Theory of the Proletariat : A History

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Theory of the Proletariat : A History is an original series of 7 episodes (55 minutes each) only available on the Web, produced in the first decades of the 21st century.


Theory of the Proletariat : A History is an epic historical drama chronicling successive moments of communist doctrine, mainly of Marxist inspiration. The narrative unfolds around complicated, often tormented protagonists, from the middle of the 19th century to our time.


This series stands out from other projects dealing with communism, for instance the films about Antonia Gramsci (1), John Reed (2), Rosa Luxemburg (3) or Marx’s early years (4). Because of its non-commercial conditions of production and distribution, the series has the particularity that its cast is also its target audience. It is impossible to distinguish between authors, producers, scriptwriters, professional and amateur actors, extras and lead players, technical filming teams, viewers and even critics… the vast majority of whom have chosen to remain anonymous.

Credits : often unreliable.

Location: various European capitals. Scenes taking place in Moscow were shot in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Languages: German, English, French, Dutch, Russian, Italian.


Pilot / Théodore: The revolution of the most numerous class.

July 1st, 1840. A Paris hairdresser, Guillaume, is one of the 1,200 participants in the first Communist Banquet held in Belleville, a working class district. He stands up to say:

Exploiters of revolutions call themselves our defenders to drag us into purely political reforms. Actually, when isolated from social reform, political reform is an odious lie because it preserves the old society and with it the exploitation of man by man.” What we want, Guillaume declares, is “the equal distribution of rights and duties”, “the community of labour and enjoyment !”. Other toasts call for “Labour Emancipation”, “Solidarity and Community”, and “The Abolition of Competition”.

As night falls, Théodore, one of the organisers of the banquet, thinks “a profound sickness torments our epoch”, but he believes “the world is entering a new era”, as confirmed by the strike wave currently shaking France, with a backdrop of impoverished lower classes, urban riots, insurrections and nascent worker organisations. Meanwhile, in Britain, Chartism is developing into a broad movement advocating (male) universal suffrage and far-reaching social reforms.

What comes to be called “the communist party” wants to replace private property by collective ownership, thanks to a “democratically instituted State”, but will it be led by a workers’ or a people’s government ?

The distinction remains unclear. If Théodore analyses society in class terms, most of those active in this “communist party” equate class with the poor, or the disfranchised unprivileged, or the toiling masses, or manual workers, broadly speaking with all men and women who produce society’s wealth but possess nothing, and can only live by their work - providing a boss hires them - on a wafer-thin margin of subsistence. “The French nation is divided into two classes, and the most numerous is forced to accept the exploitation of the minority”. (5)

Théodore rejects "half measures” which “will not suc­ceed in satisfying anyone": his aim is to complete the bourgeois revolution of 1789 by achieving both social and political equality. The community of equals is to be the true unitary and centralised republic, accomplished by a proletariat made up of all workers and small producers hitherto deprived of political power. However, if the labouring masses and the people are one and the same, this leaves the question of what will be the driving force of the next revolution.  

Episode 1 / Karl M. : A revolutionary class because it is not a class.

Karl has read Théodore who he thinks is developing “the teaching of materialism as the teaching of real humanism and the logical basis of communism”, together with other “French communists”. (6) Walking in a Paris street with his friend Friedrich, Karl wonders about “the positive possibility of a radical revolution with a “general human emancipation”.

It will only come, Karl answers, from “a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, an estate which is the dissolution of all estates”, “which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all other spheres of society and thereby emancipating all other spheres of society”, i.e. a revolution of “the masses resulting from the drastic dissolution of society”. Actually, in Germany and elsewhere, the “rising industrial movement” is precisely creating these masses capable of a revolution completely different from all previous ones, and particularly from bourgeois democratic revolutions. (7)

A couple of years later, Karl’s emphasis shifts from radical humanism to class analysis, and to a more precise definition of work as wage-labour. Yet Karl and Friedrich are well aware that day-to-day proletarian needs and demands are not the same as the overthrow of capitalism, but they do not see this difference as an unbridgeable gap. The real fruit of worker resistance (and victory, sometimes, for a short time) is “not in the immediate result, but in the ever- expanding union of the workers”, which serves as a vehicle for combining everyday struggle and the struggle to do away with capitalism. Moreover, the proletariat grows “stronger, firmer, mightier”, because “the lower strata of the middle class – the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants – all these sink gradually into the proletariat.” (8)

Still, defining the proletariat as a class which is not a class is a paradox indeed, and a definition that comes before its time, since its promoters themselves soon cease regarding it as a priority: indeed the writings which expound this theme remain highly confidential, and they will only be republished in the 20th century.

