Chris Harman

How Marxism Works

The working class

Marx began The Communist Manifesto with the statement, ‘The history of all hitherto existing societies has been the history of class struggles.’

The question of how the ruling class was to force the oppressed class to keep producing wealth for it was crucial. Because of this, in every previous society, there had been enormous struggles between the classes which often culminated in civil war – the slave uprisings in Ancient Rome, the peasant uprisings in medieval Europe, the great civil wars and revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries.

In all of these great struggles, the mass of the insurgent forces were from the most oppressed section of society. But, as Marx hastened to add, at the end of the day all their efforts served only to replace one privileged ruling minority with another. So, for example, in Ancient China there were several successful peasant revolts – but they merely replaced one emperor with another. Similarly, those who made the greatest effort in the French Revolution were the ‘bras nus’ – the poorer classes of Paris, but at the end of the day society was ruled not by them but by bankers and industrialists instead of the king and courtiers.

There were two main reasons for this failure of the lower classes to keep control of the revolutions in which they fought.

Firstly, the general level of wealth in society was fairly low. It was only because the vast mass of people were kept in abysmal poverty that a small minority had time and leisure to develop the arts and sciences to maintain civilisation. In other words, class division was necessary if society was to progress.

Secondly, the life of the oppressed classes did not prepare them to run society. By and large they were illiterate, they had little idea of what things were like outside their own immediate locality, and, above all, their everyday life divided each of them against the other. Each peasant was concerned with cultivating his own plot of land. Each craftsman in the town ran his own small business and was to some extent in competition with other craftsmen, not united with them.

Peasant revolts would start with vast numbers of people rising up to divide the land of the local feudal lords, but once the lord was defeated they would fall to squabbling among themselves about how they would divide the land. As Marx put it, peasants were like ‘potatoes in a sack’; they could be forced together by some outside power but were not capable of linking permanently to represent their own interests.

The workers who create the wealth under modern capitalism differ from all the previous lower classes. Firstly, the division of classes is no longer necessary for human progress. So much wealth is created that capitalist society itself periodically destroys huge quantities through wars or economic crises. It could be divided up equally and society could still have a flowering of science, arts and so forth.

Secondly, life under capitalism prepares workers in many ways to take control of society. For example, capitalism needs workers who are skilled and educated. Also capitalism forces thousands of people into huge workplaces in huge conurbations where they are in close contact with one another, and where they can be a powerful force for changing society.

Capitalism makes workers cooperate in production within the factory, and those cooperative skills can easily be turned against the system, as when workers organise themselves into unions. Because they are massed together in huge concentrations it is much easier for workers to democratically control such bodies than it was for previously oppressed classes.

Furthermore, capitalism tends increasingly to turn groups of people who thought of themselves as a ‘cut above’ ordinary workers (such as clerks or technicians) into wage labourers who are forced to organise unions and so on as other workers do.

Lastly, the development of communications – railways, roads, air transport, postal systems, telephones, radio and television – allows workers to communicate outside their own locality or industry. They can organise as a class on a national and international scale – something beyond the wildest dreams of previous oppressed classes.

All these facts mean that the working class can not only be a force which rebels against existing society, but can organise itself, electing and controlling its own representatives, so as to change society in its own interest, and not just to set up yet another emperor or group of bankers. As Karl Marx put it:

All previous historical movements were movements of minorities in the interests of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious independent movement of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority.


Last updated on 26 January 2010