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The power to bring the system to a halt
“Workers’ central role in production gives them a social power—by use of the strike weapon—to paralyze the system like no other social force.
“Socialism is working-class self-emancipation. Only mass struggles of the workers themselves can put an end to the capitalist system of oppression and exploitation.”
— From the ISO “Where We Stand”
The power of the working class derives not only from its sheer size, but because of its economic weight under capitalism, a fact expressed well in the old labor song “Solidarity Forever”: “Without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel would turn.”
Individually, workers are powerless to stop production. The conditions of production themselves promote among workers the necessity of such collective action, without which the tendency is always for employers to continually drive down wages and benefits, and speed up production. As the Russian revolutionary Lenin wrote, likening capitalism to a giant machine:
“The whole of this machine is set in motion by the worker who tills the soil, extracts ores, makes commodities in the factories, builds houses, workshops and railways. When the workers refuse to work, the entire machine threatens to stop. Every strike reminds the capitalists that it is the workers and not they who are the real masters—the workers who are more and more loudly proclaiming their rights.”
Moreover, if a strike reminds the capitalists who are the real masters, it also teaches workers the same lesson—it transforms their consciousness. “The combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests,” writes Karl Marx. “This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle, of which we have noted only a few phases, this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends becomes class interests.”
Marx’s point is that you can define class by its relationship to the process of exploitation—you can count the number of workers who are exploited in workplaces for profit; but it is also defined by its collective organization, struggle, and consciousness. Only when the working class begins to consciously act as a united class can it fulfill its potential.
A strike gives workers self-confidence, showing them that they are not alone, but share a common condition and can prepare a common response to their oppression. It also teaches workers how to measure their strength against the capitalists—it teaches them how to fight and when to retreat. It also teaches them the nature of the state, which uses its police powers against strikers and in favor of the employers. Workers learn firsthand that the laws are made for the rich and not for the poor and exploited.
Strikes teach solidarity, which is the essential condition for breaking down divisions among workers based on gender, race, and other differences. The more widespread and developed the class struggle, the more workers come to see themselves as a single class with common interests—and the more open they become to using their power not only to better their own conditions, but to effect a complete transformation of society—that is, the more they become socialist workers.
Majorities and minorities
Any idea that workers can be liberated without their own active involvement—that is, by minorities acting on their behalf—forgets that it is only in and through struggle that consciousness changes, and it is only in and through mass struggle that society itself changes.
By definition, revolutions—those “midwives” of history—have always involved masses in the shaping of their own destiny. This is what Marx meant when he wrote, “The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class.” And it is why he and Frederick Engels wrote so emphatically in 1879, in response to attempts to turn the German socialist movement into a party of liberal reform:
When the International was formed, we expressly formulated the battle cry: the emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class itself. We cannot therefore cooperate with people who say that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves, and must first be freed from above by philanthropic bourgeois and petty bourgeois.
Even a small, well-placed strike can cripple an entire company, and even an entire industry. If a certain industry is central to a country’s economy—for example, oil workers in Saudi Arabia—a strike in that sector can cripple an entire economy, and have affects beyond the borders. During the Iranian Revolution in the late 1970s 40,000 oil workers played a key role in bringing down the autocratic regime of the Shah—by shutting down Iran’s oil industry.
Put simply, workers have their hands on the levers of production, and the more productive capitalism becomes, the greater potential power the working class has because the lever it controls moves a constantly increasing amount of productive power.
Workers’ in society is such that when they move into action in large numbers, they tend to stir up society as a whole. Just think of the May 1968 general strike in France or the Solidarnosc movement in Poland.
Its social position as the class at the bottom of society which feeds all others places it in a situation in which its collective struggle—itself compelled by the collective nature of the production process itself—has the potential to provide an alternative that can attract other social layers and oppressed sectors looking for an alternative.
As the American socialist Hal Draper wrote:
“Only the proletariat, by the conditions of its existence, embodies a social program pointing to an alternative to capitalism.
“However desperate a peasantry or a petty-bourgeois may become, these classes cannot give society a lead in a new direction, not simply because of social-psychological constraints, but because there is no social solution that effectively corresponds to these classes’ interests, while at the same time corresponding to the interests of society in general, including the preservation of the social fabric in time of dissolution and crisis.
“In contrast, the working class, as the bottom layer of the class system, cannot stir without objectively pointing to a program, even when it consciously rejects it: namely, the assumption of social responsibility by a democratically organized people, regardless of private interests—a program which, concretized, means the abolition of capitalism.”
The working class is the first oppressed class in history whose revolutionary interests do not result in the erection of a new system of exploitation. In bourgeois revolutions, the dissolution of feudal relations gave way to capitalist relations—one form of exploitation giving way to another, and one form of minority rule to another. In seizing collective control of the means of production, the working class does not erect itself as a new exploiting class, but instead creates the conditions for the first time for the abolition of class division and the introduction of a system based on socialized production.
But strikes are not sufficient to eliminate capitalism. Mass strikes and general strikes unite and organize the working class and can bring capitalism to its knees, but they cannot by themselves lead to a new society. All great working-class revolutions begin with mass strikes, but they can only succeed if they end in a challenge for power that strikes alone cannot decide—a decisive contest over which class will run society. For that, the working class must be organized politically in its own party and be prepared to fight for power.