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Marxism 101: What determines your class in the 21st century?

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In the second of a series of articles on key Marxist ideas, Jess Walsh looks at why socialists argue the working class is the force that can change society
A rally for an RMT union rail strikes

Striking rail workers rally outside Kings Cross in London during their first round of strikes (Picture: Guy Smallman)

The strike wave that began in the summer of 2022 put working class struggle back on the agenda in British politics for the first time in decades. Picket lines of rail, post and BT workers popularised striking as a powerful form of resistance. A host of battles, such as the Liverpool dockers’ victory, show the mood goes beyond the national disputes. And, with votes for strikes by other groups, over half a million workers now have live disputes.

It is joyful to see working class people regaining the confidence to take action against the Tories and bosses. Strikes give a small glimpse of how working class people themselves hold the keys to changing the world.

This is the great claim of Marxism—that working class people, through their own activity, can struggle collectively to emancipate themselves from capitalist society and build a socialist society based on human cooperation. And, in doing so, it can liberate the rest of society from exploitation and oppression. As capitalism barrels humanity toward disaster, the need for a new system couldn’t be more urgent.

Because class is so fundamental to fighting for a socialist society, we need to be precise in how we understand class. What do we mean by the working class? This is often made deliberately confusing by what you read about class in the establishment press or what you’re taught in school. Despite what’s often written about class, it is not a personal identity, it’s not about the clothes you wear, how many houseplants you have, where you went to school, if you have a northern accent or not, or even by your occupation. Some of these things flow from class, but they do not determine class.

Just looking at your income isn’t the best starting point either—it doesn’t determine whether or not you experience exploitation and whether or not you will fight. There have been heroic struggles led by low paid workers, but some important struggles have been led by what would be considered high-paid workers as well.

To understand what we mean by class, we need to return to Karl Marx writings. He identified class primarily as a social relationship between groups of people based on exploitation. So, it’s not about how you identify, it is about the objective relationship one group of people has with other groups of people in society or the power held over one group of people by another.

In capitalism, there is a group of people who own and/or control what Marx called the “means of production”. They are the tools and raw materials that go into creating something, whether that’s the Amazon warehouses, offices, call centres and computers, the farms and farming equipment or the supermarkets. We would identify this group as the capitalist class.

The other group is separated from the means of production and must sell its “labour power”, its ability to work, for a wage in order to make a living. This is the working class, the vast majority in society. The capitalist needs the workers’ labour in order to get their hands on profits and keep them flowing.

Has this relationship fundamentally changed? The world is undoubtedly different to when Marx was writing about capitalism. But the fundamental relationship between those two classes hasn’t changed—it remains the key diving line in society from which everything flows.

During the pandemic it was revealed just how essential the labour of working class people was to the functioning of our society. Often it was those in the lowest paid jobs that were actually “key” or “essential” workers. Class became visible again. It wasn’t investment bankers that kept things running during the long lockdowns, it was care workers, grocery store workers, nurses, doctors, porters, transport workers, manufacturers and those working in logistics.

And, as capitalism unfurled its tentacles across the world, it has created a global working class. When Marx and Frederick Engels first identified the working class’s unique power to upturn capitalism, it was a tiny minority of the world’s population. Workers made up around ten or 20 million people, based mainly around new industrial cities in Western Europe. The majority of the global population were peasants, not workers. Today the working class constitutes around just over two billion people. Far from a Marxist understanding of class being outdated—it was incredibly far sighted.

Focusing on the working class isn’t dogma. Socialists don’t talk about the working class because we fetishize it, but because of the potential power that flows from this objective relationship. It’s the labour of millions of working class people that produces profit and keeps the system going. But workers don’t get the full value of what they create back in wages. Marx called this gap “surplus value”— which lays the basis for capitalist profit—and this process exploitation.

This imbues workers with power when they organise collectively. When workers go on strike, they have a unique power to stop the flow of profits and bring the capitalist system to its knees.

What about the middle class?

