“A power greater than their hoarded gold”

January 26, 2009

Adam Turl explains why the working class holds the key to transforming society.

IT ISN'T often that a member of the U.S. Congress acknowledges that the source of wealth in modern society is labor. But there was Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) at a rally outside the Republic Windows & Doors factory in Chicago in December, as workers inside occupied the plant.

"It seems to me that it was [the workers'] labor that put together those windows," Gutierrez said. "It was their creativity, it was their work, their commitment to quality that made this company successful...Those windows belong to the workers until they are paid for."

Ordinarily, we're taught to see class as based purely on a person's income or lifestyle. But Gutierrez's comment goes to the heart of how Marxists understand social class. Working-class people--in factories, shops and offices--collectively produce all the wealth under capitalism. This is the basis of their power to completely transform society.

What's more, workers aren't just being robbed in situations like at Republic, where the factory owners refused to pay them what they were owed. Workers are robbed every day at work. Even when they are paid, workers aren't paid for the full value of what they produce, but only part of it.

Supporters of Republic WIndows and Doors workers picket outside of Bank of America

Capitalism is based on exploitation--on extracting more from workers than they receive back in wages and other benefits. This difference is surplus value--the source of the capitalists' profits.

Legally, bosses and workers may appear to be equal. But this "equality" conceals the inequality of capitalism. As the 19th century writer Anatole France put it, "The law, in majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread."

Under capitalism, the ruling class owns and controls the "means of production"--the tools needed for modern production and trade, which includes factories, office buildings, ports, trucks, trains, railroads, airplanes and so on. The vast majority--the working class--owns none of these things, so they are forced to sell their ability to work (in return for wages) to the capitalists.

By this definition, the working class includes factory workers at Republic Windows. But it also includes service workers--like the Starbucks baristas that have organized unions from New York to Minnesota, other retail workers, medical workers, teachers, transit workers, and so on. Using government statistics as a starting point, at least 75 percent of the U.S. workforce fits the Marxist definition of working class.

What else to read

Paul D'Amato's The Meaning of Marxism provides a lively and accessible account of the ideas of Karl Marx, using historical and contemporary examples.

The best introduction to Marxism remains The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. A new edition of the Manifesto, edited by Phil Gasper, provides full annotation, clear historical references and explanation and additional related text.

For a thorough examination of Marx's writings on class, look for Hal Draper's Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution, Vol. 2: The Politics of Social Classes.

Sharon Smith's Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States is an excellent introduction to the class struggles that have shaped U.S. history.

Not only is the working class bigger than just the manufacturing workforce, it also doesn't fit the stereotypes about it.

During the 2008 Democratic primaries, for example, Hillary Clinton's campaign pushed the idea that it was more appealing to "American workers"--that is, conservative white men and women who didn't go to college. Membership in the working class isn't defined by the level of college education, race or social attitude (although polls show workers tend to be more socially progressive than society as a whole).

Millions of working-class people--for example, teachers and nurses--receive a college education. The working class is also more multiracial than society as a whole--and getting more diverse. The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education projects that from 1980 to 2020, the white working-age population will have declined from 82 to 63 percent of the whole, and the "minority portion of the workforce" will have doubled to 37 percent.

The working class includes all those who are compelled to work in exchange for wages--a class that owns no productive property and has only one commodity to sell in the market: its labor power, or its ability to work. As Karl Marx argued, the working class is a "class of laborers, who live only so long as they find work, and who only work so long as their labor increases capital."

Another myth frequently peddled in the mass media is the idea that most people in the U.S. are part of a "middle class," and that the "American Dream" insures each generation will live at least modestly better than the one that came before.

First of all, this defines class merely by a person's wages or salary. While income level is an element of class, class is best understood in relationship to the production of wealth.

Still, after three decades of attacks on working-class people (culminating in the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression), it is hard to plausibly argue that most workers belong to a "comfortable" middle class, or that the current generation is doing better than the last one.

By 2004--before the current crisis--the average hourly wage for a white male worker in the U.S. was only $16.82. Black workers made just $12.23 an hour on average. In 2007, young workers made 10 percent less than their counterparts in 1979. These are not the wages promised by the "American Dream."

There is a middle class "in between capital and labor" of small and medium-sized businesspeople and professionals whose jobs are to maintain parts of the capitalist system. They may have some degree of autonomy in terms of the production of wealth--but they do not control the "commanding heights" of the system.

WORKERS' INTERESTS are fundamentally opposed--root and branch--to that of the ruling class. Workers have no interest in increasing profits (which means increasing their own exploitation) or in fighting their bosses' wars (which pits them against their brothers and sisters abroad). Workers and their dependents also comprise the vast majority in the advanced industrial economies.

However, from a Marxist point of view, the importance of the working class goes beyond numbers or its irrevocable grievances with capitalism. The working class--which Marx called the "gravedigger" of capitalism--has the power to create socialism, a truly equal and democratic society.

The working class has this power because of its unique position within the economy and its propensity toward struggle.

As Marx wrote, "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle." Capitalism is no different from any previous society--and the working class is repeatedly pushed into conflict with the ruling class, its institutions and ideas.

Take the current economic crisis. Even though hundreds of millions around the world are going hungry, and others have lost their jobs, nevertheless, factories are idle, and fields lie fallow. These conditions push workers toward struggle (even if the outbreak of such struggles isn't automatic or predictable).

