A Résumé for the Proletariat by Mike Davis

The titular essay of Mike Davis' new book Old Gods, New Enigmas is ludicrously ambitious in its scope and concision. I'd recommend it to anyone looking to get the biggest of big picture views of the working class in its heroic era.

It contains two passes over the history of the European and American working classes between 1838 and 1921 - its institutions, its doctrines, its battles, its sub- and counter-cultures, and its geographic distribution at various scales.

In the first pass of only a few hundred words, he offers a rough political periodization of that interval. In the second, he puts forward a number of theses about these working classes organized under thematic headings and elaborated upon at length.

I've excerpted the theses below. Here is how Davis sets the stage for them:

Although everyone agrees that proletarian agency is at the very core of revolutionary doctrine, one searches in vain for any expanded definition, much less canonical treatment. For this reason, [Old Gods, New Enigmas] adopts an indirect strategy: a parallel reading of Marx's Collected Works and dozens of studies of European and U.S. Labor history in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

…[Old Gods, New Enigmas] makes no pretense of being an orthodox exercise in Marxology or a rigorous attempt to deduce the determinations of [proletarian] agency from the unfinished opus of Capital - something I regard as impossible. Rather, I make sweeping, even promiscuous use of Lukacsian extrapolation to propose a historical sociology conforming to the ideal-type of a socialist working class in the era of the First and Second Internationals. In particular, I mine our current understanding of nineteenth and early twentieth-century working-class history - the fruit of hundreds if not thousands of studies since 1960 - to highlight the conditions and forms of struggle through which class capacities were created and the socialist project organized itself. Against the simplistic idea (not held by Marx) that socialist consciousness and the power to change history principally emerge from the economic class struggle, I stress the overdeterminations (for instance, of wage struggles by movements for suffrage and vice versa) that Rosa Luxemburg, in her brilliant analyses of the 'mass strike', identified as the most potent generators of class consciousness and revolutionary will. […]

This reconstruction, moreover is desired primarily as a comparative matrix for thinking about agency in the radically changed conditions of contemporary class conflict, and it saves for a future work any consideration of the classical counter-arguments against revolutionary agency the most compelling of which were probably Werner Sombart's Why There is No Socialism in the United States (1906) and Robert Michel's Political Parties: A Sociological Study of Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy (1911). I propose, in other words, an idealized, maximum argument - presented in the form of theses - for the traditional working class as the grave-digger of capitalism. Imagine, if you will, the proletariat being asked by the World Spirit for a resume of its qualifications for the job of Universal Emancipator.

This effort to put together a "balance sheet" for the workers' movement recalls A History of Separation (2015) by the Endnotes editorial collective, for whom Davis' Planet of Slums (2006) was a key text. Davis' theses are an effort to articulate what Endnotes called the political "horizon" of the old workers' movement. Like Endnotes, Davis draws on Geoff Eley's Forging Democracy (2002) to relate the stories of women struggling outside factory gates.


Radical Chains

  1. The modern proletariat, in the words of the "1844 Introduction," wears "radical chains". Its emancipation rquirs the abolition of private property and the eventual disappearance of classes.
  2. Marx makes a central but often ovelooked distinction between wage-labor in the broadest sense and highly socialized factory labor employed in machine-dominated production. The labor movement in the nineteenth century was the protest of the stricken world of the hand worker as much as the brave new world of the factory proletariat.
  3. In The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), Marx used the examples of England and Chartism to portray the homogenization of proletarian life under industrial capital, and, parallel with this, the development through struggle of an increasingly united and class-conscious labor movement. The picture of class formation in Capital, however, is far more complex, with economic growth producing a heterogeneous working class whose modern core of factory workers and miners is surrounded by a penumbra of construction and transport workers, farm and sweatshop workers, service and office employees and staggering numbers of domestic servants.
  4. The Industrial Revolution and its subordination of the producer to the machine created a new historical subject, the "collective worker"; a new form of exploitation, relative surplus extraction; and a new terrain of class struggle, mass production.
  5. If poverty, as Andre Gorz claimed, is the "natural basis" of the struggle for socialism, it is the "unnatural poverty" of the industrial working class, which grows in lockstep with the productive powers of collective labor. Workers, espescially in boom periods, may win significant wage improvements that foster the growth of new "necessities", but they are likely to be reversed during downturns. It is not progressive impoverishment - the so-called "law of absolute immiseration" - that usually generates revolutionary impulses but mass unemployment and the sudden loss of hard-won and apparently permanent gains.

