The “subjective factor” Ruthless Criticism
Translation from Ch. 6 of Das Proletariat:
die grosse Karriere der lohnarbeitenden Klasse kommt an ihr gerechtes Ende
Peter Decker/Konrad Hecker. GegenStandpunkt Verlag, München, 2002.

The “subjective factor”:
On the freedom-loving self-confidence of the modern working class

a) And the working class itself?

They have found a way of not merely resigning themselves to exploitation, but of identifying with it. They have no real control over their lives – but they cultivate the illusion that they have control over everything. From morning till night they are at the beck and call of others, taking orders from employers, serving the wishes of politicians, complying with the offers and requirements of the market, etc., and they change nothing about this, they don’t take anything into their own hands – but they put on a show as if it was all their idea and under their command. Instead of using their minds to gain a correct consciousness of their situation in life and the reasons for it, they demonstrate the self-confidence of someone who is master of the situation anyway; they put up with everything, but end up with nothing. They won’t lay a finger on the conditions they are faced with, on the interests they serve as useful idiots – but they will walk over dead bodies for their pride, literally if need be. They behave as if they have always wanted to personally testify to how disgusting the social classes are in capitalism – and how bitterly needed a communist revolution is; just so that working class ladies and gentlemen finally quit acting like suckers of state and capital. *

In other words: with the character they have acquired for themselves, even the victims of the capitalist mode of production, in the end and on top of everything else, guarantee that the market economy and the class state continue to be so indestructible. That’s not the least of reasons why, to put it politely, the working class is so anathema to communists that they want to abolish all of capitalism.

(1) Working class “realism”

Modern wage earners are realists. They “take things as they come” without having any “illusions” about how they are “changeable” and even less in their own “potential to influence things.” They don’t deny that these “things” include all sorts of hardships for them, or that their living conditions could quite well use some serious “changes.” On the contrary, they concede that all this as perfectly natural – only to distance themselves just as fundamentally and naturally from any intention to take appropriate action, from any will to make corrections to the given reality. As if they had done everything they could to rebel against the “course of things” and had come to the realization that it all “leads nowhere” anyway; as if they had “become wiser from experience” and had come to the conclusion that, after intensive efforts, “that’s just the way things are,” despite recognizing the need to do something about it: with the derisory air of a powerlessness grown wise, completely mature, discerning, self-confident workers, who in practice have never yet raised an objection to anything, accept everything that is done to them. They don’t want to know anything about alternatives to the capitalist world in which they find themselves, or any they might have to create themselves; their “realism” forbids them from doing this – as if just the fact of wage labor were already the necessary and sufficient reason why nothing can be changed about it. They have quite simply made a decision. And by referring to “the reality,” they also make it known that they have no argument against it – but do not need one either: the fact that the world is the way it is should already be “argument” enough for it to remain the way it is and be acceptable.

The “realism” that modern proletarians have chosen as their main maxim to live by is a resolute standpoint which doesn’t have the slightest thing to do with the obvious truth that a reasonable person faces facts and is better off not orienting their plans and actions by delusions. The capitalistic facts, the really existing necessities and objective constraints of a working class existence, are precisely not taken realistically as what they are: techniques of exploitation which, thanks to state power, have become universal and ubiquitously valid social conditions of existence. Being realistic about this would mean: first, thoroughly identifying the conflict between one’s own needs and the social interests which have the rank of preconditions for all one’s own plans and actions; investigating the reason for this conflict and the equally clear as well as one-sided ranking of the social interests; reflecting on the ways and means of freeing oneself from the ruling adversarial conditions to one’s own interests; joining together with others who are equally affected and damaged ... When proclaiming themselves “realists,” modern workers mean the exact opposite and declare it to be an unavoidable given, sweepingly “recognizing” that their needs are to be treated like pious wishes that are only very conditionally valid; when they continue to pursue failed interests as a futile “dream in life” which can at best be fulfilled by “Lady Luck” at the lottery and “expect nothing” from a criticism of the fundamental realities of the market economy. Such people are bent on adapting – not the conditions of existence that are thrown at them to their reasonably determined common benefit, but all their own considerations of benefit to the ruling interests, instituted priorities, and imposed constraints. Their “realism” is a will to submit, nothing else. And by passing themselves off as only “realistic,” they also make a commitment to unconditionally reject any alternatives and any modifications.

