Chris Harman

Revolution in the 21st Century

6: Class and Consciousness

The working class comprises the majority in society, it has the power to shake the system, and it will recover eventually from the combination of defeat and restructuring, however much its composition may have changed.

Unfortunately, this does not mean most of its members have a clear idea of their ability to replace the existing system with a better one. On the contrary, being brought up in capitalist society leads most people to accept the ideas of the system to a greater or lesser degree – its racism, sexism, competition and greed, and the belief that there is no other way of living. This is what Karl Marx meant when he wrote that ‘the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class.’

Working class organisations such as the trade unions simply do not control the resources necessary to compete during normal times with the capitalist media. In such periods only a minority of people accept ideas that challenge the system as a whole. The majority take most things for granted and accept much of what the capitalist media say.

It is only when those whose labour keeps capitalism going are engaged in fighting aspects of the system that they discover they have the power to paralyse it. Only then do large numbers begin to see clearly that their interests run in opposite directions to those of the capitalists. They discover through struggle that they can challenge the system, and that as a class they have an interest in uniting to replace profit making and competition with a society of democratic self organisation. It is through struggle that people discover they have the collective capacity to change society.

Contradictory Consciousness

Antonio Gramsci, a key figure in the history of revolutionary socialism in Italy [1], explained that most workers have a ‘contradictory consciousness’. On the one hand, they are brought up in capitalist society and take many of its notions for granted. On the other hand, they have experiences of collective struggles in which they stand together and change the world a little to their own advantage. Some of these experiences are direct ones they have had personally. Others are conveyed from one generation to the next within workplaces, communities and organisations such as trade unions. Workers who have never been on strike before take up the language of solidarity, of unity and respect for picket lines, and the use of terms like ‘scab’ for those who break a strike. So the mind of the average worker contains elements that look to the future and the values of collective struggle and organisation, as well as elements that pull back to the past, towards class society and its prejudices.

The number of people open to the idea of changing society grows massively during great struggles. Mass strikes and spontaneous uprisings lead to an unprecedented level of discussion about what to do next. For the first time people feel their capacity to change things. Politics is talked about everywhere – in every bus queue, shop, factory and office, in every school and at every social gathering – in a manner inconceivable during non-revolutionary times. I have vivid memories of France in May 1968 and Portugal in 1975 when people devoured socialist newspapers the moment sellers appeared, and how in Argentina in 2001–2 people gathered at scores of local popular assemblies to discuss what to do next.

Disgust at the present system allied to experience of striking and demonstrating together makes workers particularly receptive to the notion that collectively and democratically, they can take charge of society themselves. Socialist ideas fit with working class experience whenever people get involved in struggles.

However, revolutionary socialist ideas are not the only ones on offer. The newspapers of the ruling class use the old methods of divide and rule – scapegoating members of ethnic or religious minorities, spreading lies about socialists, trying to turn those not involved in struggle against the groups that move first. For example, in Russia in 1905 after the strikes and formation of the first soviet the Tsarist government worked with the far right in an attempt to deflect the movement by encouraging a series of pogroms against Jews. Today we not only see a revival of struggles against the system, we also see an onslaught against religious and ethnic minorities – Islamophobia in Europe and the US, attacks against Shia Muslims and Christians in Pakistan, agitation against immigrants from Bolivia and Paraguay in Argentina, a witch-hunt against asylum seekers in Britain. People can react to these horrors by turning to notions that make it seem that religion, not capitalist exploitation, is the central fact of the world we live in. So while revolutionary socialist ideas can grow in the ferment against the system, they have to be fought for. There is always a battle of ideas.


There have always been those who balance between support for capitalism and opposition to it. They say society should be changed in a non-capitalist direction, but slowly – through negotiations and legal processes, not direct confrontation. This was the approach of ‘Old Labour’ in Britain and the Social Democratic parties in mainland Europe.

Such reformist ideas are encouraged by politicians who make their careers by presenting themselves as champions of the workers within the existing order. They have adjusted their lives to arguing for progressive reforms within the existing state and inevitably try to channel any upsurge against the system in this direction. Sometimes this is because they have come to accept many of the values of the ruling class. Sometimes it is that they have so adjusted to fighting for reform that they cannot imagine any alternative. In either case, they try to tame the movement so as to stop it challenging the state. Their efforts are reinforced by sections of the media who implore all classes to work together.

However, this reformism should not be seen merely as something imposed on the mass of people, who would otherwise be revolutionary. It flows from the position of any subordinate social group in a class society as its members try to bridge the contradictions in their consciousness between the ideas they have absorbed from that society and those which come from their acts of rebellion. Reformism is the organised political expression of contradictory consciousness, which is used by politicians for their own purposes.

The Trade Union Bureaucracy

Reformism is not just embodied in political parties. Trade unions are also pulled in a reformist direction. The whole structure of capitalist society springs from people’s labour. To challenge the way this is provided – at work – means, implicitly, to challenge that structure. By organising people at work, trade unions begin to raise questions about the very foundations of society. This is what Lenin meant when he said any strike raises the ‘hydra head of revolution’.