Factories and Unions

  1. The factory system organizes the workforce as interdependent collectivities that, through struggle and conscious organization, can become communities of solidarity. Moreover, factories and other large industrial enterprises such as shipyards and railroad repair shops are miniature political systems.
  2. Organizing campaigns and strikes have a politico-moral momentum that necessarily exceeds the economic demands that were their first cause. Marx was insistent on this point. Moreover, "as schools of war", Engeles added, "the Unions are unexcelled".
  3. In an era of family upheaval and household recomposition, gender equality was often the most difficult solidarity to achieve inside factories and other modern workplaces. Together with white supremacy, patriarchy was the true Achilles' heel of the labor movement.
  4. "Was Fourier wrong", asks Marx rhetorically in Capital, "when he called factories 'mitigated jails'?" Resistance to workplace despotism (i.e. disciplinary codes, arbitrary powers of overseers, firings without cause, sexual harassment, and so on) has always been the pilot light of the modern class struggle. By fighting to establish rights on the factory floor, workers challenged not merely "managerial prerogative", but implicity challenged the principle of wage-labor itself.
  5. The path from the anomic, internally divided factory to workforce solidarity and the successful exercise of shopfloor power did not always follow the narrative of heroic union-building. Where workers were less replacable because of special demographic or labor-market conditions, conflict inside the factory might be more informally, even invisibly organized.
  6. Proletarianization in late-developing nations was sometimes and explosive process that transferred the raw countryside to the factory without any urban acclimation. Russia was the classic case of such "non-linear" proletarianization, and its young peasant workers often combined impressive shopfloor militancy with the most backward rural prejudices.

Mass Strikes and Workers' Control

  1. As industrial capitalism grew both domestically and through world markets, strategically emplaced workers gained unprecedented power to non-violently disrupt economic activity, and even to hold hostage the means of production. Neither capital nor labor, however, knew the limits of this power, or, on the part of the latter, to what extremes of force owners might resort when confront with its full exercise. The general strike was the late Victorian and Edwardian proletariat's "atomic bomb".
  2. As these mass strikes revealed, the deep structure of the workers' movement, beyond its visible official institutions and affiliates, was the unofficial often non-party organization of struggle within the factories, mines, and merchat marines. These internal networks allowed shopfloor workers to mount informal actions and, in periods of defeat and repression, to preserve their culture of militancy.
  3. Workers can run the factories and develop the forces of production. Until the First World War, much of the applied science of production remain the quasi-property of metalworkers and other craftsmen.
  4. In the European Revolution of 1917-21, metalworkers based in the giant wartime munitions plants and shipyards led the rank-and-file labor revolt against war and immiseration. Faced with the rapid declien of craft regulation of production, an important cohort of the "aristocracy of labor", organized across Europe in ad hoc shop stewards' movement, embraced a radical program of workers' control of the factories.
  5. The factory council movement synthesized two previously divergent strands of labor struggle: the semi-skilled workers' quest for inclusive industrial representation, and the metal crafts' defense of their prerogatives within the labor process. The small Owenite experiments in industrial self-management that Marx had praised fifty years earlier had now grown into a sweeping concept of workers' control of the entire industrial economy.

