The workers or “the people”?

Submitted by Anon on 27 June, 2005 - 11:37

By Chris Reynolds

Why should Marxists want to narrow our appeal to “the workers”, enrolling people from other classes only to the extent that they rally behind the working class? Why not seek a broader unity of “ordinary people”? These questions are live among “anti-capitalist” activists, and on the left generally.

Our starting point has to be Marx’s critique of political economy. Pivotal to that is the concept of abstract labour, or universal social labour — labour as the expenditure under standard conditions of a quotient of average labour-power. Abstract labour, according to Marx, is the substance of value.

Abstract labour becomes a “practical fact” in “a form of society in which individuals easily pass from one type of [standardised] labour to another, the particular type of labour being accidental to them and therefore irrelevant. Labour... has become a means to create wealth in general, and has ceased to be tied as an attribute to a particular individual”1. In abstract labour each individual participates as an element of a general social pool of labour-power, multivalent and mobile.

The working class is the human carrier of that general social pool of labour-power. It is the class of people who live by selling their labour-power.

Labour has a twofold character in capitalist society. It is both abstract labour and concrete labour, i.e. a particular sort of productive activity as different from others as painting is from ploughing.

Likewise the working class also has a twofold character. It is both the basic alienated class, having its life reduced to the margins around a process of labour for capital which sucks out its energy while returning to it only a pittance by which to keep its labour-power in trim; and the basic creative class, developing an ever-more-multifarious cooperative potency in production.

“Largescale industry... does away with all repose, all fixity and all security as far as the worker’s life-situation is concerned [and enforces] the ceaseless sacrifices required from the working class... the reckless squandering of labour-powers, and... the devastating effects of social anarchy. But [also] large-scale industry, through its very catastrophes, makes the recognition of the variation of labour and hence of the fitness of the worker for the maximum number of different kinds of labour into a question of life and death. [It points towards] the totally developed individual, for whom the different social functions are different modes of activity he takes up in turn... “2.

Capitalist production throws the working class into constant conflicts with capital over the terms and conditions of the sale of labour-power. Even if limited to the issue of wages, those battles generate class organisations of the workers — trade unions — and ties of class solidarity. Extended to issues of workers’ control over production, they pose the question of the principle of solidarity replacing the rules of the market. The creative powers of the working class, increased through cooperation and science, demand direct self-organisation in place of the capitalist organisation where those powers appear as the property of, and as available only through the mediation of, individual capitals — where the social fact that labour produces all new value is expressed as the market fact that money buys all commodities.

A cooperative commonwealth is thus not just a benevolent scheme to relieve the sufferings of the workers, or a good plan for which the workers’ numbers and economic power are necessary as a battering-ram. It is the photographic positive for which the negative is provided by the struggle of the working class, within capitalist society, to lift the burdens of its class subordination by abolishing it. The working class remains subordinate so long as a minority class, the capitalists, own the means of production. Workers cannot divide modern technology up into a myriad of individual workshops and thus take control of the means of production individually. They can do it only collectively.

History confirms theory. Time and again, from the Paris Commune of 1871 through the Russian Revolution of 1917, the revolutionary movements across Europe after World War One, and the Spanish Revolution of 1936 through to Portugal in 1975 and Poland in 1980-1, when the working class has gained enough self-confidence and organisation to come forward as a force challenging the existing order, it has created workers’ councils with direct democracy, imposed workers’ control of production, and placed social provision for need as the guiding principle in place of profit.

Even in quiet times, when the workers’ movements are unmilitant and cautious, it is almost always in their ranks that the most numerous advocates, and the best hearing, for such ideas is found.

Since the working class is an international class, since it has to learn solidarity in order to organise effectively at all, and since it feels more than other classes the sharp edges of sexism and racism, the emancipation of the working class is also the emancipation of all human beings without distinction of race or sex.

As Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto: “Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat [wage-working class] alone is a really revolutionary class...

“The lower middle class, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore not revolutionary, but conservative. Nay more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history. If by chance they are revolutionary, they are so only in view of their impending transfer into the proletariat...”