Episode 1 rounds off with Karl’s and Friedrich’s ideas gaining currency in the labour movement, but the prevailing vision of “class struggle” is that of a proletariat as a social group fighting its exploiters, not as a class supposed to suppress itself in its revolution and do away with work, money, the State, etc.

Episode 2/ Vladimir: A revolutionary class thanks to its organisation as a party

Half a century has elapsed. Around 1900, a wide labour movement is on the rise, repressed yet energetic, and the bourgeoisie is forced to accept its presence in the work-place, in local government and in parliament, especially in Germany but to a lesser extent in the rest of Europe, the United States, Russia, South America... Yet, with the exception of the Paris Commune, nowhere has the revolution heralded in Episode 1 been even attempted.

Vladimir, a nuts-and-bolts man who keeps his room in apple-pie order, introduces a jarring note in the international socialist concert. To be sure, the now downtrodden proletariat is the class of the future because it develops productive forces and creates wealth, as opposed to a more and more rentier, parasitic and historically outdated bourgeoisie. For its potential to become reality, however, in Vladimir’s view, the proletariat needs a centralised organisation (as accomplished in particular by the German socialists, a fact much praised by Vladimir until 1914) and a leadership capable of bringing into the working class the consciousness of what it is, in order to provide it with revolutionary objectives. Otherwise, “the spontaneous working-class movement is trade-unionism, and trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie”. (9)

For Vladimir, there is an inevitable clear cut between daily struggle and revolutionary movement. Even by the most militant means, industrial action for demands is proletarian self-defence, which only attacks the consequences of exploitation, not its causes: bourgeois class domination. The proletariat remains within the limits of bread-and-butter issues (“economism”, Vladimir calls it), unless the consciousness of being able to make its revolution is brought to it from without, and “only from without; that is, only from outside the economic struggle”. This has to be the task of a special body of revolutionary professionals, who will make proletarian activities converge towards a common political goal: the overthrow of bourgeois rule: “The strength of the working class lies in organisation. Unless the masses are organised, the proletariat is nothing. Organised - it is everything.”

Pragmatic hardliner Vladimir bides his time.

After spectacular twists and turns, the episode ends with his victory.

Episode 3/ Anton: A revolutionary class because of proletarian self-activity.

Twenty years later, the third episode opens with an utterly different picture. Nearly all Second International parties and unions have accepted the war in 1914, and in 1919 German social-democracy acts as the political backbone of an armed counter-revolution which leaves thousands of proletarians dead. Vladimir’s Bolsheviks seize power in Russia, but everywhere else communist parties and the recently born Comintern fail to overthrow bourgeois power.

In April 1920, Anton explains the failure of the worker and socialist movement by the way it has been fighting for the past decades. “Parliamentary activity and the trade-union movement were the two principal forms of struggle in the time of the Second International”, which  made the proletarian masses increasingly dependent upon bureaucratic apparatus leaders often close to bourgeois intelligentsia. “Such power as the bourgeoisie still possesses in this period resides in the proletariat’s lack of autonomy and independence of spirit. The process of revolutionary development consists in the proletariat emancipating itself from this dependence, from the traditions of the past – and this is only possible through its own experience of struggle.”

Day-to-day struggle is an indispensable vehicle for revolution, providing its participants “create organs of self-action”. The role of the KAPD (the German Worker CP, which Anton supports) is to promote the “autonomous activity by the masses that is necessary for revolution”. (10)

The following summer, after the Communist International’s second congress, Anton acknowledges the isolation of the KAPD, the rising opportunism within the Comintern, but remains reasonably optimistic about the prospects of the proletarian movement in Europe.

