Why workers can change the world

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Karl Marx's claim that the working class has the power to change the world is perhaps his most important contribution to socialist theory. Before Marx workers were viewed at best as victims of the system or more typically as a rabble whose existence threatened civilisation. Marx challenged these assumptions, arguing that workers' collective struggles for freedom pointed towards a potential socialist alternative to capitalism.

This vision is widely disparaged today. However, criticisms of Marx often miss their target. This is particularly true of those who reject his model of class from "common sense" or sociological perspectives which tend to equate class with social stratification - the various ways of differentiating people along lines of income, status, occupation or patterns of consumption. What, it is asked, do university-educated teachers, factory workers or low-paid shop workers have in common?

Viewed from the perspective of these and other differences it seems obvious not merely that old patterns of class struggle are less relevant to politics than they once were, but more profoundly that actual patterns of difference are becoming so complex that appeals to class are out of date.

But this tendency to one-sidedly emphasise differences within the workforce only makes sense if stratification is viewed in isolation from the broader process of exploitation. Marx, by contrast, showed how capitalism's complex process of exploitation creates not only a myriad of differences across the labour force, but also common relations that cut across differences of income, occupation, status, etc. It is these common relations that make a class a class. Marx's model of exploitation does not lead Marxists to dismiss differences within the working class. Rather it points to a material basis for solidarity across these divisions.

Marx's method
Marx's approach to the study of class is best understood historically. He argued that although we can distinguish humans from other animals by all manner of criteria, our ancestors actually distinguished themselves from the natural world through social and purposeful work aimed at transforming nature to meet their needs. Of pivotal importance to this process was the Neolithic Revolution, the moment 8,000 to 10,000 years ago when groups of humans who had until then existed by foraging from nature, broke with ancient patterns of behaviour to begin cultivating crops.

By remaking themselves as farmers, humans for the first time had systematically to produce a surplus in order to reproduce their farms over time - for example, to provide for grain reserves to guard against bad harvests. This created a new social problem: who controls the surplus? Classes (along with states and women's oppression) emerged when minorities - after a very long transitional period - fixed their control over the surplus produced by the rest of society.

Understood from this perspective, class is not a universal characteristic of human history but has a definite historical origin in the emergence of a particular relationship by which one group gained control over the social surplus produced by another.

This approach to the study of class has three great strengths. First, it allowed Marx to periodise history by examining the different ways that surpluses are extracted by the ruling class from the producers: for instance the way feudal lords exploit peasants is different to the way capitalists exploit wage labourers, and this results in different forms of social conflict in feudal and capitalist societies.

Second, by pointing to the origins of class this model illuminates the necessary conditions for the abolition of class: whereas class emerged when there was enough surplus to allow an elite to take control but not enough for these benefits to be enjoyed by everyone, the possibility of overcoming class divisions developed when the level of surplus rose to a point where these benefits could be generalised - something Marx showed capitalism had made possible.

Third, by putting the production of a surplus at the core of his model of class, Marx demonstrated the intrinsic relations between the wide variety of roles within the capitalist economy.

Indeed, Marx's conception of capitalist class relations only makes sense in terms of his dynamic model of capital accumulation. Capitalism is a novel and uniquely dynamic mode of production that emerged when the direct producers (the peasantry) were removed from control over the land to become "proletarians", people for whom survival depends on selling their ability to work in the labour market. This shift in social relations was incredibly important because it created the conditions by which capitalism became simultaneously the most dynamic and the most out of control (or "alienated" as Marx called it) social system known to history.

Peasant production
The relative stability of peasant production was rooted in the effective control peasants tended to have over the land: they produced largely for themselves (with a percentage being taken in tax by the lords) supplemented with a small amount of bartering or market exchange.

