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If the working class is to change the world, it needs serious strategies to find unity and overcome divisions, not woolly moralism, argues Richard Allday

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Michael D Yates, Can the Working Class Change the World? (Monthly Review Press 2018), 218pp.

The problem with this book, Can the working class change the world? is that it doesn’t even answer the title question. A mixture of glib terminology, and half-baked regurgitations of socialist theory, it leaves the reader with little other than an understanding that the global economy is nasty to poor people (who may or may not be workers) who apparently inhabit a ‘Global South’, and is tilted in favour of the well-off, who inhabit the ‘Global North’ and that Michael D. Yates is opposed to this state of affairs.

We are told on the second page of the preface that:

‘The conclusion I have reached is that fundamental, radical change … will not happen unless the working class and its allies attack capitalism … head-on, on every front, all the time.’

As a strategic guide, this is worse than useless, it is a recipe for disaster. This is in fact one of the flaws of the book; an apparent inability to see that the point of analysis is to develop a strategy. Anybody who attacks an opponent ‘head-on, on every front, all the time’ is: a) at risk of exhausting themselves; and b) is so busy attacking the strongest defences they lack the power to overcome the weakest defences. It is a recipe for disaster. It dissipates our strength rather than concentrating it. As does this book. And this is just two pages in!

Among the more serious deficiencies of this book are: the author’s continual harping on what divides the world’s oppressed rather than how these divisions can be overcome;the nonsensical re-drawing of the economic geography of the world into a ‘global North’, opposed to a ‘global South’; a complete misunderstanding of the class nature of the peasantry, which he continually conflates with the working class; an idiosyncratic view of class as dependent on the subjective views of individuals; and a theoretical sloppiness which leads to an infuriating lack of precision (a recurrent irritant in this book), for example he uses ‘employees’, ‘workers’ and ‘wage-earners’ in different ways at different times, sometimes interchangeably and sometimes not.

Defining the working class

The first chapter gives an overview of Yates’ take on the modern world, and provides an early warning of the deficiencies in the analysis. In commenting (uncritically) on the ‘writings and action of the Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong,’ Yates comments, ‘Mao’s inspiration is appropriate, given that he led a successful revolution as the head of a peasant army’. Given that the title of the book is Can the working class change the world?, it seems peculiar that we should be offered as a template a completely separate class as the effective agent. This confusion over what constitutes the working class is evident from page one, in a section laughably called ‘Toward a definition of the working class’, in which Yates offers the following insights:

‘What exactly is the working class? Is everyone who works for a wage a member of it? Perhaps in an abstract sense this is so. But in terms of changing the world, this is a useless definition’ (p.11).

He then goes on to exclude prison guards and police: ‘They are clearly workers. But they are not champions of the rights of other employees. Quite the contrary, as all of capitalist history shows.’

Aside from the historical ignorance displayed here (every major class challenge to the rule of the bourgeoisie, from the Paris Commune on, has resulted in a fracture of the repressive forces of the state, along class lines: most famously Russia in 1905 and 1917, Britain 1919, Germany 1919-21, Hungary 1956, Chile 1973, Iran 1978, Poland 1979-81, the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in the 90s, right up to the present, with the challenges to regimes in the Arab Spring). Yates’ subjective criterion (‘champions of the rights of other employees’) rules out most workers, most of the time.

Capitalism would have been buried long ago were it not thus. The whole point of a class analysis (for a Marxist) is that it allows us to analyse the fault lines where the subjective inclinations of the individual come into conflict with the objective contradictions of class society. To state the obvious, we need picket lines precisely because not all workers share the same worldview. They are not aimed at changing employers’ views; they are aimed at materially dissuading members of our class from lining up with the bosses.

The problem is not just that most police and prison guards are not ‘champions of the rights of other employees’, it is that most workers are not. Are the civilian support staff in the police force and prison service allowed to be considered part of the working class in Yates’ world? How about workers in the munitions industries? The workers building the nuclear submarines? Socialists look to the working class as the driving force for ending exploitation not because workers are somehow subjectively morally superior, but because that is where the potential power lies, where the collective strength is honed, and where the objective social interests lead away from exploitation, and towards cooperation. It is precisely because our strength lies in our collective organisation that socialists have long been preoccupied with examining the roots of division in our class and how best to combat this disunity.

