Absolute and Relative Deterioration of the Proletariat's Situation

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Absolute and Relative Deterioration of the Proletariat’s Situation


Absolute deterioration, a tendency of lowering in the living standard of the proletariat and of increase in the insecurity of its existence under capitalism; relative deterioration, a tendency toward decreasing the working class’s share in the national income and national wealth.

The absolute and relative deterioration of the proletariat’s situation is objectively conditioned by the general law of capitalist accumulation. This law, discovered by K. Marx, “posits an accumulation of poverty corresponding to the accumulation of capital” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 23, p. 660). In developing the thoughts of Marx, V. I. Lenin pointed out that it is necessary to observe two tendencies noted by Marx when analyzing the position of the working class in capitalist society: “Marx spoke of the growth of poverty, degradation, etc., indicating at the same time the counteracting tendency and the real social forces that alone could give rise to this tendency” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 4, p. 208). The development of the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat is due not only to the deterioration of its situation but also to the growth of its class consciousness and dignity. Each new achievement it wins in the struggle against monopoly capital stimulates it to new efforts. Thus the entire development of the proletariat’s struggle against exploitation is important and not only the struggle caused by the deterioration of its situation.

Marxist-Leninist theory distinguishes between “growth of poverty,” or “physical poverty,” and the growth of poverty “not in the physical but in the social sense ...” (ibid.). Physical poverty means undernourishment and even “outright starvation of the masses of the population,” poor living conditions, extremely limited means of satisfying basic needs for clothing and household goods, a high rate of infant mortality, and a deterioration in the general conditions of labor—that is, absolute impoverishment in the direct sense of the word, when the level of satisfaction of the most essential needs of proletarian families deteriorates. Physical poverty also exists under contemporary capitalism, although not everywhere.

Absolute and relative deterioration affects: (1) Those countries in the capitalist world which for a long time were exploited and subjected to robbery by colonizers and remain the object of exploitation by foreign monopolies. (Countries that have chosen a noncapitalist path of development are an exception.) (2) Particular regions of all, even the richest, capitalist countries, where workers live poorly and their situation is deteriorating. In the USA, for example, this is the case in the South and in other regions where there are branches of industry in a relatively stagnant condition. Approximately 20 percent of the population of the USA, according to official statistics, lives in poverty. (3) The significant part of the working population which lives in physical poverty regardless of geographical distribution. This group includes the unemployed, various categories of workers discriminated against in their wages, and the disabled. (4) The majority of workers even in the most developed capitalist countries during such periods as economic crises and wars and the years immediately following them.

Noting the concrete situation which arose in Germany in the years of intensifying economic crisis preceding World War I, Lenin wrote: “The worker is becoming impoverished absolutely —i. e., he is actually becoming poorer than before, he is compelled to live worse, to eat worse, to suffer hunger more, and to live in basements and garrets” (ibid. , vol. 22, pp. 221–22). This situation, although not applicable to all countries and all stages, is always significant in relation to particular parts of the capitalist world. The deterioration of the situation of toilers (of industrial workers first of all) occurs in a social sense, too. In other words, a discrepancy shows up between the growing needs of the working class and the level of its real consumption of goods {ibid., vol. 4, p. 208). As this discrepancy increases, the workers’ situation deteriorates absolutely. The social deterioration of the proletariat’s situation is demonstrated by a number of indexes, some of which do not always lend themselves to precise calculation—for example, insecurity about the next day and growing intensification of labor. But even here the economic factor plays the principal role. Massive and chronic unemployment, prevalent since the 1920’s, is one of the clearest manifestations of the absolute and relative deterioration of the proletariat’s situation.

In the past 10 to 15 years the workers’ consumption level of necessities in some capitalist countries has risen in comparison with both the period before World War II and the early postwar years. But the volume of needs as well as the number of articles actually consumed by the proletariat is not constant. As Marx pointed out, a historical and moral element enters into the value of labor. This means that the range of consumer goods necessary to maintain the normal reproduction of the labor force is not a constant. The fact that the actual consumption of goods by the working population increased less than its needs should also be taken into consideration. The amount of consumer goods needed for the reproduction of the labor force in the 1950’s and 1960’s increased. There arose a demand for such new consumer goods as radios, televisions, motor scooters, motorcycles, and electrical appliances. It should be noted that satisfaction of these demands forces the workers to spend less money, as a rule, on essentials—for example, food and clothing. Although wages have increased, they have not kept pace with the fast-growing needs of modern man and with rising prices. Moreover, technical progress under capitalism is accompanied by exceptional intensification of labor which exhausts the worker’s strength and therefore demands much greater expenditures to replenish it. In summation, the wages of the majority of workers in all capitalist countries are lower than the minimum for subsistence estimated by trade unions or even by official institutions. At the beginning of the 1960’s the average wages in the manufacturing industries in the USA were 29 percent lower than the minimum for subsistence, in the Federal Republic of Germany they were approximately 25 percent less, in France they were 30 percent less, and in Japan they were 35 percent less. The working population has run up an enormous credit debt for consumer goods.

