Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Is The Working Class Cut Out For Socialism?

Unlike socialists the capitalist left has a long history of believing that the working class are either incapable of thinking and acting as socialists without the need for leaders, (like Kautsky and Lenin) or have abandoned the working class altogether for students, nationalist liberation movements or identity politics. In the latter group we now add Paul Mason, who believes that you can achieve the freedom of a socialist society or communism without the conscious and political action of the working class.

In his essay, THE MEANING OF MARXISM TODAY (NEW STATESMAN,4-10 May 2018), Paul Mason argued that the working class was no longer capable of exercising sufficient political power to break out of the capitalist prison in which it finds itself. In other words, workers were unable to reach the level of class consciousness necessary to place them in a position to change their circumstances in a revolutionary way. Mason thinks capitalism has developed strong strategies which now prevent workers making history and developing from a class “in itself” to a class “for itself ”Mason writes:

What’s left of Marxism in our era of techno-euphoria and environmental doom? Not its class narrative: despite the doubling of the global workforce, the workers of the developing world are as encaged in bourgeois society as their white, male, manual counterparts became in the 20th century. Workplace unrest will continue but capitalism has worked out how to quarantine it away from revolution.

However, individuals within capitalism are born into class relations over which they have no control. They are born into a class with class interests and take part in the class struggle on a day to day basis. For the vast majority of society, what unifies them as a class is being divorced from the means of production and distribution and forced to have to sell their ability to work for a wage or salary; daily, weekly, yearly in order for capital to reproduce itself through class exploitation. Clearly Mason has no understanding of Marx’s theory of value or his theory of class struggle.

Imprisoned within the wages system, workers do not have their needs met in order to lead creative and worthwhile lives. Capitalism denies workers the ability to flourish and to democratically take part in the affairs of society. Workers under capitalism do not produce what they need nor have direct access to what has been produced. As the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the State, protects the means of production and distribution, there is only one way for the working class to emancipate itself and that is by engaging in the political class struggle – a struggle for working-class emancipation.

The working class and self-emancipation

And that emancipation from class exploitation has to be through a principled socialist party using the revolutionary vote and parliament. Workers, through socialist delegates will have to gain control of the machinery of government to allow a socialist majority to replace capitalism with socialism: the profit system with the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.

Mason denies this possibility and looks for an alternative revolutionary subject in the “self”, abstracted away from class, class interest, class struggle and revolutionary class politics. He writes of “individual human beings”, “human essence” and of “humanity” not of class and class struggle. He replaces class politics with a “humanist” politics which might suit his “radical social democracy” but has nothing to do with Marx and Marx’s concept of freedom.

In any case Mason’s exclamation “The revolutionary subject is the self” is a weak and idealistic abstraction more associated with the graffiti sprayed on Parisian buildings in 1968 than one to be found in Marx’s mature writings such as CAPITAL.

Mason’s “the self” is not rooted in class society and revolutionary politics. It is a fiction. Mason appears to be moving from the Trotskyism of his youth to the Labour Party as a “radical social democrat”, where he currently finds a convenient political resting place and perhaps, when the Corbyn project disintegrates, move on to radical liberalism.

Mason and Labour’s Reformism

And the Corbyn’s reformist project, supported by Mason, has a high chance of failure. The Labour Party, if it forms a government intends to initiate a reformist programme which will include, amongst other things, higher taxes on incomes over £80,000 per year, raising corporation tax and introducing a tax on certain City deals. Labour wants to use this additional income to spend on schools, infrastructure, childcare, the NHS, reversing the benefits freeze and abolishing tuition fees. On top of these reforms, Labour wants to renationalise the railways, the water industry, the National Grid and Royal Mail, and there are also proposals on helping small businesses, the self-employed and enhancing “workers' rights”.

Labour’s reformist politics does not address class ownership of the means of production and distribution nor the class struggle. However these social reforms will come up against the profit limitations of capitalism. Tax avoidance, relocating companies abroad and the unintended and negative consequences of social reforms will have a marked adverse affect on this “radical social democracy” as Mason calls it. And then there is the likelihood of an economic crisis and trade depression forcing Corbyn to protect the profitability and competition of British capitalism against the needs of the working class. The slogan “For the Many not the few” will be forgotten as a Labour government comes up against the challenging problems thrown up by capitalism.