Counting the working class

This book is good at listing disunity, and appalling at coming up with solutions. It also suffers from a deficiency of hard facts to either support or deny the various assertions Yates makes. Thus, the section explicitly titled ‘Situating the working class quantitatively and qualitatively,’ actually fails to do anything of the sort. Thus, Yates quotes ILO (International Labour Organization) statistics (for employed, unemployed, vulnerably employed etc.), but because of his insistence on regarding peasants as workers (and therefore, by implication, members of the working class) but who are not included in ILO figures, these provide, according to Yates, an unsatisfactory estimation. Yates then tells us, in conclusion of this section: ‘The purpose … is not to specify with … exactness how large the working class is’ (p.20).

According to Yates, ‘it is not possible to know exactly how many peasants there are, though they almost certainly number more than one billion,’ and when we seek his source for the figures he quotes, the footnote merely refers the reader to a blog dated December 2017 and a Guardian article from 2011 (p.20). This is really not good enough. But its ok, because:

‘The purpose of this foray into statistics is not to specify with some exactness how large the working class is.Rather, it is to demonstrate that, at any given time, there are several billion people working, in the reserve army of labour, or peasants’ (p.20).

And the significance of this figure? ‘Should ways be found to organize and unify, say, even 20% of them, they could surely change the world.’ Why 20%? Why not 17% (still a large number) or 36%? Just pluck a figure at random – any figure – and hey, there’s your answer.

The idea that socialists need only convince a minority of our class of the need to change the world has bedevilled the socialist movement since its inception. Variously called substitutionism, adventurism, ultra-leftism, putschism, Blanquism and a host of other ‘isms’, it has invariably led to defeat and, all too often, demoralisation. The fact is that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class, the action of the vast majority in the interests of the vast majority. To suggest that any other agent can build the world anew is to accept that it will not be our world, we will not own our futures, but rather we will continue to accept what others decide is best for us. That is not socialism, not in any form I recognise.

Another problem is the bland assertion ‘should ways be found to organize and unify …’ – well yes, but that is rather the point that socialists have struggled with for generations. We know that if we could unify, and if we could organise our class, we’d be home and dry. But it’s a little more complicated than that, and the vacuous solution offered by the author is worse than useless, it is positively counter-productive. But more on that later.

Dividing workers by north and south

In the meantime, the other inherent weakness of the book is the pernicious, and divisive, analysis employed by the author. The central divide he locates in the world economy is not class-driven, nor geo-political, but the insidious ideological construct of the Global North and Global South. ‘Throughout the Global South …. [many] states stand ready to violently suppress the working class and have frequently done so’ (p.108). Then comes the following, breathtakingly asinine, sentence: ‘This is not to say there are no rich nations in which similar problems exist, the United States comes readily to mind’! This is effectively to demote the role of the dominant capitalist power in the entire world to an aside.

Leave alone the nonsense of the first sentence – in my lifetime alone, Spain under Franco; the current Spanish state’s attitude to Catalan nationalism; the French state’s response to the gilets jaunes; the Greek state’s nod of complicity to the fascist Golden Dawn movement; the Italian state’s use of paramilitary forces in the 70s; the American state’s reaction to the civil-rights and anti-war movements (remember Kent State?) in the 60s; the British state’s reaction to the civil-rights movement in Ireland, in the 60s, and its paramilitary response to the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984/85); and so on, all go to show it is a diversionary nonsense to present an apparent distance between the rights enjoyed in the ‘Global North’ and ‘South’.

