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The working class at the centre

This article is over 20 years, 4 months old
Colin Barker continues his series on 'Where We Stand', with an explanation of why the working class is central to resisting capitalist exploitation.
Issue 1881

Under capitalism the working class has a great political advantage compared with all previous exploited classes.

Capitalism, for its own purposes, has concentrated workers together in great cities and towns. It has forced them together into factories and offices. And it has educated workers far beyond the average level of culture even of previous ruling classes.

As a result, it has made the modern working class a force that can organise itself quite easily into unions, parties, co-operatives, and other bodies and networks. Never has any exploited class in history had such a capacity to take over and run society.

The very people whose lives are currently dominated by the fact that they produce the wealth and power of capitalism are the key to its transformation.

Socialism involves the great majority seizing back, under their own control, the wealth they already produce. No vision of ‘socialism’ is worth a bean if it leaves out the working class, actively organising itself, taking control of the means of production from the capitalist class and setting out to remake society on the basis of real human need.

The road to socialism and the goal of socialism are inextricably linked. We utterly oppose all those ‘top-down’ accounts of the way to achieve socialism that suppose that some small group of clever people-intellectuals, party leaders, MPs, guerrilla army leaders, etc-can emancipate humanity from capitalism.

Socialism cannot be achieved by acts of parliament or any kind of dictatorship or minority action.

For this reason the Socialist Workers Party has always opposed the traditions of social democracy (embodied in Britain by those who talked of the Labour Party bringing socialism through parliament) and Stalinism alike. Both involve the politics of ‘socialism from above’.

Socialism is only possible when millions upon millions of ordinary working people – women and men, black and white, gay and straight – organise themselves democratically ‘from below’ and set out to take all forms of decision-making power away from the minorities who rule us today, and to impose their own collective power over every aspect of social and productive life.

The founding principle of a socialist society is the most extensive democracy, going far beyond the limited principles of ‘parliamentary democracy’ today. In order to secure and extend its rule the working class needs the active involvement of the masses of people who are currently excluded from decisions about the matters that shape their own lives.

Capitalism has a combination of two drives, both of which are direct obstacles to democratic popular control over social, economic and political life. The first is exploitation. The second is competition.

Exploitation – the extraction of surpluses from the labour of the majority by a minority – necessarily rests on hierarchy and lack of democracy. To maintain the flow of profits to a few, the social power of private and state property over us is upheld by whole armies of supervisors, foremen, managers, police, jailers and (ultimately) soldiers.

Replacing production for profit with production aimed directly at satisfying human need means breaking these hierarchies and substituting direct democratic control over society’s means of production.

Capitalism, though, is not only marked by class exploitation. Its other core feature is ‘the market’ and the necessity of competition between rival companies and states. Indeed, that competition compels the capitalist class to seek, constantly, to step up the rate of exploitation and to devise ever new methods of keeping control over labour. Competition drives capitalists to accumulate, to exploit.

Competition and the market also produce a world that nobody controls that develops through convulsive crises. Private profit dominates, and general interests take a back seat – as a result the capitalist class has no effective answer to ecological threats like global warming.

Capitalist production, driven by competitive accumulation, rips the heart out of established communities, and today threatens the very existence of life on the planet. It prevents the rational collective harbouring and development of resources.

The sole practical alternative to the anarchy and destructiveness of capitalist competition and exploitation is the development and extension of cooperative and democratic planning.

How, in the end, can human needs and wants be decided unless human beings themselves choose – democratically – what their needs and wants are and where their priorities lie?

How else can plans be sensibly evaluated and changed unless the majority can engage in debate and decide how to alter things?

Such a world only becomes possible when workers organise themselves to take that world back from their ruling exploiters and place it under their own collective power.

We have launched this column in response to questions from readers at meetings organised across the country.

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