This exploitative relationship between workers and capitalists is central and at the core of society. That doesn’t mean that there are no other classes that sit in between capitalists and workers. There are the small business owners who may employ small amounts of people, shopkeepers or professionals who own their own businesses. This group, what Marx called the “petty bourgeoisie” or small capitalists, is a minority in British society.

There is the “new middle class” of managers, supervisors, and some white collar professionals who have a large amount of autonomy from managerial control. It’s around 15 percent of British society, a substantial minority. These are layers of people in the middle of society who do the bidding of the capitalists in disciplining workers and organising production.

The middle class can be pulled one way or another. They are paid more than ordinary workers and day to day do the bidding of capitalists, but they can be pulled into struggle at points by an effective working class movement.

A collective and universal class

You’re probably aware that capitalism is not the first system that has been built on the exploitation of one class by another or the first society marked by class struggle. But Marx argued that the working class was a universal class. It is the class with the ability and interest to not only end capitalist exploitation for themselves, but end class society with exploitation and oppression for good.

What makes the working class special? What does it have that, for instance, peasants in feudalism didn’t have? Peasants undoubtedly experienced exploitation. And exploitation was undoubtedly central to previous slave societies, such as Ancient Greece. What makes the working class different?

The working class is a collective class. As capitalism develops it encourages workers into large workplaces where they have the capacity to organise. Generally, capitalism needs workers collected in large workforces in large cities together, which pushes them to cooperate. To run a train system, for instance, you need to work with other people. To run an assembly line, supermarket or hospital you need to work with other people.

When peasants rose up, they would kill the lord and then divide the land between themselves. However, when the working class fights back, it starts to develop methods of self-organisation. Even smaller struggles give glimpses of a new kind of society based on cooperation. For example, a strike can build workers’ self-organisation as they come together to collectively resist the bosses and ask for solidarity from other groups.

Time and time again in revolutionary struggles, workers create new organs of democracy from the ground up. They organise strikes, protests and resistance, but can grow into an alternative organ of political rule to the capitalist state. We can see that with the Paris Commune in 1871 and the soviets (workers’ councils) in Russia in 1905 and 1917. There were the “cordones” in Chile in the early 1970s, the “shoras” in Iran in 1979 and the Polish strike committees in 1980-81.

And, more recently, the resistance committees in Sudan have mobilised opposition to the generals and stepped in to meet people’s everyday needs. 

Do workers still have power?

You often hear, “Oh, this might’ve been true at the beginning of the 20th century or the 1960s and 70s when the working class was more powerful and organised. It’s unrealistic now and the working class has lost its power.” But this isn’t true. 

Capitalism, because of its competitive nature, is constantly restructuring production and creating new pools of workers to exploit. It’s true that British capitalism has gone through a major period of restructuring in recent decades. The ruling class has decimated old, established sectors of industry, and scored important victories in a series of class battles in the 1980s.

But restructuring leads to a growth in the importance of new groups. These new groups of workers may have little experience of struggle and no organisation. Yet the experience of capitalist exploitation pushes them to fight back. Think of the thousands of low paid workers at Amazon who—facing a brutal union-busting corporation—walked out unofficially in August.

While the manufacturing workforce has declined in Britain, these workers still have power and are part of global supply chains. For example, Ford Dagenham in east London doesn’t produce cars anymore and the workforce is fewer than 2,000 compared to 40,000 in 1953. But it does produce some of the most advanced diesel engines for export, including to Ford’s Turkish subsidiary that will make cars. 

Worldwide, the manufacturing workforce grew from 393 million in 2000 to 460 million in 2019. If you include workers in mining, construction, transport and communications, the “industrial” workforce has grown to over one billion. So far from the industrial workers disappearing, they remain a massive core of the working class population of the world. While the way these workers are distributed has changed, they are still vitally important.

The increasingly global nature of production is giving some workers more power than they have had before. This is especially true for those who work in some of the huge “logistical hubs” around cities. These bring together vast numbers of companies involved in the distribution of goods, and give workers in them strategic power. On a smaller scale, think of the dockers in Liverpool and Felixstowe who went on strike earlier this year. They control 60 percent of container traffic into Britain.