In their struggle against the Marxist evaluation of the condition of the working class under capitalism, bourgeois economists usually cite the fact that at the present time workers consume more goods, and of a higher quality, than, for example, before World War II. According to this logic, the needs of the proletariat were established almost at the dawn of capitalist industrialization and everything which exceeds these needs is allegedly evidence of the growth of the prosperity of the proletariat. It turns out that the worker must work in accordance with the demands of modern technology, but his needs must be measured by standards characteristic of the early 20th century. Such an approach is unsound. The life and work of the proletariat proceed now according to the standards of the 1960’s, and its needs are defined by contemporary standards. Thus, the working class is demanding that its condition be judged according to the degree of satisfaction of its present needs.

It is incorrect to judge the absolute and relative deterioration of the proletariat’s situation in the capitalist world only by data from one or another capitalist country considered separately. It is necessary to view the capitalist world as a whole, taking into consideration national differences in the condition of the working classes, which are affected by concrete historical factors and by differing levels of development of the productive forces, of the productivity of labor, of the class struggle, and so on. The differences are too great, for example, between the situation of workers in the USA and in other capitalist states like Italy, Spain, and Japan.

Furthermore, the situation of the working class in any country cannot be characterized by reference to average data. A differentiating approach to the various classes of workers is required. Thus, in the USA the average weekly wage of workers in the garment industry in the 1960’s was only about 60 percent of the wage of workers in the metal industry, which in turn was significantly lower than the officially estimated minimum for subsistence.

An average weekly wage corresponding to this minimum exists only in certain industries such as automobile manufacture, oil refining, and construction, in which only an insignificant portion of American workers is employed. The workers in these industries are a special class not only in relation to workers in other capitalist countries but in relation to the majority of American workers.

The dynamics of the standard of living of the proletariat are not the same in all countries, and furthermore, fluctuations occur. These fluctuations depend a great deal on changes in the phases of the capitalist cycle. When a crisis gives way to an industrial upswing, the conditions of the working-class struggle for a rise in living standards become, as a rule, more favorable. Changes in the situation of the proletariat are not determined by any individual factor, such as the dynamics of real wages and other indexes, although the decline in real wages, when it takes place, indicates a general deterioration in the proletariat’s situation. As a rule, the rise in wages does not signify a general improvement in the workers’ condition because it is neutralized and often even exceeded by the impact of other factors, such as an increase in the intensification of labor.

Marxist-Leninist political economy proceeds from the necessity of accounting for the sum total of factors which determine the living standard of the proletariat and the fluctuations in the condition of various classes of workers in different countries and in different periods.

The tendency toward a deterioration of the situation of the working class is a social and economic law of capitalism. However, if capitalism were characterized by only this tendency, the working class would have been reduced to a state of degradation. All economic tendencies have opposite countertendencies. If the working class weakens its opposition to the capitalists, who strive to raise profits at the expense of the workers’ standard of living, then those factors which bring about a deterioration in the proletariat’s situation will be intensified. And if, to the contrary, the working class conducts a successful struggle against the bourgeoisie, then those factors inherent in capitalism which cause a deterioration in the conditions of the proletariat will be weakened. It is then possible that there will be a rise in living standards, which, however, does not reverse the tendency toward the absolute and relative deterioration of the proletariat’s situation. The struggle to improve working conditions and to increase wages essentially inhibits the factors which lead to deterioration in the proletariat’s situation.

In the contemporary period, the very fact of the existence of the Soviet Union and other socialist countries has proved to be very influential in the workers’ struggle against capitalist exploitation. Their increasing success stimulates the struggle of workers in the capitalist countries for their vital interests and, at the same time, forces capitalists to make certain concessions to toilers out of fear of intensifying social conflicts.

The struggle of the workers for their immediate interests, which are closely connected with the ultimate goal of the workers’ movement (the destruction of capitalist exploitation), raises the revolutionary consciousness of the masses. This struggle ultimately facilitates the ripening of preconditions for a socialist revolution which will reveal to workers the path to true welfare.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.