The changing nature of the working class


What we strive for is a classless society, one where as well as there being no ruling class there is no working class. Why then the obsession with the working class for anarchists rather then with just people? To this audience perhaps a strange question to start with but one that is key when we come to talk about the nature of the working class.

From our Trade Union position paper we say

"1.1 Anarchists know that "the history of all previously existing societies has been the history of class struggle". At every stage in the development of society - from ancient times through feudalism to the present day - there has been an oppressed class whose labour has created the wealth of society, and a ruling class which controlled that wealth. At almost every stage the oppressed have not accepted their lot without fighting back. There were the slave revolts of Greece and Rome, the peasant risings of the middle ages, the revolutions of the 1600s and 1700s.

1.2 But all these struggles ended with the old parasitic rulers being replaced with a different gang of parasitic rulers. The failure of the oppressed classes to keep control of the revolutions they fought in can be explained by these main factors:

(a) the generally low level of wealth in society,

(b) the fact that the everyday life of these people did not prepare them to run society.

The majority were illiterate peasants who had no idea what things were like outside their own locality. Their everyday life divided them from each other. Each peasant had to worry about his own plot of land, and hoped to enlarge it. Each craftsman had to worry about his own business, and hoped to enlarge it. To varying degrees each peasant and craftsman was in competition with his fellows, not united with them. He couldn't think in terms of class.

1.3 The workers who create the wealth under capitalism differ from all previously oppressed classes. Firstly, they create enough wealth to feed and clothe the world and still have plenty to spare for science, culture, luxuries and so on. Secondly, and more importantly, their everyday life prepares them to take over the running of society. Under capitalism we are brought together in large workplaces, into towns and cities. Capitalism makes us co-operate everyday at work. Each person has to do their bit so that the person at the next stage of production can do theirs. In the services it is the same, from the office to the hospital, workers have to co-operate with each other in order to get their jobs done. This means that the modern working class can be a force capable, not only of rebelling against the existing set-up, but of taking over and recreating society in its own interests - and not as in the past merely help a different section of the ruling class in its battles against the more backward sections of that class."

Now the piece about the working class and capitalism creating the material wealth on which socialism can be built is peripheral to this discussion. Lets look at the second part of that equation, what makes the working class different from other classes.

1) Concentration

The rise of capitalism was accompanied by the rise of huge cities, previously the population of the cities had consisted of merchants, military personnel, artisans, the royal court in the case of capitals and all those who served them. This was a relatively small segment of the overall population. The growth of capitalism saw huge numbers of peasants driven off the land and into the cities to form the working class. So for the first time you had huge numbers of people who shared a common experience of living and working next to each other. This not only greatly facilitated the spread of oppositional ideas but also meant created the sort of numbers of people that could form a realistic opposition to the forces of the state.

2) Mass organisation

Workers were concentrated into huge factories and lived around these factories. Hence not only did you have direct contact with a huge number of people suffering from the same problems as you at work but they were also your next door neighbours as well. With the advent of mass transport and the fragmentation of industry into smaller units in the west at least this is one aspect of the class that has been undermined.

3) Collective solutions

For the peasant in the fields or the artisan in the early towns the most obvious solutions to the problems of poverty etc. they faced was for them to acquire more tools or more land, in short for them to increase the value of the means of production owned by them. For workers this is not possible as we do not own any of our means of production and for the most part are not in a position to won them. For workers the only way to seek improvements is by getting a larger share of the surplus value being produced.

There are two ways of doing this, be getting promotions to a position which comes with a larger share or by getting a collective improvement in everybody conditions. The first is only an option for a small few and normally a limited one at that. It also interferes with the second which is to win collective improvements. As the second entails losses for the bosses most people are forced to choose between the two strategies, being good at one automatically means being bad at the other.

I want to move on to a quick general history of the development of the working class as it is defined above.

1) Before capitalism

Firstly there has probably been a very small working class since the time of the Roman, Greek and Chinese empires. That is there have been people who were wage labours rather than artisans etc. from these times. Industries such as iron or coal mining for instance readily gave themselves up to capitalistic styles of production long before capitalism itself. These workers however were few and far between and as yet could not really be seen as a class.

2) Early capitalism

The growth of capitalism saw a huge mushrooming of the cities and necessitated the creation of a huge working class. The enormous costs of machinery and power meant that small scale production was neither competitive nor possible. Peasants were driven from the land through the use of things like the enclosure acts and into the cities. In this period most of the cities had death rates exceeding their birth rates and only grew because of this influx from the country.

3) Defining itself

This new class rapidly started to define itself, through the attempt to construct trade unions and then through political methods and movements like those of the Chartists in Britain. Socialism developed from a few utopian movements to a fresh way of looking at the world present and past within a few short decades. Indeed the growth of these new ideas was only matched by the growth of industry itself. By the late 1860's the socialist movement was already looking capable of toppling the existing order to the point where bourgeois nationalists began to become increasingly wary lest by their actions they usher in more than independence. The Paris Commune of 1871 was the starkest definition of this. Suddenly the ruling class were to retreat on the defence of the nation state when faced with the possibility of the working class coming to power.

