KOREA COLUMN 42
The Working Class and Social Change
According to Marx the working class or proletariat is ‘the only really revolutionary class’ [The Communist Manifesto] and ‘The emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class itself’ [The Rules of the International Working Men’s Association] and between capitalism and socialism there will be a transition which ‘can only be the dictatorship of the proletariat’ [The Critique of the Gotha Programme].
This conception of the revolutionary role of the working class was described by Lenin as ‘historically the main thing in Marxism’ but it is the idea many people find hardest to accept. On the one hand there are intellectuals like Herbert Marcuse and T.W. Adorno of the Frankfurt School who identified with much of Marx’s critique of capitalism but concluded that the working class was hopelessly bought off and indoctrinated by the system. On the other hand there are ordinary people, workers themselves, who simply say, ‘It will never happen’.
This is not surprising. The notion that working class people are obviously not capable of liberating themselves and running society is an absolutely central pillar of bourgeois ideology – the capitalist view of the world that pervades the media, the education system and our whole society. It is an idea that is particularly appealing to middle class intellectuals and is reinforced by their conditions of life. It also reflects much of the life experience of working class people who, from early childhood on, are treated as subordinates and have their confidence sapped.
Nevertheless, Lenin was right; the self emancipation of the working class is the main thing, the key idea in Marxism. Without it all the economic and historical theory becomes at best a passive commentary on the world rather than a means of changing it, or, at worst, as in Stalinism and Maoism, an ideology masking the interests of a different class [typically the state capitalist bureaucracy}.So let us look at Marx’s reasons for identifying the working class as the principal agent of social change and examine whether they still apply today.
We should begin by noting that Marx’s view was NOT based on the existing consciousness of the working class. Marx was well aware that the dominant ideas in society are those of the ruling class and that most of the time most of us are subordinate to them. For the mass of workers it would not be socialist consciousness that produced revolutionary struggle, but revolutionary struggle that produced socialist consciousness. Nor was it based on workers’ suffering and oppression. Of course, workers do suffer grievously under capitalism and Marxists fight against this, but not more so than the peasants, serfs and slaves whose poverty and oppression stretch back to the dawn of civilisation and who history shows were not able to abolish class divisions or create socialism .Rather it was based on their potential power deriving from their economic position in capitalist society that made the working class the revolutionary class.
As Marx showed, workers in capitalism are not just badly paid but exploited. Wealth, Marx called it surplus value, is extracted from their labour. This surplus value is the source of all the profits of the capitalist class and of the bulk of wealth in capitalism as a whole. The bourgeoisie therefore needs the working class (not as individuals, of course, but as a class). The working class is the special product of capitalism and at the same time it is the producer of capitalism.
Exploitation also puts the working class into an antagonistic relationship to capitalism; it creates an ongoing conflict of interest between labour and capital over wages, hours, conditions, and ultimately every other issue in society and this conflict turns into industrial and political struggle which is ‘now hidden, now open’ as Marx put it. Most of the time victory in these struggles goes to the bourgeoisie, who have at their disposal both far more wealth and state power (the law, police, judiciary, army etc) but no matter how many times they defeat the working class they cannot escape their dependency on its labour. As capitalism grows so the working class grows too, until it becomes the large majority of society.
In addition to increasing its numbers capitalism also concentrates the working class in large workplaces and great cities. This gives the modern working class far greater potential political power than the scattered peasantry or the old artisans employed in small workshops.
This is not only a negative power AGAINST capitalism but also a positive force FOR socialism. The working class is, by virtue of its economic and social position, a collectivist class. It can only resist the employers and improve its conditions of labour by collective action and it can only take possession of modern industry collectively i.e. by turning it into social property. When peasants seized the land from the feudal lords they could divide it up into small farms; this cannot be done with modern industry. Moreover, political power in all modern societies is based in big cities where the key means of production are also located. The urban industrial character of the proletariat enables it to exercise political power [the dictatorship of the proletariat] while also remaining the principal producing class. In this way it fundamentally undermines the division between rulers and ruled, thus opening the way to a fully classless socialist society.
Such, in essence, was the case made by Marx more than 150 years ago. Since then there have been many actual instances of the working class playing a revolutionary role, such as the Paris Commune of 1871, the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the German Revolution of 1919-24, the Spanish Revolution of 1936, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the Portuguese Revolution of 1974. However it is clear that there is now no shortage of commentators, pundits and academics eager to pronounce Marx out of date.
As an aside I have to note that when I first became a Marxist 40 years ago the academics and pundits all said Marx was out of date then. But what I’ve never been able to find is a moment when most of these thought he was in date. Nevertheless we should look at the arguments.
They say that the working class has lost its revolutionary character because it is no longer poverty stricken as it was in Marx’s day. It is true of course that living standards have risen substantially for many, though by no means all, of the international working class, including in Europe and South Korea, but what is key is not the absolute level of pay but the conflict of interests involved in securing that pay. Relatively well paid workers can be forced into collective struggle in order to defend their high wages and that struggle can lead to revolutionary action and consciousness.
They also say that with the demise of the old industries such as mining, steel and the docks, the working class in the advanced capitalist countries is fast disappearing and certainly no longer the majority. But this argument is based on a false and superficial view of the working class as defined by certain traditional forms of work In reality what counts is not the nature of the work, manual or white collar, but the relations of production. Employees of call centres, supermarkets, hospitals and schools are just as much forced to live by the sale of their labour power as miners and car workers, are also exploited and also possess great collective power. For example call centre workers and supermarket workers who went on strike could have a devastating affect on their bosses’ profits.
Finally the notion that the working class is disappearing is the reverse of what is happening in the world as a whole. In reality the second half of the 20th century saw a huge spread of the working class in the great cities of Asia, Africa and Latin America such as Seoul, Kuala Lumpur, Cairo, Johannesburg, Mexico City and Sao Paulo now even further augmented by the dramatic economic growth of China (and to a lesser extent, India). The global working class is today infinitely larger, more internationally integrated and potentially more powerful than it was in either Marx or Lenin’s day. Now more than ever it is the force than can change the world.
1 December 2008