The Proletariat (The Working Class). By Karl Kautsky

Continued from November issue

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



It is not only by the extension of industry on a large scale that the capitalist mode of production makes the proletarian conditions general. It is also caused by the position of the wage-workers in industries on a large scale becoming the standard for the position of the wage-workers in other spheres of activity. And their conditions of work and life are revolutionised by the large-scale industries.

The advantages which these workers may perhaps have possessed over those employed in capitalist industries are now, by the influence of the latter, changed into so many disadvantages. Where, for instance, to-day the worker of a handicraft still boards and lodges with his master, the aforesaid change results in this handicraft worker being worse fed and housed than the wage-worker who has a household of his own. The long apprenticeship was, in times gone by, a means for preventing a glut of workers in handicraft; to-day the system of apprenticeship is the most effective means of producing a glut of cheap workers in handicraft and of depriving the adult workers of their livelihood.

Here also, as in other directions, things that under the domination of petty enterprise were reasonable and a boon, have become nonsensical and a hindrance owing to the capitalist mode of production.

The endeavour of guild-masters to revive the old guild system may in the main be ascribed to the desire to create, by the revival of the old forms, new means for the purpose of exploiting their workmen. They seek to save themselves from the bog by throwing down and stepping on proletarian bodies.

And these gentlemen grow indignant when the working class fails to become enthusiastic over this method of delaying somewhat the inevitable extinction of petty enterpise.

Commercial trading undergoes a similar development to handicraft. The large enterprise squeezes out of existence the petty enterprise, even in the sphere of petty trading.

The small commercial undertakings need not, therefore, diminish ia number. Petty trading becomes the last refuge of those who have gone bankrupt among the small producers.

In the German empire there were employed per thousand workers in each particular group :—

(including Licensed Victuallers.)

1882 1895 1882 1895
With 1 – 8 employees 551 399 757 697
With 6 – 50 employees 186 238 202 243
Over 50 employees 263 363 41 60

From this table it will be gathered that in commercial and licensed establishments petty enterprise predominates far more than in industry and declines less rapidly—speaking relatively. Speaking absolutely, petty enterprise is on the increase in commerce and the licensed victuallers’ trade. The number of employees in these callings increased from 1,013,981 in 1882 to 1,509,453 in 1895.

To restrict petty trading—for instance by restricting hawking or peddling—would mean nothing else but to sweep those who are getting their livelihood in that way completely off their feet and to force them into the ranks of the loafing class ; that is to say, to compel them to become beggars, vagabonds, or jailbirds—which would indeed be typical social reform.

The influence of the development of industry on a large scale, as far as petty trading is concerned, does not find expression in a decrease in the number of small trading concerns, but in their actual dwindling away. The existence of petty traders on their own account becomes continually more insecure and more like that of proletarians. Besides, there is a steady increase in the number of those employed in large concerns, who become real proletarians, and have no prospect of ever going into business on their own account; child- and woman-labour continues to extend, the latter accompanied by increased prostitution. Overwork, unemployment, and the cutting down of wages also enter this sphere of employment. The position of the commercial employee is approaching that of the industrial proletarian. The former can be distinguished from the latter almost in only one way, namely, by his keeping up the appearance, at a great sacrifice, of a higher social position, while the industrial proletarian knows nothing of practising such deception.

And yet another category of proletarians begins to develop: the educated proletariat. To be educated has, in our present mode of production, become quite a separate business. The scope of knowledge has grown immensely and is widening from day to day. And capitalist society as well as the capitalist state, require more and more men of science and art for the conduct of their affairs, for the subjection of the forces of nature, be it for the purpose of production or destruction, or for the luxurious utilisation of their increasing affluence. But not only the peasant, the handicraftsman or proletarian, but even the merchant, the manufacturer, the banker, the stock-exchange gambler and the large land-owner have no time to devote to art or science. Their time is fully taken up by their business and amusements. In present society it is not, as under former systems of society, the exploiters themselves, or at least a section of them, who foster art and science. They leave that occupation to a separate class, whom they pay for their services. Education becomes a commodity.

But until several decades ago it was still a rare commodity. There were but few schools, and study involved considerable expense. The peasants were mostly not in a position to be able to raise the means for sending their sons to the higher schools. Handicraft and commerce on the other hand were still in a prosperous condition ; hence, whosoever was engaged in these callings remained in them; only the fact of being specially gifted or in exceptional circumstances induced the son of the handicraftsman or merchant to take up the study of art or science. While the demand for officials, technical experts, medical men, teachers, artists, etc., increased, the supply was almost entirely restricted to the progeny from such circles.

