The Working Class and Socialism
Only through the struggle of the working class, the main revolutionary force in modern society, can a progressive solution be found to the breakdown of capitalism.
The working class is revolutionary because (1) it is the principal productive force in society; (2) the historical and political logic of its resistance to capitalist exploitation and oppression leads to the abolition of private ownership of the means of production, the replacement of the profit motive with the satisfaction of social needs as the driving principle of economic life, and the realization of genuine social equality among all people; and (3) it is an international class whose victory will break down the barriers of national states and unite humanity in a truly global community devoted to the protection and development of its common home, the Earth.
Never before in history has the working class comprised such a large proportion of the world’s population. In countries, particularly in Asia, where modern industry hardly existed only 50 years ago, the massive inflow of capital has financed an immense growth in the industrial infrastructure and the working class. Within the historically advanced centers of capitalism of Europe and North America, the working class is the overwhelming majority of the population. Technological advances, shifts in the international division of labor, and the decline in the global position of American-based manufacturing have altered the composition of the working class. But the economic and social transformations in the United States have either expanded or created new categories of workers. In 1960, the year John F. Kennedy was elected president, women were still a relatively small percentage of the workforce. The “service industry” was in its infancy. “Programming” was the occupation of a small number of skilled specialists. No one yet spoke of “IT workers.”
The vast majority of the people—whether they work in factories and on construction sites, or in offices, medical centers, shopping malls, primary and secondary schools, university complexes or scientific laboratories; whether they drive trucks, buses and trains or fly commercial aircraft—live from paycheck to paycheck. These workers share common problems and face a common enemy: the gigantic financial and corporate institutions that hire, fire and exploit them in the pursuit of profit.
There is a staggering contradiction between the economic and social significance of the working class and its negligible influence on the political direction of society. The concentration of wealth is accompanied inevitably by the concentration of political power. Within the United States, the financial and corporate oligarchy has monopolized political power to an extent that has no equal in any other advanced capitalist country. The American working class has never succeeded in establishing its own mass political party. The present crisis has exposed the enormous price that the working class is paying for its subordination to the Democratic Party.
For New Organizations of Working Class Struggle
The interests of the working class can be secured only through mass struggle. All history demonstrates that nothing is handed down from above. Democratic rights, social reforms, the eight-hour day, the prohibition against child labor—even these gains won under capitalism were the byproduct of revolutionary upheavals.
New popular organizations of the working class must be built in opposition to the existing trade unions. The AFL-CIO and the Change to Win Coalition are not working class organizations, but auxiliary arms of corporate management. They work actively to increase the exploitation of the working class and to isolate and demoralize any opposition from among the workers themselves. They encourage nationalist sentiments, dividing different sections of the working class against each other. Politically, the unions work to channel the working class behind the Democratic Party and thereby subordinate it to the politics of the capitalist class.
Over the past four decades there has been a collapse in the number of strikes, the elementary form of class militancy—from 35 million lost man-days due to strikes in 1968, to 16 million in 1972, to less than 2 million today. This is due not to a decline in social tensions—social inequality has soared during this same period—but to the betrayals of the trade union bureaucracy. At the same time, the wealth of the union bureaucracy has become increasingly disconnected from the conditions of the membership, or even the number of unionized workers. From 2001 to 2008, the membership of the United Auto Workers fell from 701,000 to 431,000—a decline of about 40 percent—but the UAW’s billion-dollar assets increased. This was a period that saw repeated concessions contracts imposed on auto workers, reducing wages and benefits and introducing multiple-tier wage systems.
To advance its interests, the working class must build genuine mass organizations—rank-and-file workplace, factory and neighborhood democratic action committees—animated by the spirit of revolutionary intransigence and opposition to the two parties of big business. These organizations must begin with the needs of the working class and must be democratically controlled by the working class. They must take ever greater responsibility for unifying the working class—employed and unemployed, skilled and unskilled, native-born and immigrant, across different industries and workplaces—and organizing their common struggles against the capitalist class.