What the class struggle is and is not

Paradoxically, the militants and intellectuals who preach class struggle with the utmost vigour appear not to know what it is. Their position transferred to a military war would be careering round the battlefield, declaring strategies, uttering heroic cries and calling on all right-minded men to follow them — without knowing what the war is about, or who the sides are.


The impression given by the majority of “left-wing” writers is that there are many class struggles, some more important than others. If a major struggle underlies them, it breaks out sporadically and is confined to productive industry. Some examples are:


On this rising curve [1911-1914], working-class militancy swept into a series of titanic struggles.
The first effect of the process . . . was a recession of the revolutionary tide in September, leaving militants still struggling forward on the water-mark. Gramsci called the proletariat to battle on 7 June 1919.

(G. Williams, Proletarian Order, 1975)

During the 1920s there were mass struggles . . . though none with the revolutionary potential of the wartime shop stewards’ movement.

(Hinton and Hyman, Trade Unions and Revolution, 1975)

Money wages in fact fell 38 per cent between the winter of 1920-21 and the winter of 1923-4; and many of these cuts were not secured without the most fierce class struggle.

(Glyn and Sutcliffe, British Capitalism, Workers and the Profits Squeeze, 1972)


In the musical play Wreckers by David Edgar, performed at the Half Moon Theatre in May 1977, a depiction of the “five dockers” episode of 1972 leads to a song with the refrain “This is class war”. What such statements convey is that some workers, chiefly in factories and docks and mines, find a war has broken out for them in particular circumstances from time to time.


The capitalist system is based on the ownership of all the means of production and distribution by a minority of the population. The majority therefore are non-owners, and their only way of living is to go to work for wages. There are no alternatives; these are the two classes of capitalism. The wage may be called a salary, and wages — the price of labour-power — vary as do the prices of other commodities. Nevertheless, all those who do not live by owning are in the same position: the working class.


Contrast this with the type of statement found in Raya Dunayevskaya’s Marxism and Freedom, a work which argues a theory of militancy. The writer says:


At the point of production, Automation has compelled two fundamentally different class attitudes, depending on which side of the machine you stand . . . the machine is always on top of you and keeps you isolated from your fellow-workers. In addition, you feel more isolated as more and more of your shopmates are displaced by the monster machine. If, on the other hand, you are the one who drives the men and counts the production for management, you praise the machine to the skies.


This is playing to the gallery as regards the machine operator’s sentiments; but it also implies that those who are not machine operators are not workers, have no such problems and belong in the capitalists’ camp. In reality the factory worker who accepts this has swallowed capitalist teaching which aims at dividing the working class.


Certainly many wage- and salary-earners believe they belong to “the middle class”. It is a legacy of the period when the capitalist class had not become dominant and were a section between the feudal ruling class and the lower orders. In capitalism the idea is an anachronism which helps conceal the basis of the class struggle. The question is not simply knowing which class is which and leaving it there. Classes must willy-nilly pursue their interests. The capitalist class has to try to secure its profits; the working class likewise does what it can for its living standards. This is the workaday trade-union aspect of the struggle, and by itself makes nonsense of the idea that machine operators and white-collars are different classes. “Professional” workers have to organize and threaten strikes over pay and redundancies just as if they were dockers — because their position is the same.


It is not a sporadic but a continuous struggle; it is also, in that aspect, a restricted one. Obviously it will go on as long as the wages system lasts and will not stop the system. The more important side of the struggle is working-class interests pressing for a change in society. Throughout history, the classes identified with the forces of production have found themselves shackled by social systems which have gone on too long. When they are aware of their position they move to put themselves in possession of the means of production and distribution. This is the vital struggle for the working class in the twentieth century.


The most pernicious word in politics is a plural: “struggles”. Under its influence, any clamour is supposed to be a bit of the class struggle. Thus, the Solidarity pamphlet As We Don’t See It (undated but recent), after pointing out that under “the mindless slogan ‘Support for people in struggle’ ” several left-wing groups support the ira and reactionary National Liberation Fronts, says of other groups: “For instance, when they (correctly) support struggles for limited objectives, such as those of squatters or Claimants’ Unions, they often fail to stress the revolutionary implications of such collective direct action.” What revolutionary implications?


The Nuclear Disarmament movement of the early nineteen-sixties was the first of a series of band-waggons on which the militants claimed to be for “struggles”. It was followed by demonstrations against the Vietnam war, support for civil rights, squatting and tenants’ campaigns, Women’s Liberation, protests against the Industrial Relations Act (curiously, not the “social contract”), demands to fight racism and for the right to work; and there are the “struggles” against hospital closures, education cuts and town-planning schemes. The motive for the political egging-on is said to be “people are changed by struggle”. At the time of the last and biggest anti-Vietnam demonstration in October 1968, the leaders asserted this publicly: that, thrust into conflict with the police, ordinary people would learn first-hand the violence of the state. Less dramatically, it is argued that participation in small struggles “raises consciousness” and gives an appetite for greater ones — even, that it is a preliminary to Socialist consciousness.


All this is quite untrue. If struggle per se does change people, what direction does the change take? The most likely outcome of a whack on the head from a policeman, for a person who does not understand the situation anyway, is a decision not to risk it happening again in future. Beyond these absurdities, incitement to “struggles for limited objectives” does not contribute to consciousness of class interests. It does the opposite. To the extent that people regard (and are encouraged to regard) their grievances as tenants, women, blacks etc. as “special”, they are drawn away from realization of their standing as members of the propertyless wage-working class. What the “struggles” provide is a mirror-image of the idealism of capitalism: that “human problems” precede class relationships. Yet the difficulties of groups and sections all stem from the basic class division. Consciousness of it can illuminate all the other problems — but not the other way round.


Political parties stand for class interests. The major parties all claim — the Tory Party has made it a slogan — that they represent “all the people”. Obviously in a class-divided society that is not possible, and it would be better put that the Tories are wedded to capitalism but have to try for the favour of the electorate. The Labour Party is also wedded to capitalism, but it is seen by a large number of people as somehow embodying working-class interests: it is supported by the big trade unions, and the most poverty-stricken industrial areas have always provided its safe seats. The left-wing parties and militants unanimously become advocates for Labour at election times, on those grounds.


Of course the militants do not consciously set out to give capitalism a hand by recommending Labour to run it. They would say they are against capitalism and want some substantial change. On the surface they are misleading members of the working class by calling on them to struggle against the régime and at the same time to support it via the Labour Party. However, the matter goes deeper than that to non-comprehension of the class struggle. In some cases the doctrine of “day-to-day struggles” leads inevitably to embracing Labour reformism. For example, opposition to the Industrial Relations Act was bound to become vested in getting a change of government; groups demanding this and that have to look for promises of legislation. If it is believed that any and every “struggle” counts, that some workers are more working-class than others, that “class war” is periodic local outbreaks against Tory legislation or the perfidy of trade-union leaders — the outcome will be not only confusion but action which, whatever the intention, cuts across the interests of the working class.


There is only one struggle. The industrial part of it has to and does go on all the time. It is to the political part that working men and women must attend to solve their overriding problems. The solution must be to end the wage-labour relationship: the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of a classless social system, Socialism. Since it must be based on common ownership of the means of living, the movement for it can only be a political one. The state is the key to class rule, and hence to its overthrow. This is the vital struggle. “Struggles” get in its way.


Robert Barltrop