This is the first of two articles by John Molyneux, based on his talk ‘The Future Of Marxism’ at Marxism 2018, which outlined a number of issues which Marxists need to address in the coming period. Part 1 raises the question of the changing nature of the working class. The next will address the challenge of climate change.
Marxism is the theory of working class self emancipation. Therefore the question of who we mean by the working class today is clearly a very important one for Marxists to take up and answer, especially as the working class has changed so dramatically in recent decades.
In a footnote to the first page of The Communist Manifesto, Engels defined the proletariat as, ‘the class of modern wage labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour-power in order to live’. This definition always required a degree of qualification and amplification, for example to exclude those who appear to live by the sale of their labour-power, but are in reality hired managers, paid above the value of their own labour, in order to control the labour of others, and to include family members who depend on the income of a wage worker and the unemployed who form part of the reserve army of labour. But with these modifications I believe that Engels’ definition still stands today, provided we understand it as located within the Marxist theory of exploitation and class struggle. It is exploitation (the extraction of surplus value) that generates the antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie and which forms workers into a distinct class.
Moreover this points to two very important facts. The first is that the working class which, when Marx wrote the Manifesto in 1848 existed only in North Western Europe (and a little in America) and numbered about 20 million, now numbers approximately 1.5 billion and exists in large masses on every continent and in almost every country in the world. In other words it is larger and potentially more powerful than it has ever been before. The second is that even in the old ‘advanced’ industrialised countries like Britain, France or the US, the working class still constitutes the substantial majority of the workforce and of the overall population. However, the issue I want to raise here and which I believe needs investigation by Marxists is not the numerical size of the proletariat but its character and structure as a militant fighting force and potential revolutionary subject. The distinction is important . In Victorian England the largest category of employed workers was domestic servants but when it came to struggle, for example the General Strike of 1842, it was miners, weavers, spinners, pottery workers, mill workers and factory workers who led the way; in 1888-89 it was the Match Girls, dockers and gas workers.
In the years 1917-21, the largest, most revolutionary wave of proletarian struggle in history, it was metal workers who, from Petrograd to Berlin, Turin to Sheffield, were ‘the vanguard’, along with miners, dockers and railway workers. In 1979 Tony Cliff, when assessing the balance of class forces in Britain, noted that:
[S}hipyards, mining, docks and motor vehicle manufacturing, employing some 4 percent of the labour force in Britain, were the industries most prone, by far, to strikes. In 1965 these industries were responsible for 53 percent of all strike days in the country. The specific weight of these industries in the general workers’ front is much greater even than the figures show, because of the high level of concentration of workers’ power in them.
Cliff then went on to argue that the decline in strikes and levels of workers’ organisation in these industries in the second half of the 1970s showed that the British working class movement had entered a serious down turn in struggle. This was roundly rejected by many on the left at the time but subsequent events proved him right. So in these terms – and internationally, not just in Britain – where are we today? One thing is beyond doubt: shipyard workers, miners, dockers and car workers are no longer the most advanced section of the working class in Britain for the simple reason that they barely exist.
Let’s look which sections of workers have been in the forefront of the struggle over the last few years. Here in Ireland, beginning with the LUAS workers (tram drivers) in 2016 we have seen disputes involving Dublin Bus and Bus Eireann workers, teachers, Dunnes Stores workers, Irish Life workers, Lloyds Pharmacy workers, Ryanair pilots, archaeologists (!), film workers and Google workers – a far cry from the traditional industrial proletariat. Probably the biggest victories were won by the LUAS drivers and the Ryanair pilots. At the same time it has to be said that the largest working class mobilisation by far in recent years and the most significant victory (because it defeated the state) was the Water Charges movement which was community not workplace based and driven.
In the USA the largest and most militant strikes this year were the massive rolling strikes by teachers. Other strikes catching the eye were McDonald’s workers against sexual harassment and prison strikes against unpaid labour. In India in 2016 an estimated 160 to 180 million public sector workers went on a 24 hour general strike against privatisation and government economic policies. It was hailed as the largest strike in history. In Britain this year the most dynamic strike with the biggest pickets and most militant rank and file involvement was by UCU, the lecturers union. In 2016-17 one of the key strikes was by Junior Doctors. The other day I saw a Facebook post from a comrade in New Zealand which read ‘Teachers on strike. Ambulance drivers on strike. Bus drivers on strike. Midwives on strike.The working class of Aotearoa is rising’.
In Spain on International Women’s Day approximately 5 million held a strike against gender inequality and sex discrimination. Again all this is a long way from what the industrial struggle looked like in 1889, 1913, 1919, 1972 or 1979.
