Socialist Worker

The power of workers

Sadie Robinson explains why socialists emphasise the central role of workers in struggles for freedom and liberation

Issue No. 2341

Last year staff at the Eleftherotypia newspaper occupied and produced issues under their own control   (Pic: Smallman )

Last year staff at the Eleftherotypia newspaper occupied and produced issues under their own control (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Socialists welcome resistance to the Tories—whether campaigns to defend benefits, protests over the NHS or marches against council cuts.

But one group of people has the power not only to stop attacks but to transform the world. This group is the working class.

Workers aren’t always the poorest in society. Nor do they necessarily suffer the most.

But the working class is unique. It produces the wealth that societies depend upon.

Workers’ relationship to production is what defines their class. They are compelled to sell their ability to work in order to live. This is true of manual and office workers, those on temporary contracts and people who work part time.

Under capitalism bosses strive to make maximum profits and undercut their competitors. They claim their “business acumen” makes them rich.

In fact they make profit by exploiting workers. This means that they pay workers less than the value of what workers produce.

This makes workers power­ful—because without them the flow of profit dries up. If workers strike, they can bring a workplace, an industry or a whole country to a standstill.

The system continually encourages this kind of class struggle.

Competition drives bosses to constantly try and increase the level of exploitation, to squeeze more out of workers. If they fail to do this, their more successful competitors can drive them out of business.

This produces repeated conflicts as workers fight to defend their conditions, or improve them.

Capitalism concentrates workers together in factories and offices where they experience the same conditions and grievances.

To win anything from the boss, they must fight back collectively.

This can undercut ideas that can turn workers against each other because workers can see that they have a collective interest.

Our rulers use racist and sexist ideas to divide and weaken workers. They present such ideas as natural and some workers accept them.

For instance, some construction workers have blamed job losses on foreign workers instead of bosses.

But solidarity between workers can overcome this.


In 2009 construction workers in Kent threatened to strike over Polish workers being paid lower wages.

The threat forced the subcontractor to pay all workers the same. If workers unite they pose a powerful threat to the bosses.

This doesn’t mean that other groups can’t make a difference. Look at the Civil Rights movement in the US during the 1960s or the Suffragette movement for women’s votes in Britain in the early 20th century.

These things won real changes and rightly continue to inspire people who want to see a better world today. And there isn’t an iron wall between social movements and the working class—workers were involved in these movements.

When workers fight back as a class they have a better chance of both winning reforms and of replacing the system with a new one.

Many of us are brought up with the idea that we need experts to run things on our behalf.

Yet workers have the expertise, knowledge and experience to run society.

Think of the NHS. If admin workers, nurses and doctors struck, managers couldn’t simply step in and do their jobs.

These are complex jobs requiring knowledge and experience. Yet if managers disappeared, the health service would keep running.

The same is true in shops, bus garages, factories, council offices and universities.

So if workers are capable of winning a better world, why don’t they often seem very interested in it?

Many people do want to see a better world. But they feel powerless to change anything.

The revolutionary Karl Marx explained that the ability to consciously transform our environment through work distinguishes humans from animals.


But under capitalism this doesn’t feel empowering because a handful of unaccountable bosses control it.

Our rulers bolster this feeling of powerlessness by constantly telling us that we should know our “place”.

But all of this can be pushed aside overnight when struggle erupts.

In Egypt a revolution overthrew hated dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Before this people had suffered Mubarak’s brutality for 30 years, and it seemed that ordinary people couldn’t possibly challenge his regime.

But once the revolt began the mass street protests gave millions of people across the country confidence to join it.

And it was workers’ strikes that played the decisive role in finally forcing Mubarak out.

When workers take action collectively they can start to see their power as a class. They can start to see that they could organise things without the need for bosses or managers.

So in Greece, some strikes against austerity have developed into more defiant challenges to the bosses.

Striking journalists have launched their own newspaper. Others took over their TV station and started broadcasting a workers’ news channel.

“They cut the power to the building,” said one journalist. “But electricity workers came in and reconnected us.”

Health workers have taken some hospital services under their control.

Workers won’t automatically win simply because they are workers.

Some will accept all the ruling ideas of society. Others will be revolutionaries who want to tear the head off capitalism. Most will be neither. This is true even in revolutionary times.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 saw enormous debates as people had different ideas about what the revolution could achieve.

Some socialists, known as Mensheviks, wanted the revolution to stop at parliamentary democracy. Others, the Bolsheviks, argued for workers to seize power.

Through the summer of 1917, workers’ ideas shifted. More came to back the Bolsheviks.

In October the Bolsheviks played a decisive role as workers finally seized power.

A revolutionary party like the Bolsheviks doesn’t make a revolution. But it can be decisive in whether a struggle succeeds—from the smallest strike to a revolution.

And importantly, it is only by challenging the divisions that the bosses try and sow among us that workers will be able to overthrow them.

As Marx put it, “Revolution is necessary, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”

For more on the importance of class in modern struggles read Chris Harman, Revolution in the 21st Century

Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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Article information

Tue 19 Feb 2013, 16:26 GMT
Issue No. 2341
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