By contrast, the system based on wage labour is one in which workers are compelled to seek work wherever they may find it. This characteristic of wage labour allows capitalists to redistribute labour (through redundancies in one area coupled with growth elsewhere) from less to more profitable areas. Moreover, because production is for the market, capitalists constantly feel a pressure to innovate. Taken together, these conditions mean that labour will tend to be redistributed to the most efficient producers. Wage labour thus underpins a tendency for the productivity of labour to increase under capitalism.

Though Marx wrote a great deal on the relationship between wage labour and the dynamism of the capitalist system, he never finished the section of Volume Three of Capital in which he began to define class. Nevertheless, he left enough material for us to reconstruct a model of class from his works.

One important attempt to do this was made by Lenin. He defined class as a relationship: workers sell their capacity to work while capitalists buy these abilities. The great strength of this approach was its illumination of similarities between superficially different jobs.

Unfortunately, it is not a wholly satisfactory model. For instance, modern capitalism operates through senior managers who, like workers, often sell their ability to work, but who, unlike workers, are not exploited (indeed they play a key role in the exploitation of others). There are also other groups whose conditions of life overlap both with capitalists above and workers below them - middle managers, certain professionals and so on. These "new middle classes", whose existence reflects the growing complexity of the capitalist labour process, tend to help maintain the exploitation of workers while simultaneously experiencing pressures that partially parallel those felt by these workers.

The most sophisticated attempt to reconstruct Marx's theory of class in relation to the complex and developing social process of exploitation was outlined by Geoffrey de Ste Croix in his magnificent Class Struggles in the Ancient Greek World. He argued that, "Class (essentially a relationship) is the collective social expression of the fact of exploitation, the way in which exploitation is embodied in social structures... A class...is a group of persons in a community identified by their position in the whole system of social production."

Once we think of class in terms of a complex process of exploitation and capitalism as a uniquely dynamic mode of production we can begin to understand how increases in the productivity of labour will lead to constant changes in the structure of the working class.

This has happened, for instance, in manufacturing. Though British manufacturing workers do not have the social weight they once did, increases in the productivity of labour mean that, despite the decline in the number of manufacturing jobs, in 2007 British manufacturing output was at an all-time high.

Not only does this imply that manufacturing workers can become objectively stronger at the same time as their absolute numbers decline, but it also suggests that the introduction of new technologies means that modern workers need very different skills than did their predecessors.

One result of these changes is that modern workers will have a very different level of formal education than did workers in the past. If in the past education was the preserve of the elite, today a formal education (at least to the level of basic literacy and numeracy skills and, for increasing numbers, to university level) is a necessary prerequisite for almost every job. This process has had two consequences.

First, workers are much better educated than ever before: indeed, the majority of modern workers are significantly better educated than were even the bulk of rulers from most of the past, and this helps prepare them to take democratic control over society as a whole.

Second, viewing the education system from the point of view of the capital accumulation process allows us to recognise how educators relate to other workers. Because industry needs educated workers, it needs educators. Moreover, because mass education is (in essence) a process designed to produce the next generation of workers, it is qualitatively different in function from earlier forms of education which focused merely on equipping the elite with the skills and confidence required to rule.

Most teachers today contribute educated workers to the production process, and they do this as wage labourers who sell their ability to work like other workers. This creates a life experience that increasingly parallels that of other workers: they are under constant pressure to increase their efficiency by educating more students at less cost.

A similar story could be told of the health and social service systems. Educated workers are (from the point of view of capitalism) an expensive resource, and it would be a waste to allow illness etc to remove them from the labour market. Like the education system, therefore, health and social service systems are best understood as essential to the process of exploitation. Consequently, those nurses, social workers, administrators and so on who work in these areas are best understood as part of the working class because of the role they play in maintaining the capital accumulation process.

This is not to say that the health and education systems can simply be reduced to the needs of capital - it is clear that social movements have put demands on these institutions which have broadened their functions in ways that escape capital's narrow focus on boosting profitability. Nevertheless, because these structures essentially grew in response to the needs of capital, the vast bulk of those who work in them are best understood as part of what Marx called the "collective labourer".

