Chris Harman

Revolution in the 21st Century

5: Class and Revolution

Revolutionary socialists believe the working class is the key to transforming society. This follows from the character of capitalist society. Capitalists cannot survive without making profits, but they cannot do that without bringing workers together to exploit and thus creating discontent. This is what Marx meant when he wrote that capitalism creates its own ‘gravedigger’.

Ruling classes before capitalism also exploited the mass of the population. But they did so mainly by exploiting peasants dispersed across the countryside, each family tending its own land, living in villages or hamlets with little connection between them, speaking localised dialects, unable to read and write, and possessing little understanding of the wider world.

Capitalism, by contrast, concentrates those it exploits in giant cities, in workplaces where improved conditions can only be obtained through collective struggle. In order to exploit workers to the maximum, capitalists demand a level of literacy and numeracy higher than that among most of the exploiting classes of the past. In doing so, the system creates a class with the capacity to organise against it and the potential to turn society on its head.

The Reality of Class Today

The revolutionary movements of the 20th century were centred on the industrial working class. Innumerable academics and media pundits argue this makes workers irrelevant to the question of revolution today because the working class has declined as a force. If there is talk of demands for change it is couched in terms of ‘multitudes’ and ‘social movements’.

There is no doubt the proportion of people employed in manufacturing and mining has declined in Britain and certain other advanced industrial countries. The number in manufacturing in Britain today is about half that of 1973. But this does not mean the industrial working class has disappeared – its numbers were still growing in the US until only six years ago and even in Britain there are still millions of such workers. More importantly, the notion of the working class cannot be restricted to those in particular industries.

The media, politicians and academics treat class as a question of lifestyles or, following the German sociologist Max Weber, ‘life chances’. Their starting point is the way people dress and speak, the character of the jobs they do, the degree to which they are held in esteem or extent to which they live in poverty. This leads to the assertion that we live in an increasingly middle-class society, since the proportion doing heavy manual work has declined while increasing numbers work in white-collar, service sector jobs. We live in a ‘two-thirds, one-third’ society, it is claimed, in which most people prosper and a minority make up an ‘underclass’.

Many on the left see class in similar ways – identifying a ‘labour aristocracy’ of skilled, male manual workers and an impoverished underclass, or portraying industrial manual workers as ‘proletarian’ and white-collar and service-sector workers as middle class.

These theories obscure the fact that the fundamental divide in society is between those who control the means of production and those who work for them. Lifestyle, dress, income and consumption are products of this division, not its cause. It is irrelevant if occasional members of the possessing class choose to slum it, or if some of the toilers gain marginal advantages and imitate aspects of the lifestyle of their exploiters. The fact that the head of Barclays and a counter clerk in a branch of the bank both wear suits does not bridge the gap between them. The bank clerk, computer operator and call centre employee are compelled to accept voluntary wage-slavery, five days a week, 48 weeks a year, just as much as a car worker or docker.

Restructuring and the Continuity of Class

The competition at the core of capitalism means firms repeatedly restructure production to try to get ahead of rivals and to survive recurrent crises. This leads to the repeated restructuring of the labour force. Some groups of workers diminish in size and others expand. So in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s the biggest concentrations of workers were in textiles. When people thought of the typical worker, they thought of someone in a cotton mill. Forty years later, whole new branches of industry were expanding and people increasingly identified the working class with those in heavy industry – the shipyards and mines. By the Second World War things had changed again, with a great expansion of jobs in the car industry, electrical goods and light manufacturing.

At each stage people looked at the changing lifestyles of those around them and concluded the militant working class of the past was gone. Around 1870 Thomas Cooper, a former activist in the Chartist movement 30 years earlier, surveyed the workers of the north of England and:

noticed with pain that their moral and intellectual conditions had deteriorated ... In our old Chartist times, it is true, Lancashire working men were in rags by the thousands; and many of them lacked food. But their intelligence was demonstrated wherever you went. You would see them in groups discussing the great doctrines of social justice ... they were in earnest dispute respecting the teachings of socialism. Now you will see no such groups in Lancashire. But you will hear well dressed working men talking of cooperative stores and their shares in them, or in building societies. And you will see others, like idiots, leading small greyhound dogs, covered with cloth, on a string ... Working men had ceased to think ... [Quoted in Max Beer, A History of British Socialism, 1940].

