Karl Marx’s ideas have seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years. Most mainstream commentators, however, concentrate on Marx’s economic theories and tend to ignore the other fundamental aspect of his politics – his belief in the ability of the working class to liberate itself.
Capitalism was still in its infancy when Marx was writing in the mid-19th century onwards. Marx was impressed by the way capitalism transformed the way things were produced and the wealth it could create. But he was appalled at the immense human misery the system created.
Marx saw that capitalism was characterised by two key divisions. The first is between different groups of capitalists locked into competition with each other as they attempt to make greater profits than their rivals.
The second division is between the ruling class – the bourgeoisie of capitalists – and the working class, which Marx referred to as the proletariat.
The tiny minority who own all the workplaces exploit the vast majority who have no other option but to sell their ability to work.
This exploitation, Marx argued, is the source of the capitalist’s profits.
On the surface the working class today looks very different from that of Marx’s time. Then, factory workers and domestic servants made up much of the working class. But capitalism has constantly transformed the old ways of working.
The working class now includes people who work in offices and call centres, as well as those in hospitals, refuse depots, the post and public transport.
Most academics and commentators tell us that notions of class are outdated, or that rising standards of living mean that we are all middle class now.
These assumptions rest on the idea that class is self-defined and marked by patterns of consumption.
But Marx did not share this view. For him class was a social relationship that could be reduced to a simple question – do you own the means of producing wealth in society or do you have to go and work for someone else?
Or, even more simply, are you an exploiter or one of the exploited?
Marx was not alone in being horrified by the horrendous conditions that workers had to endure. Other socialists were similarly outraged.
But their solutions were either to appeal to the capitalists to bring about change, or to look to some form of charitable work among the poor.
In contrast Marx emphasised workers “self emancipation”. He argued that despite being the most exploited class, workers occupy a unique position in society because they create the profits that are crucial to capitalism. The system cannot function without them.
What’s more, bosses have to bring together those they exploit in large numbers – as in a factory or office – in order to extract profits from them.
This means that the working class is concentrated in workplaces where the battle over pay and conditions can only be won by collective struggle, such as strikes, protests and occupations.
Under certain conditions this fight can spill over into a more general battle against capitalism itself.
This is why Marx referred to workers as the “gravediggers” of capitalism. Their position means they have the potential to overturn capitalism and transform society.
But there’s a problem. Workers may be the majority, and have enormous potential power, but that doesn’t mean they always feel revolutionary. The reality of life for most people means that they feel the opposite to powerful.
What’s more, many workers accept some or all of the ruling class’s ideas about how the world is organised.
Even if they don’t like certain aspects of the system, most people believe that the dog-eat-dog competition of capitalism reflects human nature and is therefore the only way to run society.
The institutions of capitalist society – the schools, colleges and media – reinforce this idea.
And many workers buy into one or another of the nasty and divisive ideas propagated by the ruling class.
The capitalists use racist, sexist and homophobic ideas to divide the working class.
So how can workers go from being a class that has potential power to being a class that is conscious of its own interests and has the confidence to fight collectively?
In short, how does the working class become a revolutionary force?
Marx grappled with this question. His response again differentiated him from other socialists of his time – many of them were happy to dismiss workers’ struggles as being concerned with economic rather than political issues.
In contrast, Marx thought every struggle should be welcomed. For him, it was only through such action that the working class could become united, start to identify its common interests and constitute itself as a class “for itself” – fighting for its own interests.
Marx could see that what may begin as a fight over a purely economic issue, such as a strike over wages, could quickly become something more political.
The very act of taking action together helps break down divisions among workers, starting with those in the same workplace. Marx noted how “large-scale industry concentrates in one place a crowd of people unknown to one another”. This is even more the case today.
In the mega-offices, call centres and factories of the 21st century, it is likely that you know few people beyond your immediate workmates.
But anyone who has been on strike will tell you stories of new friendships forged, and of how a picket line can give you the opportunity to get to know the people from the “other side of the office”.
What’s more, the need for unity raised by strikes force people to overcome some of the divisions that may have existed previously.
Fighting back in this way does more than unite workers. As Marx points out, “The capitalists in their turn unite for the purpose of repression.”
Whether it’s the threat of the police to break up a picket line, the use of the media to vilify strikers, or government ministers denouncing strikes, the ruling class stands together against any threat of mass action by workers.
This can raise the stakes in any struggle, making it far more political than it may have been when it started.
The process can be seen in the recent post strikes, which highlighted the government’s backing of the bosses, the media’s portrayal of workers as lazy and managers’ routine bullying. It also showed, crucially, the need for strikers to appeal to other workers for solidarity.
In this way, being on strike can push many to question the priorities of the system as a whole.
That’s why, for Marx, it is in the struggle that the “mass becomes united and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests.”
Ultimately, “the antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is a struggle of class against class, a struggle which carried to its highest expression is a total revolution”.
Every struggle throws up a battle of ideas. The experience of fighting back can lead many to challenge previously held views – but the conclusions drawn are not predetermined.
Reactionary right wing views can flourish even in the heat of struggle.
For example, earlier this year construction workers walked out under the slogan of “British jobs for British workers” – a divisive slogan that any decent socialist would take issue with.
That is one of the reasons why as well as continually stressing the need “for the self emancipation of the working class”, Marx also believed that socialists need to be organised.
He thought that they could play a decisive role at crucial points by promoting the best ideas and arguing against the worst.
Marx was himself an active revolutionary, and threw himself into the struggles of his day.
He felt that socialists should stand together with workers in their battles, where they would be most open to ideas of revolution and socialism.
Every strike and struggle by workers shows the working class’s potential to transform itself into a class capable of overthrowing capitalism.