From the May 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard
The class struggle is a very real historical fact within capitalism arising from commodity production and exchange. At the very heart of this transient social system, there exists an antagonistic struggle between a majority class of workers who administer, design, produce and distribute all the social wealth of society as commodities and a small minority which, although playing no part in the productive process, has the major advantage of owning and controlling all the resources of the planet—the factories and the distribution and communication systems and also what the workers produce.
Since workers do not own and control the various forms of property found in capitalism we are, as a class, cut off from deciding what should be produced, how and for whom. “No profit, no production" is the rule. If profits are to be protected by deliberate under-production, burning of foodstuffs or the taking of farming land out of production, then under capitalism this has to be carried out. Ownership and control of property with a view to profit means that the facilities required to meet social needs and aspirations are going to he severely restricted.
Excluded from ownership and control, workers are forced to trade their mental and physical abilities (their labour power) as a commodity to capital for a wage or a salary. The class struggle has its origins in the exploitation of the workers’ labour power by employers during the production process. The origin of profit is an excess produced by workers over the value of the goods which sustain and reproduce their labour-power. This surplus is taken by the capitalists on account of their monopoly as a class over the means and methods of production and distribution. On the one hand there are the employers trying to extract as much surplus value out of the workforce as possible while, on the other hand, workers are struggling, usually in trade unions, to gain higher wages and better working conditions at the expense of profit.
These conflicting class interests between an oppressive class and a subject class cannot be balanced harmomiously. If profits are threatened then it is the standard of living of the working class which is attacked. If there is an accidental over-production of commodities which cannot be sold on the market then it is the jobs of workers which are at risk with all the hardship and worry that unemployment brings.
Naturally the existence of the class struggle is not to the liking of those who are paid to defend the economic interests of the capitalist class. Many academics and politicians try to get around the question of the class struggle by disputing its existence or blaming it on the writings of Karl Marx. But Marx merely found classes and the class struggle existing as a historical fact. In recent years these intellectual prostitutes have pointed to the low level of strikes during the late I980s compared to the mid-1970s as an indication of the class struggle’s demise. However, like the reported eclipse of Marx’s ideas and his scientific analysis of capitalism due to events in eastern Europe, this obituary is wholly premature. The critique of political economy and the class struggle only end with the abolition of capitalism by a working-class socialist majority not by the wishful thinking of economists or journalists.
Strikes and the state
Strikes, like trade unions themselves, are effects of the class struggle not the cause. The class struggle is due to the very class nature of capitalism. It is also a two-way struggle. In times of high profits when capitalism is booming, employers will generally concede to pay demands. The last thing they want is for profitable production to be curtailed through industrial action. But during depressions capitalists dig in their heels and resist, with workers defending previous gains from the encroachment of capital. At times of high unemployment trade unions lose effectiveness as membership declines and firms are unable to pay wage increases without going bankrupt.
The class struggle must become political if workers are to realise their class interests and ensure that production and distribution is undertaken to meet the needs of society rather than the anti-social pursuit of profit. But why? After all, the capitalist class play no role in the productive process. Why can’t workers just take what they need? This question overlooks one important feature of capitalism: the state.
The state is the instrument used by governments to protect the property ownership of the capitalist class whose general and particular interests they represent. This is done in a number of ways. First, governments formulate economic or social policies to attack wage levels like the ill-fated Incomes Policy of the 1960’s under Harold Wilson. Second, the government of the day, Labour or Conservative, can use state violence against workers, breaking strikes, imprisoning trade unionists or passing anti—working—class legislation. Third, the government finances a continual stream or propaganda via schools, universities and other institutions it subsidises.
The political power used to protect the property of the capitalist class is also vulnerable because it is dependent upon workers periodically voting capital's political parties into power to protect it anti further capitalist interests.
If the working class is to create a society of free men and women in which social wealth production is held in common and democratically controlled, they must stop voting for the interests of capital. Instead, they must take political action as socialists in order to capture political power and gain control of the machinery of government. Since workers are the last oppressed class in human history it is only by their political action that socialism can be established. The failure of Leninism to impose “socialism” on society by a group of professional revolutionaries has shown that workers must freely accept the need for socialism and understand their active part in its realisation, rather than surrender their political thinking to leaders.
Socialists are in fact workers ourselves facing the same social and economic problems peculiar to our class. We know where our class interests lie and how our political objective is to be achieved, yet the only tool we possess to demonstrate to workers where their class interests lie is continual argument and persuasion wherever the opportunity presents itself. The contradictions inherent within commodity production can only intensify as the techniques and forces of production are continually subordinated to further the aims of profit. It is the very material conditions of capitalism, along with socialist argument, which convince workers to accept the need for socialism, and when enough workers do, the death knell of capitalism will peal across the six continents of the world.