One glaring problem that faced the Bolsheviks upon seizing power was the absence of their vaunted class subject. The party had led a successful revolution in the name of the industrial worker, but once the dust settled after the civil war, reality exposed the proclaimed “dictatorship of the proletariat” to be little more than an empty slogan for propagandists. The proletariat was a historico-philosophical no-show. Its truancy had a number of reasons, both factual and theoretical. First, while proletarians had always been something of a rarity in the largely agrarian economy of imperial Russia, the industrial working class became even scarcer after the civil war had decimated the manufacturing capacity of Russia and ruralized the country once again. When the Bolsheviks finally took control, Russia's industrial output had fallen to thirty percent of prewar levels. Historians have consequently described the Bolsheviks as a “superstructure in need of a base”2 and a “vanguard of a nonexistent class.”3 Add to this, second, the fact that the physiognomy of the working class was changing in the 1920s as the forces of production shifted away from the methods of heavy manufacture typical of the second industrial revolution toward newer, automated technologies that relied less on physical exertion than on the scientific knowledge of engineers and managers. At least until Stalin's spectacular revival of older, “classical” forms of industry at the end of the decade—a return that seemed to be motivated less by economic exigency than by retrograde iconography—blast furnaces and factory workbenches were being replaced by telematic machinery and bureaucratic control centers. Third, according to revolutionary theory, in the phase of the transition to communism the proletariat was not even a class, strictly speaking, but the social force that abolishes class identity as such in order to establish for the first time in world history the conditions for a truly universal subject.4 The revolutionary class is, necessarily, the last class. Party philosophers could provide no substantialist definition of this “free dynamei (power, force),” as Marx called the proletariat, since this non-class had no concrete features of its own but was instead understood as an energy that dissolved the existing socioeconomic order.5 Paradoxically, then, the very success of the revolution “causes the concept of the proletariat to ‘disappear.’”6

This content is only available as a PDF.
You do not currently have access to this content.