The Industrial City

  1. Union militancy often attained its highest development in pit villages and textile towns, but socialism is ultimately the child of the cities: those graveyards of paternalism and religious belief. In the cities, a broad proletarian public sphere could flourish.
  2. The propiniquity of work and residence, which ensured that industrial struggles spilled over into neighborhoods and vice versa, was a powerful support to class consciousness. This nexus was perpetuated, even strengthened, in early industrial suburbs of which Paris provided the most vivid examples.
  3. Hundreds of factory towns and industrial suburbs in Europe and the United States put socialists in city hall after 1890. They led important fights against the emerging electric power and traction trusts, and in some notable cases (Los Angeles, for examples) replaced private monopolies with public utilities. In other cases, Socialist majorites in local government were crucial to protecting the rights to strike and protest, as well as limiting the strike-breaking role of the police. But "municipalism" - the Fabian belief that important reforms could be achieved by progressive government at the local level - too often degenerated into "sewer socialism", which differed only marginally from middle-class reform movements with which it was frequently allied.
  4. Before the 1930s and the great victories of the CIO in the United States (a template for postwar unionism in Europe), the city itself provided the principal form or shell for the economic, as well as political and cultural, organization of the working class across craft boundaries. Great class battles, with the exceptions of miners and railroad workers were conducted by urban labor federations, or alternately the union-managed, muncipally funded bourses and camere del lavoro that, from the 1890s, were the nuclei of worker mulitancy in France, Italy, and to a lesser extent Spain.
  5. Urban class struggles, espescially those adressing emergencies of shelter, food, and fuel, were typically led by working-class mothers, the forgotten heroes of socialist history.
  6. In response to the high cost of living in the great urban agglomerations, workers, inspired by the Rochdale Pioneers in Lancashire, organized their own cooperative stores, believing they were taking the first steps into a socialist future.
  7. Although Marx wrote little or nothing on the housing crisis, and Engels pointedly dismissed proffered solutions as utopian, rewnt gouging amidst a universal lack of affordable shelter was a central grievance of the urban working classes everywhere. By 1915, moreover, the rent strike had become a familiar weapon in the class arsenal and played an important role in fermenting revolts against the war.

Proletarian Culture

  1. Within this urban matrix, already richly endowed with artisan traditions, a proletarian public sphere developed. The ideas of socialism (or anarcho-communism) became embodied in well-organized counter-cultures that projected the solidarities of the workplace and neighborhood into all aspects of recreation, education, and culture.
  2. The alternative organization of urban daily life, however, was not limited to the contestation of bourgeois values and institutions or to the self-organization of important cultural and social services, but aspired to educate a new socialist humanity.
  3. A proletarian public sphere, of course, depended upon the existence of spaces for meetings, classes, agitation and recreation. Even in countries where the labor movement was legal, it sometimes required a long fight to create such spaces at the neighborhood level.
  4. The ultimate symbol of proletarian life in most cities (and later, the chief target of fascist atttack) was the maison du peuple, casa del popolo, Volkshaus, or labor temple.
  5. The generational stratification of the working class, like gender and skill divisions, was a source of both internal conflict and creative energy. After 1905 the so-called "Young Guard" movements led the revolt of a third generation fo worker socialists against the reformist, evolutionist policies of second-generation political and union leadewrs. Attracted to syndicalist and maximalist positions, and wholeheartedly anti-militarist, the younger cohort was accused by its elders of embracing a "socialism of the Dream". In fact, the youth movements incubated the future leadership of European Communism.
  6. "Sport is a chain-breaker for the youth of the proletariat, a liberator from physical and spiritual slavery". By the turn of the century, arugably no cultural contestation between classes was more important than working-class sports. Here were fought key battles over militarism, mass culture, and the allegiances of working-class youth.
  7. Reading "ignited insurrections in the minds of workers". The largely successful struggle for working-class literacy in the nineteenth century, accompanied by a technological revolution in the print media, brought the world - as news, literature, science or simply sensation - into the daily routine of the proletariat. The rapid growth of the labor and socialist press in the last quarter of the century nourished an increasingly sophisticated political world view.
  8. The proletariat, no the bourgeoisie, is the ultimate "bearer of modern culture". Its enthusiasm for science, in particular, confirmed its future as a hegemonic class.