Obviously it can be objected that the evidence I have put forward here is simply impressionistic. This is true but it is also my point. We need a Marxist analysis of who the modern proletariat is, where they are located and which are its key sections from the point of view of potential power and militancy. Moreover that analysis needs to be both global and national. We need the international overview but the nationally specific element is also essential. Socialists still largely have to operate on a national terrain and the fact that miners have ceased to be a significant factor in the class struggle in Britain or Ireland does not make this true of South Africa or China. As Tony Cliff used to say, ‘You can’t find your way round the London Underground with a map of the Paris Metro’.
Cliff’s metaphor applies even more theoretically and temporarily than it does geographically. There has long been a theoretical debate within Marxism as to whether white collar workers are proletarians or petty bourgeois/middle class. That needs to be resolved. In practice almost all socialists and conscious trade unionists will stand in solidarity with lecturers and junior doctors but the notion that such people are middle class persists and is damaging to the unity of the working class and to an understanding of its potential power. Even among those who accept ‘in theory’ the working class character of a teacher or lecturer the out of date cultural stereotype often survives and with it the conception that their role in the struggle is secondary.
There are three further points that I think will need to be considered and examined in depth in the necessary ‘reconnaissance’ and ‘mapping’ of the territory of the contemporary working class. The first is the class’s newly developed global character. Socialists have invoked the international working class ever since the Manifesto but the shift in this regard over the last few decades is qualitative.
In the twenty years from 1993 to 2013 the number of waged/salaried grew by 589,814,000 (a staggering 60% of the 1993 figure). An average of 29 million people joined the waged labour force each year. Moreover the growth of waged labour was concentrated in the developing countries. In the developed countries, the salaried/waged employee figure rose slowly from 345 million (1993) to 410 million (2013). In non-developed countries the growth was explosive, from 640 million (1993) to 1,165 million (2013). The non-developed world waged labour force is bigger than the global waged labour force twenty years ago. An estimated 445 million waged or salaried employees were in East Asia in 2013 i.e. more than in the whole of the developed countries!
The largest working class in the world is, of course, the Chinese; it is followed by the Indian, the American (USA), the Indonesian and the Brazilian. Today even countries as impoverished as Pakistan and Bangladesh have a larger waged labour force than Britain or France. The idea that a worldview centred on the urban working class is somehow Eurocentric is completely out of date.
The growing internationalisation of the working class applies not only across nation states but within them. Kim Moody in his book On New Terrain, which is a partial fulfilment in relation to the US of the programme I am proposing, points to the ‘growing diversity’ of the American working class.
Blacks, Asians, Latinos composed over a third of the US population in 2010, compared to 20 per cent in 1980…These racial and ethnic groups now make up a large and growing proportion of working class occupations. Blacks, Latinos and Asians, including immigrants, composed about 15-16 percent of the workers in production, transportation, and material moving as well as service occupations in 1981 and now make up close to 40 percent of each of these broad occupational groups. Furthermore, these groups are spread throughout these occupational categories to a much larger degree than in the past.
This growing diversity applies, to a greater or lesser extent, to the composition of the working class of numerous countries today – even Taiwan now has 700,000 migrant workers – and in each case the details of this and its implications need to be analysed.
Alongside this diversity there is the growing ‘feminisation’ of the workforce. Women now make up 40 percent of the employed workforce worldwide. In many countries – and not always the countries people might expect – the percentage is much higher. Some examples:
% women % women
Angola 50.1 Nepal 51.8
Armenia 46.1 Portugal 48.8
Australia 46.2 Russia 48.6
Azerbaijan 48.8 Sweden 47.7
Belarus 49.7 Togo 49.2
Benin 49.2 Vietnam 48.1
[All figures from the World Bank Data website]
These figures are easy to obtain and to list but what really counts is to integrate them into an analysis of the class struggle in both its economic and ideological/political dimensions. The figure for Ireland stands at 44.9% – not spectacular by international standards but marking a sharp increase from 34.4% in 1990; a fact which has almost certainly had a huge ideological impact, as manifested in the big victory in the Abortion referendum. In China, with the world’s most important working class, the female percentage has actually fallen slightly from 45.2% in 1990 to 43.7%. But we know that the ‘immigration’ of tens of millions of young women from the countryside was a crucial element in China’s extraordinary economic transformation, so what is happening here and how does it impact on the struggle of the Chinese working class? India, with the second largest working class, is a major exception: women making up only 24.5% of the workforce. Again, why and what effect does this have on the contours of the struggle? Another very interesting fact contained in the figures for the US , cited in On New Terrain, is that the percentage of women in what are called the ‘proletarianising’ lower professions is an enormous 80%. The implications of this for the radicalisation of this layer of workers and for the issues around which they may radicalise are considerable. Just look at the Google workers international walk out against sexual harassment and racism. Just look at the picture at the head of this article.
All this constitutes a call for a great deal of work by present and future Marxists. But one thing is clear: the old image of ‘the proletarian’ as a white, male, industrial worker, so deeply lodged in our collective consciousness, must be buried.