What Is the "Working Class"?

— Sam Friedman

FORTY YEARS AGO, I used to hold up signs about “Workers Power” at demonstrations.  I rarely do that any more. This is because almost no one understands what “workers power” might mean. They also do not know what “worker” means.

As I think about the dialectical nature of the terms “class” and of “working class” in particular, their meanings vary as capitalism changes and, beyond that, depending on the purposes of the person using the term.

Though I write this from a particular Marxist perspective, these thoughts are relevant to a wide range of radical traditions and ways of thought.

I. The meaning of “working class” has clearly changed during the history of capitalism.

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels discuss history as being the history of class struggles, and then list polar oppositions of “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman” as examples. When they discuss the modern era, they counterpoise bourgeoisie and proletariat.

What they do not discuss here, but which Marx presents in great detail in Capital, is that employers change relations of production as they strive to accumulate profits. This changes the nature and organizational characteristics of the working class.

At the time of the Paris Commune, workers were still primarily working in relatively small workplaces (although there were exceptions) and this led to the working class organizing through neighborhood clubs and also through locality-based units of the National Guard. Relations between owners and workers were those of oppression and exploitation, but most workers had no way to gather as a mass force or a mass center of discussion at their workplaces.

By the time of the revolutionary outbreaks in Europe at the end of World War I, however, workers to a large extent organized at their workplaces. Giant factories and railroad yards had mass meetings (as well as smaller departmental meetings) to discuss events and what to do about them.

In the United States, the working class upsurge of the 1930s had many similarities to this. It is notable, of course, that even then smaller workplaces found other organizational forms through which to struggle. The Minneapolis Teamsters strikes, for example, were based on an industry with relatively small workplaces. Yet the workers found ways to create massive struggles.

Harry Braverman in Labor and Monopoly Capital discussed how the changing ways in which capital conducts production create new occupations and divisions within the working class. I would add that the history of labor in the USA, at least, testifies to the fact that union leaderships, and sometimes socialists, have held onto outdated conceptions of “worker” with tragic results.

The AFL leadership, and many in the Socialist Party, viewed workers in terms of craft well into the era of mass production. And many leaders of the AFL-CIO unions and of some socialist groups held on to notions of workers as primarily white or male, and definitely as production and transportation workers, for many years.

Workers for government bodies were seen often as outsiders, though this was less so for those who worked with their hands (garbage collectors, for example) than for clerical occupations.

Currently in the United States and many other countries, a very large proportion of workers are employed in sales occupations, insurance and banking. Many of their workplaces are small, though some are large office buildings. In practice, we are still struggling to find the best ways for these workers to organize themselves.

To summarize: As capital changes, the working class changes. This is a crucial part of the dialectic. When we read Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums, for example, or consider how to help retail workers in fast food chains organize, this is important. We need to be mentally agile, and not repeat the mistakes of fixating on past composition.

2. There are different meanings of “class” that we should use depending on our purposes.

It seems to me that there are three useful meanings of the word “class.” Being clear about these distinct meanings may help “the 99%” think through our relationships to the working class and to Marxism — and how our power to occupy Tahrir Square or the Madison State House, block roads in the Andes or Toronto, or take over a workplace, can move on to reshaping our world.

• One approach to “working class” is the way many Marxist economists think about it. This looks at how capital produces value and surplus value from labor power. From this perspective, only those workers who create surplus value are “workers.”

This definition raises issues of which “workers” produce surplus value, whether directly or indirectly. This approach is useful in efforts to understand capitalist crises, recoveries and their political implications.

• A second way to look at “class,” and the working class, is through workplace relations of production and also the relationship of the unemployed section of “workers” to the employed. This definition is particularly useful for developing labor and political strategies. It helps us analyze those who can be mobilized around workplace issues and what issues may unite and divide the employed from the unemployed. Looking at workplace relationships also foregrounds issues of workplace control and of struggles against attacks on workers’ dignity as well as on re-distributional issues.

Careful attention to these issues and the struggles around them help us see how issues about income and income distribution (as raised by many Occupy groups) need to be supplemented with workplace struggles around working conditions, around issues of control of the labor process, and also with struggles about attacks on the dignity of workers at work, in welfare systems, and in the mass media. (Argentine colleagues and I are currently working on a paper about the importance of dignity issues in Marxism and in class struggle.)

• A third way to look at “class” and “working class” is in terms of building the new society, after a working-class movement ousts capitalist control of governments and the economy, and as we turn rapidly to dismantling capitalist relationships before they destroy us. As Ralph Chaplin wrote in “Solidarity Forever,” this new world will have to rise “from the ashes of the old” — or more precisely, on the droughts, floods, and radioactive waste of the old.

Here, the “economic” issues will center on production for use, not profit: What groups of people, doing what, are needed when we turn to production for human needs and for restoring the planet?

What groups of workers have found themselves stranded in jobs that have no value in the new society, and how can they and their workplaces be incorporated into the new cooperative commonwealth? How should workplaces, neighborhoods and our relations with each other and with the rest of nature be re-organized?

Furthermore, workers spend their lives, and have social interests, both at workplaces and in neighborhoods. How will this be structured organizationally? How will this encapsulate, at the outset and as time goes on, the needs and creativity of people at their jobs, of workers in their localities, of the unemployed, and of homemakers?

In the current society, different parts of the working class are treated unequally. What impacts will this have on the interests and ideas and needs of different groups of working-class people? Women, queers, the unemployed, homemakers, racially oppressed and, on the global scale, workers of the poorest nations will have ideas and interests that need organizational form.

Past, Present and Future

I suggest that all three of these definitions are useful for socialists and much of the rest of the left. In particular, the third definition helps us to think through what our vision of the future we are working for is in more concrete terms.

Both for analytic and political purposes, I think Marxism and other left thought will be strengthened by thinking of these three concepts of working class — which encapsulate the working classes of now (value production), the immediate future (the politics of relations of production) and the vision (how workers can organize ourselves to make the new world) — as concepts in a dialectical tension with each other and, potentially, as aspects of a transformation in which successive definitions come to salience as the struggle progresses.

March/April 2013, ATC 163

"Employers change relations

"Employers change relations of production as they strive to accumulate profits. This changes the nature and organizational characteristics of the working class."

and further falsifies the consciousness of the thinking class

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