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The Working Class


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With remarkable prescience, then, the Manifesto demonstrates that capitalism, due to its internal contradictions, inevitably moves from crisis to crisis. "And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises?" asks the Manifesto. By the conquest of new markets, which only paves the way for "more extensive and destructive" crises.

But in a crucial sentence the Manifesto says:

"But not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons – the modern working class – the proletarians."

On the one hand, the power of the bourgeoisie, the capitalist class, comes primarily from their ownership of big business. But on the other, big business cannot operate without workers. So as the capitalist class has developed historically, so inevitably the working class has developed proportionately.

In a footnote inserted at the very beginning of the Communist Manifesto, Engels states that the working class is defined as:

"the class of modern wage labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live."

Although the working class in Marx and Engels' day were largey factory workers, there is an important difference between the way Marxists define working class people and the popular but narrow defintition of working class meaning those who do manual labour only, or those who are impoversished more generally. There are two simple but essential points that Marx and Engels understood.

Firstly, unlike members of other classes, including perhaps even the most impoverished farmer or peasant, the working class do not own their means of making a living, in the way that factory owners own factories and live off the profits of the labour of others, bankers own banks and live off the interest people pay on their loans, or landlords own land and live off the rent they extract. This essentially sets the working class apart, even, strictly speaking, from small, impoverished farm owners, shopkeepers and taxi drivers, who often struggle to make a living but own their produce, shops and taxis, from a Marxist point of view.

Instead, secondly, the working class can only sell their own ability to work, their "labour power", their muscles and brain power, for a more or less fixed sum each week or month, paid as wages or salary. Competition between firms then means that the boss must attempt to extract as much work as possible from those workers for that wage or salary.

Traditions

The working class arose historically as a quite separate class in this sense, and it can become very much aware that it is an exploited class, exploited by the bosses, landlords and to varying degrees by those who act as their agents and their enforcers.

The working class then develops historically as both an economic and a social formation in society, with its various traditions. It then encompasses not just those in work, but their families and those who cannot or do not work.

It encompasses the unemployed, the disabled, and people who care for children or relatives for example, or school students and those in further or higher education.

And if unemployed workers take up taxi driving or other self-employed positions, they may remain part of the working class from this social viewpoint, especially if they continue to adhere to its class consciousness and support its struggles, even if, nominally, they now own the means to make their own living.

Social attitudes

Engels' definition is very broad. At the turn of 2007, 57% of people considered themselves working class in the UK (British Social Attitudes survey from the National Centre for Social Research) and the percentage is increasing. This view is completely at odds with conventional sociological measurements which categorise working class people according to "blue collar" or manual occupations and have tended to suggest that around 30% to 35% of people are working class.

Clearly, Marxists are more in tune with popular perception as shown repeatedly in the social attitudes surveys. The Marxist definition of the working class in the Communist Manifesto encompasses far more than purely factory and industrial workers, as is conventionally defined, although, because of their position in the production and distribution process, manual workers (including not just factory workers, of course, but a wide variety of occupations from nurses to train drivers) remain a key section of the working class. In fact, the working class, from the point of view outlined by Engels, encompasses the great majority of society in Britain today, as with other economically advanced capitalist countries.

Fundamentally, from the point of view of the Communist Manifesto, workers are those who "must sell themselves piecemeal" for a wage or salary, as the Communist Manifesto says. In the broadest sense, this definition applies equally today to the car worker, the office clerk, the civil servant and the teacher.

Of course, not by any means all those who are paid a salary can simply be considered members of the working class. Those tied by a thousand strings to the capitalist class - the top management layers, and the highly paid tops of the army, police, civil service, health service and so forth - although salaried and not capitalists, cannot, from the perspective of the class nature of society, be considered to be part of the working class.

Middle class

From a Marxist view, the term 'working class' does not in any sense refer simply to anyone who is impoverished. This is a common misconception, particularly found in the USA, where the term 'middle class' is often used by politicians to group together skilled and semi-skilled workers, together with shop keepers and small business people without discrimination. A certain level of affluence has certainly come from time to time historically to many sections of the working class, especially its most skilled and most educated sections, as a result of its own trade union and political organisation.

White collar workers, of course, are commonly perceived to be part of the working class in the UK, especially since the second half of the last century, as the social attitudes surveys show. The modern owners of the 'strip-lit satanic mills' of the twenty-four hour call centre, situated in the north of England where the sons and daughters of redundant miners work, are today using factory methods, imposing zero hour contracts, smashing unions – in a word – teaching the class struggle anew.

Even so, some sections of workers on good incomes consider themselves to be middle class - if this were not so, the percentage of the population considering themselves working class would be much higher still. But from a Marxist perspective, taken in the broadest sense, those who work for a salary or wage are mostly part of the working class. And this is being proved, not just in surveys, but in action.

Many workers in what were once relatively privileged occupations have, over the last few decades, been forced into playing an active role in strikes and demonstrations, as a kind of baptism into working class struggle. Civil servants, teachers and lecturers, for instance, are more and more becoming an integral part of the working class from the point of view of the class struggle. (In the case of the UK's Public and Commercial Services union, the PCS, an important part of that struggle.) Socially, some individuals from these different sections of the working class may seem worlds apart, but the working class is drawn, the Manifesto points out, from disparate sources.

