has consequences for the class and the individuals of which it is comprised. There are options for individual and collective behaviour inside bourgeois society to improve the situations of the worker other than revolution. Revolution is not the only option when you are not satisfied with your situation. Insofar as this is true, it is not at all clear that the members working class will develop class consciousness. Maybe they try to fight isolated, or in small groups because the class is divided into many different segments. But even if the working class (or large parts of it) develop(s) class consciousness, this does not at all mean that, after a while, a kind of revolutionary class consciousness will develop. To illustrate this, we must now consider the trinitarian formula that I mentioned earlier (presented by Marx in volume 3 of Capital).
The trinitarian formula is quite simple. We have 3 factors of production: capital, labor and land. They must cooperate in order to produce and the three groups of people who own these 3 factors (capitalists have the capital, workers have the labor power and landowners have the land) will receive a part of the commonly produced value. As a kind of revenue the capitalists receive profit or interest, the laborers receive wages, and the landowners receive rent. Marx presents this picture (at the end of volume 3) as a necessary picture that capitalism itself produces. It is not a kind of ideological picture that is produced by some theoreticians of capitalism or philosophers or economists. No, it is a picture that capitalism itself produces as a kind of natural structure of human production and the ideologies and theories are just based on this spontaneously produced picture. We can find this especially in Adam Smith or Jean-Baptiste or even when you open contemporary textbooks of economics, very often it starts with such a picture of the 3 kinds of production and the 3 kinds of income or revenue that these factors receive. This trinitarian formula is important for 3 issues. First, the notion of justice. Second, the self-perception of the worker. Thirdly, the image of the state.
First, with perception of justice, there can be of course a kind of unjust distribution. The 3 factors contribute to production, they receive something, and this should be according to their contribution. Where now, for example, capital receives a lot and labor receives only a little share, people can say, “Oh! This is unjust! There is a justice gap!” For example, in Germany, in the election campaign of 1998 (which brought for the first time, a Red-Green government to the Federal Republic of Germany) this was the peril of the social democrats (they said): “We have a justice gap between capital and labor.” This is pure trinitarian formula. It does not question the capitalist mode of production as such. Rather, it only questions the fact that inside the capitalist mode of production, we have a kind of unjust relation. And this is an idea based upon this trinitarian formula, not an idea produced by some ideologies. No. It is an idea based in the social relations and this thing-like objectivity of value, profit, and so on.
The second important point regarding the trinitarian formula is the self-perception of the workers. I already mentioned that under capitalism, the workers are usually politically free and legally equal persons. The trinitarian formula transfers this equality to the level of class. We have the 3 factors of production, these factors are held by different classes, and the idea is that these classes basically have equal rights, equal claims, and there must be a kind of balance between the classes. So, the individual equality or legal equality, that each person has the same legal rights, transfers to the claim that also the big classes should have the same rights or the same possibility of making social or political claims. This will lead to political conflicts, but all of these conflicts are inside of bourgeois society. They don’t question the basic structure of capitalism and bourgeois society.
Now, the third point: states. When you have such competing interests between and injustice between production factors, when you have classes that should have equal claims, but don’t, you need a referee. You need someone who confirms which claims are accepted and which relations are unjust. This neutral referee is (according to this framework of the trinitarian formula) the state. The state appears as something beyond the immediate interests of the individual classes (or at least it should) and acts as a kind of neutral referee. And this is not just an illusion. A good part of the laws of the bourgeois state rest on this neutrality. The bourgeois state secures the private property of everybody. It secures my bicycle as private property (when it is stolen the state will try to find the thief) and the state also secures the private property of the owner of a big company (which also shall not be stolen). In neutrally securing all property of course, the state conforms to the already-existing material inequality, that I have only a bicycle and someone else has a whole company and is able to buy a lot of labor power etc. So, the neutrality of the state is not an illusion. It is even a tool to secure class struggle, class domination, and the capitalist mode of production. But, of course, this is a neutrality inside the bourgeois structures. Very often the state is not neutral. Very often the state is captured by a capital faction or a certain lobbying group and there is a scandal. But this is a bourgeois scandal. This is not a relevant scandal for criticizing the capitalist mode of production and the state. That the state is not neutral is not proof of anything. It is just proof that the normal bourgeois functioning of the state, has, at that moment, a problem.