“Just-in-time” methods of production and distribution across global supply chains, designed to maximise profits, means firms don’t hold large stocks. So, when one group of workers strikes at a strategic point in a global supply chain, they can shut down production in many countries.

Meanwhile, workers in education, health care and other parts of the public sector have emerged in recent years as being some of the most militant sections of the British working class movement. Public sector workers—such as teachers or nurses—do not produce a profit for capitalists. But they still allow capitalists to grab profits made elsewhere in the system, and have power when they strike.

Think of when the NEU education union organised mass meetings and advised their members to refuse to reopen schools when Covid was escalating out of control at the beginning of 2021. Children being at home affects large parts of the economy, as parents have to organise child care or take time off. The school workers’ collective action forced the government into a national lockdown, perhaps saving tens of thousands of lives. It gives you a glimpse of the power of these workers when they are organised. 

Workers in the public sector, who might have seen themselves as middle class professionals, are undergoing a process of “proletarianisation”. They are experiencing a push for longer working days, lower pay, more targets and less control over their work.

Talk to any teacher about testing, marketisation and casualisation. The creep of neoliberalism into education is spurring more and more resentment, and organisation. Talk to any health worker about their conditions and you’ll quickly see why many are getting organised.

Another argument against workers having power is “precarity”. It is the idea that we’re now in a “gig economy” where people are forced into bogus self-employment, filling part-time and temporary roles without formal employment contracts. And that this means the workforce is too insecure, too fragmented and too precarious to fight back. It has become somewhat common sense. But this is untrue.

There is no evidence that there is a vast and generalised increase in casualisation of work in recent decades. Average time spent in one job remains 16 years, and this has remained remarkably stable in past decades. The “gig economy” model is concentrated in certain sectors, such as hotels and restaurants, where bosses can tolerate a higher turnover. But the model isn’t generalisable across the economy.

However, there is a significant minority of workers at places such as Deliveroo and Uber Eats who do face those conditions. They are often young and migrant workers paid below the minimum wage. The big unions aren’t doing enough to organise these workers—and have actually made sweatheart deals with the bosses.

But many of these “gig economy” workers have got organised often in smaller unions, such as the IWGB. They’re being creative and using social media, such as WhatsApp groups and Zoom, to organise themselves. They often don’t have to go through the bureaucratic ballot process to go on strike as they can just log out of their apps. They’re showing us it’s not impossible for these workers to get organised.

A class for itself?

Capitalism is in a crisis of multiple dimensions—climate chaos, pandemics and an ongoing and deepening economic crisis. I hope that I’ve demonstrated that the working class is the force that is capable of ending this system. And that can, not only end capitalism, but create a new socialist society based on workers control of production.

However, just because the working class has an objective power, it doesn’t make using it inevitable. Marx made a distinction between a “class in itself”—a class that objectively exists—and a “class for itself”—a self-conscious subject that fights for its interests. “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,” he wrote.

But he went on, it is “in the struggle, this mass becomes united and constitutes itself as a class for itself.”

When working class people fight back, they can begin to realise their power and collective self-interest. It’s one of the reasons why socialists place so much emphasis on strikes over other forms of resistance. And it’s through struggle that the working class can “succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages”—backward ideas such as racism—“and become fitted to found society anew”.

This isn’t a straightforward or linear process. Marx understood how different divisions in the working class threw up barriers. He wrote about how the development of working class organisation and consciousness “is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves”.

The outcome of the coming struggles will be decided by how organised and united our side is when being confronted by the bosses.

Socialists have to throw themselves into the strikes. But we also have to push to spread and deepen them, argue for a strategy that can inflict serious defeats onto the bosses, and combat backward and divisive ideas on the picket lines. We have to bring class politics into struggles over oppression, war and climate, and those issues into the organised labour movement.

We have to point them into a much bigger struggle against the capitalist system. It will take struggle, and socialist organisation, to forge the working class into a revolutionary subject capable of uprooting exploitation and oppression.


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