What will Mason do when Corbyn’s Labour government fails, as have all previous Labour governments have failed? Mason’s politics is then only a short step away from “radical liberalism”, with its cult of the individual, to free market anarchism; a movement made by others before him, like the leadership of Living Marxism/Spiked.com who, like Mason, now proclaim that the working class is not a revolutionary agency for social and historical change.

And placing so much emphasis on Marx’s 1844 notebooks, as Mason does in his NEW STATESMAN article, is ridiculous. Marx at that date, in his mid-twenties, was still working his way out of Hegel and 18th C enlightenment thinking towards his own ideas. He was on a political journey and his notebooks were his way of sorting things out - not the last word by any means. Rather than take Marx’s ideas about capitalism forward, Mason appears to want to go backwards, from Marx to Hegel to classical liberalism.

Marx and the working Class

Marx’s brilliant breakthrough came in seeing in the working class as the potential agency for freedom: a universal class because it alone can create a classless society. It is a unique theory. No one else expressed it in this way because no one ever saw in the Europe of the time the potential in the down-trodden, the exploited and the poor; a class that could actually become socialists and establish socialism by their own efforts. Leaders were not needed, no matter how benign. As Marx wrote, with Engels, in the GERMAN IDEOLOGY (1846), socialist revolution

can only be effected through a union, which by the character of the proletariat itself can again only be a universal one, and through a revolution, in which, on the one hand, the power of the earlier mode of production and intercourse and social organization is overthrown, and, on the other hand, there develops the universal character and the energy of the proletariat, without which the revolution cannot be accomplished; and in which, further, the proletariat rids itself of everything that still clings to it from its previous position in society”.
https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/

From Marx, this was truly revolutionary thinking borne out of the material conditions of a then emerging capitalism and working class.

And Mason’s final sentence quoted above about “the impulse towards individual liberation” seems to be an attempt to reconcile Marx's early idea of freedom by means other than conscious working class action.

Marx was right about how such ideas from the likes of Mason, has come to be the received wisdom of the age; that the workers are not cut out for establishing socialism.

"Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man's ideas ... consciousness, changes with every change in .... his social life?... The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class." (see SPGB edition of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, p78).

To deny the workers can ever have the potential to become socialists and establish socialism through their own initiative and effort is surely one of the most pernicious ruling class ideas to be found in capitalism.

Workers are cut out for Socialism

Capitalism would have workers compete against each other - and different groups and sections of the working class are set against each other: skilled/unskilled, black/white, men/women, old and pensioners and sick or disabled/ hardworking, home-seekers/home-owners, etc - every possible individual or group characteristic is dragged in to create a competitive division, and prevent solidarity and unity. In many countries, language and religious differences are used to divide different ‘communities’ and nationalism is used to foment conflict and civil wars.

Yet workers have organised against capitalism; workers have politically acted in their own class interest by establishing the Socialist Party of Great Britain as far back as 1904. And in establishing a principled socialist party with socialism and only socialism as its objective workers showed that they were not permanently “encaged in bourgeois society” and quarantined from socialist revolution. True, there are few socialists on the ground but the historically capitalism cannot meet the needs of the working class it will always create dissent, questioning and a search for alternatives.

For decades, former would-be “Marxists” have declared that the working class is “dead”, or has been “bought off” with the promise of cheap consumer goods and readily available entertainment like television, computer games and mass sporting events – the “culture industry” of bread and circus existence, as Adorno and Horkeimer of the Frankfurt school once remarked. They too, along with Herbert Marcuse (ESSAY ON LIBERATION, 1968) all gave up on the working class.

Mason appears to want to have Marx without the working class and without a socialist political party. He tells “the vanguard party” to go forth and multiply, which is fine by socialists since a vanguard party has nothing to do with Marx or the establishment of socialism by the working class.

However Mason’s utopianism was dismissed by Marx and his co-writer Frederich Engels, at the time of writing the Communist Manifesto. They wrote:

"The theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would-be universal reformer.

They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes..


”. And in believing that workers are not cut out for making socialist revolution – making history - Mason did not see us.

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