The world can be a frustrating place for Marxists. We argue that only the action of the working class can free us from capitalism. But in practice the working class can seem determined not to do anything about it.
The system is built on bosses’ ability to expand their profits. Those profits are extracted from workers, as bosses pay them less than the value of what they produce.
The working class has an interest in stopping the bosses robbing them, and they are in a unique position to do this. As the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg put it, “Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there they must be broken.”
But most of the time, only a small minority of workers recognise this. Some others hold outright reactionary views. Most don’t. Even the most progressive may believe that the system just needs tinkering with, or that the working class can offer no alternative.
But an average of the different views held by individual workers at any given time, does not reflect the real interest of the class as a whole. Even one person can be torn between two extremes.
On the one hand are ideas of the world from the standpoint of its rulers, who don’t want to change it or admit to its flaws. These are the ideas that we are bombarded with in school, at work and in the media.
But they only make sense when we don’t question them against our experiences—which give a very different picture.
The Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci wrote that a worker “has two theoretical consciousness (or one contradictory consciousness): one which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all his fellow workers in the practical transformation of the real world; and one, superficially explicit or verbal, which he has inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed.”
For example, it’s “common sense” that migrant workers drive down wages, so other workers have an interest in keeping them out.
It’s not true—but it’s repeated so often it can seem like it must be. It’s good sense to see that bosses are trying to drive down wages, and that workers can only stop them when they stand together.
Hungarian Georg Lukacs used Karl Marx’s theories of alienation and commodity fetishism to explain this mismatch.
The way that capitalism robs workers of the fruits of their labour and denies them any control over work has a huge effect on how we see the world.
Our lives are dominated by working, but the products of that work appear as alien things to us.
Our relationships with other workers are obscured by the relationships between commodities we produce and buy. Mysterious “market forces” seem to dictate what we can and can’t do.
But workers’ struggle can challenge that alienation, and reveal the reality behind the commodities.
Marx had pointed to this process in a debate with the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.
He wrote, “Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers. The combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests.
“This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself.”
Proudhon said that strikes to increase wages were pointless because anything they won would only and up being taken back from them.
But Marx saw that fighting the system, even over the most limited demands, could help workers prepare to fight it outright. He wrote, “In the struggle... this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests.
“But the struggle of class against class is a political struggle.”
Workers’ struggle shows up the myths that are used to justify the system.
Bosses say they are “wealth creators” whose profits are a just reward for giving others a chance to do the actual work.
When you depend on a boss’s goodwill to keep your job and pay the bills, this can seem to make sense. But when workers withdraw their labour and stop production, they show where the wealth really comes from.
We’re told that selfish human nature makes us compete against each other. This fits with people’s experience of being forced to compete for jobs, homes and exam results.
But it’s another story once they’re forced to stand in solidarity on the picket line in order to win their dispute.
When workers’ action starts to pose a threat to the bosses, it also forces the state institutions that masquerade as neutral to show their true colours. It shows them as the defenders of a system built on exploitation.
But while struggle brings opportunities to learn, none of the lessons are automatic.
Winning one demand might lead one worker to see that they have the strength to fight for more. A defeat could show them the need to act independently of treacherous or hesitant union leaders.
But another might see success as a sign that the bosses can be reasoned with. From a defeat they could bitterly conclude that there is no point fighting—and end up reinforcing the influence of the very union leaders responsible.
The ruling class uses every means at its disposal to push the ideas that legitimise its rule. And whoever tries to adapt to that system must also adapt to those ideas.
This means that even the organisations that workers build to defend their interests can act to stop them drawing conclusions that go beyond capitalism.
Trade union officials work to improve the terms on which workers are exploited. That can lead to them calling the strikes that can open the door to bigger things.
But it also means their position is threatened if workers go on to challenge exploitation itself. So they try to keep troublesome “politics” out of “economic” struggles over wages, conditions and jobs.
Labour-type politicians are happy to keep workers’ economic problems out of official “politics”. They are in parliament to “run the country” in the national interest, rather than in the interest of their class.
That means finding policies that the bosses who really run the country will accept.
As Marx said, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.”
This doesn’t mean that workers are sheep who can simply be brainwashed. It does mean that workers who try to shine a light on their class interests are up against powerful forces that obscure them.
At different times, different groups of socialists have defended the “spontaneity” of workers’ struggle, or its “autonomy” from politics.
But reactionaries and reformists will always try to impose their ideas—whether socialists keep out their own ideas or not.
The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin argued that it would be “a profound mistake” for socialists to dodge these debates. Instead, they had to organise the most class-conscious workers to win the battle of ideas.
Lenin wrote that “all worship of the spontaneity of the working class movement, all belittling of the role of ‘the conscious element’, of the role of Social-Democracy, means, quite independently of whether he who belittles that role desires it or not, a strengthening of the influence of bourgeois ideology upon the workers.”
Similar debates about the best form of strategy and organisation are taking place on the left today.
The Bolshevik Party that Lenin was central to building played a crucial role in the 1917 Russian Revolution.
It couldn’t start the revolution itself. But when the uprising began, it almost alone was able to argue and organise throughout the working class against those who tried to divert workers away from their class interests.
That made history’s first socialist revolution possible.
Leon Trotsky explained in his history of the revolution, “Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box.
“But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.”
The absence of such a piston-box has seen uprisings that started out every bit as revolutionary as Russia become disoriented and diverted long before they take power.
Eventually the Russian Revolution was ground down by its imperialist enemies then finished off by Stalinist counter-revolution. And for socialists in Britain today revolution is a very distant prospect.
But in a system built on class robbery, there is always something to fight over.
And every fight is an opportunity to arm our side with the weapons it needs for bigger battles ahead.