But people’s capacity to work (what Marx called their labour power) is also a commodity within capitalism. It is bought and sold by the hour just as apples or tomatoes are bought by the kilo. Haggling over the price of labour power can seem no different to bargaining over the price of any other transaction in the market, encouraging the notion that what matters are presentation skills and administrative structures – the professional negotiator rather than the revolutionary agitator. So the union apparatus becomes an institutional structure within existing society, run by its own specialist functionaries. It has the double role of organising workers and bargaining with capitalists over the terms of employment. It mediates with employers on behalf of workers.

This kind of trade unionism appeals to workers insofar as they have not broken from the ideas of capitalist society. It seems to offer the reformist hope of improving conditions without the requirement for revolutionary action. However, the appeal is not only to workers – it is also to groups of capitalists. Any ruling class faces contradictory pressures of its own. It wants unlimited power to exploit and dominate the rest of society, but crude force alone is not sufficient to stabilise that exploitation and domination. The need arises for mediating structures that draw in elements from among the mass of people. As both Lenin and Gramsci put it, a ruling class needs institutions that give it hegemony as well as domination.

For example, the feudal ruling classes of medieval Europe usually ended up allowing a section of the merchant and artisan classes to establish limited forms of organisation – in guilds and town corporations. They granted those who ran these a subordinate, but honoured, position in the social hierarchy, understanding this would lead to acceptance of the hierarchy as a whole. This worked for decades, even centuries, at a time. The most successful merchants sought to buy their way into feudal society, not overthrow it.

Capitalists usually start off opposing all attempts by workers to organise, and some groups of capitalists never abandon this outlook. But others learn that a resentful workforce can be volatile and prone to sudden, disruptive action. They see the need for mediating structures to bind workers’ organisations to the system – hence, the wooing of trade union officials with various honours. The former leader of the print workers’ union, Brenda Dean, now sits in the House of Lords, and the former leader of the transport workers’ union, Bill Morris, is on the board of the Bank of England. This need also explains the attacks by the media and the courts on trade union leaders who challenge this cosy relationship – as miners’ leader Arthur Scargill did during the great strike of the 1980s. This carrot-and-stick approach shapes the trade union bureaucracy to accept the system – whether individual trade union leaders do so reluctantly or enthusiastically.

The trade union bureaucracy comes to take this mediating role for granted. It evolves a career and salary structure that mirrors the managerial hierarchies of business and develops a reluctance to engage in any confrontation that might threaten the union apparatus, property and salaries. In a classic history of trade unionism Sidney and Beatrice Webb described the change among workers in Britain who became union officials:

Whilst the points at issue no longer affect his own earnings or conditions of employment, any disputes between his members and their employers increase his work and add to his worry. The former vivid sense of the privations and subjection of the artisan’s life gradually fades from his mind and he begins more and more to regard all complaints as perverse and unreasonable. With this intellectual change may come a more invidious transformation. Nowadays the salaried officer of a great union is courted and flattered by the middle class. He is asked to dine with them, and will admire their well-appointed houses, their fine carpets, the ease and luxury of their lives ... He goes to live in a little villa in a lower middle-class suburb. With the habits of his new neighbours he insensibly adopts more and more of their ideas. Gradually he finds himself at issue with his members ... He attributes the breach to the influences of a clique of malcontents, or perhaps to the wild views held by the younger generation [Sidney and Beatrice Webb, A History of Trade Unionism, 1894]

The Webb’s account has been vindicated many times. In 1926 one of the most important episodes in the history of class struggle in Britain took place – the General Strike. At that time one in ten industrial workers in Britain was in the coalmines, whose owners announced they would lock out and refuse work to any miner who would not accept a cut in wages and longer hours. The Conservative government backed the mine owners, declaring all workers had to accept wage cuts.

The country’s union leaders, gathered in a special meeting organised by the Trades Union Congress, made ringing declarations in support of the miners and called for all trade unionists to strike – first transport workers and then other sections. Millions of workers did so and Britain was paralysed. But the union leaders were far from overjoyed. Some, like rail union leader Jimmy Thomas, were as frightened by the strike as the government and big business. Thomas told TUC leader Walter Citrine: ‘The strike is against the state and the state must be supreme.’ He later wrote: ‘what I dreaded most was this: if by any chance it should have got out of the hands of those who knew how to exercise some control.’ The leader of the general workers’ GMWU expressed a similar attitude:

Every day the strike proceeded, control was passing out of the hands of responsible executives and into the hands of men who had no authority, no control, and was wrecking the movement from one end to the other.

These leaders manoeuvred alongside the government to deny victory to the class from which they came. They brought the general strike to an end after nine days, despite there being no loss of momentum; in fact numbers on strike grew by 100,000 24 hours after the TUC called it off. The TUC left the miners to fight alone for nine months before surrendering to face longer hours on poverty pay or unemployment. Other employers were left with a free hand to sack workers who had organised the strike at a local level.

