The Great Proletarian Mystery
by Jack Common

Printed in the Adelphi, January 1934

Proletariat began as an unpleasant word which reminded one half of society of its social sins, and the other of its social servitude. It has now become like one of those bothersome theological phrases: it means different things in every mouth that uses it, and wherever two citizens meet to baffle one another this word jigs in and out of the argument carrying confusion into every contention. It is a boss word, sure enough, being itself masterless. Yet, after all, socialism bred it and we ought to insist on a little loyalty to the old stable. Nowadays when every fascist equips himself for a class-war foray with a bundle of borrowings from socialist literature, we ought to stick to our hosses.

The word derived from a necessity in Marxís logic. According to that worthy, a society which had its dynamic in the unrestricted lust for possession must sooner or later produce a class of persons who were completely dispossessed. This logical category of the dispossessed, he called the proletariat. The term was at once appropriated to the working-class, who were sufficiently near complete dispossession, God knows. Now, it might be used even more accurately of the unemployed. Wherever it is used, however, it must mean that class which is excluded from all the major benefits of the social system under which it lives. In socialist theory it is this class, the excluded, the dispossessed, which is the lever of change, the carrier of destiny, the doom of present things. Naturally, we are all of us most unwilling to believe it.

The difficulty is about equal whether you try to persuade a dispossessed man to overcome his feeling of inferiority and choose himself for one of destinyís agents, or whether you try to overcome the middle-class manís snobbery and get him to throw in his lot with a class that has never achieved anything except toil. They have not faith, neither of them. Here is this paradox: progress, all the fine things civilisation has been promising itself and hasnít got yet, must come from the weak, the ignorant, the powerless. Can you believe it? It is enough to make a man go fascist to think about it. Only, of course, you then get impaled on an equally different paradox: that you can make a revolution without turning the wheel, that you can keep the profits while abandoning the business. Let us stick to our own paradox.

Most of the misunderstanding about the role of the proletariat is due to the class-war obsession. Because the class-war is a fundamental fact of capitalism, socialists are apt to let their ideology be dominated by it. They are afraid, naturally, that unless they continually demonstrate the reality of class-injustice they will be unable to awaken the people to the necessity for the abolition of classes. Too often the effect is to produce cynicism. When men are shown universal injustice they lose their old faith but do not necessarily get a new one. They agree that there is everywhere the tyranny of classes, but they do not see classlessness. Instead they hear of a possible great working class victory. It seems to them pretty much the same old story, a new class but the same injustice. And if they are middle-class they think they might as well stand by their class even if they no longer believe in it. The ranks of fascism are full of dead men, of men who have no belief and are therefore in times of urgency at the mercy of any traditional voice which orders their lives for them. For others, the demonstration of the rottenness of present society leaves only an uncertain knowledge that somehow or other new orders of society do appear. You never know, perhaps credit reform might do it, perhaps science. That is not enough.

End of The Great Proletarian Mystery by Jack Common