This is the public talk I gave a couple weeks ago, my first since I started organizing in the wake of Trump’s election. I thought I’d share it with you all here!
Why the Working Class?
Today we’re taking up the essential question “why the working class can change society.” In order to answer this question we first have to define what the working class is. Here in America, we’re taught that class is purely a question of income: we have a small class of “rich” folks and a small, if growing, layer of “poor,” and that most of us are “middle class,” meaning somewhere in between. But Marxists look at class not through the lens of some arbitrary assignment based on income, but rather through relations of production. The working class is defined by anyone who has to sell their labor for a wage in order to survive.
Not only does this mean most of the world, most of America, and most if not all of us here in this room, it also doesn’t mean what the common image of a white man in overalls would imply. The working class is extremely diverse. We are multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-gender, multi-sexuality, multi-ability and much more. We don’t all work in factories–in fact most of us these days work in retail, foodservice, healthcare or education. Some of us work in tech. Some of us work in coffee shops. Some of us work as nurses, teachers, receptionists, clerks, gardeners, and janitors. These are very important details to outline at a point when the dominant message about the “working class” is that they are white racist reactionaries from the rust belt of America who are solely responsible for electing Donald Trump as president, like we’ve seen in the media. But not only has that narrative proven unfounded–most working class whites did not vote for Donald Trump, and most of the people who did vote for him were middle class, not working class–it also paints a faulty picture of what the working class looks like as a whole.
If we look at class through the relations of production, we can see that there have been different forms of society distinguished by separate classes of laborers and expropriators, such as the feudal order which came before contemporary capitalist society, or the predominantly slave-driven societies before that. Earlier class societies also produced struggles–think of the peasant and slave revolts that you probably learned about in high school history class. There were even regular workers’ strikes in ancient Egypt! But none of these was capable of overturning class society itself the way the modern working class can. The successful revolutions of these societies only replaced the current ruling class with a different one, such as the French revolution which saw the monarchy overturned in favor of the capitalists, or bourgeoisie. So what is different about today’s class society under capitalism? What makes today’s working class capable not only of revolution, but of a radical shift in the very structure of society; an abolition of class itself?
What Makes the Working Class Under Capitalism Unique?
A key difference between class society under feudalism or slavery and the conditions under capitalism is the concentration of workers, due to industry, in cities and large workplaces. Workers who are alienated from our own work–selling our labor as a commodity to survive, instead of working for the sake of the work itself–also learn how to function as a part of a complex, integrated whole with other workers. A good example of this dynamic comes from my own employment experience as a restaurant server. Waitstaff is taught both directly and by their circumstances to function as an individual; waiters are in competition with one another and with the kitchen. And yet simultaneously, the restaurant can only function when all the workers learn to work together to make it run. At the same time as I have felt tension with the kitchen staff, I’ve also jumped in to wash dishes when they were overwhelmed, and they’ve helped me run food when I was overwhelmed, because at the end of the day we have to work together for the purpose of the establishment, which is to provide food and service to hungry people. Thus, capitalism alienates us at the same time as it teaches us how to work as a collective.
What Does Workers’ Power Look Like?
What does that collective power look like? Strikes are the main power workers have, because while they depend on the employer for a job, the employer depends on the workers for their company to run, and to make a profit. And when workers strike–be it for better wages, better conditions, or even for political reasons–we begin to see change happen. Forced to band together to defend their common interests, workers can have rapid shifts in consciousness in these struggles; in shutting down their workplace and upsetting the normal workings of the system, they become suddenly aware of their own power, beginning to see their potential as a social class to shape the world around them. Workers find that in acting to transform the world, they also transform themselves.
It is during strikes that we also see historical examples of workers’ abilities to collectively run society on their own. One of my favorite examples is the 1919 general strike in Seattle, which shut down the city for six days. The workers laid out plans to keep the city running while they were on strike, including running kitchens able to feed about 30,000 people each day, even keeping up milk delivery to meet infants’ and workers’ needs!
And this is how capitalism, as Marx said, “produces…its own grave-diggers.” For the working class as a collective is stronger than the sum of its parts. This system only functions the way it does because we, as workers, make it run. And that means we can also shut it down–all it takes is one strategically placed strike, maybe among transport workers or the workers at a key point of industry like logistics, to shut down an entire city or even an entire country.
