“The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves” – so reads the first sentence of the rules to of the First International Workingmen’s Association, one of the first ever organizations to unite workers internationally. This formulation is at the heart of Marxist and socialist politics, but what does it mean?
Marxists put the working class at the centre of their worldview because workers exist at the very centre of the capitalist system. Workers are the people with their hands on the leavers and gears in workplaces all around the world, and as such are the very source of capitalist profits. They are essential to the transformation of society, because by withdrawing their labour they can confront the capitalist class and win. But for Marxists, the struggle of the working class is all-important not only because workers struggle against capitalists, but because in struggling for their interests the working class has the potential to lead a general struggle against every sort of oppression that has it’s origins in class domination – a struggle for socialism.
Who is the working class?
When they acknowledge that it exists at all, capitalist commentators have a wide variety of contrasting and conflicting ways of defining the “working class.” So define it as the section of society that has the lowest income – as opposed to the “middle” and “upper” classes. Others define it by occupation or lifestyle – typically stereotyping workers as straight, male and employed in performing manual labour. Marxists reject these definitions as being arbitrary, imprecise and superficial definitions that obscure as much as they reveal.
When Marxists talk about class, we are talking about the ways in which people interact with one another in the world of production. In other words, we are talking about how the world of work is organised through the whole of society. Workers have a very specific relationship to production: we are the people who must sell our ability to labour in order to live. Workers lack ownership or control over the means of production – the factories, mines, offices etc. and the machinery that is contained therein – a fact which compels us to keep coming back to the workplace, day in and day out, so they can get the wage or salary that we need. They stand in contrast to capitalists, who derive their wealth from ownership of the means of production, the raw materials and ultimately, the fruits of the workers’ labour. This arrangement leaves the workers with little or no say over how they work – the capitalist gets to decide what will be produced, how much will be made and when and where it will be done. Inside the workplace, the worker is not free.
Because of their control over production, capitalists are able to profit from the labour of workers. Workers’ labour is used to create new goods and services that the capitalist is able to sell for more than their original value. This is what Marxists mean when we say that workers are exploited. The amount of profit a capitalist can make is limited only by the amount of labour they are able to employ, and so the capitalists have an interest in squeezing everything that they can out of the worker. They try to extend exploitation as long as possible, making the workers under their command work as long and as hard as possible.
But workers don’t benefit from any extra exploitation. It’s not as if you get paid a higher hourly rate simply because you work longer hours. A worker’s interest is to lessen the exploitation that they are subjected to, by campaigning for a higher wage, limiting working hours or gaining greater social benefits (e.g. pensions, healthcare plans, holidays etc). The capitalist’s interest in maximising profits and the worker’s attempts to gain a semblance of control over their own life inevitably come into conflict.
As individuals, however, workers are weak because they are each responsible for the operation of only a small part of what is a massive factory system. Conflict with the capitalist thus encourages workers to combine together to defend their interests. Only by overcoming the capitalist drive to competition and organising collectively can they fight successfully against any capitalist. Once this begins to happen, the conflict between capitalist and worker becomes increasingly generalised and takes on more and more the character of a confrontation between the whole of the working class on one hand, and the whole of the capitalist class on the other. It becomes what Marxists call class struggle.
The modern working class
A key feature of the working class today is what is known as the “white-collar” working class – workers employed in administrative and service work in an office, school, retail outlet or government department. Some view these occupations as not truly “working class” and critics claim that Marxism is outdated because the number of “traditional” or “blue-collar” workers employed in manufacturing has declined (at least in the West).
Indeed the working class has undergone massive changes since the majority of western workers were employed in manufacturing industry in the 1950s. Starting in the 1970s, global capitalism was restructured in response to a crisis in profitability (not unlike the economic crisis today). Unprofitable industries were closed down and moved to places where labour cost was lower – automotive factories in Detriot for instance, closed and downsized while new ones were opened in Alabama, where wages were lower and workers had fewer union rights. Low-wage economies like Poland, China and Indonesia became powerhouses of manufacturing and new products like microwave ovens, computers and mobile phones were invented that provided new outlets for investment.
The changes in capitalism resulted in changes to the working class. More workers in the west were employed in transporting, selling and servicing the new goods, and in administering the giant capitalist empires that were built on them. But their fundamental relationship to the means of production hasn’t changed. Basically, the new white-collar workers are necessary additions to the same system of production in which their blue-collar cousins work. And recent strikes at supermarket distribution centres, call centres and fast food outlets show that they can be organised in the same way as well.
The class struggle and socialism
Because it is in their interest to organise collectively, workers also have a greater interest in equality for all than other sections of society. Artificial divisions in society such as those based on race, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation serve to fragment the working class and in doing so render a great service to the cause of exploitation. To organise effectively therefore, workers must overcome divisions in their own ranks fostered as racism, sexism and homophobia.
