What’s so special about the working class?

Marxists are for the working class. Socialists and communists calling for a radical transformation of society were around before Karl Marx entered the scene in the mid-1800s. But Marx, in the Communist Manifesto, provided the slogan used by the left all over the world to this day: “Workers of the world, unite!” 

Workers are oppressed, even in wealthy countries. They perform repetitive and sometimes dangerous tasks. Working harder, for less, in conditions set by their employers, workers spend more of their lives working, for less pay, and die earlier than their bosses.

But in a system that creates so much misery, the suffering of workers can seem just one problem among many. Capitalism ruins lots of lives, for lots of reasons. Around the world, racial minorities are scapegoated, face discrimination in all levels of society and are brutalised by the police and courts. Indigenous populations are driven from their homelands and migrants are imprisoned at borders. Women are objectified, abused, robbed of their pay and denied the most basic reproductive rights. The list of injured and oppressed groups is vast. Longstanding victims are robbed again and again, while the people running the system find new targets.

We have to resist all forms of oppression. And we should, as much as possible, resist them together: solidarity strengthens movements for freedom and justice. For example, when we fight against racism, we must be mindful of sexism also. We have to build campaigns and movements that unite those who suffer, so we can strike together against our common enemies – the state, big business and the political parties that represent them. But among all the groups suffering oppression, there is something special about the working class. Anyone who wants to change the world needs to understand it. 

First, the working class is the majority of society. Far from the cliché of it being only blue collar men, it comprises anyone who works for a wage and has no control over the work they do. So it is incredibly diverse – white and black, nurse and teacher, man and woman, waiter and labourer, gay and straight, shelf stacker and barista, Indigenous and immigrant, driver and cleaner, Muslim, Christian and atheist. That means it has an interest in fighting, and is often at the forefront of fighting, the oppression or exploitation of any of its members. 

Did you know, for example, that construction workers were at the forefront of defending gay rights? In 1973, Jeremy Fisher was expelled from Macquarie University’s Robert Menzies College for being gay. Members of the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation refused to work on any site within the campus until his expulsion was reversed. They won. “The guys on the working site didn’t give a rat’s arse about people’s sexuality”, Jeremy later told Grapeshot, the university’s student publication. “All they cared about was people getting a fair go, and they didn’t see my situation as getting a fair go.”  

Second, the working class has an extraordinary capacity to challenge the powerful because it creates all the wealth in society. The politicians and business executives are a tiny minority who don’t do the work, but control all the assets. They rely on the working class to grow the food, mine the earth, generate the electricity, build the cars, engineer the telecommunications systems, heal the sick and so on. So when workers organise to withhold their labour – to stop work and go on strike – they can quickly inflict huge damage on our rulers in a way that other groups can’t.

Take teachers in West Virginia, USA, who recently went on strike and defeated a government attempt to privatise education. “Our students are not for sale, West Virginia is not for sale”, Katie Endicott, one of the teachers, was quoted as saying in Jacobin magazine. “It’s infuriating that people would try to profit off us: privatisation would give millions of dollars to elites and it would create even more haves and have nots. We want better funding, and better schools, for all students. All students are worthy.”

Their strike created chaos, and the lawmakers backed down. They couldn’t have gotten that outcome through polite debate or pleading. They won because they used workers’ power. 

Third, the working class is constantly pushed by the system to organise – to get some control over their working conditions. Workers are not always the most moral people in the world, or the nicest or the least bigoted. But no matter what ideas an individual worker holds, s/he can’t stand alone. Bosses and governments rarely cut only one worker’s wage, or change the rules for only two or three workers. They do it to all employees at once in a workplace or a company or a country. So workers have to stand together to resist. 

Even on the smallest scale, workers have to unite to win. And we’re used to working together: our workplaces are complex little societies that require dozens, hundreds or thousands of workers to cooperate, but we rarely get to control much about how we interact with each other, what we do or why. Workers fight for our rights through strike action, and if a strike’s going to win, it needs the support of lots of workers. If we’re to strike against our boss, or against the government, we have to talk to each other, learn each other’s motivations, inspire and encourage each other, and trust that we’re deciding collectively.

That’s why the working class can be open to the most radical political ideas. Some of the high points of history have occurred when the working class has lent its collective strength to fights against apartheid, against imperialist war, against the dispossession and exploitation of Indigenous peoples.

Fourth, working class struggle portends a new world – one in which workers don’t have only a small say over their working conditions, but take total control over society. The transformative effect of the 2011 Egyptian revolution gives us an insight into one small aspect of this. Once the revolution was under way, thousands spontaneously began sweeping the streets and cleaning up their neighbourhoods in Cairo, the country’s capital. One journalist observed:

“This feeling of Egyptian pride is contagious as people are encouraging others to come outside with brooms and bags, voluntarily cleaning the streets. Muslim women have been taking their scarf pins to help attach ‘Keep Egypt Clean’ signs to men’s shirts; men themselves embrace one another with smiles, with hope and a love for the maintenance and environment of their country.”

Street-sweeping might seem inconsequential in the scheme of things. But it is illustrative of a broader phenomenon. The mass of the population wanted to “cleanse” their society of the dictatorship of president Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled the country for 30 years. But as they realised their power, the cleansing process spread to all areas of life. People ordinarily denied a say over how their city was run had a new-found sense of ownership over their society. This translated into a respect for themselves. People wanted to show their neighbours – and the world – that they could make their city and their lives far better if they were in control.

If all this is true, though, why hasn’t the working class taken power? Why doesn’t it run the world already?

In part it is because the working class movement is misled by bureaucrats and politicians who want to use workers as nothing more than a base of voters and fundraisers. They discourage strike action and promote a feeling of helpless dependence on supposedly enlightened leaders. 

It’s also because workers have to adapt to their circumstances. While we are pushed to struggle together, mostly we just try to make do with what we’ve got. When workers aren’t struggling, aren’t winning victories and aren’t experiencing the practical need for solidarity, we become more receptive to cynicism, pessimism and prejudice. Many workers today have never been on strike, much less won a strike: they are a long way from believing they could get their wages paid properly, let alone that humans could flourish in a classless society.

Yet things can change quickly. The workers’ movement ebbs and surges: new generations of experienced militants are created in quick explosions of workplace struggle. In those struggles, workers can prove, in their own actions, the possibility of a new world, and they can become the foundation of a reborn working class socialist movement. 

The Russian anarchist Victor Serge complained in 1910 that workers didn’t seem radical and heroic enough to transform society. “The working class has behind it a whole atavism of servitude and exploitation”, he wrote. “Consequently, organising the working class in view of a social transformation means wasting time and energy.” Seven years later, the Russian working class movement overthrew the absolutist monarchy. 

Similar exasperation has often been expressed by people frustrated that the working class is passive or too conservative. In difficult periods, even working class activists can become impatient with the lack of social awareness and fighting spirit among their fellow workers.

Time and again, though, radical struggle breaks out somewhere and threatens to spread across national boundaries. Each time it does so, Karl Marx is vindicated. The question isn’t if it will happen again, but when and where.