Almost 60 years later, the miners’ strike of 1984–85 unfolded in a shockingly similar way. The miners fought desperately for 12 months against a programme of pit closures that was to devastate the industry and their communities. There were glowing declarations of support from trade union leaders at the 1984 TUC Conference, while behind the scenes leaders of some unions outside the mines sabotaged solidarity with the miners and undermined the strike. The head of the Coal Board, Ian MacGregor, who led the onslaught against the miners, wrote later: ‘There were a number of union leaders with whom I could communicate and talk frankly’. The result was the second great defeat of the century for Britain’s trade union movement – a defeat to be followed by two decades of demoralisation and union weakness.

However, responsibility for these defeats did not just lie with the leaders who allowed themselves to be bought by the capitalist class. It also lay with union leaders of a more honest disposition who were unwilling to break with the rest of the union leadership and encourage the rank-and-file to carry the struggle forward. When it came to the crunch, they were as little inclined to see the struggle through to the end as their pro-capitalist colleagues. After the 1926 General Strike, Jimmy Thomas – the rail union leader who did so much to sabotage it – reported that a left wing leader of a second rail union had been just as keen to end the strike.

What was true of these decisive battles is also true of many lesser struggles over pay or redundancies. Full-time trade union officials are part of an apparatus committed to negotiating on behalf of ordinary workers – pressing claims on management, but also persuading workers to accept whatever concessions management might make. It results in an emphasis on the negotiating skills of union officials rather than the fighting spirit of the union members and seeks escape routes from confrontations with employers. Again and again, it has meant sacrificing the union members in an effort to preserve the union apparatus – although a union that cannot defend its members is inevitably damaged as the workers will see no reason to belong to it.

This is not the end of the matter because a structure that seeks to mediate between classes is subject inevitably to tensions, which pull first one way and then another. Discontent among workers repeatedly throws up new activists who challenge the conservatism of the bureaucracy. Even right-wing bureaucrats can see that they mean nothing to the employers unless they can channel and express some of the discontent below them. So they switch between opposing any form of industrial action to calling strikes in an effort to maintain their influence, and from witch-hunting militant activists to trying to incorporate these into the union hierarchy. At the same time, union elections ensure that there are always some individual officials who want to fight for the interests of ordinary members.

Yet the conservative tendencies remain. The bureaucracy that calls a strike to show its influence will call off the action at the first opportunity if its position is threatened either by rank-and-file initiative from within or by repressive threats from without. Left-wingers within the bureaucracy then suddenly find themselves isolated, unable to use the levers of the union to keep the struggle going. It is this that explains the tendency for the right wing to run from the battlefield in any great confrontation, pulling the centre behind them and leaving the left feeling helpless to operate on its own.

The Contradictory Role of Reformism

The growth of reformist parties and trade unions constituted a gain for workers as they came to understand their position as a class within capitalist society, with interests opposed to other classes. The building of the social democratic parties in continental Europe in the 1880s and 1890s, the Labour Party in Britain in the first quarter of the 20th century, or the more recent growth of organisations such as the Workers Party in Brazil, all represented a step forward compared to the previous situation, when workers backed openly capitalist parties. But the advance is only a partial one. Such parties try to restrain workers from confronting the real sources of capitalist power and the state even whilst organising them as a class. They both hold the class together and hold it back at the same time.

Reformism could gain deep roots in the working class during periods of economic prosperity, when it seemed capitalists could increase their profits while conceding improved living standards. The reformist parties and moderate wings of the trade unions could recruit hundreds of thousands of activists to build working class organisation – but who did not see any logic in fighting to overthrow the system. So in the decades immediately after the Second World War in Western Europe most socialists and many who called themselves Communists accepted the idea that there was a parliamentary road to socialism. Allegiance to the reformist parties remained strong even when capitalism began to demand counter-reforms from conservative governments that took away the improved living conditions that had been previously granted. However little the reformist parties promised, they seemed a ‘lesser evil’.

Yet frequently, it has been Labour and social democratic governments that have pushed through the counter-reforms in the past decade, doing enormous damage to workers’ allegiance to them. Millions of voters have turned away from the Labour Party in Britain and the Social Democratic Party in Germany, and hundreds of thousands of members have dropped out of these parties. Many now abstain from politics, but a substantial minority have begun to look for a new, left-wing form of politics represented by the Left Party in Germany, Respect in Britain, the Left Bloc in Portugal, the vote for the various far left parties in France, and the new PSOL party in Brazil.

People who break with the old reformist parties do not necessarily make a clean break with reformist ideas. Bitterness against the current leaders of such parties does not in itself lead people away from reformist to revolutionary notions; they can still believe reformist methods would work with better leaders. But the bitterness is leading them to organise and mount political resistance alongside those people who do embrace a revolutionary perspective. The new left politics provides a focus for resistance and a political space in which people who share a common opposition to the system can seek to resolve the debate about reform and revolution.


1. His ideas have been distorted by reformist politicians and academics since his death in 1937 for purposes he was adamantly opposed to. See my pamphlet, Gramsci versus Reformism available at

Last updated on 5 October 2016