An example of how social divisions of this type benefit the capitalist class can be seen in the organisation of shift-work at many supermarkets. The managers of many supermarkets quite consciously organise the various shifts along ethnic lines. One shift (typically an evening or late-night one) will be staffed predominantly by Indians, for example, and another by Pakeha workers. A third shift might be staffed by Maori and older Pakeha. By separating the workers thus, the manager is able to re-affirm their sense of what makes them different from one-another and makes it more difficult for workers in one shift to communicate and organise collectively with workers in another. The manager is thus able to take out a sort of insurance policy against union organising and may even gain a pool of reserves that can be drawn upon in the event of industrial action. To defeat this tactic, workers have to be prepared to organise across any such barriers that may be put in their way, and so fighting against racism, sexism, homophobia and the like is a key task of the workers’ movement.
Workers also have an interest in defending public goods such as universal healthcare, free education and a decent welfare system against cuts and capitalist drives for privatization. Because their income is limited by the hours available for work, combining all the resources of society in the state provision of services is in the workers’ favour. Private education and healthcare is often prohibitively expensive, and the more the goods that society produces and distributes in a co-operative, equal manner, the more available they are to workers.
The current structures of the welfare state (or at least, what remains of it) are the result of previous struggles. Without the struggles of workers’ and other social protests (in which workers have often played a key role), we wouldn’t have a minimum wage, sick pay, annual leave, union rights, health and safety regulations, environmental protections, publicly-funded healthcare, universal suffrage… the list goes on. Even Labour Day began life not as a public holiday but as part of a campaign in favour of the 8-hour working day.
New Zealand’s history – like that of all nations – has been punctuated throughout by workers struggles. The great maritime strike of 1890, to the coalminers strike at Blackball in 1908, the 1912 Waihi miners’ strike, the 1951 waterfront lockout, the strikes that defeated wage freezes in 1968 and 1976-77, the waves of strikes (often alongside protest action) in 1969-70 and 1976, and the strike movement against the retrograde ‘Employment Contracts Act’ in 1991 are just some of the greatest examples. Some of these struggles were successful and others went down in defeat. But none of them stands alone. Working-class struggle comes in tidal waves of radicalisation and discontent that leave the working class better organised and more aware of its collective interests than it was before. It was a wave of strikes lead by coal and gold miners in 1908-1913 that created New Zealand’s first militant union federation – the “red” Federation of Labour. Struggles in the 1970s – in which working class organisations played a key role – gave enormous energy to a whole variety of social movements, including those for women’s liberation, gay and lesbian rights, for tino rangitiratanga and for the environment.
In fact, the working class in New Zealand has a long and proud tradition of struggling for every aspect of social justice above and beyond the interests of workers themselves. Working class activists were central in the struggles for universal suffrage at the turn of the 20th centenary, for example, and were key fighters against militarism and conscription during the First World War. Riots by unemployed workers during the depression helped accelerate the adoption of social welfare and organised in their unions, workers were a powerful force supporting militant struggles of the 1970s such as the occupation of Takaparawha (Bastion point) in and the campaign to keep nuclear-armed warships off our shores.
One solution: Revolution!
As much as has been achieved by workers movements in Aotearoa and around the world, history does not stand still and the capitalists are always trying to gain the upper-hand with a counter-offensive aimed at driving down workers’ living standards, smashing their organisations and destroying hard-won rights. The neoliberal reforms of the 1980s and 90s that we described earlier were one such offensive. Over that period, union membership declined and many rights workers previously had went with it. Overtime rates for example, are a thing of the past in many industries and wages are little higher in real terms than they were 30 years ago. New Zealand workers now work some of the longest hours in the OECD.
If workers’ struggle is not to become a labour of Siphysis (the ancient Greek character who continuously rolled a bolder back up a hill after it rolled down), workers must overthrow the whole capitalist system in a worker-made revolution. If they are to have any chance of success, such a revolution must generalise all the lessons workers have learnt in their long history of struggle. It must be a revolution not only for workers rights, but against all the oppression that people suffer under capitalism. Inside the working class itself are the most diverse elements of society – workers are Maori and Pakeha, Asian and Pasifika, gay and straight, woman and men. The capitalist class uses oppression – sexism, racism, homophobia and all forms of bigotry and inequality to divide the working class and prevent us from rising up, so a revolution that doesn’t liberate all of society is not a revolution for workers either. Political action by workers is the key to obtaining a socialist society that will end oppression forever, which is why the working class has such a central place in Marxist politics.
As Karl Marx himself wrote – “Workers of the world: Unite!”