Why the Working Class?


The Workers Solidarity Movement say that a mass anarchist movement capable of getting rid of the division of society into bosses & workers, order-givers & order takers and building a new society must be based on the working class and its struggles. This is not some abstract dogma but follows on from our understanding of how change can be brought about.
Anarchists know that "the history of all previously existing societies has been the history of class struggle". At every stage in the development of society - from ancient times through feudalism to the present day - there has been an oppressed class which created the wealth of society, and a ruling class which had control over that wealth.

At almost every stage the oppressed have not accepted their lot without fighting back. There were the slave revolts of Greece and Rome, the peasant uprisings of the middle ages, the anti-fuedal revolutions of the 1600s and 1700s.

But all these risings and revolutions ended - where they were strong enough to overthrow the old rulers - with the kings and queens being replaced by new monarches or bankers & industrialists. The oppressed class inevitably failed to keep control over the revolutions they fought in. This can be explained by looking at two main factors:

The generally low level of productive capacity and wealth in society meant there was not much of a surplus to be shared even if all the rulers were expropriated.

and more importantly

The everyday life of these people did not prepare them for the task of running society.

The majority were illiterate peasants who had very little idea of what was happening outside their own locality. Their everyday life tended to divide them from each other. The peasant derived his living from his own patch of land and his only hope of improving his standard of living was to enlarge his holding. The craftsman derived his living from his own business and hoped to enlarge it. To varying degrees each peasant and craftsman was in competition with his fellows, not united with them. He could not think in collective terms, he could not think in terms of class. They could not, except for short periods in exceptional circumstances, impose their rule as a class on society. Professional rulers arose to 'represent' them.

Where rebellions expressed a common aspiration it tended to be for a return to some supposed 'golden age'. Quite often such aspirations were not even expressed. Struggles arose as a result of some local and specific grievance, such as a rise in rents. The few who tried to develop a viewpoint that went further came up with utopian visions that were alien to the experiences of the masses, and so could only appeal to a tiny minority.

When feudalism was overthrown and replaced by capitalism there were many changes. For us the most important was the creation of a new oppressed class. The workers who create the wealth under capitalism are different from all previously oppressed classes. Firstly, the development of the means of production means they can create enough wealth to feed and cloth the entire world; and still have enough to spare for science, culture, luxuries and all the good things of life. Secondly, and more importantly, their everyday life prepares them to take over the running of society.

Under capitalism we are brought together in large workplaces, into towns and cities. This, along with vastly improved means of communication makes possible mass trade union and political organisation. The move from the land also created something very new. In the past the exploited sought to get ownership of farms or to extend the smallholdings they already had. They may have fought collectively for this, but it was a temporary combination to achieve individual solutions. Doing things collectively was a method, not a goal. The right to individually own productive property, albeit on a more equitable basis, was the real objective. For the modern working class this is in no way possible. Nobody would seriously suggest dividing up a factory, a supermarket or the railway system between all its employees. So a new collective consciousness arose, a class consciousness - seeking solutions in a collective manner (...I am not saying that this happens automatically or that it doesn't happen in an uneven manner but it is the logical outcome when the social question is seriously examined).

Capitalism makes us co-operate every day at work. Each person has to do their bit so that the person at the next stage of production can do theirs. In the services it is the same, whether it be in a hospital, school, hotel, restaurant or office. This means that the modern working class can be a force capable of not only rebelling against injustice but of taking over and reshaping society in its own interests - and not as in the past just helping one section of the ruling class in its battles against the more backward sections of that class.

So why don't workers just use their power and take control?

Mainly because we are constantly being told that we are not capable of running things. We are told that we can do little more than follow orders and that this is the natural way of things. We are expected to leave important decisions to bosses, TDs, representatives and experts. We are bombarded with propaganda telling us we should look after no.1, that there is no viable alternative to the dog-eat-dog values of capitalism.

When we say that the dominant ideas in society are those of the ruling class, this is what we mean. Because they are a small minority they can only rule by convincing the majority that either the system is o.k or that there is no workable alternative to it. They control the media, they have the final say is setting school curicula. Their ideas are reinforced by the politicians, the church hierarchy, the bureaucratic leadership of the trade unions.

There is one point at which workers react against against all this. That is when they use the collective strength and co-operation that runs factories, schools, offices - to stop them. Every strike, however moderate it aims may be, carries within it a germ of anarchism.

What is anarchism? When we take away all the frills and trappings it is basically about ordinary people, working class people, running society in their own interests. By doing so the class division can be abolished and a classless society created. It is essentially about taking control of our own lives and working for the common good.

This is not to claim that strikers set out with anarchist goals in mind. They don't. The germ we are talking about is the need for a common goal, for a collective struggle, the challenge to the rule of the boss. It is a starting point for developing an independent working class stance and for building solidarity. Once involved in struggle, peoples' ideas can change. Confidence is increased, feelings of isolation are broken down, They begin to get a sense of their ability to achieve things without relying on bosses or professional representatives. This opens up the possibility of groups of workers getting a sense of their ability to actually take control of their own lives and change society.

If anyone has any doubts about the way ideas can change in the course of struggle let them look back to the British miners strike of 1984/85 for just one fairly well known example. The miners were not thought of as the most progressive group of workers in relation to the fight for lesbian & gay rights. Through their conflict with the National Coal Board, the Tories, the Labour leadership, the TUC leadership, the media and every other arm of the ruling class - a lot of miners found themselves forced to question the attitudes they had held until then. The old certainties were gone. The support of Lesbian and Gay groups did not always receive the warmest welcome in the early days of the strike, yet, less than 12 months later, in 1985 NUM lodge banners were prominent on the London Gay Pride march.

Before winding up I want to clarify who I am talking about when I say working class. There is a lot of nonsense talked about this by academics and liberals. Being working class is not a question of how much you earn, your dress habits, your accent, your education or what newspaper you read. Everyone who makes their living by earning wages, salary or commission is working class. This includes their spouses, children and any other dependants. It includes unemployed and retired workers. It is all those who do not own the means of production or make their money by employing other people. The well paid third level VEC teacher is as much working class as the casual restaurant worker.

The middle class, in the sense that most people talk about them, are those sections of the working class who have been conned into believing that they have more in common with their bosses than with less well-off workers. The real middle classes in Ireland are the self-employed and the small farmers. In a revolutionary situation we can expect them to lose their sense of class unity and for most of them to take the side of the workers as this is where their long term interests lie.

The final argument I want to address is the one that says workers in Western Europe have been bought off by the consumer society; by cars, videos & foreign holidays. That they have lost their sense of class identity and will never again be a revolutionary force. If the 1960s were the height of the consumer society how then are we to explain the wave of struggles that swept across what is now the EC and reached the level of a general strike in France in 1968? Can the proponents of this idea only see workers as people with no money who wear cloth caps, keep whippets and wear clogs? If so, they have no grasp on reality. If it is the case that they believe that capitalism can buy us all off with an ever improving standard of living, they understand nothing about the inability of capitalism to satisfy everyones' needs. They do, however, make an excellent case for reformism and should apply for jobs with the Labour Party's public relations firm.

We in the WSM have since the foundation of the organisation been involved in workers' struggles. We have stood with the Dunnes Stores anti-apartheid strikers, the UCD cleaners, the victimised Pat Grace staff in Phibsboro, the Cork ESB strikers, and many more. We have given what aid we could, we explained our politics, we have brought our ideas to them. We believe that it is only through the experience of collective struggle that large numbers of people will come to anarchist politics. That is why we base our activity on the working class and its struggles.

Talk given to the WSM contacts meeting, July 20th, 1991