Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Socialism, the Working Class and the Class Struggle

Capitalism is a world-wide, integrated social system characterised by commodity production and exchange for profit. Not only is the profit system split up into competing nation states, but capitalism is also divided into two classes – the capitalist class and the working class.

The capitalist class owns the means of production – oil, gas, transport, communication systems, factories and distribution points and so on. The capitalist class also owns what workers produce as commodities, to be later sold on the market for profit. Capitalism is a profit-making society and not one whose sole basis is to meet human needs. And the power, privilege and ownership of the means to life of the capitalist class are all protected by the machinery of government, including the armed forces.

The working class does not own the means of production, nor does it have direct access to what is produced. Workers have to sell their ability to work, or labour power, as a commodity to capitalists in exchange for wages and salaries necessary to buy food, to pay the rent and mortgage and to produce and reproduce themselves and their families as an exploited class. And the working class is exploited. It is exploited just as slaves and serfs were exploited in previous social systems.

However, exploitation under capitalism is not so direct and simple as it was for the serf working on the lord’s manor. Market relations hide class exploitation under capitalism. Unlike the slave or serf, workers are seemingly “free” to sell their labour power on the labour market to whoever wants to buy it. It was Marx who showed how and why the working class produces a surplus of wealth over and above what it gets back in wages. It is this unpaid surplus which creates the vast differences in the ownership of wealth between those who produce but do not own and those who own but do not produce.

Capitalists have every interest in increasing the intensity and extent of class exploitation. This forces the working class, individually or collectively, to resist an increase in the rate of exploitation. Under favourable economic conditions workers can also struggle for higher wages and better working conditions.

Trade union membership is another means by which workers resist the encroachment of capital, backed-up with the strike weapon. Even though strikes in the UK during 2017 have fallen to the lowest rate since 1893 – 276,000 working days - (GUARDIAN 31st May 2018), we must not forget that trade unionism should be placed in the context of changing patterns of employment the introduction of new forms of technology, and the anti-trade union legislation enacted since 1979, including the more recent Trade Union Act of 2016. Without trade unions workers are vulnerable to aggressive and callous management. Ambulances, for example, had been called to Amazon’s distribution centres at least 600 times in the last three years – more than four times every week. The GMB union also reported that pregnant women “are forced to stand for 10 hours a day, pick, stow, stretch and bend, pull heavy carts and walk miles”. (OBSERVER, 3rd June 2018).

Marx saw the usefulness of trade union action. He argued that: “By cowardly giving way in their everyday conflict with capital, they (the workers) would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement”. Marx, here, was speaking to the General Council of the First International in 1865 on the question of trade union in pursuing higher wages. However, trade unions are not the answer to the problems facing the working class under capitalism, for as Marx noted: "the working class ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects”. He went on to conclude that the only way to prevent the capitalist class from exploiting workers is to “abolish the wages system” (VALUE,PRICE AND PROFIT, International Publishers, p. 61). Marx’s view is accepted by socialists today.

Governments also take part in the class struggle on behalf of the capitalist class, whether by passing anti-trade union legislation, imposing wage freezes or income policies, and breaking strikes. Governments also carry out propaganda campaigns either misleadingly claiming workers cause inflation by struggling for higher wages and salaries or telling workers that they are lazy and do not work hard enough. During the last century the use of troops against striking workers by Labour governments, particularly during the post-second world war dock disputes, rivalled the Tories. Labour government also used troops to break the fire-fighter’s strike of 2002-2003 which echoed the actions of the Callaghan government in 1977 when the army using “Green-Goddesses” against the nine week Fire-fighters’ strike.

Class exploitation leads to class struggle on a daily basis, whether there are trade unions or not. Less than 25% of workers in the UK are now trade union members but conflict at work manifests itself through grievances, absence, high turnover of workers leaving a company for another one, the withdrawing of commitment, sickness and other forms of protest. The rate of strike action may have fallen over the last two decades, particularly after the economic crisis of 2006-7, but 1.37 m working days were lost due to sickness and injury in 2017 (Guardian, June 2nd 2018). Another recent change is the increasing use by trade unions and workers of the courts. In 2016 the ride-hailing firm Uber was told its drivers should be classed as workers with minimum-wage rights. However, the legal system is expensive, the trade unions might lose the case and face crippling legal fees, and the law might be changed to favour employers.

If the economic terrain of the class struggle is tilted in favour of the capitalist class, the results of inequality should hardly be a surprise. Class exploitation certainly brings its rewards to the capitalist class who live off the unearned income of rent, interest and profit. Since 2008, the wealth of the richest 1% has been growing at an average rate of 6% a year – much faster than the 3% growth in wealth of the remaining 99% of the world’s population. Should that continue, the world’s richest 1% is on course to control as much as two-thirds of the world’s wealth by 2030 (GUARDIAN 7th April 2018).

To counter this huge concentration of wealth, power and privilege generated by the exploitation of the working class can workers have to abolish capitalism and its replacement by socialism. Reformism has failed. For over two hundred years reformers have been trying to improve the lot of the working class or trying to make capitalism “more fair”. It can’t be done. Capitalism can only run in the interest of the capitalist class. And as we have seen, it has been running very well for the capitalist class to the detriment of the workers.

Only a committed socialist majority can change society to work for everyone through the establishment of the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society. However, a socialist majority has to remove the coercive machinery of government so as to prevent it from protecting the ownership of the means of production and distribution of the capitalist class. To create a society where production and distribution solely takes place to meet human needs, workers will have to take conscious, political and democratic action through the revolutionary use of parliament and the vote. Only then can a classless society begin to make the necessary social arrangements to ensure that the needs of all of society are met.

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