How can the working class overthrow capitalism?


“History of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (Marx and Engels,1848). Karl Marx argues that, in a capitalist society, the main axis of conflict is between bourgeoisie and proletariat. He had predicted that this conflict will eventually lead to an inevitable revolution which enables the working class to have the dominant power in the society. Similarly, Marx also foreboded that the particular revolution would occur first in the advanced capitalist societies. Interestingly, what happened is that it occurred in the economically backward area, Russia. Similarly, the dominancy of capitalist system, on global scale, increased with an exponential rate and the dream of ‘proletariat’s dictatorship’ remained as a dream. In order to explain the complexity of the given phenomenon, another Marxist intellectual, Antonio Gramsci, came up with his innovative concept of hegemony and role of intellectuals (broader context). This article attempts to explain the idea of proletariat’s empowerment within the context of Communist Manifesto and Gramsci’s reflections of intellectuals. It must be clear that both of the texts, Communist Manifesto and Gramsci’s explanation, reflect particular historical epochs. The former shows socio-political issues of mid nineteenth century, especially that of western world, while the later specifically concerns with Italy in the first quarter of twentieth century.

According to Marx and Engels, “bourgeoisie means the class of modern capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage-labors. By proletariat, the class of modern wage labors who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labor power in order to live” (Marx and Engels,1848). Using method of dialectic materialism, they argue that bourgeoisie and proletariat have contradictory interests, thus these two classes are contradictory aspects of single totality. This means capitalism is contradictory with an essentially dynamic social form, and that is essentially destined to perish (Marx and Engels, 1848). The point of negation (end of capitalism) is not the final destination rather, at the same time, it will give birth to a new a social form with having proletariat as a ruling class. This social transformation would be the unique revolution of its kind because it would be the first movement for the interest of majority, unlike the previous movements of minorities (Marx and Engels, 1848). In other word, the success of working class is something part of the historical outcome of the contradictions of capitalism.

While describing the contradictions of capitalism, Marx and Engels explain that the whole system has been shaped in such a manner that it encourages the paupers to overthrow capitalism that keep them destitute.  Proletariats are the slaves of bourgeoisies. Since the existence of proletariat in itself is antithesis of ruling class, “its struggle first carried on by individual labors, then by the workpeople of a factory, then by the operatives of one trade, in one locality, against the individual bourgeois who directly exploit them. They direct their attack not against the bourgeois conditions of production, but against the instrument of production themselves” (Marx and Engels, 1848). In this way, the working class destroys all the opposing factors that compete with their labors. Amid such situation of tension, the number of proletariats increases with the addition of working people including trade people, shopkeepers, peasants, handicraftsman etc. This increment doesn’t stop because, under capitalist system, these men are unable to fulfill their basic necessities and the industrial method of production is not going to favor their specialized skills.

The authors further discuss the role of multiple factors that make the given conflict more intense, but in the favor of working class. Growing competition among the bourgeoisies, the indispensable commercial crisis and the technological advancements etc. provide suitable platform for the proletariat to strengthen its struggle of interest. For instance, the alienating environment of work place compels all the workers to form combination (trades’ unions).These unions take best advantage of improved means of communication, which is again the product of modern industry (Marx and Engels, 1848). As every class struggle is a political struggle, proletariats setup political institutions that help them to accelerate the movement toward the finishing point.  On the other hand, bourgeoisies confront dual opposition: bourgeois group of opposite interest and the mighty proletariats. Amidst such situation of paradoxical confusion, bourgeoisies seek the support of working class to secure their interests.  In this particular point of war, the dominant class has no option but to prepare the opposite class against itself (Marx and Engels, 1848). Finally, some portion of bourgeois goes over to the proletariat because, given the demand of the circumstances, something is better than nothing, and this particular transformative point would be the turning point of history.  

On the other hand, Gramsci argues that the emergence of subaltern groups from their subordinate position requires to develop and to create their own organic intellectuals. Every ruling class has developed its own stratum of intellectuals who enable that class to achieve hegemony. “Organic intellectuals are thanking and organizing element of a fundamental social group. These are distinguished less by their profession, which may be any job characteristic of their class, than by their function in directing the ideas and aspirations of the class to which they organically belong” (Gramsci, 1947). While hegemony means to have dominant position in the society via the spontaneous consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental social group. In other word, it is indispensable to form an intellectual elite in order to achieve power or before any attempt to seize the power (Gramsci, 1947). The proletariat, as a part of its struggle for hegemony, would have to establish its own stratum of intellectuals who would give it an awareness of its ability to counter the existing hegemony, and through which a rising class achieves and maintains its directing role in the society.

How could the working class do what the bourgeoisie had managed to do or create the particular required intellectuals? Gramsci discusses that the process of creating an intellectual is long, difficult, full of contradictions, advances and retreats, dispersals and regrouping, in which the loyalty of the masses is deeply attached (Gramsci, 1947). He saw political party as an essential institution for the formation of the required group of intellectuals. According to Gramsci, political party functions as an educational association though which the members of a given social group are able to transcend the purely economic-corporate level. It is the channel through which new leaders are form (Gramsci, 1947). Gramsci further argues that political party as an institution provides an area that cover both civil, which is beyond the domain of coercive apparatus of the state, and political fields. Also, in this way, it connects organic intellectuals with masses and traditional intellectuals. Traditional intellectuals are formed over a long historical period of time and sometime fused with the ruling class i.e. religious leaders, philosophers etc. (Gramsci, 1947). Regarding the importance of traditional intellectuals, he says that it is “one of the most important characteristics of any group that is developing toward dominance in its struggle to assimilate and to conquer ‘ideologically’ the traditional intellectuals” (Gramsci, 1947).

Secondly, educational institutions: while discussing the importance of organic intellectuals and counter hegemony, Gramsci supports this idea that citizens of democratic order could be formed through educational process. Meanwhile, he criticizes the increasing number of vocational school (Gramsci, 1947) because it creates class division in the society and perpetuates hierarchy (narrowly vocational perspective). Education system should be design in such a way that it can play vital role to minimize class division and help in the formation of organic intellectual among the working class (Gramsci, 1947). The core point of his analysis on education is that there must be holistic system of education to equip the paupers with the weapon of intellectual power or giving non-rulers the possibility of becoming ruler.

In the post-modern world, an era of neo-liberalism, the purpose of education system is not more than that of producing wage labors or to fulfill the necessities of market-oriented capitalist system. Likewise, the ruling classes, around the globe, use political party as an effective tool of maintaining their hegemonies. Moreover, massive corporatization, uncontrolled globalization and, most importantly, the hegemonic Americanization show the immense power and influence of world’s bourgeois class. Given the context of such situation, it seems too difficult to answer the concerned question: how the proletariats overthrow capitalism, and form humanistic system?

Finally, to be more precise, Marx and Engel can be called as the first theorists who presented an alternative vision of society based on historical materialistic approach. The ground breaking work of these intellectuals became the voice of voiceless class of the society, proletariat. Although working class unable to reach the desired position, as a ruler, Marxism retains strong intellectual position against the main stream socio-political establishment. It could be said that Gramsci’s response to the given question (proletariat’s empowerment) introduced a novel vision that still requires practical initiatives like the formation of particular political institution, discussed above, and to develop his model of education system.

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