Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Workers and The Political Class Struggle

The Necessity for a Socialist Party

In the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, Marx and Engels sketched out the development of the working class from its first struggles with the capitalist class. They began with the working class as an “incoherent mass” who then moved on, with more experience, to form trade unions and then the formation of a political party.

And a formation of a political party is precisely what occurred in 1904, with the establishment of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. The SPGB set out a clear set of socialist principles and a socialist objective. The Party placed capitalism in a historical setting, explained that it was based on class exploitation and highlighted the self-emancipation of the working class as the agent of revolutionary change as well as setting out the political means to secure freedom from capitalism. Fifty-six years after the publication of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, workers, by their own efforts and learning from past mistakes, had established a principled political organisation with socialism and only socialism as its objective. The task was to spread socialist ideas as best as possible under the circumstances and, to use an expression of William Morris, “make socialists”.

Nevertheless, Marx and Engels had concluded their sketch of the development of the working class with the following caution:

This organisation of the proletarians into a class, and, consequently into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves. But it ever rises up again, stronger, firmer, mightier.
https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/index.htm

And for over a century competition between workers has unfortunately retarded the growth of socialist ideas and the socialist movement. There has been “competition” between workers that Marx and Engels could never have foreseen at the time of writing the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO. This competition has tragically expressed itself in workers killing each other in their millions during two World Wars and dozens of minor conflicts. The working class, more’s the pity, did not “rise up again” but continued to give its support to capitalist political parties, particularly those promising social reforms rather than social revolution.

We can also add the growth of political parties, like the Labour Party who have bought workers’ votes with the promise of reforms, and the Bolshevik coup d’état as two other examples of barriers to the dissemination of socialist ideas.

The working class still largely remains fragmented and divided. There is much working class hostility towards Immigration with its racism and bigotry. There is uncritical support of nationalist politicians throughout Europe and the US. Workers blame other workers for the problems they confront, like poor housing, inadequate health care and second-rate public transport and education. The media constantly propagates further class division; the poor versus the young, prejudice along lines of gender and sexuality, the bitterness and the hostility towards the unemployed, the disabled and single mothers. There is distrust of trade unions, and a naive, individualistic belief in the chances capitalism offers for getting ahead and buying your way out of the rat-race. There is a glaring absence of class unity and political resolve which makes the putting the socialist case against capitalism that much harder.

As we have seen, one reason for this state of affairs is due to capitalist control over much of the media. This had also been the case in Marx’s day. As Marx pointed out:

"This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism...is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And that class is fully aware of it."
(Marx to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt In New York 9 April 1870
https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1870/letters/70_04_09.htm)

The capitalist class and its political agents have been very successful in their tactics of divide and rule.

A Class “for itself”

The process of becoming, what Marx called in THE POVERTY OF PHILOSOPHY (1845) “a class for itself”, is not automatic, smooth and straight forward. If workers do not become socialists and, instead, follow leaders and vote for social reforms, then you are not going to get socialism. Socialism has to be established by workers, not leaders and intellectuals. And it has to be established by a socialist majority acting together throughout the world. World socialism has to replace world capitalism.

The capitalist class and its political agents have contempt for the ability for workers to think and act in their own interest. They offer workers a bread and circus diet of mind-numbing entertainment to deflect their attention away from the real and pressing problems that only socialism would resolve: poverty, class exploitation, war, unemployment and environmental despoliation.

The sea of capitalist propaganda, pitting worker against worker, has to be overcome. In fact, Marx argued that the working class, a class bound "with radical chains," (Early Political writings, ed. J. O’ Malley, 1994 p. 69), was the one class that in liberating itself had the potential to liberate all of humanity. The capitalist class may control the media but they cannot control the contradictions endemic in the profit system, the same system which creates questioning, dissent and socialists. It is often forgotten that socialist ideas arose out of the material conditions of capitalism; they did not spring from nowhere or from the particular thoughts of a philosopher detached from society. In abolishing its own exploitation and oppression, the working class will “involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex” (Socialist Party of Great Britain, DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES, Clause 4).

To take the political class struggle to the capitalist class and its political agents, first requires workers to recognise themselves as a class and to act consciously, politically and democratically on a basis of class unity.

As Marx and Engels wrote in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO:

All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority”.
https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/holy-family/ch04.htm

As the working class gains more confidence, it will acquire more of a sense of its ability to change society. Capitalism will come to be seen increasingly as never being able to run in the interest of all society. As a result workers will become more open to socialist ideas about revolutionary change. This is the process of “class formation” — the process through which the working class “forms” itself into a socialist movement capable of struggle for the establishment of socialism.

There is no time-limit set for socialism to be established, although sooner the better. However as Marx acknowledged, socialism is not a smooth linear process. However this political process towards socialist revolution has already begun, but it is painfully slow. History is not made by doing nothing.

To pursue the political class struggle requires workers to develop more internal cohesion and solidarity, and to become a class that begins to develop an aspiration and conception of liberation. Marx believed that workers would, through their own effort, develop class consciousness and make history themselves.

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