There are many different groups of people suffering in the world and many divisions that exist in society. Why do revolutionary socialists talk about the working class in particular being the key to transforming society?
Discussion about class becomes confused by academics using superficialities to try to define class. For them you can be described as working class based on the contents of your fridge, where you shop, or even what kind of accent you have.
In contrast Karl Marx, writing over 150 years ago, wanted to penetrate the surface appearance of capitalism in order to really understand what was going on. For him the central divide in capitalist society is between the tiny minority of people who own all the offices, factories, multinational companies, banks and financial institutions (what he called the “means of production”) and the vast majority of people who have no other option than to go and sell their ability to work to such companies. This relationship is based on exploitation. Those who own the means of production make vast profits from the fact that those who work for them are paid far less than the value they actually create once they are in work. Since capitalism is a system based on competition between rival firms, the bosses constantly try to further increase their profits by making their employees work longer and harder or accept less pay.
Therefore class is not about whether you shop at Waitrose or Aldi, or enjoy going to the opera or the pub. Your class is defined by your objective relationship to the means of production. Do you own the means of producing wealth in society or do you have to go and work for someone else and sell your labour power like a commodity? Class is not something you can individually define for yourself but is a social relationship based on your position in the process of exploitation at the heart of capitalism. Are you an exploiter or exploited?
Marx argued that the working class has a unique position in capitalism. Precisely because it is the working class that actually does all the productive work in society and creates the profits that are crucial to capitalism, it has the economic power to challenge the system.
Workers are brought together in workplaces – be they factories, car plants, call centres or mail depots – where bosses constantly look for ways to squeeze more profit from them. This forces workers to resist and the most effective way they can do this is to organise collectively.
Workers are forced to cooperate and have an intrinsic interest in overcoming divisions that weaken their side. Therefore their economic position in society means that the working class has the power as well as a collective interest in transforming that society completely through its own struggle. As capitalism has spread across the globe it has created millions more workers. This is what Marx meant when he talked about how capitalism creates its own gravediggers.
It has become fashionable to argue that the working class in Britain has shrunk, citing evidence such as the closure of the pits and the decline of manufacturing. However, throughout its history capitalism has been characterised by the constant revolutionising of the means of production. The competition at the heart of capitalism means that firms repeatedly restructure production in order to try to get ahead of their rivals. This process destroys old ways of working and creates new methods that in turn change the structure of the workforce and the types of jobs in an economy.
While some sectors of the economy have declined others have expanded. But it was never the case that only people doing manual jobs were working class. Indeed most workers do not fit the image of the stereotypical worker in overalls or a flat cap. The appearance of the working class may change. But what has not changed is that capitalism is a system based on competition between rival firms doing their utmost to pump the maximum profit out of their workforce.
In modern capitalist society there are still two main groups – the small minority who have enough wealth to live a life of leisure if they want and the great mass of people who can only survive by working for someone else. Based on this well over 75 percent of people in Britain are working class. This division is more important than any other in society and determines most of our life chances.
So class is an objective, social relationship. This is different from what we might call “class consciousness”. Just because Marx talked about the revolutionary potential of the working class it does not mean all workers are revolutionary right now. Many working class people may not even define themselves as such. But workers are still workers even if they own their house, have some shares or vote Tory.
Indeed there can sometimes be a big difference between the interests of working class people and the actual ideas some workers might hold at a particular time. For example the slogan “British jobs for British workers” is immensely divisive yet it was taken up by sections of workers in recent disputes. So in every struggle thrown up by capitalism there is also a political fight over ideas.
Socialists talk about the centrality of the working class in changing the world not on the basis of simply being cheerleaders for workers. It is on the basis of understanding that only the working class, the people who produce all the goods, services and profits under capitalism, has the potential economic power to challenge the capitalist class and sweep aside the rule of a minority.
Most of the time people don’t feel like they have that economic strength. But every strike, picket line or workplace occupation provides a glimpse of this collective power to change the world.
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