Red Letter
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The Proletariat
by Karl Kautsky
Estimated Reading Time: 11 min

1. From Apprentice to Proletarian

To introduce the Proletariat, also referred to as the Working Class, let's paraphrase some arguments raised by Adam Przeworski in his chapter "Proletariat into a Class: the Process of Class Formation."
Afraid of simplifying his work into an orthodoxy, Karl Marx famously decried "I'm not a Marxist," but around 1890, Karl Kautsky (1854-1938) wasn't just a marxist, but the "Pope of Marxism." At the time, the definition of proletariat was in some senses taken for granted: Engels added a footnote to the Communist Manifesto in the 1888 edition defining it as "The class of modern wage-labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour-power in order to live." As Przeworski so adeptly puts it,
"In 1848 one simply knew who were the proletarians. One knew all the criteria—the relation to the means of production, poverty, and degredation—all coincided to provide a consistent image. 'It a working man doesn't smell of filth and sweat two miles off, he isn't much of a fellow.' said one Norwegian capitalist."
Kautsky's definition here will become contested as ambiguity arises: his definition of the proletariat encompasses secretaries and executives, nurses and corporate lawyers, teachers and policemen, computer operators and executive directors. But as we progress in the Red Letter, the point is not to claim the answers, but to introduce some of these debates.

We have seen that the capitalist system of production implies the separation of the laborer from the means of production. On the one side there is the capitalist, who owns the machine, and on the other the proletarian, who does the work.

Originally it took forcible methods to secure the supply of proletarians necessary to this system. Today, however, such methods are no longer necessary. The economic power of the system has become sufficient to accomplish the desired result without breaking the law of private property. In fact, it is by the operation of this law that every year a sufficient number of farmers and independent craftsmen are given the choice between starvation and work in the factories.

That the number of the proletariat is steadily on the increase is such a palpable fact that no one attempts to deny it, not even those who would make us believe that society today rests on the same basis as it did a hundred years ago, and who try to paint the picture of the small producer in rosy colors. Indeed a change has taken place in the make-up of society, just as it has in the system of production. The capitalist form of production has overthrown all others, and become the dominant one in the field of industry; similarly wage-labor is today the dominant form of labor. A hundred years ago the farming peasantry took the first place; later, the small city industrialists; today it is the wage-earner.

In all civilized countries the proletarians are today the largest class; it is their condition and modes of thought that tend to control those of all the other divisions of labor. This implies a complete revolution in the condition and thought of the bulk of the population. The conditions of the proletariat differ radically from those of all former categories of labor. The small farmer, the artisan, the small producers generally, were the owners of the product of their labor by reason of their ownership of the means of production. The product of the labor of the proletarian does not belong to him, it belongs to the capitalist, to the owner of the requisite instruments of production. True enough, the proletarian is paid by the capitalist, but the value of his wages is far below that of his product.

When the capitalist in industry purchases the only commodity which the proletarian can offer for sale, that is, his labor-power, he does so for the sole purpose of utilizing it in a profitable way. The more the working-man produces, the larger the value of his product. If the capitalist were to work his employees only long enough to produce the worth of the wages he pays them, he would clear no profits. But his capital cries for profits and finds in him a willing listener. The longer the time is extended during which the workmen labor in the service of the capitalists, over and above the time needed to cover their wages, the larger is the value of their product, the larger is the surplus over and above the capitalist outlay in wages, and the larger is the per cent of exploitation to which these workmen are subjected. This exploitation of labor finds a limit only in the powers of endurance of the working people and in the resistance they may be able to offer to their exploiters.

In capitalist production, the capitalist and the wage-earner are not fellow-workers, as were the employer and employed in previous industrial epochs. The capitalist soon develops into, and remains, essentially a merchant. His activity, in so far as he is at all active, limits itself, like that of the merchant, to the operations of the market. His labors consist in purchasing as cheaply as possible the raw material, labor power and other essentials, and selling the finished products as dearly as possible. Upon the field of production itself he does nothing except to secure the largest quantity of labor from the workmen for the least possible amount of wages, and thereby to squeeze out of them the largest possible quantity of surplus values. In his relation to his employees he is not a fellow-worker, he is only a driver and exploiter. The longer they work, the better off he is; he is not tired out if the hours of labor are unduly extended; he does not perish if the method of production becomes a murderous one. The capitalist is vastly more reckless of the life and safety of his operatives than the master-workman of former times. Extension of the hours of labor, abolition of holidays, introduction of night labor, damp and overheated factories filled with poisonous gases, such are the “improvements” which the capitalist mode of production has introduced for the benefit of the working-class.

The introduction of machinery increases still further the danger to life and limb for the working-man. The machine system fetters him to a monster that moves perpetually with a gigantic power and with insane speed. Only the closest, never-flagging attention can protect the workingman attached to such a machine from being seized and broken by it. Protective devices cost money; the capitalist does not introduce them unless he is forced to do it. Economy being the much vaunted virtue of the capitalist, he is constrained by it to save room and to squeeze as much machinery as possible into the workshop. What cares he that the limbs of his working-men are thereby endangered? Working-men are cheap, but large, airy workshops are dear.