Many of the old 'lower' middle class of Marx's day and since were forced into the ranks of the working class, working as an appendage to some vast conglomerate. Many who were once proud self-employed 'trades-people', those who did not work directly for a boss, and were not waged or salaried employees, were forced by competition from big companies to lose their independence and seek paid work - a process which continues to this day.  With great foresight the Manifesto explains:

"The lower strata of the middle class -- the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants -- all these sink gradually into the proletariat ... Thus, the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population."

Marxism argues that the economic position people find themselves in, for instance as waged or salaried workers who can only, in the final analysis, use the methods of collective class struggle to get better wages, plays a very important part in their developing consciousness.

*   *   *

Impoverishment

Now the Manifesto does not simply argue that ever-increasing impoverishment leads workers to rise up. This common misconception is repeated in the Introduction to the 1998 Verso edition of the Communist Manifesto, celebrating 150 years since the Manifesto’s publication, written by Eric Hobsbawm. The "inevitable pauperisation" of the working class, he claims, was "the mechanism which was to ensure" the fall of capitalism and the victory of the working class.

Professor Hobsbawm, the historian (and once leading theoretician of the British Communist Party) who declared in 2009 that socialism has failed and was bankrupt (Guardian, 10 April 2009), represents many intellectuals who blunt the cutting edge of Marxist thought. "What is wrong with the Manifesto" Hobsbawm proceeds to conclude, is the claim that the working class should be considered the only "really revolutionary class." (Communist Manifesto, Verso edition 1998, p. 21)

Hobsbawm misses the dynamic (or ‘dialectic’) of the Manifesto. Far from envisaging purely the "inevitable pauperisation" of the working class, the Manifesto presents a battle between the working class and the bosses, "a more or less veiled civil war" with its victories and defeats, in which the working class can develop an increasing consciousness of its role in society:

"The real fruit of the battle lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers."

Trade unions are formed, first locally, then nationally, and the divisions between the different trades and sections of the working class are overcome, and unions merge and act together. Working class parties are formed. The working class "goes through various stages of development."

"This organisation of the proletarians into a class, and consequently into a political party, is continually being upset … But it ever rises up again, stronger, firmer, mightier."

The workers’ struggle "compels legislative recognition." The Manifesto gives the example of the "ten-hours bill in England", government legislation to limit the length of the working day. In this way, episodically, the working class in Europe raised itself up over the last two centuries, collectively, more and more using its collective strength, forming political parties which - for a period - enacted legislation in its favour. But as long as capitalism remains, each victory is only temporary, and must be re-won again and again. This process will continue until capitalism is eliminated.

It is true of course that this battle has proceeded for far longer than Marx anticipated. The working class – especially in Europe, at least for temporary periods – have won countless concessions from the capitalists, perhaps far greater than anticipated in the Manifesto, though Marx was to live to see working class representatives enter a bourgeois parliament. (The German Social Democrats, at that time considered a Marxist party, won twelve seats in the Reichstag in 1881, despite enormous persecution.)

It is also true that capitalism has impoverished the oppressed peoples of entire continents of the globe. Socialists and anti-globalisation writers have described in great detail how multinationals and capitalist institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have reduced the poor and the oppressed of country after country to the most desperate poverty.

Yet incredibly – reflecting his cosseted existence – Hobsbawm asserts that capitalism did not bring impoverishment: "this did not have to happen – and indeed it did not." (p. 22)

 

The Central Role of the Working Class


But is the working class the "only really revolutionary" class which can bring about a socialist society, as the Manifesto maintains? Why did the Manifesto single out this class, and not, for instance, the (then) far more numerous, and in many cases more oppressed, rural poor?

The Manifesto explains very clearly that the role of the working class is determined by its material position in society. As industry develops "the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels its strength more."

It is the unique position that the working class has, at the centre of the production and distribution of goods and services, the overwhelming majority in big towns and cities, which make it specially qualified to take over the running of society. Its struggles inevitably become "political struggles." As Lenin, leader with Trotsky of the Russian Revolution of 1917, put it: "The factory united them, town life enlightened them, the common struggle in strikes as well as revolutionary action hardened them." (The Historic Service of Marx and Engels)

The Manifesto summarises:

"All previous historical movements were movements of minorities… The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air."

Neither the car worker, shop worker, office clerk or the teacher own their own workplace, or the tools they use, or own the product of their labour. It is absurd to even think it. As to whether they own a house, a car, or only the shirt on their back is immaterial. They do not possess property from which they can earn a living - they are not landlords, or capitalists, shopkeepers or moneylenders. They don't prosper from dividends of stocks and shares.

Most of us - the vast majority - live to work and work to live. For us there is no profit, just the same wage or salary, with perhaps a meagre bonus, or perhaps a pay cut. However many petty grievances come between us from time to time in our daily grind, our effort is essentially collective, whether in industry or the service sector, in order to finish our day’s work.

By comparison, the peasant and the middle class small businessman or shopkeeper is in competition with his or her peers, as is the capitalist.

The ex-Marxist Hobsbawn argues that the working class in Europe has not shown itself to be historically the revolutionary class that Marx and Engels anticipated in the Communist Manifesto. By arguing this he, and other so-called Marxists like him, denigrate the many heroic struggles of the working class in Europe over the decades and essentially deny the possibility of socialist revolution.

For the Manifesto, on the other hand, since the bosses cannot create capital without the working class:

"What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers."

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