Modern workers, however, assert this position very vehemently. Anyone who denies that the dominant conditions are based in nature and wants to investigate the reasons for them in theory doesn’t have a clue about the ways of the world in practice. Anyone who in practice wants to overthow conditions which “realistic” humanity has gotten used to is all the more foolish in his illusions; namely, about the solidity of the ruling constraints that he thinks he can overthrow. Criticism and a desire for change are simply unworldly; and anyone who does not abandon them is obviously lacking in something – not in good experiences with the world that he wants to change, but precisely in the bad experiences claimed by all those who at the same time do not want to know anything about criticism and change. The more that social realty becomes worth criticizing, the more esoteric it becomes to criticize it with a practical intention; the more it becomes necessary to object in practice to the trend of political-economic things, the crazier it becomes to want to object: the logic is totally twisted, but totally familiar – and at the same time it wants to be “so human.” Because the modern proletarian hears any objection to the wage system as nothing but an attack on himself: on his willingness to make ends meet through wage labor; and he doesn’t “need” to put up with that, does he? He would rather be exploited good and proper than be told just that. And he will have nothing to do with suggestions that he join forces with his peers in order to do something for himself: the others would never ever join in, every self-confident individual knows that best of all about himself.

So proletarians, replete with wordly wisdom, side very resolutely with precisely those conditions that they admit give them a bad time and which they have no say over. This, however, is only the beginning. No sooner do they admit their powerlessness than they strive for a lifetime of proof that within them dwells a totally autonomous subject who is completely his own master, servile to nobody and certainly not answerable to anybody, full of initiative and willingness to change. All those “things” that “realistically” can’t be changed, “like it or not,” don’t need to be changed, because what matters is “what you make of your life.” The use made of one’s own labor power by the ruling authorities and for the ruling interests is almost not worth mentioning, because the decisive thing is just beginning: one’s own quite distinctive resume, which each person builds according to their own taste. Because wage labor, in the opinion of those who do it and therefore must know, is just like concrete for the cement industry: it depends on what you make of it.

And what do they make of it?

Quite simply: the best possible. And that – whatever it may be – is in any event just a huge denial: they are anything other than what they are – wage-dependent pawns of capitalists and state rulers. Because then they would indeed be – their “realism” always includes this much insight – the chumps of the nation – and who wants to be that? Certainly not those who are. And because they do nothing about it in reality, they do even more in their imagination. Whatever is done with them, they act as if it is they who matter, for better or for worse. Instead of tangibly dealing with the fact that the material life of their society finally really bypasses them and their benefit, they act as if everything is really and ultimately about them anyway. They acquire a highly personal character – and yet they never get any further than a slightly distorted affirmative reflection of all the constraints and necessities that arise from their political-economic situation.

* The authors are very well aware that it is completely incorrect to speak, firstly, so rudely and, secondly, so sweepingly about so many very different and generally decent individuals as is done here, so outraged readers don’t need to remind us that they have a completely different impression of themselves and other workers and a much higher opinion of them. Of course, everyone knows some people who don’t deal as badly with their wage dependency as is claimed here and in the following. But it would certainly be even better and ultimately not any more bearable if each specimen of the social genus we are talking about here showed all the relevant character mask attributes, even without qualifications. Resemblance to the living persons of modern history are already sufficiently numerous. Incidentally, it isn’t a refutation of a criticism of the honor-standpoint which workers cultivate in order to cope with their wage-dependent existence to side with the right to honor that in a liberal-egalitarian society is supposed to be paid to everyone and consequently even this social class of people. Anyone who would still prefer to feel insulted – whether personally or as a representative of all the “decent” proles – may take solace: employers and political rulers, the movers and shakers and the experts on psychology and social affairs, i.e. all those who have something to say in society, see modern workers as fine just the way they are, without qualification. They know what they have in their wage earners and are happy to pay every respect to the dignity of the proletarian personality that is missing in this chapter.