So, when we now take together the 3 points of the trinitarian formula, it should be clear that this gives the background for a certain class consciousness, for a certain kind of class struggle, which belongs to capitalist society and which is not at all close to revolution, but rather, is just the normal process of reproducing capitalism (which is not a smooth process, but a very fierce, questioned, contested process).
In Capital, Marx stresses these points, but he also stresses the opposite. In Capital, you find on the one hand, this very famous remark that the workers are submitted to capitalism and that they accept capitalism as a kind of natural order. I just want to read one sentence which expresses this very nicely:
“The organization of the capitalist process of production, once it is fully developed, breaks down all resistance. The constant generation of a relative surplus population keeps the law of the supply and demand of labor, and therefore wages, within narrow limits which correspond to capital’s valorization requirements. The silent compulsion of economic relations sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker. Direct extra-economic force is still, of course, used but only in exceptional cases. In the ordinary run of things, the workers can be left to the natural laws of production.”
When you read only this, it sounds rather pessimistic. Capital dominates, it appears as a kind of natural law. You probably recognize the quote, it is from volume 1 in the section on primitive accumulation, but it takes into account what I tried to explain with the help of the trinitarian formula. When you read only this, you must think there is no chance that the working class will ever be revolutionary – capital breaks all resistance. However, at the end of the section on primitive accumulation, in the chapter of the historical tendency of capitalist accumulation, we can read the following:
“With the progress of capitalist development, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, and exploitation grows, but with this, there also grows the revolt of the working class –A class constantly growing in numbers and trained, united, and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production.”
So, while about 30 pages before, it was said that capital breaks all resistance, now it is said that the working class will revolt and that it is even organized and trained by the capitalist process of production. It is nearly the opposite of the other quotation I gave. That these quotations contradict each other in this way is not a result of some stupidity – that Marx forgot something etc. It is the correct description of what we find in capitalism. We have on the one hand, very strong mechanisms to break any resistance, to split the working class, to get rid of revolt. And on the other hand, there are good reasons to revolt and there are also attempts to revolt. However, I think for the second scenario (which most Marxists like), that there will be a revolt and that capitalism will be overcome, there is a chance. But the first scenario (that the resistance is broken) happens much much more often. With this in mind, we should take a different approach to the very common discussion about revolutionary classes and what a revolutionary class is.
Already, I sketched out this discussion. The Marxists want to discover who is the revolutionary subject which is unfortunately asleep. They want to awake it and then the revolution will happen. All this presupposes that a revolutionary development is just the normal case and when we don’t see a revolutionary development, we must look at which factors prevent this revolutionary development – maybe bourgeois ideology, the media, high wages for workers, aristocracy (all of these were reasons formed over the last 100 years).
Considering Marx’s form analysis, I think we have to reverse the whole situation. Unfortunately, the absence of revolutionary tendencies is the normality in capitalism. The existence of revolutionary tendencies depends on special historical factors. I think there is no revolutionary subject waiting to be discovered or sleeping. A revolution can happen, and then in this revolution a revolutionary subject constitutes. But the search for this revolutionary subject without revolution is a kind of political alchemy – like in medieval ages when the alchemists searched for a magical stone that could transfer chemical elements etc. This stone does not exist and neither does a revolutionary subject without revolution. It constitutes during a revolution or a revolutionary event, and after this event, whether the revolution is successful or not, the revolutionary subject will disappear. The revolutionary subject without revolution cannot exist. It is a kind of Chimera.
The consequence of this analysis is not to say that we should have no hope for revolution and therefore no hope of fundamentally changing capitalism. Of course, I want this fundamental change and I hope one day it will come and perhaps I will be a part of it. But to see this revolutionary tendency as an objective tendency which is always there is, I think, a very bad illusion.