What About the Middle Class?
How does this contrast with other social classes? What about the middle classes; folks like mid-level managers, well-paid professionals like doctors and lawyers, small business owners and landlords? Do they have the power to overthrow class society?
Socialists don’t focus on workers because we believe they are somehow better than anyone else. We focus on workers and not the other classes because of their collective nature. Unlike workers, who not only have the power to shut down production and the power to get it running again on their own terms, the middle classes don’t hold a strong collective power over society. An individual manager or landlord probably has more power than an individual worker, but as a class they don’t hold the kind of power needed to overthrow capitalism, nor do they, as a class, have the same motivation to do so. This isn’t a moral quality that somehow makes workers better or more revolutionary than other people; it is by nature of their position within society that they, as a class, have both the interest and the power to overturn it. Capitalism both teaches workers how to function collectively and forces them to fight by constantly increasing pressure upon them, which actually drives the working class toward class struggle and opens the door for socialism. The middle classes can, in revolutionary moments, side with the working class, and at various points in history they have. But they are also capable of siding with the ruling class, and this changeability makes them unreliable to emancipate society.
One special thing about workers under capitalism is that they are a class whose own self-interest means the abolition of class society itself. As Frederich Engels wrote, “the mystics of the Middle Ages who dreamed of the coming millennium were already conscious of the injustice of class antagonisms…modern large-scale industry has called into being…a proletariat, a class which for the first time in history can demand the abolition, not of this or that particular class organization, or of this or that particular class privilege, but of classes themselves.” By emancipating themselves, workers have the power to emancipate all of society.
Socialism From Below
This is why we advocate for “socialism from below;” in other words that workers must liberate themselves, not be rescued by some other group on their behalf–whether that be politicians, a small band of guerilla fighters, or any other party that stands above or outside them. Eugene Debs, a union activist and important American socialist, said famously, “I would not be a Moses to lead you into the Promised Land, because if I could lead you into it, someone else could lead you out of it.”
What About Divisions Within the Working Class?
I want to also briefly take up a common question we hear, especially in today’s highly polarized social atmosphere: can the working class really unite, given the racism and sexism and homophobia and other pervasive oppressions that divide us? This is a good topic to go into more in the discussion as well, if folks are so inclined, but I want to give a quick answer on where we stand on this issue. First, we reject the idea that the working class is somehow less capable of change or less capable of caring about social issues than anyone else. Workers are, of course, at least as capable of reactionary, backward and ignorant ideas as anyone else, but we are also the only class with a material interest in fighting all forms of oppression. The ruling class, and to a lesser extent the middle classes, benefit off these systems of oppression that keep the people divided amongst themselves. But workers find quickly, through struggle, that they are all on the same side and in fact need one another in their fight for emancipation. None are free till all are free. And no class has more interest in us all being free than the working class.
What About the Low Level of Workers’ Struggle?
So if the working class has all this power, why don’t we see very much in the way of workers’ struggles today? Union membership and strike activity, for example, are both at all-time lows here in America. Some say this is because we live in a post-industrial society, and that workers as a result just don’t have the power they used to. But is that really true? This is another question that maybe folks can take up in the discussion, but a simple answer is no–workers still have power. A shift away from having large numbers of workers in industry hasn’t changed the fact that we are still absolutely key in the process of production–if even a small number of logistics workers goes on strike, for example, vast sections of all industrial processes could be shut down. We are also key economic factors when it comes to the way the capitalists make a profit. We have been disorganized and politically neutralized by decades of assault from the ruling class, but we still have the power to overthrow class society and bring about something better.
–for more reading on this topic, check out this excellent article on whether the working class still matters (e.g. “do we live in a post-industrial society?”)!–
I want to end with a quote from August Spies, a labor activist and Haymarket martyr, who was executed during the fight for the eight-hour work day, ‘if you think that by hanging us, you can stamp out the labor movement—the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil and live in want and misery—the wage slaves—except salvation—if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here we will tread upon a spark, but there, and there, and behind you and in front of you, and everywhere, flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out. The ground is on fire upon which you stand.”
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