Part of the process which allowed such a rapid emergence of class conflict was the concentration of people who worked together into the same geographic areas in situation of grinding poverty. It was clear that your neighbours and workmates were the ones who were starving and the factory owners were the ones who lived on the hill and were rolling in loot. Capitalism maintained itself through brute force best exemplified by the crushing of the Paris commune and the mass executions in its wake but also illustrated by the attacks on the chartists and the widespread banning of trade unions. As the strength of the workers movement grew capitalism was forced to concede and retreat but in doing so it set up the measures of social control which still maintain it to-day.

4) Betrayal 1914

Socialism stumbled and then fell in 1914 when the European working class went to war. Despite a widespread denunciation of the forthcoming war as late as 1912 by the left internationally and pledges by millions of workers not to fight at the end all the mass socialist parties rowed in behind their ruling class. Those that opposed the war outright were a small section of the working class, most notably the Bolsheviks in Russia and the bulk of the anarchist movement. The mass socialist parties which had been developed out of huge struggles around Europe however meekly led their members off to the slaughter. The war was to see huge mutinies and revolution in Russia and indeed was to end with workers rising in Germany but the existing movement was destroyed. Social democracy throughout Europe choose to work with the ruling class in most cases for the first time.

5) Stalinism

The post war years saw the development of a new method of social control throughout the Soviet union which instead of relying on individual bosses to run the economy placed hands in the power of the state instead. This had a number of important effects on the working class in the Soviet Union. Firstly they were assured they were living under socialism thus over time discrediting the very idea of socialism. Secondly the fact that the thing that determined standard of living was access to resources rather than wealth per se tended to lead to individual solutions (like growing vegetables on land plots) rather than collective ones. In any case collective action where it occurred was ruthlessly stamped on preventing the development of a tradition of successful collective action.

In contrast the inter war years continued to be ones of struggle for the working class in Western Europe, at first in an offensive stretching from the German revolution to the English general strike of 1926 and later defensive ones against the rise of Fascism. The period was to end with the Spanish revolution. It was unfortunate that the apparent success of the USSR in overthrowing capitalism led many in the west to follow the Communist parties. For their part the bosses turned to fascism as a way of breaking the standards of living that the workers had gained up to this period.
post war to 70's

This was an unprecedented boom period for the bosses around the world, from London to Moscow to Tokyo to Washington. It was also a time where the standard of living of the working class was to rise drastically. These changes had by the late 60's popularised the idea that class struggle politics were over, that a cure had been found for the periodic recessions that capitalism had gone through and that the future was indeed rosy for everyone. It was also a period where the western working class was fragmented by the introduction of cheap mass transport, cheaper housing and the reduction of society to a body composed of individual families. Many workers no longer lived near their workmates but instead lived in huge housing estates with few social resources. Socialising increasingly came to consist of collapsing in front of the telly after work.

From the late 60's on, particularly after 1968 it became clear that the improvements and the fragmentation of the working class were not enough in themselves to stop mass struggle. Even the television, one of the key parts of this fragmentation was to play a key part in the development of new struggles. Capitalism could not be perfect and suddenly its imperfections from racism in the US to the Vietnam war was pumped into everyones living rooms. What's more successful fights against racism in the US now had the potential to spark similar activities in other countries, like the civil rights movement in northern Ireland.

8) 80's

The 70's ended in industrial discontent the world over as the rate of increase in the standard of living slowed and then began to run in reverse. The post war boom began to end and capitalism suddenly found itself unable to afford many of the concession that had been won from it. Social democracy went into crisis as it lost the room to manoveure and all over the world right wing governments came to power. The increasingly multi-national character of capitalism started to have profound effects on the structure of the western working class.

All over Europe large scale, unskilled and semi-skilled heavy engineering, mining and assembly plants began to close, either to re-locate in cheaper third world countries or because they were unable to compete with similar and more efficient sectors in the Japanese and US economy. The rate of profit declined to the point where more money was to be made on speculation then in plant investment. The government stepped up attacks on the social wage as a way of reducing the bosses overheads while attacking and encouraging attacks on the most organised sections of the working class. This process best exemplified by the miner strike for instance saw the number of miners drop from over 200,000 to less then 30,000. In Britain steel production and car assembly suffered similar fates. This represented the decimation of the last of the large scale workplaces and communities and consequently the further fragmentation of the working class.

The mountains of paperwork generated by the increased levels of speculation along with the increase in the importance of international trade led to the creation of many more 'white collar' jobs. The need to service the new growing middle class of dealers and speculators also led to a huge growth in the service sector. Lastly the increase in permanent unemployment and in generalised discontent exemplified by the riots of 1981 in Britain led to an increase in the public and voluntary sectors. Most of the jobs lost were full time and unionised, most of those created were part time and hostility anti-union. The strong point of the union movement moved from groups of workers like the miners (who were destroyed) to public sector workers. One final significant change was the huge increase in the number of women workers, due in part to the fact that many of the new jobs were part time and commonly badly paid.

