The Proletariat (The Working Class). By Karl Kautsky

Specially translated for The Socialist Party of Great Britain and approved by the Author.


The introduction of the labour of women and children into industry is, as we have seen, one of the most powerful means for forcing down wages.

But at times other means have an equally powerful effect: the importation of workers from localities backward in economic development, where the population have but few wants, but possess labour-power that has not yet fallen under the ban of industrial enterprise. The development of large industrial enterprise, especially of machinery, not only makes it possible to use unskilled in place of skilled workers, but also affords the opportunity of obtaining them cheaply and quickly. Development of the methods of transit proceeds hand in hand with the development of production ; transit on a large scale develops side by side with production on a large scale, transit not only of commodities but of persons. Steamships and railways, these highly praised bearers of culture, not only carry rifles, whisky, and syphilis to the Barbarians, but they also bring the Barbarians to us and with them their barbarism. The migration of agricultural labourers into the towns is assisted by this development; and from ever greater distances swarm the persevering masses, who have but few needs and little power of resistance. Slavs, Swedes, and Italians go to Germany and drag down wages; Germans, Belgians, and Italians go to France; Slavs, Germans, Italians, Irishmen and Swedes to England and the United States; Chinamen to America and Australia, and perhaps in the not too distant future they will to Europe. On German ships Chinamen and Negroes are already taking the places of white workers.

These foreign workers are, partly, expropriated small peasants and petty bourgeois, who have been ruined and driven from hearth and home by the capitalist mode of production. Gazing at the numberless crowds of imigrants we may well ask the question whether it is Socialism that thus makes them homeless and is responsible for men and women leaving their native land.

By expropriating small peasants and petty bourgeois, by importing crowds of workers from distant countries, by the development of woman- and child-labour, by shortening the term of apprenticeship (which becomes merely a period of initiation) the capitalist mode of production effects an enormous increase in the number of workers at its disposal. Hand in hand with this increase proceeds the ever growing productivity of human labour in consequence of the uninterrupted progress in technical improvements and inventions. And not alone this, but capitalist exploitation increases also the power of utilising the labour-power of the individual to the utmost degree, partly through extending the hours of labour, but also by speeding up the workers, especially in those cases where the organisation of the workers or legislation prevents the former course being pursued.

And at the same time machinery has the effect of reducing the amount of manual labour required. Every machine displaces labour ; if that were not so there would be nothing gained in having the machine. In every industry the change from manual labour to production by machinery causes the greatest suffering among the manual workers affected, who, whether they be handicraftsmen or factory workers, become redundant, and are turned into the street. It was this effect of the machine which the workers felt first of all. The numerous instances of revolt in the first decades of the nineteenth century showed the great suffering and despair which were caused by the introduction of machinery. The introduction of machinery, and every subsequent improvement thereof, is always detrimental to the interests of certain sections of the workers : sometimes, of course, other sections may benefit—as, for instance, those employed in the engineering trade. But this knowledge will hardly be a consolation to the displaced workers faced with starvation.

The effect of the introduction of every new machine is that as much as before is produced with fewer workers, or more than before with the same number of workers. If, therefore, the number of workers employed in one country is not to diminish, in consequence of the growing development of machinery, then the market must be extended in the same proportion in which the productivity of labour increases. As, however, economic development causes at the same time the quantity of labour performed by the worker to grow and the available labour-power to increase rapidly—and much more rapidly than the population—it is necessary, if unemployment is to be avoided, that the market be extended much more rapidly than in a ratio that would merely keep pace with the growing productivity of the workers owing to the introduction of machinery.

Such a rapid expansion of the market has scarcely ever taken place under the domination of capitalist industry on a large scale, certainly never for any considerable period in a large field of capitalist industry. Hence, unemployment is a permanent feature of capitalist industry on a large scale, the one being inseparable from the other. Even at brisk periods, when the market experiences important extension and trade is flourishing, industry has not room for all the unemployed. In periods of slackness, when trade is dull, their number grows immensely. They, together with the workers of the superfluous petty undertakings, form a whole army—the Industrial Reserve Army, as Marx called it—an army of labourers always at the disposal of capital, from which the latter is always able to draw its reserves as soon as the industrial struggle shows signs of becoming animated.

The reserve army is invaluable to the capitalist. It serves him as an important weapon to keep in check the army of the employed and to make them more submissive. Since the overwork of some causes the unemployment of others, the unemployment of these latter becomes the means for sustaining and intensifying the overwork of the former. And yet in face of this fact it is asserted that we are living in the best of all possible worlds!

While the expansion of the industrial reserve army fluctuates with the fluctuations of commercial life, its general tendency is to move in an upward direction; for the technical revolution proceeds ever more rapidly, extending continually to wider spheres, but the expansion of the market on tbe contrary becomes ever more limited. We shall have occasion to refer to this point again in another connection. It suffices here to have drawn attention to it.

But what does unemployment mean ? It not only means want and misery for its victims, not only intensified slavery and exploitation for those in employment, but it means also insecurity of existence for the entire working class.

Whatever the fate of those exploited under former systems of exploitation may have been, they were certain of one thing—security of livelihood. The sustenance of the slave or the serf was assured at least so long as the existence of his master was secure. Only the ruin of his master could deprive him of his security of livelihood.

The misery or want that under any former mode of production was at times experienced by the population was not the consequence of production, but a disturbance of production through bad harvests, cattle plague, floods, invasion by hostile armies, etc.

The existence of the exploiter is not bound up with that of the exploited. The worker and his wife and children can at any moment be turned into the street, with starvation staring them in the face, without causing the slightest change in the position of the exploiter who has fattened on him.

And the misery of unemployment is to-day rarely the consequence of disturbances in production through external, overpowering influences, it is now in fact the natural consequence of production itself. Disturbances in production under present conditions often increase the opportunities for work instead of lessening them: one need only call to mind the consequences of the war in 1870 to the economic life of Germany and France during the immediately succeeding years.

Under the domination of petty enterprise the income of the worker producing on his own account grew larger the more industrious he proved to be. Laziness ruined him and caused his unemployment. To-day the longer the workers work the more unemployment increases. The worker causes his unemployment by his own work. Like many another maxim from the world of petty enterprise, the one that the worker’s good fortune depends upon his being industrious has been changed to its opposite by the large capitalist enterprise. And another maxim still mouthed to-day by many a Philistine, presumably for the benefit of the worker, has become an untruth, namely, that anyone willing to work can find work.

Just as little as a small property is a sure protection against want and misery, so is possession of labour-power. While the ghost of bankruptcy is continually hovering over the peasant owner and the handicraftsman, the ghost of unemployment haunts the wage-worker all his life. This continual insecurity is, of all the evils of the present mode of production, the most tormenting, and also the most atrocious, the evil that stirs up the feeling of the worker unspeakably and scatters completely to the winds all his conservative notions. This eternal insecurity of his own position undermines his belief in the security of the existing state of things and extinguishes his interest in its retention. And he who continually dreads the existing state of things finally loses all fear for new conditions.

The capitalist mode of production brings in its train overwork, unemployment, and dissolution of the family for the working-class, and it has at the same time the effect of forcing proletarian conditions upon further sections of Society, thus visibly making these conditions the general conditions of the great mass of the population.

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