Vladimir Lenin giving a speech | Wikimedia Commons | Public domain Vladimir Lenin giving a speech | Wikimedia Commons | Public domain

In the final part of his series, Chris Nineham applies some of the lessons of the twentieth century to our current predicament

Part One: The Great Denial – why they don’t want us to talk about class
Part Two: Whatever happened to the western working class?
Part Three: Class analysis or identity politics?
Part Four: Capitalism and class consciousness
Part Five: Southern storms – class in the developing world

In this series I have made three main arguments. The first is that, despite the claims of numerous journalists, experts, academics, politicians of all parties and a surprising number of left-wing commentators, class remains the defining division in capitalism. This is because it is the social expression of the underlying economic organisation of society. It is the outcome of the fact that the tiny minority who own and run business continue to extract their wealth from the majority by forcing them to work under their control and for their benefit.

Despite claims that Marx’s political ideas were a product of his time and no longer relevant, the working class expanded dramatically after his death in the late nineteenth century. It expanded again after both World War One and World War Two, and rapidly during the long boom of the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1980s, there were more workers in South Korea than there were in the whole world when Marx was alive.[1]

Contradicting a chorus of denial, the process has continued during the neoliberal years. In large parts of the world, the independent peasantry has now disappeared. In city and country, wage earning is now the majority working experience for the first time in history.[2]

While the layer of top professionals and managers have enriched themselves under neoliberalism, many previously middle-class professions from teachers and lecturers to skilled staff in finance, the health service, the media and IT have become more and more routinized. As the Covid pandemic revealed, the service sector is run by workers who are crucial to the functioning of a modern economy and differ little from workers in the so called productive sector. Marx’s forecast of the division of society into two main classes has been borne out.

As a result, working people continue to have unmatched power to disrupt. From sprawling hi-tech manufacturing plants in Shenzen, Bangalore or Seattle, to the massive garment factories of Bangladesh and Vietnam, from logistic hubs, retail parks, to call centres, schools, universities and hospitals all around the world, the growth of the working class and the scale and complexity of our globalised, just-in-time economy means workers maintain the capacity to bring the system to a standstill.

A revolutionary record

My second argument is connected to the first. It is that Marx’s view of the working class as a radical, subversive force for change has been borne out. Class struggle has played a much more important role in shaping society in the relatively short history of capitalism than is normally accepted. The period after the First World War witnessed by far the deepest and most sustained working-class insurgencies in history, triggered by the Russian Revolution of 1917. The fallout shaped politics until the Second World War, and the experience continued to haunt the ruling class in the years after.

It is simply not true, however, as many even on the left suggest, that twentieth-century challenges to the capitalist order were confined to the inter-war years. There have been two periods of crisis since then when capitalist continuity has been threatened. The first was at the end of the Second World War. As the war came to an end, ruling classes in a number of European countries including France, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria temporarily lost control of all or parts of their country in the face of working-class self-organisation. At the same time, radical anti-colonial movements shattered empires and promised fundamental change in parts of the Global South.

The second insurgent period followed 1968 when workers and students raised the spectre of revolution once again in a number of countries from France and Czechoslovakia to Pakistan, and from Chile to Portugal and Iran.

These twentieth-century political crises all arose when particular phases of capitalist accumulation had reached exhaustion. The First World War, the catalyst of the Russian Revolution, was the terrible culmination of a period of intense imperial and military-industrial competition that began with the ‘scramble for Africa’ at the end of the nineteenth century. The post Second World War radicalisation was a response not just to the horrors of the war but to the dreadful years of slump beforehand, and the collaboration of many ruling classes with fascism. The post-1968 upsurge was a product of tensions stored up by two decades of the long boom, as well as ruling-class attacks as the boom petered out. In all cases, established politics couldn’t deal with the anger and aspirations of new and growing radicalised working populations.

These struggles were contained and defeated. But they had broken open possibilities for fundamental change and they profoundly shaped the societies in which they took place.

This century, after years of defeat, insurgent working-class struggle has reappeared in new forms. Class struggle was, for example, the central dynamic in the great upheavals that rocked Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina at the start of the century. Workers played key roles in the two cycles of upheaval in 2011 and 2019 that touched many countries in the Global South. As the cost-of-living crisis has grown, class struggle has returned to Britain, the US and other countries of the capitalist core.

The primacy of politics

This history confirms Marx’s contention that working-class struggle is the most important source of radical ideas in society. Socialism emerged as the collective aspiration of militant working people in the second half of the nineteenth century, and touched the lives of workers everywhere by the 1900s. Its revolutionary variant haunted political and social life for decades after The Russian Revolution of 1917, and radical socialist ideas came to the fore again in the post-war upsurges and in the great explosions of the 1960s and 1970s.

