Marx and the Silesian strikers

October 4th, 2012

When a revolt of textile workers broke out in his native Germany in 1844, Karl Marx took their side – and began to identify a social force that could create a new society – Published on Socialist, by Todd Chretien, October 3, 2012.

IN THE 1844 Manuscripts, which I reviewed in my last column, Marx for the first time identifies himself as a communist and argues that free-market competition will give rise to capitalist monopoly and crisis on the one hand, and misery and alienation for the working class on the other.

Further, he extracts from Hegel’s idealist philosophy the notion that the motor force of history is “the dialectic of negativity”–or, we could say, that change comes about through conflict and transformation. Marx takes this idea and begins to apply it to how things work in the material world of people, social classes and state power.  

Just as Marx was finishing this project, an uprising of textile workers in Silesia, Germany, took place in June of 1844. While the strike was small by French or English standards of the time, it represented the first serious collective action by workers inside Germany protesting against the social and working conditions imposed on them by the new system of factory production.

The workers smashed machines and even demolished several of their bosses’ mansions. The King of Prussia sent in soldiers, who fired into the crowd, killing at least 11 workers and injuring many more.

Marx championed this revolt and was shocked when some of his former friends from radical philosophical circles in Germany downplayed or ignored it. This difference of opinion, plus a lack of money, led to the early demise of Marx’s attempt to set up a radical exile publication in France. But it did confirm Marx’s belief that capitalism and the industrial system it created would inevitably come to Germany–and that system, in turn, would create a proletariat, a class that Marx hoped would lead a revolution of a new type in Germany.

WHEREAS ARNOLD Ruge, Marx’s one-time close friend and publishing partner, saw in the strike only poverty and desperation–pathetic servants with no social power–Marx saw life breathed into the theoretical sketches he had laid out in an essay about six months before called Introduction to the Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. In this essay, he wrote:

Where, then, is the positive possibility of a German emancipation? Answer: In the formation of a class with radical chains…This dissolution of society as a particular estate is the proletariat. (p. 186, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 3. Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1975)//

… LET’S PUT these quotes together and see what Marx has come up with.

Capitalism has produced a “class with radical chains”–that is, a class that does not control any of the economic or political bastions of power. Its only strength is in its numbers and its ability to collectively, not individually, take over the means of production, thereby wiping out private ownership.

Previous social revolutions–and here, Marx was mostly thinking of the French Revolution of 1789–saw one sort of elite, the feudal landowners and royal bureaucracy, overthrown by a new sort of elite, the bourgeoisie. Once in power, they remade the economy to their liking. There were many changes in the forms of oppression and exploitation for the vast majority who stayed on the bottom, but society remained, as it had before, divided into haves and have-nots.

In other words, once the bourgeoisie threw off the chains by which the King had kept them subordinate, they used their control of private property to reshape the chains on those below them. Marx argues that there is no social class below the proletariat, and it can only come to power by socializing private property, thereby eliminating the principal means of exploitation of one class by another.

Whereas before the Silesian strike, Marx had only considered this proposition in abstract terms, he now thought he saw it coming to life among the textile workers. The workers in the earlier strikes in Lyons were still caught in the spell of trying to improve the old French Republic, he believed–essentially trying to make the bourgeoisie treat them more fairly by granting them rights and better working conditions, which is why Marx described them as thinking of themselves as “soldiers of the Republic.” But the Silesian strikers had already gained the “consciousness of the nature of the proletariat” and aimed to dissolve private property in Germany–they were “soldiers of Socialism.”

Marx then tacitly modifies what he surely must have realized was an exaggeration on his part about the strikers’ immediate aims (and anyone who has ever overdone it with a bit of rhetorical flourish can forgive him this). More perceptively, he contends that even “a partial reaction, an uprising” against private property–and the rigid isolation it imposes on workers from their “essential nature”–carries with it a “universal soul.”

For “isolation,” substitute his discussion of alienation discussed in my last column, and you can see how Marx is fitting the pieces of the puzzle together. In other words, the very form of working-class struggle tends towards unity, solidarity, the overcoming of isolation. It points towards the universal, towards the reunification of humanity with its species-being.

Very exciting, no? But is there any basis to it? Weren’t the Silesian strikers just impoverished slobs who took a beating from the cops, licked their wounds and got driven back to work in defeat?

Fortunately, the recent strike by the Chicago Teachers Union gives us excellent grounds for testing Marx’s proposition. The teachers certainly didn’t end capitalism in Illinois, but you would have to be as blind as a bat–apologies to any bat enthusiasts–to miss the elements that Marx identified way back in the summer of 1844 bubbling up among the pickets, mass marches and meetings of teachers, parents, students and their supporters.

The strike began to forge a powerful unity among the teachers themselves, who, after all, spend most of their day in their own classrooms, isolated from their co-workers. Black, Latino, Asian and white; young and old; immigrant and native-born; men and women; gay and straight–all teachers found a common strength against the corporate reformers, the politicians and the would-be King of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel.

Not to stretch the point too far, but Marx might say that the Chicago Teachers Union articulated the universal hopes of Chicago’s working class for nine hard-fought days on strike.

The union’s main slogan–”Fighting for the schools our children deserve”–rightly pointed out the hypocrisy of billionaires like Bill Gates who blather on and on about how to fix our schools by blaming teachers. But it also raised the question of what sort of world our children deserve. Not what sort of world we can afford to give them under the current system, but what they deserve as human beings. This dynamic is why Marx saw such revolutionary potential in working-class struggle … //

… (full long text).

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