The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay: The Proletariat

“A great truth wants to be criticized, not idolized”. Friedrich Nietzsche

Max Horkheimer, a scholar of the Frankfurt School, agreed with this statement, according to Martin Jay, author of The Dialectical Imagination. It sums up an important aspect of Critical Theory: it says that when we are faced with some absolute statement about the nature of anything, we need to question it, to examine it, and to test its continued truth in our time and place. Everything is to be questioned.

In Chapter 2, one of the issues that Jay takes up is the role of the proletariat in bringing about social change. Marx argued that the proletariat would lead the revolution against capitalism and bring about common ownership of the means of production. Here’s Wikipedia, with brief descriptions of important terms:

According to Marxist perspective, class conflict within capitalism arises due to intensifying contradictions between the highly productive mechanized and socialized production performed by the proletariat, and the private ownership and appropriation of the surplus product (profit) by a small minority of the population who are private owners called the bourgeoisie. As the contradiction becomes apparent to the proletariat through the alienation of labor, social unrest between the two antagonistic classes will intensify, until it culminates in social revolution. The eventual long-term outcome of this revolution would be the establishment of socialism – a socioeconomic system based on social ownership of the means of production, distribution based on one’s contribution, and production organized directly for use. As the productive forces and technology continued to advance, Marx hypothesized that socialism would eventually give way to a communist stage of social development, which would be a classless, stateless, humane society erected on common ownership and the principle of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”.

The proletariat is the group of workers who own no property and only live by selling their labor; for more see this Wikipedia entry.

It became obvious quickly that the proletariat wasn’t going to lead the way. May writes:

In fact, Horkheimer argued, Nietzsche had been perceptive in refusing to romanticize the working classes, who were even in his time beginning to be diverted from their revolutionary role by the developing mass culture. P. 50.

May says that by the 1930s they saw signs that the proletariat was becoming integrated into society, especially in the US, which they saw first hand after emigrating. P. 41.

As it became obvious that the proletariat was not going to lead the revolution, the Frankfurt School turned to a study of the two elements they thought were responsible for this unexpected outcome: mass culture and the structure and growth of authority, the fields where their work is still viable. Their focus in those studies was to search for the means to bring about social change.

In retrospect, it’s true the working class was brought into mainstream society, as part of a true middle class through home ownership and pensions, and many gained entry to the upper middle class through greatly expanded admission to higher education. That continued for several decades.

If the proletariat was largely integrated into society, it is being reconstituted now. After the Great Crash, 9.3 million people lost their main source of wealth, their homes, in large part because the Obama Administration and the Congress helped the rich, not the victims of fraud. This study by the CBO, based on the Fed’s 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances, gives the gory details. The losses among the young, those just starting out in work, are awful, and most likely will never be recouped. A big part of that problem is the massive debt that generally funds higher education for those not born into the upper middle class.

These economic changes are producing political backlash. Somehow, the elites have persuaded most people that they were not responsible: that this was not a problem with the system, but with the individual failings of the vast number of losers who deserved to lose. Widespread acceptance of that lie is indeed a testament to the power of culture and authority in this country and around the capitalist world. Critical Theory is a tool for responding to that lie.

5 replies
  1. lefty665 says:

    The proletariat, aka “Basket of Deplorables” did lead the revolution against elitist neolib Dems with their votes against Hillary. Many Dems still cannot believe it and are still having tantrums and still blaming the Ruskies.  The Dems abandoned the proletariat as part of the Party reforms of 1972, but it has taken more than 40 years of stagnation, job and benefits losses to translate into revolution at the ballot box.

    Dem elites attempts to sell the idea that this is a meritocracy, and that failure means an individual is not meritorious are increasingly futile. The proletariat knows it has been screwed and screwed again with profits going to the top and trade deals like NAFTA and MFN status for China sending their jobs overseas.

    It will be interesting to see how your exposition of Critical Theory plays out. At this point the proletariat has tried the ballot box. If that does not work, as seems likely, torches and pitchforks may be next. The essence of critical, but not strong on theory.




    • TheOfficialHashtagResistanceSuperPAC says:

      The idea that something’s got to give seem rather prescient.  Note how the elite use this “domestic crisis” to slander the leader of the one political avenue out of this mess. And listen to Barton use the press conference as an excuse to whine about people being “obnoxious” at town halls.

      What do you think? Will the elite give in to proletariat populism or will they use this as an excuse to crackdown?


      I agree with albrt below.  Everyone get to know your neighbors.  Best thing you can do is make social connections to the people around you.

  2. Peacerme says:

    Totally agree with above post. My husband is a union electrician. Just recently the national ibew created a labor position called, cw , short for construction worker. In the old says apprentices worked as cw’s. The CW gets paid minimum wage, gets no benefits. The unions know that this is a way to undermine the pay scale. It came down from the international. Furthermore, Hillary voted with the banks. Then Bill Clinton got behind a banking venture with small business loans for starter businesses in other countries. Funny thing, they were predatory loans. I had the same discussion with my brother who works for a bank. He hated Bernie, loved Hillary. Frank Dodd was too restrictive too costly, he said. The American people were abandoned by Clinton. No one was listening to the true struggle of lower middle income America. Still feels as if no one really understand that the banks behaviors, lying, changing fees, illegal fees, forced foreclosure at 2 months late, refusing to communicate were a much bigger obstacle to the loans getting paid than people not having money to make their loans. One hardship added thousands to your loan like a loan shark. No, the Dems have been unwilling to address the realities of life in America.

  3. albrt says:

    The chance of the proletariat (or anyone else) steering the United States in a better direction is literally zero. Not 1%, not .01%, not any percent. Literally zero. The energy economy, the Wall Street financialization of everything else, and the two-party suicide pact will not allow for any positive outcome on a national level.

    I am in my 50’s and I have a reasonable chance of living until 70 with a decent quality of life even though everything will continue to degrade. I am not counting on any medicaid-financed nursing homes to keep me alive after that. For anybody 40 or younger, the only possibility of a decent, meaningful life is to help each other on a local level. Do not waste your time on the “resistance” or any other national propaganda campaign. Get to know your neighbors. I hope for your sake a constitutional convention will dissolve the union sooner rather than later.

  4. lefty665 says:

    I am not as pessimistic as you are albrt, but I sure don’t rule out that possibility. The Repubs are hopeless and the Dems are not showing many signs of getting their heads out of their butts.

    Remember the Wobblies “Workers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains”.  Take power from the fat cat elites and give it back to America’s 90 percent. Neolib Dem elites, lead, follow or get out of the way.

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