Even at times of relative social peace or working-class defeat, class consciousness has proved resilient and the numbers of people who self-define as working class often surprise. Even Thatcherism failed to eradicate redistributive attitudes amongst workers. To give just one example, a recent British study charting the ‘decline of deference’ between 1968 and 2000 noted that class continued to be a key preoccupation throughout the period, and that people never stopped using class to place themselves in society. It also suggested that as deference to the elites declined, socially egalitarian attitudes which had always been widespread amongst the core of the working class spread to much wider sectors of society.[3]

The third contention in these articles has been that the particular political ideas and traditions that have shaped working-class organisation have been decisive to the outcomes of struggles.

Of course, objective social relations and the balance of class forces set the limits of the possible. In periods of capitalist crisis, ruling classes use various combinations of repression, manoeuvre and propaganda to cling on to power. Nonetheless, the relative weight of revolutionary ideas within movements is also critical. The great upsurges of the post-war period and the movements of late 1960s and 1970s were contained more than anything because of the fact that reformist politics, including its Stalinist variants, were ultimately dominant in the movements.

It is not just that particular opportunities for change were missed due to the insufficient weight of revolutionary forces or ideas. The resulting setbacks had a damaging impact on the working class for years afterwards. After the containment of the post-’68 struggles for example, attacks on working-class living standards by social-democratic governments caused deep demoralisation for militant working-class movements and opened up the possibility of decisive ruling-class victories.

Stressing the importance of political ideas and organisation for working-class struggle might seem to contradict the earlier emphasis on the importance of experience in developing consciousness. Actually, both things are absolutely crucial to understand, and both things – the everyday resilience of class consciousness and the decisive importance of politics – tend to be downplayed, even on the left.

Ignoring the fact that working-class experience is an engine of resistance and opposition in society leads either to technocratic, top-down strategies for change or straightforward pessimism. Both lead to passivity.

Ignoring the decisive importance of political ideas to the outcome of struggles leads to what Marxists call an ‘economist’ approach to struggle. This is the notion that strikes and spontaneous struggle will in and of themselves lead to fundamental change. Great working-class struggles always shake societies, but all history tells us that politics trumps economics in the end. Even the most concerted economic struggles can be contained within the bounds of capitalist reality unless a conscious revolutionary leadership emerges at their heart.

As we saw in part four of this series, the experience of capitalist reality for workers has two aspects. The fact that capitalism is based on exploitation ensures that there is always opposition to class rule, that the system itself generates anger and opposition. The alienated nature of production and the reification it produces, however, can create a sense of powerlessness and limit people’s ability to grasp the robbery at the heart of the process. The result, enhanced by the efforts of bourgeois ideologists, is that working people have what Gramsci called a ‘contradictory consciousness’.

This is why Gramsci, Lukács, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky and others in the twentieth-century classical Marxist tradition saw that the full development of class consciousness requires specific, revolutionary organisation. Such organisation is necessary to hold on to and develop the insights gained by the most conscious workers at the height of struggles, to generalise them as widely as possible and to overcome sectionalism and gradualism.

Focussed as they are on elections, reformist organisations take a snapshot of public opinion (from all classes) and adapt to it. Revolutionary socialist organisation has fundamentally different aims and methods. It aims to relate at all times to the most active and militant members of the working class, to try and offer leadership to those struggles which do take place, to draw socialist conclusions from them, and make the link between them and the need for revolution.

Marx’s famous warning that the past ‘weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living’, applies even in times of upheaval. Reformist ideas and organisation do not completely evaporate in the heat of struggle. Even in the most revolutionary of crises there are ideological and political struggles between reformists and revolutionaries. If the revolutionaries don’t have reasonably rooted and influential organisation, the opportunity for system change can slip away.

Dominant not leading

Class struggle doesn’t tend to rise on a gradual incline. Rather it escalates suddenly and explosively in leaps and waves. The great twentieth-century insurgencies were the result of accumulated tensions which ignited suddenly after years of compression. Making detailed predictions of how such complex processes are likely to play out would be foolhardy. It would, however, be equally mistaken for the left to ignore the fact that many of the characteristics that marked these great upsurges can be observed around us. Once again, we are in a situation in which the dominant economic model is straining under the accumulated weight of its own contradictions.

