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After the EU vote – where do ideas come from and how do they change?

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Marxism can help explain why some workers have racist ideas and how that can change, writes Alistair Farrow
Issue 2511
Striking Hovis workers reading Socialist Worker on a picket line in 2013 - ideas can change in struggle
Striking Hovis workers reading Socialist Worker on a picket line in 2013 – ideas can change in struggle

The political turmoil after the European Union referendum has provoked another round of arguments about what working class people think.

On the one hand politicians keep insisting that the message from workers is that they oppose immigration.

On the other, many workers support an anti-racist Labour leader. It’s in the establishment’s interest to play one up and the other down.

Far from the largely working class Leave vote being purely driven by racism, only a third of Leave voters said they voted for tighter border controls.

Given the level of racism from both official referendum campaigns, it is impressive that more people did not buy into it.

Yet it’s still clearly the case that some workers do support the racism that our rulers use as a weapon against us.

Consciousness is complex, and Marxist explanations of it can help to demystify it. The ideas that people have are not fixed. They come from the world around them and their experiences.

Workers often adopt ideas that fit with the reality of capitalism—such as seeing other workers as competition. That’s why the revolutionary Karl Marx said, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.”

That’s even more the case when racism and other capitalist ideology is pumped out daily from the top of society, from politicians and the media.

But workers are also brought into conflict with capitalism on a daily basis and this shapes their ideas too.

The way individuals understand society is highly uneven. Everyone has different experiences and reacts to them differently.


A minority of working class people see that the interests of their class pit them against capitalism, and consistently oppose racism and the bosses. Another minority of hardened reactionaries buys fully into the bosses’ ideas.

But the vast majority are in between, with a mix of ideas that can contradict each other.

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci said that a worker’s consciousness is generally split into two parts.

“One which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with 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,” he wrote.

This contradictory consciousness can be pulled in different ways.

What unifies workers is their collective exploitation by the bosses. That’s the basis for collective activity against the bosses’ system.

And as people act as a class it can help them to think as a class. This can undermine the ideological basis of racism.

By striking together and going on demonstrations, people’s ideas can change and the dominant ideas can be challenged and overcome.

When a white worker with racist ideas stands next to their black co-workers on a picket line to fight for their collective interests racist ideas are confronted.

Only through class struggle can the battle of ideas be won. Parliamentary politics, left to the professionals, is no substitute for workers’ activity.

Gramsci said, “Every revolution has been preceded by a long process of intense critical activity, of new cultural insight and the spread of ideas through groups of men initially resistant to them.”

Revolutionaries must build that activity and intervene in these debates on the side of class consciousness.

Key concepts

In order to fight the battle of ideas, Marxism explains how society shapes them

  • Class consciousness is the understanding that we share common interests as workers against the bosses
  • In practice workers have uneven consciousness—some accept the bosses’ ideas more than others do
  • Most have contradictory consciousness—holding some ideas that fit with the system, others that reflect our interest in fighting it

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