Class Struggle and Hegemony

  1. "Classes", said Edward Thompson in a famous article, "do not exist as separate entities… class-struggle is the prior, as well as the more universal, concept". Class struggle is shaped by and, in turn, reshapes its objective conditions: a process that often resembles an extended arms race. Indeed, we need only add the past tense to Regis Debray's description of the dialectic of guerilla nd anti-guerilla warfare: "the Revolution revolutionizes the Counter-Revolution" (and vice versa).
  2. The workers' movement can and must confront the power of capital in every aspect of social life, organizing resistance on the terrains of the economic, the political, the urban, the social-reproductive, and the associational. It is the fusion or synthesis of these struggles, rather than their simple addition, which invests the proletariat with hegemonic consciousness.
  3. In the battle for societal leadership, the workers' movement must speak not only the language of scientific socialism but also the dialectics of past popular struggles. Language does not "construct" the class struggle in any ontological sense (as devotees of the "lingustic turn" seem to believe), but it is a crucial battleground for competing claims of historical and moral legitimacy.
  4. Political and economic class struggles, of course, had different "gear ratios" and velocities in diverse sectors, regions, and nations. What synchronized them as a single movement was the universal demand for an eight-hour working day. May day was truly the foundation of the Socialist International.
  5. To truly embody a general interest, the workers' movement had to assemble a "historic bloc" of allied oppressed groups, including the rural poor. Indeed the "agrarian question" - different in every country - was the Rubicon that socialism had to cross in order to attain a political and social majority everywhere except in England. The fate of the European Revolution of 1917-21 was ultimately determined in the countryside.
  6. For revolution to become a possibility, the workers' movement had to break the military monoply of the bourgeois state from the inside. Socialist youth organizations, as we have seen, were the principal force contesting conscription and, on occasion, propagandizing anti-militarist ideas within the barracks. But the weakest liunk in wartime was the navy, where the great dreadnaughts and battle curisers were little more than "floating factories" manned by slave labor.

Class Consciousness and Socialism

  1. Because of its position in social production and the universality of its objective interests, the proletariat possesses a superior "epistemological capacity" to see the economy as a whole, and unravel the mystery of capital's apparent self-movement (Lukacs's theses).
  2. A revolutionary collective will is crystallized (and "correct courses of action" decided upon) primarily through rude, direct democracy in periods of extreme mass activity. Class consciousness is not the party program, but rather the synthesis of lessons learned in protracted class war.
  3. Thanks to the world market and mass emigration, the industrial proletariat is objectively constituted as an international class with common interests that cross national and ethnic boundaries. Great international campaigns, moreover, crystallize the proletariat's understanding of its world-historical vocation.
  4. The ground condition for the socialist project is the realm of freedom immanent in the advanced industrial economy itself. To achieve the principal goal of socialism - the transformation of surplus labor into equally distributed free time - radical chains must be translated into radical needs.
  5. Socialism is economic democracy, exercised at a plurality of levels. but the practicalities of workers' control over their factories and workshops (the goal and praxis of revolutionary syndicalism) must be distinguished from the incomparably greater challenges of national economic planning.
  6. By the outbreak of the First World War, several advanced economies had achieved thresholds of industrial productivity and net national income that satisfied the minimal conditions for "socialist affluence" and the gradual conversion of surplus into free time. Furthermore, "state capitalism", as modeled by the American and German war economies of 1918, demonstrated new possibilities for allocating investment and resources through central state planning - a development whose significance was most keenly grasped by Lenin. But the communications and control technologies required for broad democratic participation in economic decision-making did not exist, and would not be created until the end of the twentieth century.
  7. Labor must rule because the bourgeoisie is ultimately unable to fulfill the promises of progress. If the social project is defeated it will be the retrogression of civilization as a whole.