Some 70 years later the idea that the old working class had disappeared became fashionable again. A broadsheet of the government’s Central Office of Information declared in 1962 that British society was characterised by a ‘swelling middle class’. There could be no return to the working class conditions of the 1930s because: ‘The average man ... has made too great an investment in his own future as a middle class citizen and householder’ (quoted in John Goldthorpe, David Lockwood and others, The Affluent Worker in the Class Structure, Cambridge 1969).

There was a serious academic discussion as to whether ‘affluent’ car workers were ‘embourgeoisified’. Labour Party theorist Anthony Crosland wrote:

One cannot imagine today a deliberate offensive alliance between government and the employers on the 1921 or 1925–6 model, with all the paraphernalia of wage cuts, national lockouts and anti-union legislation; or a serious attempt to enforce a coal policy; to which the miners bitterly objected [C.A.R. Crosland, The Future of Socialism, London, 1956].

Yet a wave of workers’ struggles began in the late 1960s, culminating in confrontations that shook society as much as those of the 1920s, forcing a Tory government out of office in 1974. At the heart of the militancy were supposedly affluent workers in the car, mining and printing industries. And the militancy was not finally destroyed until the defeat of the miners in a year-long strike in 1984–85 that involved the police occupation of the mining areas.

The restructuring of industry changes the working class and confuses observers, but it cannot do away with the central features of capitalism that lead to recurrent waves of class struggle.

The Working Class in the 21st Century

The restructuring of capitalism in the advanced countries is characterised by two trends: a growing proportion of the workforce is made up of white-collar workers, and service employment is growing more quickly than industrial employment. The trends should not be confused. Many service jobs are manual (bus drivers, dockers, refuse collectors) while a considerable proportion of manufacturing employees are white collar (progress chasers, design office staff). But the trends can give a misleading impression of what is happening to the class structure if you identify the working class solely with manual industrial workers.

What has not changed, despite all the transformations in work brought about by restructuring, is the fact that the system is based on competition between rival firms. This leads companies to do their utmost to pump the maximum profit out of their workforce. As a section of workers grows in size, then the pressure on them to produce profits increases.

When white-collar work was the prerogative of a relatively small number of male clerks in the 19th century, capitalism could afford to provide them with better salaries and conditions than the mass of manual workers. But 21st century capitalism depends on vast numbers of white-collar workers doing routine jobs. Many work for private firms in banks, insurance companies and advertising agencies. Others are employed by the state to carry out functions important to the system as a whole – training the next generation of workers, collecting taxes, protecting property, keeping people fit for work. These workers are exploited through the same methods as manual workers. Job evaluation methods pioneered in the textile mills, steel plants and on car assembly lines are applied to civil servants, teachers and even university lecturers.

One consequence of this change is that such groups now engage in characteristically working-class forms of struggle. In Britain, strikes by teachers, civil servants, lecturers, journalists, nurses and white-collar workers in local government were virtually unknown until the late 1960s. They have become as normal as strikes by old-style manual workers in the last 30 years.

Modern capitalist society is divided into two main groups as clearly as the 19th society analysed by Marx or described in the novels of Charles Dickens. There is a small minority who have enough wealth to live a life of leisure if they wish, and there is a great mass of people who can only make a livelihood if they work for this minority.

This division is more important than any other in society. It determines how much control you have over your life – whether you enjoy real choices or whether everything you do is subordinated to the need to work for others. It even determines how long you are likely to live, with the employing class in Britain today expecting to live, on average, more than 10 years longer than the rest of us. It determines the quality of the clothes you wear, the car you drive, the food you eat and the goods you own. All the factors usually taken to indicate class are effects of this division. Analyse Britain according to this basic division and you find well over 75 per cent of people are working class, in the sense of depending for their livelihood on selling their labour to the minority.

Not all service employees or salaried staff are workers. In any society there are gradations between the small minority at the top and the mass of people at the bottom. In a slave society there are not just slave owners and slaves, but also a layer of slave drivers, who receive a small share of the wealth that comes from exploiting the slaves. In a capitalist society, there are a mass of small capitalists and self-employed business people as well as the major capitalists. There is also a layer of managers, top civil servants, police chiefs and so on who are paid much more than the value of any labour they perform in return for helping big capital exploit the mass of people. This layer is organised through bureaucratic hierarchies. Those at the top partake fully in the fruits of exploitation and have common interests with big capital. Those at the bottom get very little from exploitation and share many interests with the white-collar and manual workers below them. Low-grade supervisors and line managers are paid a little more those they order around, but rely on the same public services and can be hit just as hard by workplace closures and redundancies.

