Karl Marx saw workers as the key to transforming the world. For Marx—a revolutionary from Germany—the working class was the “gravedigger of capitalism”.
Marx’s analysis of capitalist society led him to see that workers have a unique position within it. He described how the main divide in capitalism is between bosses and workers.
Bosses own the means of production, such as offices, factories and machinery. Meanwhile workers are forced to sell their labour power to the bosses in order to live. Capitalism turns them into a commodity.
Workers aren’t paid the full value of what they create. This exploitation is at the heart of the social relationship between bosses and workers.
It means that workers are short-changed, but it also gives them immense potential power.
Capitalism can only exist if bosses successfully exploit workers’ labour. So if workers refuse to work, they can bring the entire system to a halt. They have a collective power that marks them out from other classes.
But workers can do more than stop capitalism. They can build a classless world that is free from exploitation altogether.
Marx described how human history is full of this kind of class struggle.
These have been the driving force of human history, ushering in new kinds of societies. For instance the bourgeoisie, or capitalists, were a revolutionary class compared to the feudal lords that came before them.
Capitalism saw an enormous development of production that underpinned a fundamental transformation of society. But Marx explained how, once capitalism was established, the bourgeoisie became a block on further progress.
“At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production,” said Marx. “From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters.”
We can see this today. Capitalism has generated the economic potential to meet the basic needs of everyone on the planet—and more. But the way production is organised—with profit-making before all else—stops this potential from being reached.
Marx argued that the working class has the power to sweep this society away and establish “true democracy”.
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Frederick Engels wrote, “The proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class.”
They didn’t reach this conclusion by simply observing workers. Marx and Engels helped set up and were part of several organisations that focused on working class struggle and included workers in their ranks.
This also meant Marx was aware of problems in advancing the workers’ cause. The Communist Manifesto notes that the organisation of workers “is continually being upset by the competition between the workers themselves”.
But Marx maintained that only workers could free themselves—no one could do it for them. He argued that in struggle the working class would become a “class for itself”, one that consciously fights for its own interests.
And the process of revolution would not only transform the world but also the workers who made it. Marx wrote that only through revolution can the working class “succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew”.
Today the working class makes up the majority of the world’s population. When the Communist Manifesto was written in 1848, it was a tiny minority. But even then Marx and Engels could see that this class had the potential to end exploitation and class division for good.
“The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains,” they wrote. “They have a world to win.”