In the same way some people claim that the bourgeoisie is “not what it used to be” or that it does not really exist anymore since the collapse of the USSR and the Eastern bloc, others say in some circles not only that socialism is no longer feasible, but that the “old” class divisions are bygone notions. It is as if to say that the efforts and setbacks of the proletariat to establish itself as a ruling class have lead to its disappearance.
All types of explanations are made in order to prove that the working class has vanished or is waning. Technological development, automation that replaces people with machinery, the increasing army of workers that gives the impression of being excluded from the working market (and the proletariat itself); the middle-class status of some workers—quite obvious indeed—among the proletariat who gain a bit from the plundering of imperialism. The objective is not only to prove that the proletariat does not exist, or barely, but to invalidate any historical role it may claim to transform society and get to a higher stage of development.
To believe to such conclusions, one must ignore reality. It reveals a deep lack of understanding about what the proletariat is—i.e. a class whose existence is defined by its role in the relations of production, a state of affairs that has nothing to do with “personal desire” or political will. Did these relations of production change to the extent that the bourgeoisie can exist without the proletariat? Of course not. As a matter of fact, things do change, most certainly. The development of capitalism, the worsening of competition and class struggle are factors that bring constant changes. This includes changes within the proletariat, namely in its composition. However, these changes do not modify its relationship to the ruling class. On the contrary, it is the very nature of this relationship that explains these ongoing changes.
It is true that there is less and less job security. This goes for all the imperialist countries. The proletarian is no longer a “permanent slave” to a given capitalist for the rest of his life. Another reality is that unemployment is persistent and that joblessness is on the rise. Capitalists turn this to their advantage by instituting workfare and forced labour. This alone proves the existence of the proletariat. However, private and government agencies frequently hire temporary workers. These workers have no rights. The only reason they are hired is to satisfy the needs of the capitalists. In all of the capitalist countries, the bourgeoisie is always seeking to exploit at the lowest possible wage.
If one casts a look beyond the borders of their “country,” it is more and more obvious that the proletariat is the rising class and that there is a consolidation of the phenomenon of two great classes directly facing each other, just as Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto. In the past 10 or 20 years, in the oppressed countries, millions upon millions of poor peasants, ruined by the exploitation they were subjected to, leave the countryside to immigrate in the cities. They swelled the ranks of the overexploited proletariat, which is to be mainly found in the maquiladoras—these notorious “free-trade zones” that offer capitalists from abroad access to a local workforce who won’t benefit from any social protection. Many have flocked to the imperialist “mother countries.” This exodus has contributed to and will continue to contribute to changing the quantitative and qualitative nature of the proletariat in these countries and make it stronger.
In Canada, even though statistics do not allow us to define it with accuracy, the proletariat represents 65% of the population. This figure comprises workers; employees who carry out orders; the unemployed, with or without wages; most Natives; old age pensioners; unpaid spouses of workers or employees.
Far from being a class on the decline or having “disappeared,” the proletariat constitutes the most numerous class in this country. Not only is it the leading force, but it is also the main force of the revolution.
However, this class is not homogenous. It embodies several contradictions. Its revolutionary experience is still quite limited. Even though it has waged heroic struggles in the past such as the Winnipeg Strike in 1919, the foundation of the Communist Party in 1921 (under the direct influence of its immigrant component), the movement of the unemployed in the Thirties, etc., the proletariat remains politically, ideologically and organizationally dominated by the bourgeoisie.
The current trade-union movement, notably—which remains the most important form of organization of the proletariat—does not represent its fundamental interests. It is unable to articulate anything more than a dull class collaborationist orientation. As a matter of fact, these trade unions have become a tool in the hands of capitalists to control and subdue the working class. It is not only a matter of changing the union’s orientation that would change its nature. Its orientation does reflect its class character. The non-proletarian component in the trade unions counts for more than 40% of the membership.
To this strata of salaried petit bourgeois are to be added workers in the top layers of the proletariat. They lead the trade union movement and have an upper hand on it. By consolidating their presence and clinging to the helm of the trade unions, they have strongly contributed to integrating their organizations to the capitalist system and the bourgeois state apparatus with the massive retirement funds, investment funds and risk capital at their disposal.
For this reason, Canada has become a relatively powerful imperialist country (even though it is not as powerful as the USA). The Canadian bourgeoisie, with the super profits it extorts from poorer countries, has been able to corrupt and win over broad sectors of the proletariat and the petty bourgeoisie. Even though the situation of these workers is insecure (being linked as they are to the highly competitive and shifting character of imperialism) they can eventually join the revolutionary camp, but for now they have a definite interest in defending the capitalist system.
The trade-union movement as a whole, the bourgeois political parties who claim to speak on behalf of the workers and of the oppressed masses (the English Canadian NDP, the Québec Solidaire Party in Québec), the reformist and revisionist Left that claim it can improve the lives of the workers without abolishing capitalism, represent, each in their own way, the interests of the workers aristocracy and the petty bourgeoisie in whom they take root.
Because it represents the fundamental interests of the working class, the revolutionary communist party takes into account this social fracture existing within the proletariat, the gap between the privileged workers and the poorest strata for whom exploitation is the rule. We do not seek to hide this reality or to make believe it does not exist. We do not wish to build the unity of the whole working class independently of this fracture; this would lead to the reinforcement of the most privileged ones and the betrayal of the interests of the most exploited.
In our opinion, the Third International led by Lenin dealt appropriately with this contradiction within the proletariat. With specific reference to the “increasing army of unemployed,” the Theses On Tactics adopted in 1921 by its Third Congress stated: “By actively defending this layer of the working class, by supporting the most oppressed section of the proletariat, the Communist Parties are not championing one layer of the workers at the expense of others, but are furthering the interests of the working class as a whole. This the counter-revolutionary leaders have failed to do, preferring to advance the temporary interests of the labour aristocracy. The more unemployed or short-term workers there are, the more important it is that their interests become the interests of the working class as a whole, and the more important it is that they are not subordinated to the interests of the labour aristocracy. Those who promote the interests of the labour aristocracy, either counterpoising or simply ignoring the interests of the unemployed, destroy the unity of the working classes and are pursuing a policy that has counter-revolutionary consequences. The Communist Party, as the representative of the interests of the working class as a whole, cannot merely recognize these common interests verbally and argue for them in its propaganda. It can only effectively represent these interests if it disregards the opposition of the labour aristocracy and, when opportunities arise, leads the most oppressed and downtrodden workers into action.” We deem that today, where unemployment is persistent, job insecurity and slave labour are prevailing over good working conditions, this tactic is even more accurate.
The goal of the revolutionary communists is to bring the exploited proletariat to act as an autonomous and distinct class apart from the bourgeoisie, in order to free themselves. They must learn to make their very own class interests prevail and assume leadership of its own struggle so it can overthrow the bourgeoisie and be at the helm of a new socialist society in order to push it forward towards communism.