Extinction Rebellion’s recent actions have been a breath of fresh air. Blockades of central London bridges in April forced climate change to the top of the political agenda.
Now school climate strikers have called on workers to join a general strike for the climate on 20 September.
Revolutionaries see the call for strikes as a significant escalation for the movement—but why?
That’s because workers have a unique power under capitalism that other groups don’t have.
The revolutionary Karl Marx explained how the main divide in society is between bosses and workers, or a ruling class and a working class.
Bosses own the offices, factories and machinery. Workers are forced to sell their labour power to bosses to get by.
But the bosses don’t pay workers the full value of what they create. They keep some of that value as profit.
And because capitalism is based on bosses competing to make profit, workers are very powerful.
Without their labour, profits don’t exist. Individually, workers take part in all kinds of political activities, such as joining demonstrations or direct action stunts.
But when they take action collectively, as workers, they ramp up the pressure on those at the top of society.
The Russian revolutionary Lenin argued that we can see the “hydra head of revolution” in every strike. Strikes don’t only stop the flow of profit. When they are big enough, they can challenge the whole way that society is run.
Under capitalism, the bosses and their representatives make all the key decisions. We are told that everyone has their place and that important decisions must be left to “experts”. We are also told that bosses and workers have a common interest.
Workers’ action completely undermines this logic and gives workers a glimpse of their ability to run things.
It can help workers see the world in a different way and give them confidence to fight for more.
That’s why the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg said that the “most precious thing” to come from strikes is the political impact it has on workers.
Not all strikes are the same, and action can be more or less radical at different points.
Sometimes trade union officials can keep a tight grip on events.
At other times, there can be a high level of workers’ involvement and self-organisation. But all workers’ action opens up the possibility of a bigger challenge to the system.
Marx argued that the working class can build a socialist society free of class, exploitation and oppression.
He said that revolution is the only way to force the ruling class to give up their wealth and privilege.
But he also said it’s the only way that workers can throw off the “muck of ages” and learn how to run society for themselves.
Time after time we have seen how workers change in revolutionary situations.
Backward ideas, such as sexism and racism, make much less sense when ordinary people are fighting together.
Strikes are at a low level in Britain today and we are far from a revolutionary situation.
But even a relatively small number of walkouts on 20 September can help create a situation where workers are more confident to fight—and encourage others to join them.
Marx argued that workers can’t be liberated by others acting on their behalf.
They have to liberate themselves. Workers’ self-activity isn’t just a better method to win this or that reform.
It’s part of preparing ordinary people to take charge of their world.