The presence of this middle layer obscures the basic divide between the exploiting and exploited classes. But it does not do away with it any more than the slope between a hill and a valley does away with the contrast between the two. Far from making up the majority of society, this middle class proper amounts at most to 15-20 per cent of the population.

Insecurity and Struggle

Another argument you hear about workers today is that globalisation has created such massive insecurity in employment that it is all but impossible to develop the strong workers’ organisations that existed in the past. Far from workers being able to challenge the state, they find themselves barely able to fight an individual employer.

This argument suffers from two inter-related faults. First, workers have often succeeded in organising and fighting back against employers despite massive levels of job insecurity. Take the case of London’s dockers in 1889. This was a group with no security of employment. Gareth Stedman Jones’ book Outcast London quotes the findings of a parliamentary select committee on conditions in the docks in 1888:

Bribery and favouritism were the normal means of gaining employment in the docks. Treating the foreman to beer on the evening before was a frequent means of gaining employment in the docks the next day. Casuals in the docks applied daily for dock work at gates where they were known by the foreman. This could not assure them a day’s work, since the foreman always employed a proportion of outsiders in order to increase the size of the casual pool. On the other hand, the foreman could punish long term absence on the part of the casual workers by withdrawing his patronage. It was this precarious dependence of the casual upon the foreman that maintained the casual fringe intact.

Beatrice Webb, one of the founders of the reformist Fabian Society described the position of dock labour in 1887 as ‘very hopeless’. ‘The employers were content and the men, although far from content, were entirely disorganised,’ she wrote.

Conditions were not much more secure for metal and textile workers in the Russian capital St Petersburg at the end of 1904. According to historian Gerald Surh:

The turnover within the factory workforce in Petersburg seems to have been quite high ... Unskilled and semi-skilled workers were normally more volatile because they were more easily replaced ... The lack of organisation and therefore protection at the workplace meant that the inevitable dispute between workers and foremen and managers were ... frequently resolved ... by resignation or dismissal [Gerald Surh, 1905 in St Petersburg, Stanford 1989]

In both cases, mass strikes transformed the situation and encouraged hundreds of thousands of other workers to throw up new organisations of their own. When the London dockers struck in 1889, they shut down the city’s international trade for five weeks, won their economic demands and built a union of 25,000 members. Beatrice Webb highlighted the change:

What the men had achieved through organisation was not to be measured solely by advantage achieved in pay or the conditions of employment ... We see the effect in the changed attitude of the employers as to casual employment.

In Petersburg, the transformation was even more dramatic. The unorganised workers of 1904 exploded into action after management victimised a woodworker in the Putilov plant. As Surh writes: ‘A mass meeting of 2 January, attended by about 6,000 workers ... enthusiastically voted for a strike at the Putilov plant ... By Friday 7 January, 382 enterprises were on strike.’ When the Tsar’s troops fired on a peaceful demonstration, the strike spread across the city and began a year of revolutionary upheaval that came close to overthrowing the regime.

Such a sudden discovery of the power to fight back collectively can occur among the restructured working class of the 21st century. We have already had glimpses of it. In the forefront of the uprisings in Bolivia in 2003 and 2005 were workers from the mass of small workshops in the city of El Alto. The spring of 2006 brought sudden, unexpected strikes and riots in the giant textile factories of Bangladesh, and January 2007 saw strikes and factory occupations by workers in Egypt.

Capitalist restructuring can certainly decimate old-established sectors of industry and weaken the power of groups of workers that used to be among the best organised, as happened with the defeats of the miners and newspaper printers in Britain in the mid-1980s. But the same restructuring leads to a growth in the importance of new groups. Neither the postal workers nor London tube workers were regarded as militant or powerful in Britain in the 1970s, but they have become so in recent years. We can expect other groups, at present largely unorganised – like those working in finance, call centres and supermarkets – to follow at some point. The very logic of capitalism creates discontent among those it exploits and oppresses, and at some point this bitterness will explode. The key question is not whether it will happen, but whether it will prove successful.

