Can the Working Class Change the World?

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Michael D Yates, author of Why Unions Matter (1998), dedicated most of his academic and professional career to studying labour and social movements in the US. Through his latest work, Yates contends that the working class must change the world or humanity will succumb to the barbarity of capitalism. His warning must be taken seriously because we live in a world prone to wars and global economic crises, among other evils.

Yates reiterates Marx’s position that capitalism relies on workers to produce wealth for their bosses in the form of profit. Workers are exploited — they earn less than the amount of wealth they create. The bosses are always keen, as Yates argues, to pressure workers to work longer and harder or for lower wages to squeeze more profits.

However, exploitation gives the working class more power than any other class because if workers refuse to work, capitalism can be broken. This argument holds more relevance today than in Marx’s epoch when workers were an infinitesimal minority. Now, over half of the world’s inhabitants are wage earners.

Yates explains with clarity how the capitalist class uses racism and sexism to divide the working class into hostile and competing camps. He shows how various labour organisations managed to overcome these barriers to unity in their struggle for better working conditions.

The book fails, however, to provide a convincing definition of the working class. Yates opts for broad categorisations including all those who work for the benefit of the capitalist, from wage earners to unpaid interns to the unemployed. The author is also careful to exclude CEO’s and police officers from his definition because although salaried, they do not “champion the rights of employees”.

However, one could ask whether trade union bureaucrats belong to the working class. The answer is no. Yates should have instead adopted a Marxist definition of the proletariat as deprived of ownership of means of production and exploited to show why it can change the world.

Yates’s vague understanding of class leads him to use the Chinese and Cuban revolutions as examples of working class emancipation. On the contrary, intellectuals, supported by the peasantry, headed these upheavals while workers remained inactive.

When highlighting the importance of working class organisation for defeating capitalism, the author pays too much attention to trade unions and glosses over the need for revolutionary socialist political parties.

That said, Yates’ recognition of the centrality of the working class in the struggle against capitalism must be appreciated in light of the mass strikes and protests in France, Algeria, Sudan and Haiti.