1970s >> 1974 >> no-833-january-1974

Who Said the Class Struggle Was Dead?

Those who accept present-day society see strikes and industrial conflict as an avoidable mistake. Wilson and the Labour Party, for instance, accuse the Tories of “splitting the nation” as if what they call the nation has ever been united. Tory backwoodsmen, on the other hand, see all sorts of “leftwing agitators” behind strikes. Industrial psychologists blame it all on outdated attitudes. None of them face up to the fact that industrial conflict is built into present-day society and is quite unavoidable as long as it lasts.

The purpose of production today is not the satisfaction of human needs but profit. So a car factory is not essentially a place where cars are made but a place where profits are made; and the same goes for shipyards, coal mines, railways, docks, warehouses, offices and all other workplaces, irrespective of whether they are private or State owned, The source of these profits, as of all wealth, is the labour of all those who work. Industrial psychologists and others may regard this as one of their “outdated attitudes” but, argue as they may, they cannot refute the fact that wealth can only be produced by human beings working on nature-given materials and that therefore any non-work income such as profits must come out of the labour of those who do work.

Workers are paid as wages or salaries about enough to keep them and their families in efficient working order, but can and do produce much more than this, the surplus over and above their wages being the source of profit. Workers accept these terms because, having no other source of income, they are compelled to work for wages for those who own and control the means of production.

Present-day society, capitalism, then, is based upon the exploitation of the working class. Trade unions were formed to try to mitigate this exploitation since experience showed that, if workers put up no resistance, employers take advantage of this weakness to increase profits at the expense of wages. The trade union struggle is basically a defensive struggle against such downward pressures on wages or, what amounts to the same thing, a response to money prices rising faster than money wages.

In 1972, after all, the miners only claimed to be fighting to restore their standard of living of four or five years previously. And most trade union struggles are the same: to maintain, rather than improve, their members’ standard of living. Figures confirm this. According to New Society (25 February, 1971), in the period 1959 to 1970 the net real income of the average wage-earner (that is, his take home pay plus family allowances) rose only 19 per cent, or less than 2 per cent. a year. Hardly a confirmation of the claim that trade unions are responsible for rising prices, growing unemployment, etc., etc., because of the huge wage increases they are alleged to have got for their members. Rather it is a confirmation of their limited role of maintaining standards; that, in fact, despite strikes and tough bargaining, trade unions have to run fast just to stay still. Present-day society, in other words, forces workers to struggle just to maintain their standard of living, let alone improve it.

But the wages struggle is just one aspect of the class struggle. Ultimately this is a struggle by the workers for the ownership and control of the means of production, whether or not they realise this (and most of them at the moment unfortunately do not). The logic of their position in society as an exploited, wealth-producing class compels them to struggle for this, at first unconsciously and later consciously.

This working-class struggle of which the struggle over wages and working conditions is bit the industrial aspect, will go on as long as workers are the subject class in society. The logic of the workers’ social position dictates this. This is why strikes are built into present-day society and cannot be abolished by psychologists or repressive laws; not even state capitalist Russia and Eastern Europe, for all their police state dictatorships, have been able to prevent the workers struggling against their exploitation.

To win, however, the workers’ struggle must move beyond the spontaneous industrial level and become conscious and political. For capitalist ownership of the means of production is in the end maintained by their control of political power which the political backwardness of the working class gives them. Let there be no doubt about this. The workers, including those who from time to time have to take industrial action to maintain their living standards, vote for political parties which, in practice, always act to confirm capitalist control of the means of production: for Labour or the Tories, both of which have no desire to change the system of accumulating capital out of the profits produced by the working class.

What is needed is a conscious political movement aimed at ending capitalist class ownership and control of the means of production, thereby abolishing classes (including the working class). This done, a new society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production by and in the interests of the whole community will have been established. On this basis production for sale with a view to profit can be replaced by the planned production of wealth solely to satisfy human needs and, given modern technology, a society of abundance achieved with free access to goods and services in accordance with the old Socialist principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”.

Adam Buick

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