The fact is that the rule of capital is of necessity founded on brutality and coercion. Worse, by the nonsensical division of the world economy into a ‘North’ and ‘South’ (where Poland and Russia are ‘South’, and Chile, Japan, Australia are ‘North’), Yates is able to ignore addressing the very real, material, division of the world economy into national states with varying degrees of integration into the world system. He could as easily have described ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ national economies, but presumably that lacks the attraction of the glib ‘radical’ North/South divide. It certainly is not due to his descriptor being a useful analytical tool, as he nowhere develops any ideas for addressing the divide, but it does allow him to glide over any need to present a class analysis.

It also allows him to ignore the fact that, while political and physical repression obtain in many developing economies, it is almost always with the collusion, if not at the instigation, of the ruling classes of the more dominant economies. The role of the CIA in the tragedy of Chile 1973; of the CIA and Britain’s MI6 in the overthrow of the elected government of Prime Minister Mossadegh in Iran, and his replacement by the dictator Shah Reza Pahlavi; Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Greek colonels, every nasty dictator in Central and South America, all relied on the overt or covert support of the American state.

His division of the global economy into North (wealthy) and South (poor) is both tendentious and unnecessary; tendentious because it obscures the reality that the vast majority of those living in the Global North share the conditions of exclusion, insecurity and impoverishment resulting from the workings of an economic system designed to benefit a small elite, at the expense of the vast majority.

Yates himself defines the Global South as ‘those countries with relatively low per capita incomes; most are former colonies of the rich nations’ (p.15), and the Global North as ‘the world’s few rich capitalist countries: United States, Canada, Great Britain, the Scandinavian countries, France, Germany, Italy, the remainder of the countries in what used to be called Western Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand’ (p.34). In other words, there is a perfectly unambiguous analytical description (advanced capitalist economies/developing national economies), which avoids having to redraw the world’s geography, so why use the North/South model?

Lenin on peasants

These descriptors surface time and again, so it is obvious that they chime with the author’s view of the world. A clue is contained in brief on pages 33-34, the start of Chapter Two, titled ‘Some theoretical considerations’:

‘This chapter lays out an analytical scaffolding that will show that working people are exploited and expropriated, making it impossible for them to achieve real freedom, autonomy, and unalienated lives in a capitalist society… Throughout, remember that peasants are included as part of the working class.’

He does admit (p.14) ‘There has been considerable debate as to whether peasants are workers’, with a footnote citing an article by Lenin, from 1905.

Unfortunately for Yates, the article (‘The Proletariat and the Peasantry’, pp.231-236, Lenin, Collected Works, vol.8, Moscow 1962) emphatically does not include the peasantry as part of the working class, it explicitly states that there are some issues they hold in common, and can unite on, but some that have little or no relevance to the working class, that ‘the peasantry’ is a social group which contains different economic and political interests: ‘… we must organise the rural proletariat … we must explain to it that its interests are antagonistic to those of the bourgeois peasantry’. Even more pertinently, he warns his comrades against seeking ‘ a “simple” solution … [forgetting] the dual nature of the well-to-do and the middle peasant,’ and counsels against ‘people who approach the peasant question without well thought-out theoretical views, who are intent on popular “revolutionary” slogans calculated for effect, and who do not understand the great and serious danger of revolutionary adventurism particularly in the sphere of the peasant question.’

Indeed, in an article he wrote some eight months later (in the Novaya Zhizn newspaper, No.11, Nov. 12, 1905), Lenin was even clearer: ‘As for the small farmers, some of them own capital themselves, and often exploit workers. Hence not all small peasants join the ranks of fighters for socialism.’

Wages, immigration and race

This failure to understand that there are objective differences between the working class and the peasantry is reflected in other ways throughout the book. Because he seems to operate on the basis of moral outrage providing a sufficient analysis, he finds himself promoting contradictory solutions to individual problems. Thus:

‘In the United States today, the wages of some farm laborers have been rising considerably due to the government’s draconian harassment of immigrants, which has reduced the supply of workers. In response, grape growers are now beginning to introduce advanced mechanization to prune and harvest their vines’ (p.44).

