This article is adapted from a talk given at the April 1 Socialism Conference hosted by the Party for Socialism and Liberation in Washington, D.C.
Many of you may have noticed how many times “workers” have been mentioned in this conference. We use phrases like “workers’ struggles” and “working class.”
We talk about the need for workers of the world to unite, and we talk about a revolution that ultimately puts workers in control. Why do we view the workers—the working class—as so central to our vision of a better society? Why do we look to working people to make change?
First of all, there is the clear fact that workers are oppressed.
You can see the hotel workers who are on their feet all day making up the rooms for other people, but who barely make enough to pay their own rent. You can see the hospital and home healthcare workers who barely make $10 per hour, who spend all day caring for the sick, but have no health care when they are sick themselves.
From janitors to teachers and receptionists to construction workers, wages do not keep up with rising costs. Every benefit we do win is quickly under attack. Life as a worker is oppressive in this country. Anyone in this room knows the story all too well.
Of course, you do not have to be a Marxist to notice this oppression. It is just a matter of plain observation. You just have to have your eyes open.
Many liberal and radical critics of capitalism point out the oppression suffered by the working class. All sorts of articles, essays and books are written about this theme.
We make society run
But when we socialists talk about the workers, we are not just lamenting the fact that as workers we are oppressed. Many people can see what we do not have—decent jobs, proper educational opportunities, safe living environments and so on. But we go beyond that.
We have to mention what workers do have. As the ones who make society run, we have the power to shut it down.
The capitalists are extremely aware of this power of the working class. That is why they go out of the way to mis-educate us. It starts as early as kindergarten, where every day we put our hands on our hearts and are supposed to pledge allegiance to the United States. The capitalists want people to grow up thinking of themselves as “Americans,” not workers.
Few people will say, “I’m a worker.” People tend to think by nationality, by ethnicity, by trade, by city, but not by class position as a worker in class society. If they do think of themselves as part of a class, they buy into the myth that workers who own their own homes or can afford to send their kids to college are part of the so-called middle class, and not workers
One of the goals of Marxists is to help every sector of the working class understand its own position in capitalist society. And what the workers understand is important because the working class—until it becomes conscious and acts as a class—will remain an oppressed sector of society.
Shut out from the wealth we produce
So, what is the working class in the United States?
There are 130 million people in this country who get up every day, who go and sell their time to a boss in exchange for wages or a salary. They live in a state of constant insecurity, because if the capitalists do not employ them, they will not be able to eat, support their families, pay rent or survive. They have no other way to provide for themselves aside from selling their time and ability to work.
Marx described this as a system of wage slavery. We are not owned outright. No particular capitalist has possession of us. But we are enslaved by the class of rich people that owns the means of production—which we as workers have produced.
This is what unites the working class. We are the class in society that does not own the property required for the production of wealth. We are enslaved in the sense that if the owners do not employ us for wages, we are left to fend for ourselves. And when employed, we must do the bidding of the bosses.
The tiny capitalist class does not need to work, because they have accumulated the property and the wealth flowing from the products and services made by those of us who work for wages. In New York City, where I am from, the mayor, Michael Bloomberg, makes $1 billion per year. This is not money that he is stealing from the city budget. It is wealth that comes from his property. It is wealth that accumulates while he is busy doing other things. He could have made that billion dollars even if he had been in a coma last year.
Now on the surface this makes rich folks look all-powerful. But if you look a little deeper, it actually is a weakness for them. Put it like this: even in these big firms, if the firm’s executives in their corner offices all decide to go golfing every day for a week, would the firm shut down? Would anyone even notice? I don’t think so.
But if the workers in the mailroom do not come in for the week, all the business of the company would be upset. Everyone in the whole building would know it if the mailroom workers did not come in.
This is our power. As individuals, we have none. As long as each worker is reduced to an individual, enslaved by the system of capitalist wage slavery, that worker is at the mercy of his or her bosses. And, as we can see by the condition of so many millions of individual workers in Washington, D.C., they are subjected to poverty, racism and many other abuses.
As a collective, however—as a class—it is a whole different story. Once the working class becomes conscious of its position in society, then we have the potential to impose our will over the capitalists.
The power of the working class to withhold its labor and act together shows our true position in society. Liberals see the working class as victims. But we are not victims—despite all the abuses we suffer. We are the only class capable of emancipating society from capitalist exploitation.
So what prevents us from taking power from the capitalists? Some people think that the main problem is that the capitalists, through their control of the army and police, have control of the instruments of repression. They say there is no possible way to dislodge these people from power.
The problem of class-consciousness
But that is not the biggest problem. Every successful revolution has dealt with the problem of the capitalist state. Our biggest problem is the lack of class-consciousness within our class.
Those who believe that a socialist revolution is impossible in the United States also claim that the working class is too politically backward for it to happen. They say that workers will never think of themselves as part of the working class, that they will always be divided by patriotism, racism and political conservatism.
We reject completely the idea that this working class in the United States—multinational, educated, the most productive working class in history—is somehow incapable of grasping what liberal intellectuals understand. Dismissing the working class as too backward, conservative or apathetic conforms to how the capitalists view the working class.
That is what they want us to think. We have to think of ourselves—of our people, our neighbors, classmates, family members, co-workers—in a completely different way. We have to emphasize what unites us.
Every time people rise up, the ruling class is shocked. They never expected South African workers to defeat apartheid. They thought the Russian workers, the Chinese, the Cubans and others were too backward to rise up and defeat them. But they were wrong.
Party and class
We in the Party for Socialism and Liberation know that the working class in the United States can achieve that same level of consciousness. And that is the task of our party: to bring the message of class-consciousness and struggle, so that as the workers fight, they achieve a genuine understanding of their potential to bring down the capitalist oppressing class.
A party cannot substitute itself for the working class. We do not believe any individuals or small groups can liberate our people.
If the workers fail to achieve class-consciousness, we look at that as our own failure as a political party. If we want to talk about what is wrong with society, or why there has not yet been the change that we want, we do not blame our own class for its supposed inadequacies. Instead, we look at ourselves—those who aim to provide that political leadership.
People say workers cannot understand socialism. Well, who has tried to talk about socialism in a widespread, popular way? We have to be that party. People say workers in the Republican-dominated “red states” cannot be organized, that they are too backward. But who has really tried to organize the working class in those states? We have to be that party.
You can find thousands of assessments, analyses and surveys, all of which say the same thing: poverty is growing, wages are dropping, and workers are losing their pensions. While the rich are getting richer, the misery of the working class is increasing dramatically.
This is not disputable, and it is a trend that exists regardless of which politician is in the White House. As revolutionaries, we have to do more than assess the problems, we look to solve them.
And where do we start, who do we look to? Not to the class of people who benefit like parasites off of the work of others, and who have an interest in maintaining the current way of things.
We look to those people who do the work, who produce the wealth, who make the society run, and who have everything to gain from a revolutionary transformation. We look to the working class.