Common interest
By generalising this perspective we can grasp that despite workers doing innumerable different jobs of different status and at different rates of pay, they are all part of the exploited collective labourer, and they all experience similar pressures to increase their productivity. There exists a common interest across the working class to (collectively) resist capitalist exploitation in the name of a democratic alternative that does away with exploitation altogether.

By contrast, capitalists are those who sit atop this process of exploitation and who surround themselves with layers of functionaries- managers, the judiciary, an apologetic media, the police, the army, etc-who act to ensure the continuation of the conditions of exploitation. However, while capitalists command the exploitation process, production for the market ensures that they, like workers, are alienated because they have no overall control over a system governed by blind, unplanned competition between rival capitals.

Though capitalism ensures that everyone is alienated, capitalists not only benefit from control over the exploitation process but also tend to experience this alienation as freedom and self-realisation. Workers, by contrast, are exploited and tend to feel degraded by their experience of alienation.

These differences create an antagonistic relationship which means that capitalism is best understood not simply through class divisions (stratification) but more profoundly as a system of class struggle. Exploitation as a social process not only creates objective links between various workers as part of the collective labourer, but also creates an antagonistic relationship with the capitalists and those upon whom they depend for the smooth running of the system: those who the Russian Marxist Bukharin called - in a slightly different context - the "collective exploiter".
Once we recognise that class struggle rooted in exploitative relations is at the core of the capitalist system, we can see that workers have a unique power within capitalism. Because the system depends upon the exploitation of wage labour, workers have the potential power to bring it down.

Why the working class?
This is why Marxists argue that anti-capitalists should orientate towards the working class. We have no illusions about workers being angels, but we do recognise that they have the strategic power to turn off the flow of profits. And it is the emergence of this collective labourer that creates the potential for the producers to replace alienated market relations with democratic control over the production and distribution of the social surplus: socialism.

While refusing to romanticise workers, we nevertheless recognise that in order to develop the collective organisations necessary to resist and ultimately defeat capitalism they must overcome the divisions within their ranks. They must struggle for solidarity to overcome not only the various forms of stratification noted above, but also those numerous divisions along lines of oppression - racism, sexism, homophobia, etc - by means of which the working class is often divided against itself.

Whereas contemporary cultural theorists tend, like sociologists of class, to fixate on the differences between various oppressed groups, once we recognise that all members of these groups are in fact integrated one way or another into the capitalist process of exploitation, we can begin to see a basis for universal liberation.

By contrast with those who conceive oppression merely as difference, our argument that the working class includes all those who are related to the (broadly conceived) process of exploitation allows us to grasp how it includes not merely workers of various types, but also workers from every oppressed group alongside the "reserve army" of the unemployed and those unwaged labourers who by staying at home with children, for example, help reproduce the workforce.

From this perspective it is clear that workers' solidarity can only be won by constantly challenging all those forms of oppression that divide these various groups against each other. This is why Lenin insisted that socialists should act not merely as trade union secretaries but rather as "tribunes of the oppressed". It is also why Marx called the modern working class the "universal class". He recognised that for workers to win their freedom they must struggle collectively for real democracy, and because he understood class in a broad sense he recognised that, though workers' "self-emancipation" must be won in struggle against the capitalist class, it could only be won through the general emancipation of humanity.

The return of resistance
Finally, if the possibility of a socialist alternative to capitalism is rooted in those daily forms of solidarity practised by the collective labourer, it is in large part because the workers' movement has been in retreat since the 1980s that this image of an alternative to capitalism has gone out of favour.

The return of mass strikes from Egypt, to Greece, to Britain creates the potential for turning this situation round. Anti-capitalists can help this process by making links with the workers' movement, and hopefully this article has given some sense of why they should: workers solidarity has the potential not only to bring capitalism down but also to replace it with a democratic socialist alternative.

Paul Blackledge's new book Marxism and Ethics will be published in spring 2012.