Episode 4/ Herman: A class forced to stand against everything.

Thanks to his political acumen, Vladimir now stands at the apex of power in Russia. His ‘Left–Wing’ Communism: An Infantile Disorder delivers a scathing critique of such “leftist” parties as the KAPD. One of his major targets is Herman, who replies in an Open Letter. (11)

In November 1920, Herman and two other delegates from the KAPD visit Moscow. They meet the Bolsheviks and other leaders of the Comintern, in a vain attempt to at least make their voices heard. In his last conversation with Vladimir, Anton says: “The future will tell which of us is right”.  

A couple of years later, the KAPD is on the wane, the Worker Communist International launched by Left Communists is a stillborn gathering, but Herman still assumes against all odds that the situation can be reversed. 

In 1923, his daunting list of “revolution's enemies” includes not only “liberals and conservatives, democrats, social-democrats, monarchists, reactionaries and republicans” but also  “capitalist Russia”, “all Asia”, “Asian workers”, “the Third International proletarians” and finally “the proletariat of the whole world”. “Now it’s going to be up-hill all the way”, Herman admits: nevertheless, despite this doom-laden situation, he maintains hope for the future thanks to “the real countries for the proletarian revolution”: “England, Germany and part of the eastern USA”, where the proletariat will be able to build not “trade unions but factory organizations, not parliamentary parties but workers' councils (soviets), not a party but a class dictatorship”. (12)

At about the same time, according to “the Essen tendency” within the KAPD, proletarian self-activity is not enough. It is not just bureaucratic control over the masses that stifles working class energy: it is the very action for higher wages and better employment conditions that locks the class into a confrontational partnership with capital, and creates a counter-revolutionary force from the workers’ rank-and-file themselves. Only political struggles directly challenging bourgeois rule have a revolutionary potential. 

Episode 5/ Guy-Ernest: A revolutionary class because it targets the totality of life.

Forty years later, capitalist Russia is a major imperialist power, all “socialist countries” support capitalist world order, social-democracy co-manages capitalism in competition with Stalinist parties firmly entrenched in countries like France and Italy, but wildcatting is rife, parallel to a burgeoning diffuse critique of modern ways of life.  

Contemporary proletarianisation, Guy-Ernest says, concerns far more than factory workers: it affects all those that commodity spectacular society deprives of any control over their lives. Beyond basic bread and butter demands, proletarians can now make a revolution because they set themselves up in opposition both to the misery forced upon them and to the riches that are promised to them. In an article on the 1966 Watts (Los Angeles) alleged race – in fact class – riot, he argues that “for the first time the problem is not to overcome scarcity, but to master material abundance according to new principles”. (13)

Guy-Ernest goes back to one of the foundation stones of communist theory, and to Karl’s long- forgotten comments on the 1844 Silesian weavers’ uprising : “even if it is confined to only one factory district”, Karl wrote, “a social revolution possesses a total point of view because it represents a protest by man against a dehumanized life”. (14) In Guy-Ernest’s re-interpretation, this translates as : “A revolt against the spectacle — even if limited to a single district such as Watts — calls everything into question because it is a human protest against a dehumanized life, a protest of real individuals against their separation from a community that would fulfil their true human and social nature and transcend the spectacle.” (15)

In the aftermath of the biggest general strike in history (France, 1968), and a decade of a minority but determined rejection of parties, unions and institutions (which reaches a near-insurrectionary level in Italy, 1977), demands escalate, wildcat strikes spread, but are finally contained, and rebellion subdued.

Guy-Ernest shoots himself at the end of Episode 5.

Episode 6/ Roland: A revolutionary class now because it can no longer assert itself as the labour class.

As the 20th century draws to a close, the narrative circles back to the 1840s conundrum, thus rephrased by Roland : “How can a class acting strictly as a class abolish all classes? The history of the capitalist mode of production as contradiction between the proletariat and capital gives us the resolution of this enigma.”

