Until the late 1950s, with decreasing conviction, the official Communist Parties in western Europe promoted as a dogma the idea that working-class living-standards were falling because an iron law of capitalism made it so, and of course were worse than workers’ living standards in the USSR.
CP writers were commissioned to select and shape statistics to “prove” that claim. In France, critical Marxists denounced this attitude as “misérabilisme”.
Workers whose households had for the first time fridges, washing machines, TVs, central heating could not fail to conclude that the trade-union and political activists who told them everything was getting worse were exaggerating and hyping, so other things they said should be taken with a pinch of salt too.
And encouraging workers to wallow in seeing themselves as victims is not revolutionary. Experienced organisers know that the people in the workplace who complain most are usually not the best trade-unionists. They are too taken up with complaining about their workmates, and with self-pity.
Hans Rosling’s Factfulness may appear at first to be a book whitewashing capitalism. Rosling was (he died in 2017) a reformist mixed-economy guy. But his facts are important.
He shows soberly that until 1966 over 50% of humanity lived in absolute poverty. By 2017 that was down to 9%.
Absolute poverty means having to walk every day to get (unsafe) water and gather wood for cooking; eating much the same thing every day; having little or no access to health care and education.
Rosling distinguishes four broad levels of living standards in the world, with two between absolute poverty and “level 4”, which is an individual on £9,000 a year or more in Britain.
The combination of capital’s drive to expansion, and the work of labour movements across the world, has brought the majority to the point where they have some access to education, health care, and reading. At the same time capital drives the environment towards disaster, sharpens inequalities, and promotes insecurity and destructive competition.
Capitalism generates the need for socialism, but also the productive and human basis for it.
In some of Marx’s earliest writings, the working class appears as the revolutionary agency only via philosophical construction, as the absolute negation of existing society. Even then Marx wrote against misérabilisme: “The social principles of Christianity preach cowardice, self-contempt, abasement, submissiveness and humbleness, in short, all the qualities of the rabble, and the proletariat, which will not permit itself to be treated as rabble, needs its courage, its self-confidence, its pride and its sense of independence even more than its bread”.
We should also learn from Marx’s later writings, in which he analyses how capital, while it exploits workers, also has to educate and train them, assemble them in large groups, increase their “cultural” needs (if only to sell stuff to them), concede that they are not entirely property-less but own their labour-power. Labour movements can expand and have expanded what Marx calls “the civilising moment of capital”.
“The worker’s participation in the higher, even cultural satisfactions, the agitation for his own interests, newspaper subscriptions, attending lectures, educating his children, developing his taste etc., [is his] share of civilisation which distinguishes him from the slave...”