Firstly, it is unusual to find discrimination, which relies on dividing our class one section from another, objectively benefitting us – it may result (usually does) in relative privilege, but at the expense of objective immiseration of both sections (Belfast’s heavy industry providing an exemplary case, where the freezing out of Catholic workers from skilled jobs undoubtedly resulted in Protestant workers enjoying a near monopoly of the better paid jobs, but at the expense of wages for both sections being significantly lower than the equivalent jobs either on the mainland or south of the border).

Moreover, if Yates is correct in his facts here (and I have to concede that I do not know the specific case he quotes) he still draws a very dangerous conclusion from it, which is to suggest that discrimination may materially benefit one section of our class, in which case the materialist case against class division is blown out of the water, and we are left only with the ethical argument – which has rarely proved an effective weapon on its own.

Again, a few pages later (p.47), racist tropes about a slave mentality ‘helped to create a white working class that was racist and unwilling to join with black workers in confrontations with employers.’ It is undoubtedly true that racism has played a pernicious and damagingly divisive role in our class (and not just in the US). But merely to observe that reality, while making no attempt to counter it, or to point out examples of where it has been overcome (and therefore to raise the prospect of doing so again) merely promotes pessimism. In fact, there are inspiring examples of the opposite, notably the New Orleans general strike, the Knights of Laborat their best, and the IWW (the Wobblies), which only failed after the full force of the state was mobilised against it. Unfortunately, these attempts at breaking the division of racism are dismissed by Yates on the same page:

‘There are many examples of white workers making common cause with black and other racial and ethnic groups, but serious examination of the history of the rich capitalist nations shows that racial conflict has always been a daunting impediment to working-class unity.’

First, why the qualification of ‘rich capitalist nations’? I would argue that racism has been an impediment to progressive movements in capitalist nations, period.

The violent, religious sectarianism that led to the formation of Pakistan; the pogroms in Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century that led to the mass immigration of Jews to the US (and to a lesser extent, the UK) at the end of the nineteenth-century; the institutionalised religious sectarianism of the UK-ruled province of Northern Ireland; the tragedy of the African Great Lakes region, as a result of imperialist sponsored division between Hutu and Tutsi that led to the first and second Congo Wars, and the Rwandan and Burundi genocides, to name but a few examples, demonstrate that any serious examination of capitalism will reveal the system’s continual reliance on racism and discrimination to weaken organised opposition.

Entrenching divisions

The point, however, is not to demoralise ourselves with the ‘superior weaponry’ of the enemy, but to examine how we can overcome the impediments. Not only does Yates not address this, he comes dangerously close to perpetuating the division: one passage, which purports to demonstrate ‘there was considerable race prejudice among white members of the Communist Party’ (p.47) in Alabama in the Great Depression does nothing of the sort. In fact, the final sentence, ‘Needless to say the [member in question] was summarily expelled’ undermines his statement. I do not know if the author quoted (Robin D. G. Kelley) supports Yates’ contention, but the quotation offered clearly does not.

The weakness of Yates ‘theoretical framework’ (p.33) is soon manifest where the timeworn notion of ‘super-profit’ is resurrected:

‘… the expropriation of black bodies, and those of all who have been enslaved … made it possible when slavery was abolished, topay wage laborers from these groups below-subsistence wages.This increased surplus value and generated extra profits, some ofwhich could be shared with white workers, giving them a stake in the continuation of racism. We can call this “super exploitation” oranother form ofexpropriation, the latter because black workers are not paid the value of their labor power’ (p.48).

Disregarding his persistent elision of exploitation and expropriation, Yates here reveals a worrying economic illiteracy: the capitalist system rests on workers, black or white, male or female, not being paid the full value of their labour power - this is the taproot of capitalist profit! Putting this issue aside also, the notion of ‘super-profits, which accrue if an employer can pay a wage below subsistence, first makes its appearance on page 41. Whether or not there is a case for this concept (and I would argue it is radically mistaken), Yates himself argues on a previous page that ‘businesses cannot pay less than a survival wage indefinitely or their hired hands will either face deteriorating health or die’ (p.39).