However much there is a paradox here, Roland explains, its mystery will not be unveiled by (re)defining some “essence” of the proletariat.

Roland suggests a new slant to communist thought. Until now, the proletariat has remained locked within the confines of its self-assertion as the labour class vs. the capitalist capital, and class struggle has been a confrontational partnership with all that entails : trade-unionism, parliamentarianism, participation in bourgeois institutions, glorification of work, cult of the productive forces… As a result, the worker movement was indifferent or hostile to revolution, and the radical proletarian minority could only pose “the revolution as its own affirmation, its road to the ruling class, and the generalisation of its condition to society as a whole”, because “this antagonistic situation manifested itself as a workers’ identity”. For example, “the cycle of struggles that produced the German revolution of 1918-1923 was that of revolution and communism as affirmation of the class”.   

Then “the crisis at the end of the 60s/beginning of the 70s was the first crisis of capital during the real subsumption of labour under capital. It marked the end of all the previous cycles which, since the beginning of the 19th century, had for their immediate content and for their objective the increase in strength of the class within the capitalist mode of production and its affirmation as the class of productive work, through the taking of power and the putting in place of a period of transition. [..] programmatism designates the whole of that period of the class struggle of the proletariat.”

Our time, Roland argues, is the harbinger of an utterly different cycle of struggle. Capitalist restructuring at the end of the 20th century leaves no room for an autonomous working class social life, and little scope for collective bargaining: the proletarians are no longer able to organise themselves within capitalism. Reformism as we knew it is a spent force. As it becomes more and more difficult for the proletarians to claim higher wages and better working conditions, they now tend to engage in a new cycle of struggle where they are increasingly faced with the challenge of ending their role as a labouring class :  “The proletariat no longer carries a project of social reorganisation as an affirmation of what it is. In contradiction with capital, it is, in the dynamic of the class struggle, in contradiction with its own existence as a class. This is now the content of, and what is at stake in, the class struggle.”

“But let's not be hasty, just because the way has been marked does not mean the goal has been reached; it is in the struggles themselves within the current cycle of class struggle that the enigma must be solved.” (16)

Episode 7/ Karl N.: A revolutionary class when and if it does not act as a class within capitalist society.

In his turn, Karl tackles the age-old dilemma of the (dis)connection between day-to-day struggles and an attack on the system as a whole, between labour’s defence against capital and a proletarian offensive against the basis of capitalism.  

Karl takes stock of a changing situation. After the decline of the proletarian surge of the 60s and 70s, capital restructuring and growing unemployment have caused a drop in union protection and membership, the decay or disappearance of Stalinist parties, and the political Left’s endorsement of social-liberalism. The labour movement as it had existed for over a century, and especially since the 1920s and 30s, is indeed in disarray.

Besides, this is happening without the creation of alternative labour organisations on a scale comparable to the strength of unions (or breakaway unions), new socialist/communist parties, German 1919 Unionen, etc., in the past.

Nonetheless, Karl avers, the English Labour party, the French CGT, the Italian CGIL, the American Congress of Industrial Organizations, the Spanish CNT… were only the historical forms of a specific period : the “worker movement” was never the same in 1860, 1900, 1920, 1950… As long as capitalism exists, wage-labour resists capital, even in the most unfavourable conditions, and organises itself wherever and however it can. Actually, the weakening of European and American organised labour coincides with a dynamic unionism in quite a few industrial regions in Asia.

Karl sees no proof of the emergence of the new cycle of struggles theorised by Roland (Episode 6).  The proletarians certainly no longer try and assert themselves as workers or producers, but neither are they (so far) targeting wage-labour.

Pro­let­ari­an re­volu­tion is not the self-real­iz­a­tion of the pro­let­ari­at, but its self-ab­ol­i­tion. Yet Karl does not divide capitalist history into two phases, one when the proletarians could only affirm a worker identity, followed by a second – our time - when they could only fight to abolish the wage-labour/capital relation, i.e. abolish themselves as a labouring class. Karl insists that globalised capitalism has neither dissolved the proletariat nor created the conditions of an inevitable revolution. (17)  

Episode 7 ends in an attic with shelves of books and box-files. Its dormer window opens on to what looks like a Flemish belfry. Karl is talking to a young woman whose face remains in the shadow:

“I’m quite aware my point of view may leave some people wishing for more ultimate science-proof solutions. Maybe a bit of plain speaking is called for. I only know one thing for sure: the contradiction between capital and proletariat. And that contradictory reality continues to be the only reason why communism is possible. I’m equally allergic to despair and false certitudes.”