The second major fault with the argument that precarious employment prevents workers from struggling is that, in most countries, it is a minority of workers who are in casual jobs. A study by the International Labour Organisation concludes:

While this type of employment increased substantially during the first half of the 1990s, the relative proportions of permanent and non-permanent jobs remained almost unchanged between 1995 and the year 2000: permanent (82 per cent), non-permanent (18 per cent).

The average conceals large divergences between countries, with a high point of 35 per cent of workers in insecure employment in Spain. In Britain, according to the government statistical publication Social Trends: ‘As many as 92 per cent of workers held permanent employment contracts in 2000 as compared with 88 per cent who did eight years earlier.’

Even in third world countries such as India and Pakistan, where millions of workers move each year from the countryside to cities seeking work, there is relative security of employment for some sections. Employers like to have a stable element in their labour force, to stop other employers poaching experienced workers when trade is booming and to encourage workers to identify with their particular firm in a way that discourages militancy. After all, it is a positive benefit to an employer if workers say, as a shop steward in a Leeds factory once told me: ‘This is the best firm in the country.’ There has been an increase in casual employment in some countries in recent periods of economic crisis. But it is not an unstoppable trend in capitalism as a whole, and it certainly will not stop workers organising and rocking the system.

Globalisation and Workers

It is often argued workers cannot fight back as they once did because the globalisation of the world economy allows firms to shut down operations and re-open somewhere else. Globalisation certainly means finance houses and speculators can move massive amounts of money from one country to another at the click of a computer.

There is also a trend for firms in one country to buy into those in other countries. But it is harder to move production from country to country than it is to move money. Productive capital is made up of factories and machinery, mines, docks and offices. These take years to build and cannot simply be carted away. Sometimes a firm can move machinery and equipment. But this is usually an arduous process and, before equipment can be operated elsewhere, the firm has to recruit and possibly train a sufficiently skilled workforce. In the interim, not only does investment in the old buildings have to be written off, there is no return on investment in the machinery.

What is more, few productive processes are ever completely self-contained. They depend on inputs from outside and links to distribution networks. So before a firm sets up a car plant it has to ensure there are supplies of quality steel available, secure sources of nuts and bolts, a labour force with the right level of training, reliable power and water supplies, a trustworthy financial system and a road and rail network capable of shifting finished products. It has to persuade other firms or governments to provide these things, and the process of assembling them can take months or years of bargaining. Multinational companies do not simply throw these assets away and hope to find them thousands of miles away because labour is slightly cheaper or governments slightly more co-operative. Such moves take time and effort and involve writing off costs. Productive capital simply cannot be as footloose as people often suggest.

The claim that firms find it easy to move production overseas is widespread in the US. But economist Tim Koechlin reports that less than 8 per cent of US productive investment goes abroad. Job losses are mainly the result of firms cutting the number of workers they employ in existing plants, or closing some plants so as to concentrate production in those that remain.

In Britain, the pattern is much the same. The manufacturing workforce has been cut in half over the last 30 years, but total output has not fallen and each worker is producing twice as much as 30 years ago. In other words, each worker is more important to the system now than in the past. There are many important jobs that cannot be moved abroad – for example, in construction, newspaper printing, the docks, the civil service, post and telecommunications, local government, education, refuse disposal, food distribution and supermarkets. Even in the case of call centres, where some work has moved to India, employment in the sector in Britain continues to expand.

Of course, firms do shift location and investments do not always occur in the same places. Restructuring often does involve moving production to a new area, and sometimes to another country, and this is likely to increase in the decades ahead. But such decisions incur costs and are never taken lightly. Firms that are restructuring usually prefer to act gradually, moving piecemeal from old plant to new, keeping supply and distribution networks intact and minimising dislocation. In the process, workers retain the power to stop production and to fight attempts to make them pay for restructuring.

The most important effects of the movement of money from country to country are that it increases economic instability and makes people feel more insecure. Firms often play on this, threatening to move production abroad when they have little intention to do so, in the expectation that this will demoralise workers and persuade them to accept deteriorating conditions. In calling the bosses’ bluff, workers can begin to discover their capacity to fight for a world without insecurity.

Last updated on 5 October 2016