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“Workers create society’s wealth, but have no control over its production and distribution.”
— From the ISO “Where We Stand”
AS WE mentioned in a previous article, the great class divide in capitalist society is between a relatively small number of capitalists who own the means of production—the land, the factories, the mines, warehouses, offices, transport and communication—and the working-class majority who, deprived of its own means of labor, must sell its labor piecemeal as a commodity to these same owners in order to survive.
The working class today is on a world scale larger than it has ever been; conversely, the concentration of the world’s wealth in the hands of a few thousand multibillion-dollar firms has developed to an unimaginable degree—to the point where single individuals possess more wealth than entire countries. A 2015 Oxfam report predicted that given current trends the richest 1 percent of humanity would soon possess more wealth than the rest of humanity combined.
Because capitalists own the means of production, and because they purchase labor power, they also own labor’s product. Workers also have no control over the character and conditions of their work. The realm of work is the most complete despotism, even in a capitalist democracy.
Workers under capitalism are therefore estranged, or alienated, not only from the results of their labor but also from the work process itself. Work is but a means to obtain a livelihood, not an end in itself. Labor for the capitalist is but a means to expand profits—labor and the labor process itself is subordinated to this goal of constant accumulation.
All improvements in productivity under capitalism do not ease the burden of labor or reduce work hours, but intensify them. Laborsaving technology is merely a means to increase the degree of exploitation of labor, a means to further enslave the workers to the machine, the assembly line and the clock.
The mature Marx, writing in Capital, put it this way:
“All means for the development of production...become a means of domination and exploitation of the producers; they distort the worker into a fragment of a man, they degrade him to the level of an appendage to the machine, they destroy the actual content of his labor by turning it into a torment; they alienate from him the intellectual potentialities of the labor process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they deform the labor process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness.”
Marx describes this as the domination of dead labor (capital) over living labor.
A socialist society can only be built when workers collectively take control of that wealth and democratically plan its production and distribution according to human needs instead of profit.
By taking control of capitalism’s wealth, we mean not simply the appropriation of the capitalists’ profits, but the seizure of the whole machinery of production and distribution by workers themselves. Only by this collective control of both production and distribution can a new society be created in which they are reorganized on a democratic plan.
Socialism must involve the active seizure of control over the workplaces by workers themselves, as well as the formation by workers themselves of democratically elected institutions of struggle and control, in order to socialize production and transform it into the property of the people as a whole. Without this component, it will not be possible to reverse the distorted priorities of capitalism and replace them with the humane priorities of socialism.
At the same time, socialism is not simply groups of workers taking over their own workplaces—takeovers of individual businesses within the capitalist market compels the workers in that enterprise to continue to operate it on a profit and loss basis. Socialization can only take place on a society-wide basis, and therefore the working class must take over the means of production as a whole and reorganize it.
Socialism can only be a product of a mass, democratic movement of the working class, not simply a better idea of what the world should be. Only the working class, because of its unique position in society, is capable of creating a new social system.
All previous class societies rested on an oppressed, or exploited, class that was responsible for producing not only its own means of survival but also a surplus for a dominant, ruling class. But the conditions of work did not allow for the oppressed in these societies to unite as a collective and consciously reshape society.
Slaves and serfs could rebel, even overthrow a hated despot, but they could not create new social relations. As Hal Draper writes, farmworkers and peasants “live in atomized groups which stress self-sufficiency, separateness, reliance on individual effort; they are not thrown together in crowds and subjected to simultaneous stresses in the heat of social struggles as are workers.”
The working class under capitalism, by virtue of its being herded together in great cities, forced to work collectively and cooperatively in large establishments (factories, offices, hospitals, warehouses, etc.), is the first exploited class that is capable of perceiving its own conditions and uniting to transform them.
“Workers are taught organization not by superior intelligence or outside agitators, but by the capitalists themselves,” writes Draper. “They are organized on the assembly lines, in the factory gangs, in shifts, in work teams, in the division of labor of capitalism itself. Capitalism cannot live without ‘organizing’ its workers, teaching them the virtues of working together, therefore of solidarity.”
Of course, capitalism also divides workers by forcing them to compete with one another on the job market; and it is this competition that provides the ruling class with a basis to promote division of language, race, sex and so on. But capitalism also compels workers to unite. As Engels writes in Principles of Communism, modern industry, “by thus throwing great masses in one spot...gives to the proletarians a consciousness of their own strength.”
And Marx writes in The Poverty of Philosophy: “Large-scale industry concentrates in one place a crowd of people unknown to one another. Competition divides their interests. But the maintenance of wages, this common interest which they have against their boss, unites them in a common thought of resistance—combination.”
The working class is the vast majority of society and is the key to the fight for socialism. Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.”
At that time, this statement was not true even in Britain, where the industrial revolution began. The authors were projecting into the future, knowing that as capitalism developed, it would break down old forms of production and replace them with capitalist social relations that depended on wage labor. In industrialized societies like the United States and Germany, workers—people who work for a wage and have minimal control over the work process—are the majority. In the majority of countries of the world, most people live in cities.
The development of capitalism has continually driven millions upon millions off the land and into cities, a process that continues to this day, for example, in China. Yet the growth of capitalist production has not been able to absorb everyone who once worked the land. The tremendous development of productivity means that as capitalism grows, it absorbs relatively fewer workers. The result is what Mike Davis has called a “planet of slums.”
Yet even in countries where the working class is not the majority of society, it remains the key class that must lead the struggle of all the oppressed and outcast to overcome capitalism, due to its central economic position; it has its hands on the jugular of capitalism, because labor is capitalism’s lifeblood.
The working class is the key to the fight for socialism because the conditions for its own emancipation are the condition for the end of class society once and for all. Workers cannot take control of production except as a collective—they cannot divide the factories, for example, like peasants can divide the land. As Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto:
“All the preceding classes that got the upper hand sought to fortify their already acquired status by subjecting society at large to their conditions of appropriation. The proletarians cannot become masters of the productive forces of society, except by abolishing their own previous mode of appropriation, and thereby also every other previous mode of appropriation. They have nothing of their own to secure and to fortify; their mission is to destroy all previous securities for, and insurances of, individual property.”