As Marxist author Hal Draper put it, "To engage in class struggle, it is not necessary to 'believe in' the class struggle any more than it is necessary to believe in Newton in order to fall from an airplane...The working class moves toward class struggle insofar as capitalism fails to satisfy its economic and social needs and aspirations."

Capitalism also begins the process of organizing the working class by "socializing labor" in large workplaces and urban centers. Before capitalism, most people worked as individuals or in small groups.

As Frederick Engels wrote of the industrial revolution:

The spinning wheel, the hand loom, the blacksmith's hammer, were replaced by the spinning machine, the power loom, the steam hammer, the individual workshop by the factory implying the co-operation of hundreds of thousands of workmen. In like manner, production itself changed from a series of individual into a series of social acts, and the products from individual to social products.

Because the working class labors socially, it also tends to fight back socially--for example, by forming trade unions and similar organizations.

The working class has incredible economic leverage in its struggle with capitalism. The most advanced technology and productive power is concentrated in workers' hands. As the old labor hymn, "Solidarity Forever" says, "In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold."

Workers have the power to go on strike--to withhold their labor--and paralyze the system, either in its entirety (through a general strike) or in part (through a strike in a particular workplace, or by a section of the working class). Obviously, strikes at individual factories or against one company are most familiar, but there are examples in recent history of more widespread labor stoppages.

For example, on May Day 2006, hundreds of thousands of workers essentially went on strike to protest anti-immigrant legislation in Congress. Mass strikes have beaten back anti-labor legislation in Europe, helped defeat South African apartheid and force democratic elections in South Korea.

Workers can also seize hold of the means of production in workplace and factory occupations--as with the Republic workers in 2008 or the Flint sit-down strikes in 1937 that organized the auto industry and led to a wave of sit-down strikes across the U.S.

The power and social character of the working class has allowed workers to set up organs of direct democracy with revolutionary potential--from the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 to the Portuguese Revolution of 1975. In these cases, the working class formed "workers councils" or "soviets" directly elected from workplaces, with immediate recall of representatives.

These councils began to act as a new workers' government with the potential to replace the capitalist state.

THE WORKING class is a potentially revolutionary class. But capitalism is set up to divide the working class and keep it unaware of this potential.

This happens both because of the way capitalism is organized, and because the ruling class and its institutions intentionally foster what Marx called "false consciousness."

Under capitalism, workers are forced to compete with one another for jobs. As Marx wrote, the "organization of the proletarians into a class, and consequently into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves."

This is one of the reasons why trade unions are so important. By combining into unions, workers can short-circuit--to some degree--the competition among themselves, and negotiate wages and working conditions as a united block with the employers.

The ruling class also relies on ideology designed to pit workers against one another and to keep them passive. An army of academics, priests, pundits, journalists and "experts" are deployed to spread the ruling ideas of society on television, in classrooms, from the pulpit, in print and on the Internet.

Some of these ruling ideas include: workers can't change (or run) society, revolutions always end in tyranny, capitalism is the best of all possible worlds, different sections of the working class have mutually exclusive interests (white vs. Black; straight vs. gay; men vs. women; rural vs. urban; Christian vs. Muslim, American vs. everyone else).

False consciousness is the main impediment to working-class revolution. Marx understood that there was a sharp distinction to be drawn between the working class as it is--which includes workers with backward political ideas--and its potential as a revolutionary force.

In other words, the working class is already a class "in itself," but only through political struggle does it become united, conscious of its position and power, and a class "for itself."

It is struggle itself that proves to workers what ideas work and don't.

For example, racist ideas are obviously ill-suited to winning a strike in a multiracial workplace or workforce, compared to the ideas of equality and solidarity.

The successful unionization drive at the Smithfield meatpacking plant in Tar Heel, N.C., took years of organizing, bringing together Black and Latino immigrant workers, including protests against an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid and a walkout to protest the company's refusal to make Martin Luther King Day a paid holiday.

During the Republic factory occupation, hundreds of gay rights activists joined a protest of the workers and their supporters outside the Bank of America offices, strengthening both the Republic struggle and the renewed movement for equal marriage rights.

Struggle can also prove to workers that they have the power to change society. The victory of the 1937 Flint sit-down strike against GM led to a "sit-down strike wave," during which hundreds of thousands of factory workers, clerks, janitors, soldiers and secretaries occupied their workplaces to demand union recognition.

Larger struggles prove that workers have the ability to run the whole of society. For example, during the Seattle General Strike of 1919, the city strike committee not only organized the citywide labor stoppage, but it began to organize essential services like waste management and food delivery.

As these struggles--victories as well as defeats--accumulate, workers can become conscious, organized, confident and independent enough to overthrow capitalism.

The struggle for solidarity and unity doesn't just occur at the workplace around economic issues. As Marx noted, the "struggle of class against class is also a political struggle." For example, all workers are oppressed under capitalism, but some workers are also oppressed because of racism, sexism, national chauvinism and homophobia. The struggles against these injustices are also central to the fight against capitalism.

The role of socialists is to try to organize--at each stage of the struggle--the left wing of the working-class movement with the goal of strengthening the workers' movement as a whole. In today's world of war, racism and economic and ideological crisis, there could be no more urgent task.

Further Reading

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