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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."

The essential condition for the existence and power of the capitalist class is "the formation and augmentation of capital." Yet inevitably as the capitalist class develops, so the working class develops proportionately.

The working class (the "proletariat") in Marxist terms, does not mean only factory or industrial workers, as is commonly supposed, but rather, the vast majority of society - the 99%. The Manifesto declares: "The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority." In the Manifesto, the term working class does not merely refer to anyone who is impoverished, a common misconception. It certainly does not exclude those who cannot work – the unemployed, the disabled, and people who care for children or relatives for example, or school students and those in further or higher education – who would be working for a living, if circumstances were different.

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.  This applies equally today to the car worker, the office clerk, the teacher, and the junior doctor – and in the UK, at the time of writing, the junior doctor works the longest hours! The modern '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.

Some sections of workers on good incomes may consider themselves middle class. But from a Marxist perspective, taken in the broadest sense, those who work for a salary or wage, are almost all part of the working class. Teachers, lecturers, civil servants, for instance are more and more becoming an integral part of the working class, from the point of view of the class struggle. The civil servants, for instance, once popularly considered a section of the lower middle class in their entirety, have developed a strong trade union, which, at the time of writing, is playing a leading role in trade union struggles.

In addition the old 'lower' middle class of Marx's day and since who were once proud self-employed "tradespeople" - that is, those who do not work directly for a boss, and are not waged or salaried employees - are daily finding themselves forced into the ranks of the working class. 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.

On the other hand those tied by a thousand strings to the capitalist class - the top management layers, and the tops of the army, police, civil service, health service and so forth - although salaried and not capitalists, of course cannot, from the perspective of the class nature of society, be considered to be part of the working class. (Who amongst this layer can, at a certain point, be won to the side of the working class under an uncompromising leadership, is a different matter, which we cannot touch on here.)

Now the Manifesto does not argue that increased impoverishment leads workers to rise up. This common misconception is repeated in the Introduction to the 1998 Verso edition of the 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, historian and leading theoretician of the now defunct British Communist Party, represents many intellectuals who attempted to blunt the cutting edge of Marxist thought. "What is wrong with the Manifesto" claims Hobsbawm, is the claim that the working class should be considered the only "really revolutionary class." (p21)

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.

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.)

But 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 working class, the poor and the oppressed of country after country to the most desperate poverty.

Yet incredibly – reflecting his very cosseted existence – Hobsbawm asserts that capitalism did not bring impoverishment: "this did not have to happen – and indeed it did not." (p22)


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 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, office clerk, the teacher, nor the junior doctor, 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. We live to work – we work to live. For us there is no profit, just the same wage or salary. 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 Hobsbawm represents those who in essence denigrate or reject the working class as a revolutionary class, and by so doing denigrate 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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