Now, I think it is a fact that many, many businesses in the advanced capitalist world pay below subsistence wages – the shortfall is made up through various benefits (in the UK, what used to be called working family tax credits, and increasingly the universal credit system, is precisely a state subsidy to low-wage employers). More pertinently, capitalism was built on industries paying below-subsistence wages, as Engels’ The Condition of the English Working Class makes abundantly clear. Indeed, the trade-union movement as we know it today, throughout the world, in almost every case, found its original impetus in fighting against abysmal pay and working conditions, because (as Yates appears to recognise) these have ‘not been an uncommon occurrence in both rich and poor countries …[and the] extraction of such profits will lower the life expectancy of the laborers unless they can find other ways to get food, clothing, and shelter’ (p.41). Or organise collectively to force an increase in wages!

Leave aside for a moment that this argument relies on us ignoring Yates’ previous assertion (p.39) that this is an unsustainable business model, and ignore the unhelpful conflation of exploitation and expropriation, and we are still left with the poisonous argument that employers ‘share’ the resultant super-profits with a privileged section of the workforce. If Yates is correct in this, the logic is divisive in the extreme: that white workers have a material stake in maintaining racism and discrimination. Yet, as pointed out above, time and again, systematic discrimination against one part of the workforce results in lower average wages across the board.

Resisting division

Yate’s argument also relies on a very partial reading of US labour history. The Farmers Alliance movement, in the late 1880s (precisely the period Yates is referring to):

‘derived an almost millenarian energy from its roots in the poorer strata of the rural population. Especially in the Southern cotton belt [precisely the area Yates is referring to] where the ancient regime had been recast into the debt servitude of the crop-lien system, the Alliance by its unprecedented feat of uniting black and white tenants had become a subversive force of revolutionary potential. Furthermore, in areas of the South and Southwest an active cooperation had long existed between trades union, local assemblies of the Knights of Labor and the Alliance’ (‘Why the American working class is different’, Mike Davis, New Left Review, London, Issue 123, 1980, p.30).

Davis also cites two other works dealing with the ‘often overlooked fact …[of]… the dynamism of Southern trades unionism in the late eighties; New Orleans, in particular, had a powerful inter-racial trade-union movement that made it a labour citadel by 1890’. The truth is that, pervasive (and state-sponsored) racism notwithstanding, there is a rich history of US workers rejecting the divisiveness of racism, sometimes effectively, sometimes less so – but where it has succeeded, it has faced murderous state-sponsored attempts to crush it physically(the suppression of the New Orleans general strike at the turn of the century being just one example).

The need for strategy

On the final page, we get the following injunction – which echoes, appropriately, the quotation at the start of this review, from the preface:

‘In the meantime though, best to do what we can, in whatever ways of which we are capable: by any and all tactics, everywhere, all the time, in every part of the capitalist system. Fight landlords, disrupt classrooms, take on bosses, write, nothing is unimportant.’

This is utter bilge. Worse, by the supposedly ‘radical’ equality of not distinguishing what is effective from what is not, we are left with an injunction to all ‘go off and do your own thing’. Which, when you think it through, is an utter abdication of any responsibility for developing any kind of strategy. One thing every socialist understands is that by working together we are stronger. You do not organise, in a workplace or anywhere else, on the basis of ‘OK, off you all go and do your own thing’. That is just a recipe for dissipating energy. A book that analysed the state of the class today, that proposed a strategy for militants to work around, based on an analysis of prioritising certain demands in common, would have been a worthwhile exercise. It may have provoked discussion, even disagreement on priorities, but it would be useful to have that discussion. Unfortunately, this book does nothing of the sort.

Too many of us will have had the experience of a workmate who, while having an opinion on almost everything, and regarding themselves as a thoroughly radical and enlightened individual, well-read and up on current affairs, nevertheless, every time concrete action is mooted, whether that be strike action, mobilising against the EDL or Trump, or supporting the school students striking against climate change, can always tell you why it won’t work. Why you are only attacking one facet of the system, and it won’t change a thing. They are the mirror image of the arguments in this book. Go your separate ways, doing your own thing; or do nothing except carp. Either way, nothing changes.

Richard Allday

Richard Allday

Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage.  A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.

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