Chris Harman

How Marxism Works

How do workers become revolutionary?

In Britain most workers this century have looked to the Labour Party and parliament to change society. A large minority have backed the reactionary ideas of the Tory party. The supporters of revolutionary socialism have generally been few in number.

This indifference or even opposition of workers to revolutionary socialism is hardly surprising. We have all been brought up in a capitalist society where it is taken for granted that everyone is selfish, where people are continually told by the newspapers and television that only a privileged minority have the ability to take the key decisions in industry and the state, where the mass of workers are taught from the first day they enter school to obey orders given by ‘their elders and betters’.

As Marx put it, ‘The ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class,’ and vast numbers of workers accept them.

Yet despite this, repeatedly in the history of capitalism, revolutionary movements of the working class have shaken one country after another: France in 1871, Russia in 1917, Germany and Hungary in 1919, Italy in 1920, Spain and France in 1936, Hungary in 1956, France in 1968, Chile in 1972-73, Portugal in 1975, Iran in 1979, Poland in 1980.

The explanation for these upheavals lies in the very nature of capitalism itself. Capitalism is a crisis-prone system. In the long run it cannot provide full employment, it cannot provide prosperity for all, it cannot secure our living standards today against the crisis it will produce tomorrow. But during the capitalist ‘booms’ workers come to expect these things.

So, for instance, in the 1950s and early 1960s, workers in Britain came to expect permanent full employment, a ‘welfare state’ and gradual but real improvements in living standards. By contrast, over the last 25 years successive governments have allowed unemployment to increase to a real figure of more than 4 million, have cut the welfare state to shreds, and have attempted again and again to cut living standards.

Because we are brainwashed into accepting many capitalist ideas, we accept some of these attacks. But inevitably a point is reached where workers find they can stand it no more. Suddenly, often when no one expects it, their anger suddenly flares and they take some action against employer or government. Perhaps they stage a strike, or organise a demonstration.

When this happens, whether they like it or not, workers begin doing things that contradict all the capitalist ideas they have previously accepted. They begin to act in solidarity with one another, as a class, in opposition to the representatives of the capitalist class.

The ideas of revolutionary socialism that they used to reject out of hand now begin to fit in with what they are doing. Some at least of the workers begin to take those ideas seriously – providing those ideas are accessible.

The scale on which this takes place depends on the scale of the struggle, not on the ideas in workers’ heads to begin with. Capitalism forces them into struggle even if they begin with pro-capitalist ideas. The struggle then makes them question these ideas.

Capitalist power rests on two planks – control of the means of production and control of the state. A real revolutionary movement begins among the vast mass of workers when struggles over their immediate economic interests lead them to clash with both planks of capitalist rule.

Take for example a group of workers who have been employed in the same factory for years. The whole normal humdrum pattern of their lives is dependent on their jobs there. One day the employer announces that he is going to close the factory down.

Even the Tory voters in the workforce are horrified and want to do something. In desperation they decide that the only way to continue to lead the sort of lives capitalism has taught them to expect is to occupy the factory – to challenge the employer’s control over the means of production.

They may soon find themselves up against the state as well, as the employer calls in the police to return control of ‘his’ property back to him. If they are to have any chance of keeping their jobs, the workers now must also confront the police, the state machine, as well as the employer.

Thus capitalism itself creates the conditions of class conflict which open workers’ minds to ideas quite opposed to those which the system has taught them. This explains why the history of capitalism has been marked by periodic upsurges of revolutionary feeling among millions of workers, even if most of the time most workers accept the ideas the system feeds them.

One final point. One of the biggest things holding many workers back from support for revolutionary ideas is the feeling that it is not worth them personally doing anything because other workers will never support them. When they find that other workers are doing things, they suddenly lose their own apathy. In the same way people, who feel that they, as workers, are quite incapable of running society, suddenly learn otherwise when they find, in the course of massive struggles against existing society, that they’re taking over much of its running.

It is because of this that once revolutionary movements start, they can snowball at amazing speed.


Last updated on 26 January 2010