The Revolutionary Class

by Tom Walker


Book proposal: Marx’s Fetters and the Realm of Freedom: a remedial reading — part 2.7

The revolutionary class

“The working class is either revolutionary or it is nothing,” Marx wrote to German politician J.B. von Schweitzer and copied “word for word” in a letter to Engels. In The Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx and Engels wrote “the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class.” Marx cited that statement in a footnote at the very end of the penultimate chapter of volume 1 of Capital. Without denying the plausibility of other, canonical, interpretation of the revolutionary working class, there is one clear definition given by Marx in the Grundrisse that has escaped notice as a definition of the revolutionary working class:

The more this contradiction develops, the more does it become evident that the growth of the forces of production can no longer be bound up with the appropriation of alien labour, but that the mass of workers must themselves appropriate their own surplus labour. Once they have done so – and disposable time thereby ceases to have an antithetical existence – then, on one side, necessary labour time will be measured by the needs of the social individual, and, on the other, the development of the power of social production will grow so rapidly that, even though production is now calculated for the wealth of all, disposable time will grow for all. (emphasis in original)

The first sentence is a compact version of Marx’s famous statement about fetters on the forces of production and reprises what he had said two pages earlier about the contradiction between the forces and relations of production. In Capital and in his work with the International, Marx repeatedly referred to the limitation of the working day as a preliminary condition or basic prerequisite for the emancipation of the working class.