The commodity education commanded therefore a high price. Its possession brought at least a comfortable living to those who turned it to practical account, like lawyers, officials, medical men, professors, etc.,—often fame and honour also. The artist, the poet, the philosopher were the companions of kings. The intellectual aristocrat considered himself superior to the aristocrat by birth or money. His only concern was the development of his intellectual gifts. Consequently the educated could be idealists, and often were such. They stood above the other classes and their material aspirations and antagonisms. Education meant power, happiness, and amiableness; therefore the conclusion lay near, that, in order to make all men happy and amiable, to surmount all class antagonism and to abolish poverty and degradation, nothing more was required than the diffusion of education.

Since then the spreading of higher school education—and here it is only a question of higher education—has made gigantic strides. The number of educational establishments has immensely increased. The number of scholars has grown to a still greater extent. Petty enterprise in commerce and industry no longer offers chances of prosperity. The petty bourgeois is unable to save his children from drifting into the ranks of the proletariat unless he can manage to give them a university education, providing, of course, it is possible for him to rake together sufficient means for this end. And he must think of providing not only for his sons but also for his daughters; for the progress in the division of labour gradually transforms, as already mentioned, household work into separate occupations, thus reducing more and more the work in the home, so that a marriage in which the wife is only the housekeeper, and not at least partly bread-winner, becomes increasingly a luxury. At the same time, however, the petty bourgeoisie falls into greater poverty, as we have seen, so that it loses the ability of affording a luxury. The number of celibates increases, as does the number of families in which wife and daughter have to work to augment the income of the family. Thus female labour increases not only in the direction of the petty and large industry, and of petty trading, but also in the sphere of officialdom in Government and private employment, as, for instance, in the post and telegraph offices, railways, banks, art and science. However loud the protest on the grounds of prejudice or personal interest may be, female labour enters increasingly into the various spheres of intellectual activity. It is not conceit, neither insolence nor uppishness, but the compulsion due to economic development, which forces women to seek occupation in that particular sphere as elsewhere. While the men in some intellectual occupations, in which craft organisation still exists, have been successful in keeping out female competition, the women have been able to gain admission to callings unhampered by craft organisation, as, for instance, journalism, painting, and music.

A consequence of this entire development is, that the number of the educated persons has increased tremendously in comparison with the past; but the favourable consequences which the idealists expected to be derived from a greater diffusion of education, have not been realised. So long as education remains a commodity, the diffusion of education means an increased supply of the commodity, hence a lowering of its prices and consequently a worse position for the owner of the commodity The number of the educated has grown to an extent that more than satisfies the requirements of the capitalists and of the capitalist state. The labour market of the educated workers is to-day as overcrowded as that of the manual workers. And also the intellectual workers have already their Reserve Army—unemployment is as much known in their ranks as in those of the industrial workers. Those who wish to obtain an appointment under Government have to wait years, often more than a decade, until they are able to get one of the badly paid minor posts. With the others over-work is followed as much by unemployment and vice-versa as with the hand-workers, and the forcing down of wages is practised upon them as upon the latter.

The class position of the educated workers grows perceptibly worse ; if before one spoke of the aristocracy of intellect, one now speaks of the proletariat of intelligence; and very soon these latter proletarians will distinguish themselves from the other wage-workers by only one thing—their conceit. The majority of them will still think they are something better than the wage-workers ; they still consider themselves to belong to the bourgeoisie, but in a similar way as servants regard themselves as belonging to the family of their masters. They have ceased to be the intellectual leaders of the bourgeoisie and have become their hired prize fighters. The ambition to succeed develops among them; not the cultivation, but the turning to account, of their intellectual gifts now becomes their first consideration, and the prostitution of their being is the principal means of advancement. Like the petty traders, they, too, are deceived by a few big prizes in the lottery of their life; they overlook the numerous blanks which are facing them and bargain away body and soul for the mere prospect of drawing such a big prize. The selling of their own convictions and a marriage for money have become in the estimation of the majority of our “educated,” two self-understood as well as indispensable means for “making a fortune.” And that is what the capitalist production has made of its explorers, thinkers and dreamers.

(To be continued)

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