“In that case”, she asks, “there is no certainty about a revolution. It’s just a possibility, then ?”  

“Which is quite a lot !”


Despite the project’s magnitude and ambition, Theory of the Proletariat: A History was released in oblique underground ways, outside usual commercial channels, and only distributed on the Internet and via social media, with no claims to copyright. Its date of release is unclear, and it is being constantly shared on line, streamed and modified at will. As this circulation is free, it is hard to evaluate how popular the series is. According to current reliable data, it has had over one billion viewers (18) , just above the equivocal Who’s For Tennis,  the out-of-norm film never shown in a movie theatre and only accessible on the Web. (19)   

Unconfirmed rumours have it that there exist pirated versions which substitute “Amadeo” for  “Guy-Ernest” as the leading character in episode 5.


Such a borderline series on a highly-charged subject that spans nearly two centuries has garnered an overload of attention and commentary.

Theory of the Proletariat : A History was granted a score of 82/100 based on the opinion of 69 critics, i.e. “universal acclaim”, by Metacritic, a site that reviews films and series. The validity of this rating has been questioned because of third-party attempts to influence the appraisal. (20)

Theory of the Proletariat : A History has been prized for its no-holds-barred devastating scenes with an eye for the revealing anecdote (21). On the other hand, the scenario has elicited serious reservations from some quarters. Unfortunately, owing to its conditions of production and distribution, and to its embarrassing anonymity, any critical assessment risks being fragmentary and incomplete. It is however possible to identify five main criticisms directed at its storyline.   

1°: There is a discrepancy between fast-paced action-packed episodes 2, 3, 4, and the over-reflexive final ones. Some viewers expected the conceptual riddle to climax on a solution, and were disappointed that episode 7 left the question in abeyance. “Not a very uplifting ending… I was rather hoping for a winning outcome !”. (22)

2°: Theory of the Proletariat : A History is a misnomer, because visions pertaining to the proletariat extend far beyond the seven options pictured in the series : not only has “the proletariat” been theorised by a much wider range of fully-fledged or lapsed Marxists than displayed here, but also by numerous anarchists, revolutionary syndicalists, libertarian communists, etc.: “A counter-hegemonic history has no right to present Marx as the founder of the master narrative.” (23)

3°: It does not make historical sense to treat on an equal footing truly significant men such as Marx or Lenin, or even minor characters like Pannekoek, and obscure figures with little or no impact on the course of events.  

Theory of the Proletariat : A History personalises history. Political theories are not generated by a few individual thinkers, they express social movements. Therefore historical drama is only meaningful if it is plot-driven, not character-driven:  “The series reeks of a bourgeois mind-set.”  (24)

Theory of the Proletariat : A History prioritises Euro-centrist white male discourse, all of which produced by what we understand to be cis-gender people. What about Flora Tristan, Rosa Luxemburg, Sylvia Pankhurst, Emma Goldman, W.E.B Du Bois, C.L.R. James, Grace Lee and James Boggs, Silvia Federici, Selma James, Saffron Nielssen and many others who have dealt with the proletarian issue ? “Ignoring them is creating deliberate gender and race invisibility, therefore Theory of the Proletariat : A History is blatantly out of sync with the intertextual zeitgeist, and politically inappropriate.” (25) Herman Gorter’s statement on Asia (Episode 4) has been deemed offensive, and a reviewer wrote it should at least have come with a trigger warning. (26)

To the small extent that they wished to respond to these objections, the creator-participants of the series explain that they have only presented one history, certainly not a definitive one. They allowed themselves to adopt a guiding theme which they believe to be particularly relevant: the (dis)connection between wage-labour struggle and the abolition of the wage-labour/capital coupling, which they consider to have been explicitly or implicitly at the core of communist thinking since the 1840s. Theory of the Proletariat : A History therefore concentrates on the possible link between resisting capital and getting rid of capitalism, which is why they deliberately opted for an open ending.