In Britain, we have become used to this small business class existing politically only as a tail of the Tory party. In other countries, however, the small business class has been much more significant and autonomous politically.

The small business owners, once mobilised, want to see big business checked. They want to see capitalist crises suppressed and stable markets ensured. Thus they want a democratic government which regulates the economy and provides public services. They are not confident that they can pay for their own pensions or health care, or tide themselves over in periods that are bad for business, so they want social provision.

Where the small business class is desperate, and disappointed by the workers’ movement, that sort of politics turns into fascism. The demand for a democratic government transmutes into the demand for government by a strong leader who authentically represents the people — without the tedious intermediaries of discussion, debate and elections which workers are used to from their own organisations — and who suppresses all elements of chaos.

Petty bourgeois politics is pretty much always nationalist. The horizons of the petty bourgeois do not extend beyond the nation; they associate the world outside with the big, often multinational, businesses which threaten them; and they look to the nation-state to restore balance. But it is not always fascist or even right wing. Petty-bourgeois politics is multicoloured; and, in different shades, it is pervasive out of all proportion to the limited size and economic weight of the petty bourgeoisie.

Such petty bourgeois as lawyers, writers, academics, etc.3, often become the public representatives of parties of big business or of labour, and give those parties’ rhetoric a petty-bourgeois twist. And, decisively, in capitalist society the politics of “the people in general” must always be petty-bourgeois politics — politics which set the “golden mean” of the petty bourgeoisie, between big business and the workers, as the pivot and touchstone.

Marx explained it thus: “Democratic republican institutions are demanded as a way of softening the antagonism between the two extremes of capital and wage-labour and transforming it into harmony, not of superseding both of them. However varied the measures proposed for achieving this goal, however much it may be edged with more or less revolutionary conceptions, its content remains the same. This content is the reformation of society by democratic means, but a reformation within the boundaries set by the petty bourgeoisie...

“One must not... imagine that the democratic representatives are all shopkeepers or their enthusiastic supporters. They may be poles apart from them in their education and their individual situation. What makes them representatives of the petty bourgeoisie is the fact that their minds are restricted by the same barriers which the petty bourgeoisie fails to overcome in real life...”4

So long as workers’ representatives have their minds restricted to the limits of getting a fair deal for workers in a structure still defined by the market and wage-labour, their socialism will always be petty-bourgeois socialism. This “socialism par excellence”, as Marx put it5, is socialism that goes with the grain of capitalist society, rather than with the grain of generalised militant class struggle. One example is the claim of the British Labour Party’s famous old Clause Four to secure for the workers “the full fruits of their industry”. Socialistic though it sounds, it is a petty bourgeois ideal, the ideal of the small craft worker who wants a “fair price” for his product corresponding exactly to the labour put in. The communist ideal, from each according to their ability and to each according to their need, is radically different.6

Populist ideas are a natural first step for workers’ movements newly emerging, or for individual workers coming into politics — and one they must ruthlessly shed in order to become potent agencies for emancipation.

In 1859 Marx published his first draft of Capital, the Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy. To Engels, whom he reasonably expected to be aghast at the news, he wrote: “Don’t collapse... these sections do not yet contain anything about capital”! Or wage-labour, either. But a polemical purpose justified the book. “The basis of Proudhonist [petty-bourgeois] socialism... which leaves private production alone but organises the exchange of private products, which wants the commodity but not the money, will be run into the ground. Communism must above all dispose of this ‘false brother’.”7 It was that important.

Marxists have become used to learning about populism from the example of the Russian populists (narodniks). There is much to learn from that example, if studied closely.

The populists, mostly urban intellectuals, thought that the peasants’ struggle against the landlords would incubate communism. Yet “one revolutionary described later how he had been telling a group of peasants what life would be like after the revolution, when the land belonged to the people. One of them jumped up, shouting: ‘Oh, how wonderful when we shall redistribute land! I shall hire two workers and live like a lord!’”8

Marxists like Lenin insisted vehemently that they were building an independent workers’ party, to which peasants could be recruited only on the basis of abandoning their peasant outlook. In 1917, the Bolsheviks adopted the populists’ land programme — in order to secure an alliance for the immediate revolutionary seizure of power — but they never thought that they had been wrong to have a different land programme, one opposed to the break-up of the big estates, for all the years before.