This is the historical development of the working class throughout Europe. It is not typical of what has happened in Japan or to a lesser extent in the US. It is certainly not typical of the way peasant based economics of countries like South Korea and Brazil have been turned into successful capitalist ones. Putting these aside I want to move on to discussing what these changes mean for us to-day and where the future trends might lie.

9) To-day

The nature of the working class to-day is quite different from that of a hundred years ago. In the late 80's a large part of the left interpreted this as meaning socialism was no longer possible, that the best hope was to form alliances with greens and others in a rainbow coalition which would attempt to limit the worst excesses of capitalism. What were these problems and to what extent are they with us still.

1) Fragmentation of the class

As I've already discussed compared to 100 years ago the working class is very much more fragmented. Then most workers lived in communities of people working in the same huge factory or shipyard at the end of the street. The people they worked with tended to also be of the same sex, nationality and race as themselves. The capitalist was clearly identifiable as a single individual and apart from foreman there was no path into management. All these things led to a working class identification which is lacking to-day. Most workers now see themselves as being middle class.

To-day we do not live near those we work with, workers commonly work alongside people of different race, sex or nationality whom they may view as being a separate group with their own interests and not to be trusted when the chips are down. For many workers the capitalist is no longer one single individual but rather a more nebulous one in the form of the state, or a large number of seemingly anonymous shareholders. What's more for most white collar workers it is possible for a few to gain major improvements in their standard of living by entering management. There are far fewer workplaces employing large numbers of workers in the same location (less then 6 over 1000 in the 26 counties at the moment). Industrial relations has become a very much more powerful tool in the hands of the bosses with large personnel departments coming up with ever better ways of dividing the workforce, getting them to identify with the company and generally presenting shit as candy.

2) Incorporation of the unions

The trade unions although always flawed have been incorporated into the state structures, isolated and made important. There have always been problems with a bureaucracy selling out struggles but as the Pat the Baker strike demonstrates we now have a bureaucracy incapable of defending even their own interests. Although membership has declined this is mostly because of the change in the structure of the workforce with closed shop industries being closed down and being replaced by non-union service industries.

3) The classless society

The fragmentation of the working class, its expansion into what were previously middle class occupations (civil service and teaching) and an ideological classless society blitz from the right has convinced many people that we no longer live in a class society. Instead we live in a society where some people are smart and make lots of money while others enter a life of permanent unemployment. In short your background is for the most part irrelevant (with the exception of the underclass) what matters is your brains and your drive.

In discussing the nature of the working class to-day and comparing it with the past it is important to note a couple of distinctions. Firstly there have been real changes in the composition and lifestyles of the class that have corresponding real political implications. Secondly there have been changes in viewpoint or in the operation of defence mechanisms like the trade unions that there is no reason to assume are permanent. For instance until recently most people including most of the working class probably saw capitalism as something which would continue to improve everyones standard of living into the future. Over the last few years however it has become obvious that it is likely that the generation leaving schools and colleges now will probably be worse off than their parents.

In western Europe and North America the working class has been calculated to consist at least 85% of the population by Marxist academics using similar criterion to those we might use. In Ireland a large percentage of that figure are see themselves and are seen by the left as middle class. Last night at the Pat the Baker meeting for instance Militant repeatedly said it was important to target the large working class shopping centre's for leafleting. But are there any large shopping centres not in working class areas. Working class to the left still carries a 8 kids, manual worker, council house meaning to it.

There is little doubt that the fragmentation of the class and the development of a psychology of social control are real disadvantages for the left. Also the spread of mass communication media which is cheap to tune in to but expensive (and normally illegal) to broadcast from is a major disadvantage. 100 years ago the left used to charge into its public meetings, few would try such a thing now.

On the other side of the coin we have seen the undermining of a lot of the traditional methods of social control used by the state. The move away from religion for instance has favourable implications as does the steady erosion of racist and sexist ideas. The class may have become less homogenous and this may cause problems in individual disputes but for the overall struggle it means people are becoming used to working alongside workers of another sex, nationality or race. Despite the government monopoly of mass communication because it cause us to identify with others as people (but not yet as fellow workers) the political crisis of capitalism in the form of the Birmingham six, starvation in Somalia or war in Yugoslavia all have potentially destablising effects on capitalism.

Our task is to learn from history but also to adjust our tactics to the actual changes that have taken place. Making a revolution can no more be about re-enacting the CNT of the 30's than it can be about re-enacting the Bolsheviks of 1917. We need to build mass organisation(s) by meeting people where they are to-day not where they were 30 years ago. The global development of capitalism and the advent of real global communications make the project of international revolution more possible now then ever before.

From a WSM talk c. 1993