There is still another respect in which the capitalist employment of machinery lowers the condition of the working-class. It is this: the tool of the mechanic of former times was cheap and it was subject to few changes that would render it useless. It is otherwise with the machine; in the first place, it costs money, much money; in the second place, if through improvements in the system it becomes useless, or if it is not used to its full capacity, it will bring loss instead of profit to the capitalist. Again, the machine is worn out, not only through use, but through idleness. Furthermore, the introduction of science into production constantly causes new discoveries and inventions to take the place of the old ones. So, because they cannot compete with the improved machinery, now this machine, now that, and often whole factories at once, are rendered useless before they have been used to their full extent. Therefore, every machine is in danger of being made useless before it is used up; this is sufficient ground for the capitalist to utilize his machine as quickly as possible from the moment he puts it in operation. In other words, the capitalist application of the system of machinery is a spur that drives the capitalist to extend the hours of labor as much as possible, to carry on production without interruption, to introduce the system of night and day shifts, and, accordingly, to make of the unwholesome night work a permanent system.

At the time the system of machinery began to develop, some idealists declared the golden age was at hand; the machine was to release the working-man and render him free. In the hands of the capitalist, however, the machine has made the burden of labor unbearable.

But in the matter of wages, also, the condition of the wage-earner is worse than that of the medieval apprentice. The proletarian, the workman of today, does not eat at the table of the capitalist; he does not live in the same house. However wretched his home may be, however miserable his food, nay, even though he famish, the well-being of the capitalist is not disturbed by the sickening sight. The words wages and starvation used to be mutually exclusive; the free working-man formerly could starve only when he had no work. Whoever worked earned wages, he had enough to eat, starvation was not his lot. For the capitalist system was reserved the unenviable distinction of reconciling these two opposites-wages and starvation – raising starvation-wages into a permanent institution, even into a prop of the present social system.

2. Wages

Wages can never rise so high as to make it impossible for the capitalist to carry on his business and to live from the profits of it; under such circumstances it would be more profitable for the capitalist to give up his business. Consequently, the wages of the working-man can never rise high enough to equal the value of his product. They must always be below that, so as to leave a surplus; it is only the prospect of a surplus that moves the capitalist to purchase labor power. It is therefore evident that under the capitalist system the wages of the workmen can never rise high enough to put an end to the exploitation of labor.

The surplus which the capitalist class appropriates is larger than is usually imagined. It covers not only the profits of the manufacturer, but many other items that are usually credited to the cost of production and exchange. It covers, for instance, rent, interest on loans, salaries, merchant’s profits, taxes, etc. All these have to be subtracted from the surplus, that is, the excess of the value of the product over the wages of the working-man. It is evident that this surplus must be a considerable one if a concern is to “pay.” It is clear that the wages of the working-man cannot rise high enough to be even approximately equal to the value of his profit. The capitalist system means under all circumstances the exploitation of the wage-workers. It is impossible to abolish this exploitation without abolishing the system itself. And the exploitation must be great even where wages are high.

But wages rarely reach the highest point which even these circumstances would permit; more often they are found to be nearer to the lowest possible point. This point is reached when the wages do not supply the workman with even the barest necessities. When the workman not only starves, but starves rapidly, all work is at an end.

The wages swing between these two extremes. The less the necessities of the workman, the larger the supply of labor on the market, and the slighter the capacity of the working-man for resistance, the lower wages sink.

In general, wages must be high enough to keep the working-man in a condition to work, or, to speak more accurately. they must be high enough to secure to the capitalist the measure of labor-power which he needs. In other words, wages must be high enough, not only to keep the working-men in a condition to work, but also in a condition to produce children to replace them.

Now industrial development exhibits a tendency, most pleasing to the capitalist, to lower the necessities of the working-man and to decrease his wages in proportion.

There was a time when skill and strength were requisites for a working-man. The period of apprenticeship was long, the cost of training considerable. Now, however, the progress made in the division of labor and the introduction of machinery render skill and strength in production more and more superfluous; they make it possible to substitute unskilled and cheap workmen for skilled ones; and, consequently, to put weak women and even children in the place of men. In the early stages of manufacturing this tendency is already perceptible; but not until machinery is introduced into production do we find the wholesale exploitation of women and children - the most helpless among the helpless.

Originally, the wage-earner had to earn wages high enough to defray, not only his own expenses, but also those of his family, in order to enable him to propagate himself and to bequeath his labor power to others. Without this process the heirs of the capitalists would find no proletarians ready made for exploitation.

When, however, the wife and young children of the working-man are able to take care of themselves, the wages of the male worker can safely be reduced to the level of his own personal needs without the risk of stopping the fresh supply of labor power.

The labor of women and children, moreover, affords the additional advantage that these are less capable of resistance than men; and their introduction into the ranks of the workers increases tremendously the quantity of labor that is offered for sale in the market.

Accordingly, the labor of women and children not only lowers the necessities of the workingman, it also diminishes his capacity for resistance in that it overstocks the market; owing to both these circumstances it lowers the wages of the working-man.

The Proletariat
Communism Is How We Forcibly Break Apart the Organized Power of the Capitalist Class
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