In memory, though, the Bolsheviks’ tactical gesture of 1917 has too often overshadowed the rest. It is forgotten, too, that the Bolsheviks’ support for peasants against neo-feudal landlords is a different matter from supporting petty-bourgeois farmers in their competition with big capitalist farmers. The whole story is slurred into a general conclusion: we support the peasants. So much so that a pamphlet on populism, no less, from the neo-Trotskyist school associated with the late Ernest Mandel, can have the very first sentence of its introduction defining the problem as being that “the workers and peasants have not achieved class independence”9. Forgotten, completely forgotten, is the battle for class independence of the workers from the peasants and other small owners, and all that remains in memory is counterposing workers-and-peasants, blurred together, against the bourgeoisie.

In South Korea and Taiwan after World War Two, the US army pushed through immensely radical land reforms on the theory that a large population of small independent farmers was the best possible conservative ballast for those countries. They were not wrong. Half a century later, the new workers’ movements in those countries, though immensely promising, are still struggling with petty-bourgeois ideas. The South Korean unions have been demanding that the chaebols, the big monopolies, be broken up into smaller capitalist units.

Countries where left-wing or radical small farmers have played a big role in politics, like the USA, Canada, New Zealand, and Sweden, have been firmly unrevolutionary. Even though some of those countries have generated large labour movements, which won great reforms in their heydays, the petty-bourgeois heritage has confined those labour movements to petty-bourgeois socialism. Marxist factions remained very small. France, despite its large petty bourgeoisie, has been able to generate relatively big revolutionary Marxist movements, but since 1848 at least the petty bourgeoisie have been heavily with the Right.

The first essential for emancipation is a workers’ movement clearly separated in ideas and organisation from its petty-bourgeois surroundings. Only once it has achieved strength and confidence in those ideas and organisation can it offer the small business class — or, at least, a sizeable chunk of its members — specific proposals (cooperatives, cheap credit, etc.) to help win their support. A workers’ movement which has submerged itself into “the people” in general will never be revolutionary.

It remains to deal with some objections and problems about the definition of the working class.

Isn’t the working class diminishing to the point where it is too weak to revolutionise society? No. Now is probably the first time in history that the wage-workers and their immediate families are the largest class in the population, world-wide. According to the World Bank, the world had 2.8 billion wage-workers in 1997. Even though a large number of those, in the poorer countries, are “semi-proletarians”, who scrape a living by varying combinations of petty trade, self-employment, theft, begging, domestic work, and straightforward wage-work, the actual number of wage-workers has increased sharply.

Indonesia, one of the world’s poorest countries, had 86 million wage-workers out of a population of 200 million in 1997. Compare Germany, the country Marxists cited as the epitome of high capitalist development, around World War One — 34% of its labour force were self-employed or working for their families.

The working class is not only manual workers. But what defines workers is not how dirty their hands get, but their relation to capital. As Marx put it: “With the development of... the specifically capitalist mode of production, the real lever of the overall labour process is increasingly not the individual worker. Instead, labour-power socially combined and the various competing labour-powers which together form the entire production machine participate in very different ways... one as a manager [plainly Marx means a low-level administrator or organiser], engineer, technologist, etc., the other as overseer, the third as manual labourer or even drudge... It is quite immaterial whether the job of a particular worker, who is merely a limb of this aggregate worker, is at a greater or smaller distance from the actual manual labour”10.

Teachers, technicians, and so on, are not middle class. They are part of the working class.

Isn’t the working class so diverse that it can hardly achieve more unity among itself than is possible among “the people” in general? The working class is diverse, and, in Britain at least, the inequalities within it have recently increased. We have seen “the return of the labour aristocracy”11.

When the class struggle is quiet, the better-off worker and the petty bourgeois look very similar indeed. They own houses in the same street, drive the same sort of car, take the same sort of holidays, send their children to the same schools, and are equally glad to be distanced from the condition of the worse-off workers struggling with high-rise flats, overcrowded public transport, no holidays, and “failing” schools.