Neoliberalism has failed twice over, even in its own terms. It has not lived up to its promises of enriching wider society. Far from trickling down, wealth has been sucked from working populations and working-class communities into the hands of an almost unimaginably rich ruling class and their more and more remote enablers.

Rather than leading to increased efficiency as the champions of neoliberalism led us to believe, unfettered markets and unregulated competition have spread dysfunction and chaos. In the Global South states are failing, in the so-called heartlands more and more people can’t get a home, enough food, or medical essentials. In many countries, the pandemic revealed that neoliberalism’s obsession with the market has eroded the most basic capacity of governments to formulate plans and implement them coherently. Global competition is more and more turning to war. The climate emergency has shown that world leaders are incapable of effective co-operation even in the face of an existential threat to humanity.

As a result we are moving into the kind of situation which Antonio Gramsci called ‘a crisis of authority’, in which ruling classes no longer have active popular consent, are no longer leading, ‘only “dominant”’.[4]

Nor are there any easy escape routes for our leaders. There has been talk about the possible return of Keynesianism, protectionism and state intervention. For some, this promises the possibility of the parliamentary left once again finding the space to pursue redistribution and stimulus in government. While such developments would be welcome, they do not seem very likely. First, the level of integration of national economies around the world makes state intervention difficult and disruptive. In such a connected world economy, national Keynesianism is widely regarded by the elites as self-defeating, as domestic fiscal stimulus benefits foreign trading partners without their having to pay for it.[5]

Another obstacle to a return to Keynes is the painfully low rate of profit. As we entered the pandemic in 2020, both growth rates and profit rates were at historic lows across the system. According to the Federal Bank, US non-financial profit rates were at 3.5% compared to a peak of 8% in 1966.[6] This means that the pressure to cut welfare and wages is acute everywhere, the opposite of the situation in the post-war period, in which boom conditions encouraged a focus on holding on to skilled workers, conceding to strikes and paying out for limited welfare to secure social peace.

There have recently been periods of very high state spending. Famously, billions were spent bailing out the banks after the 2008 banking crisis. This was a product not of a desire to reboot the economy in the interests of working people, but of the need to save the existing system. It points to another of the system’s problems, that large chunks of capital are simply too big to fail. This closes off another of the traditional solutions to a low rate of profit: letting sections of capital go to the wall. Governments are committed to long-term cuts in expenditure on education, health and social services, they are committed to pushing down wages and attacking workers’ conditions, but letting big chunks of the economy fail has become an existential threat.

As well as posing huge challenges for humanity, the crises we face have helped illuminate how the system works and how it breaks. They have discredited ruling classes around the world in the eyes of whole populations. In particular, they have shown that society only continues to function because of ‘key workers’: transport workers, cleaners, retail staff, teachers and lecturers, hospital workers, manufacturing workers, agricultural workers, cleansing workers, IT workers, call-centre workers, care workers. The working class, to call it by its collective name. Lacking a plan B, our rulers will continue to respond to the crisis with austerity, increased repression, and by trying to impose all kinds of divisions and imagined communities on the population.

To say this situation has opened up the space for revolutionary politics is an understatement. It is a situation that more and more demands a revolutionary response at a time when the revolutionary left is still relatively weak. In order to rise to the present emergency and shape the future, we need to learn from the past. Working-class struggle is back, and it is posing a real challenge to our rulers. We need to be clear about the power that working people have, but also understand that to be successful, working-class insurgency requires insurgent politics and organisation.

 

 

[1] Figure from Tony Cliff, ‘The working class and the oppressed’, Socialist Worker Review, No. 101, September, (1987). Available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1987/09/oppressed.html.

[2] International Labour Organisation, ‘Key Indicators of the Labour Market’, 8th ed. ILO, Geneva, 2013. Available at: https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—stat/documents/publication/wcms_498929.pdf.

[3] Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, Class, Politics and the Decline of Deference in England 1968-2000 (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2018), pp.7-8.

[4] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (Lawrence and Wishart, London 1971), p.276.

[5] As Paul Krugman has put it, ‘my fiscal stimulus helps your economy, by increasing your exports – but you don’t share in my addition to government debt’; Paul Krugman, ‘Protectionism and stimulus (wonkish)’, New York Times, (February 1, 2009). Available at: https://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/02/01/protectionism-and-stimulus-wonkish/

[6] Figures from the US Federal Bank, quoted in ‘Out of Lockdown and Back into the Long Depression. An Interview with Michael Roberts’, Spectre Journal, July 6, 2021, available at:

https://spectrejournal.com/out-of-lockdown-and-back-into-the-long-depression/.

 

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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