Today there are millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, who broadly identify with the international anti-capitalist movement and want to see a change in the system. For the most part these people do not have a clear idea as to how this change can be made or who can make it. Many look to NGOs and single issue campaigns; others put their hopes in progressive governments like Chavez in Venezuela or Morales in Bolivia. Still others, though very much a minority at present, back some form of armed struggle.
In Marx’s day there was also range of opinion among radicals. In the 1840s ,prior to Marx, two trends, both deriving from the French Revolution, dominated the left .
The first, inspired by the Jacobins, believed that a small group of enlightened individuals should seize power by means of a secret conspiracy and then enact laws to establish a just society on behalf of the masses.This would be an egalitarian republic, without inherited privilege, but still with private property.
The second, known as the Utopian Socialists, included figures such as Charles Fourier in France and Robert Owen in Britain. They were convinced that socialism ( collective ownership) was a better way to order society than capitalism and sought to bring it about by rational argument and force of example i.e. forming model communities.
In other words the revolutionaries were not socialists, while the socialists were not revolutionaries. Marx rejected, or rather transcended, both these approaches to found revolutionary socialism. The key to revolutionary socialism was the identification of the working class or proletariat as the agent of social change.
By the working class Marx meant those who live by the sale of their labour power, employed and exploited by the capitalists. – the new class was emerging from the Industrial Revolution in cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and London and, to a lesser extent, in Europe especially its north western corner.
Whereas for the conspirators and the Utopians change was to brought about from above, for Marx change was to come from below, made by the workers themselves. ‘ The emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class itself’, he wrote.
What made Marx base his politics on the working class was not its suffering but its power. The suffering and exploitation of the working class was, of course, appalling and it gave workers the motive and the interest in challenging the system, but slaves and peasants had suffered and been exploited for millennia. What distinguished the working class was a) its power actually to defeat capitalism, and b) its ability to create a new society.
The working class is the unique child of capitalism. As capitalism expands so does the working class. Capitalism can defeat the worker class in battle after battle, break its strikes, smash its unions, curtail its liberty, but it cannot do without it to produce its profits, so always the workers return to fight again.
Capitalism draws workers together in large workplaces, links them in national and global industries, and concentrates them in vast cities. This gives them massive potential political power. Without their work no train, bus, or lorry moves; no coal, iron or oil leaves the earth; no papers are printed, no TV station broadcasts, no bank or school opens. Even the armed forces of the state depend on workers in their ranks. In creating the working class, capitalism creates the most powerful oppressed class in history.
The struggle of the working class is, by its nature, a collective struggle. To take on the mill owners of the !9th century or Ford or Hyundai today, workers have to combine their efforts and act together. To take possession of Ford or Hyundai the workers cannot divide the company up between them (as peasants divided the land) but have to turn it into social property. This what makes the working class a socialist class.
Moreover, when the working class takes power it remains the producing class in society, with no class below it, which it can exploit or live off. And being concentrated in big industry and big cities at the center of economic and political power, it has the capacity to prevent any new class emerging above it; it will be able to produce and rule at the same time, thus laying the foundation for a genuinely classless society. In liberating itself the working class liberates humanity.
This, the revolutionary role of the working class, is the core of Marxism. All Marx’s philosophy, history, economics and politics starts from here. No proposition in Marx has been so roundly dismissed by academics and pundits, including those otherwise "sympathetic" to Marxism. "The working class has changed", is their familiar cry.
Yes, the working class has changed, in its jobs, its clothes, its pay, its nationalities and its culture. But in its fundamental conditions of existence it remains: it is still the child of capitalism, still living by the sale of its labour power, still exploited and still struggling collectively; while in its size and potential power it has grown enormously. In Marx’s day the proletariat was more or less confined to western Europe, today it stretches and fights on all five continents, from Sau Paulo to Seoul. Therein lies the basis of socialism and the hope for humanity.
This article was written for the Koran socialist newsletter CounterFire in June 2006.