Even “in repose”, however, there is a difference. The small business owner votes much more right-wing than the teacher or nurse well up on their pay scale. Vigorous class struggle extends the difference into a gulf. The well-off workers are drawn into (and sometimes lead) the general workers’ struggle; the petty bourgeois are still petty bourgeois.

Doesn’t the relative decline of factory labour cut away the revolutionary potential of the working class? True, some sections of the working class have greater strategic weight than others: those who directly produce the bulk of socially-useful products, those who can hit capital hardest, those who are concentrated in big workplaces and large cities, and those who have the taste of capitalist exploitation most bitter in their mouths.

Generally, the shop-floor workers in manufacturing and extractive industry are central — but also those in such sectors as post, telecom, and transport, and maybe even some in capitalistically “unproductive” work, like bank workers or teachers12.

And the factory working class is expanding fast worldwide; in the advanced capitalist countries, the number of workers in manufacturing industry rose from 88 million in 1950 to 120 million in 1971, and has fallen back only slightly to 113 million in 1998.13

Moreover, it is wrong to suppose that Marx’s perspective was based on a vision of a population almost all made up of factory workers. Marx’s own analysis of the English census of 1861 showed only 1.7 million workers in factories, mines, gasworks, and railways, out of a population of 20 million14. The main group of unproductive workers then, domestic servants, numbered 1.2 million, and they were much less promising subjects for revolutionary action than teachers or nurses today.

Aren’t middle-class people, like students and organisers of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations), very important in the current anti-capitalist activism? And often more radical than the stodgy trade unions? Why would we want to cut ourselves off from them?

In the first place, it is no longer accurate to call students, as a social category, “middle class”. Many of them, now, come from working-class families (usually better-off), and will go into (usually better-paid) wage-labour on finishing their studies. Students are a fluid social group without clear class anchoring. As history confirms, they are unable to formulate any comprehensive social programme organically from their own struggles, but they can be a vital leaven for democratic struggles (Serbia, 2000) and even sometimes for socialist struggles (France, 1968).

NGO people also form an intermediary, loose-floating social group. Their access to meeting rooms, computers, phones and so on can make them very valuable allies in struggle; at the same time they are not organically tied into the working class.

Individuals from student and NGO backgrounds, using the skills they have acquired from those backgrounds, can be immensely valuable to the workers’ movement; and students and NGO people, as categories, can be important though lightweight allies and leavens for the movement.

The future of the new anti-capitalist activism depends, however, on a choice. Either student and NGO activists learn sufficient persistence to regulate their activity by the cues and tempos of the workers’ struggle — or they try to construct a movement with their own concerns as central and the working-class only as a convenient source of back-up muscle.

In the second case the activism — according to all the lessons of history — will bring no emancipation. At best it will be shallow and short-lived. In the worst (though at present unlikely-looking) case, the vague “anti-corporate” agitation could mutate into something nationalist, backward-looking, and oriented to defence of small capital against big.

To choose “people’s” politics as against working-class politics is to choose to try to harness the working class to conservative or backward-looking causes.


  1. Marx, Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy.
  2. 2. Marx, Capital volume 1, Penguin edition, p.618-9.
  3. Even today, when the routine lecturing staff at universities are being proletarianised, a professor can have consultancies, textbook royalties, sponsored research centres, etc., on the side, making him a genuine petty bourgeois.
  4. Marx, The 18th Brumaire, III.
  5. Marx, The Class Struggles in France, III.
  6. Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme.
  7. Marx and Engels, Letters on Capital, pp.64-5
  8. Margaret Canovan, Populism, pp.73-4
  9. Michel Löwy, Populism in Latin America, IIRE Notebooks for Study and Research no.6.
  10. Marx, Capital volume 1, p.1040.
  11. Martin Thomas, “The return of the labour aristocracy”, Workers’ Liberty 21.
  12. Marx, Capital volume 1, chapter 16.
  13. Chris Harman, International Socialism no.89, quoting Charles Feinstein.
  14. Marx, Capital volume 1, pp.573-5

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