We decided to walk the thin line between a trip down memory lane and the edge of tomorrow. Since no-one so far has been vindicated by history, when all is said and done, our series compares favourably to most other narratives, providing the viewer accepts a willing suspension of disbelief, and is endowed with a minimal sense of humour”, an unnamed woman participant was quoted as saying. (27)

Episodes 5, 6 and 7 have aroused the most controversial polemics. Some contend that Guy Debord never understood nor really cared about class struggle. (28) Convoluted arguments have been advanced for and against the concepts of “programmatism” and of “a new cycle of struggle”. Tenants of these theses regard Karl Nesic as a believer in an a-historical “nature” of the proletariat, and they refuse to treat past, present and future as a succession of might-have-beens and could-happens. Karl Nesic’s supporters dismiss the idea of a pre-ordained history, and for them it is altogether impossible to demonstrate the impossibility of reformism in our time.

Whatever the unpredictable outcome of such an arcane debate, viewers and participants can confidently expect a follow up to Theory of the Proletariat : A History. Each revolutionary generation has its theory which may sometimes be difficult to distinguish from myth. There are already apparent signs of a new season being made by a diversity of people, quite a few of whom will likely choose anonymity, so we are in for more twists and cliffhangers.

Besides, speculation is rife about the shooting of a new series dealing with the same world, possibly titled Communism.


(1) Antonio Gramsci : i giorni del carcere, a film by Lino Del Fra, 1977.

(2) Reds, directed by Warren Beatty, 1981.

(3) Rosa Luxemburg, directed by Margarethe von Trotta, 1985.

(4) The Young Karl Marx, by Raoul Peck, 2017.

(5) Before Marx: Socialism and Communism in France 1830-48. Edited by Paul E. Corcoran, Macmillan Press, 1983.

(6) Marx and Engels, The Holy Family, Chapter VI, 3, d

(7) Marx, Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, 1843

Marx, On the Jewish Question

(8) Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto, 1848, Part 1

(9) Lenin, What Is to Be Done ? Burning Questions of Our Movement, 1902

(10) Anton Pannekoek, World Revolution and Communist Tactics, 1920

(11) Herman Gorter, Open Letter to Comrade Lenin, 1920

Herman Gorter, Why We Need the Fourth Communist Workers International, 1921

(12) Herman Gorter, The Communist Workers International, 1923

(13) The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy”, Situationist International, n. 10, 1966

(14) Karl Marx, Critical Notes on the Article: “The King of Prussia and Social Reform.
By a Prussian”
, 1844

(15) “The Decline and Fall…”, op. cit.

(16) Interview with Roland Simon, 2005

Théorie Communiste, an introduction

Various texts

(17) Karl Nesic, To Work Or Not To Work. Is that the Question ?, 2002

The Call of the Void, 2003

Why I Am Not Losing Hope, 2012

(18)  “Indie Series That Defied Rules : Nearly One Billion Viewers”, Variety, June 12, 2016.

(19)  “ ‘Who’s For Tennis ?’ : A Sex Oddity”, Total Film Christmas Film Guide, 2011.

(20) Metacritic, Best Movies of the Decade 2010-19.

(21) Time Out Film Guide, 2012.

(22) Morgan Tyro, “A Downbeat Ending”, Trendsetting, May 2011.

(23) “Are These Guys for Real ?”, Dead Letter Box, December 2011.

(24) “Bourgeois Conception of History Rides Again !”, Internationalism, December 24, 2015.

(25) “(Dead) White Male Cisgender Western Theorists”, InterseXion Quarterly, Fall 2015.

(26) Valentine Matilda, “Denotational Functions of Neo-Coloniality”, Capital, Class and Subalternity, July-September 2017.

(27) Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved, March 6, 2013.

(28)  “Situationist Phantoms”, Red Banner, May 17, 2015.