Why Socialists look to the Working Class as the Force for Social Progress

Submitted by AWL on 8 October, 2013 - 5:16 Author: Hal Draper

For social change toward a better world, socialists believe the most important and indeed decisive social force is the struggle of the working class. Why the working class? Why do socialists believe there is a special connection between their own great goal of a new society and the interests of labor, this one segment of society?

Is it because we "idealize" workers as being better, or more clever, or more honest, or more courageous, or more humanitarian, than non-workers?

Isn't it rather true that the workers have time and time again followed reactionary courses and leaders and have by no means showed any invariable affinity for progressive contest. Don't they follow the Stalinist totalitarianism in countries like France and Italy; and where they do not, are their own trade-union bureaucrats (like the British) much of an asset to genuine socialism? Haven't they been misled and deceived like any other section of society? Aren't they filled with race prejudice in the U.SA, sometimes even more so than the upper classes? If it is true that workers are "naturally" pro-socialist, why is it they have made such a mess of things, voting for reactionaries and fakers and supporting the status quo? . . . And so on along the same lines.

Most of this type of questioning is based on pure and simple misunderstanding of the socialist viewpoint about the working class. Especially in this country, where the socialist movement has always been relatively weak, the most popular anti-socialist notions are most often founded on simple misinformation about what socialists believe, because their voices have not been loudly heard. Socialists do not idealise workers in any lense whatever. Taking them man for man, as individuals, there is no reason to argue whether workers are "better" human beings than others because they are workers. This whole approach, whether pro or con, has nothing to do with the socialist conception.

Good or Bad People?

Let's underline this in a different way. If we try to view social issues as merely conflicts between Good People and Bad People, then surely we must say that men who insist on starving others are Bad. The 75 cent-an-hour wage minimum is surely a pittance. Yet opposition even to this pittance would be strong among employers, especially small-industry employers, while it is virtually absent among workers. Is this the trend among such employers because they are Bad Men? We would find, rather, that these employers are just as likely to be kind fathers, generous friends, charity-
givers, indulgent husbands, and not the type to deliberately run over children in the street. They act one way as individual atoms in the social fabric; they act another way as part of their class collectivity. They explain this, when they do, by saying "Business is business."

This is their way of distinguishing their individual and human thoughts and role from their role as a member of the business community—that is, of their class. In the latter case, the conditions of existence and interests of "business" make out of them a social force that has little resemblance to their individual psychologies. Like every other class or group, the working class is more than the sum of its individual atoms. Man for man, workers are not "naturally" more pro-socialist than anyone else. It is a question of what direction they are pushed in by the conditions of their existence as a class and by their interests as workers, just as this is the question with every group.

This indeed is one reason why so often socialist ideas tend to be initiated in a systematic way not by ideologists from the working class but by men from the "educated classes," the bourgeoisie and intellectuals, men like Marx or Engels, for example, who were not proletarians themselves — although it should be noted that the impulsions to the systematization of such ideas were coming from the working masses' struggles and conditions, not from other sections of society. Individual ideologists were led to align themselves with the working class.

If they were drawn in this direction, it was because there was the dynamic social force which they recognized as the decisive one for putting flesh and blood on ideas. When a working class is politically and socially undeveloped, it is well-nigh inevitable that its members will be filled with all sorts of backward and even reactionary notions. For example, it has often been found in the U. S. that racial intolerance decreases with amount of education; college graduates are less prejudiced, etc. Now, in general, the children of the working classes get less schooling than the offspring of the middle classes and bourgeoisie. So, according to this pattern, workers should be far more filled with racism than the rest of the population. But what is instructive is to see where this neat pattern does not hold.

Class Education

It holds best, where labor is most poorly organized as a class, and where it is organized in the least class-conscious fashion. The South is not only a cauldron of racism but also a sinkhole of union-busting and open-shoppism. Toward the other end of the scale, racism is nowhere so assiduously combated as in the more militant mass-production unions that sprang from the CIO upheaval, like the United Auto Workers, not to speak of the socialist movement which takes a vanguard role against racism. Here, anti-racism is not a function of school education; It is a function of class education.

More than that, in a union like the UAW or the CIO as a whole, the organization is often more anti-Jim-Crow than the sum of its members. That is, "the dynamics of the class push it as a whole more strongly against racism, which is divisive of the class, than do the individual opinions of its members. What we have been emphasizing, then, is that the socialist sees no special magic in the "worker" as an atomized individual. The special "advantage" of the working class (if we may call it that) springs from certain inherent drives of its class position in society, its ineradicable interests as a group, its conditions of life; and this 'advantage' comes into play insofar as this class organizes itself, as it is inevitably driven to do, and transforms the thinking and ideas of its individual components in the course of its class experiences.

We will see what this "advantage" is. Now, it this sort of thing that the socialist calls the development of class-consciousness. As other articles in this issue explain in sufficient detail, this country is the one modern country in the world where the working class is still at a rather elementary stage of class-consciousness. Therefore it is particularly in this country, and most particularly among academicians who have no roots in the real social struggle of our times, that the special role of the working class is most persistently questioned. It would be much harder to do so in Great Britain, for example, where this "special role of the working class" is the daily headache of the Tories, who face in opposition a party which proclaims itself as a class party in its name. Or in France and Italy, where (as we shall see) the special danger of Stalinism is closely connected with the Stalinists' ability to use and abuse the "special role of the working class.” Or in almost any other European country, where the working class is strongly organized as a class. Or even in the leading countries of "backward" Asia, where prominent roles are played by socialist parties in the domestic struggle for power.

In this respect, it is the United States which is "out of step," which is the exception to the rule (as we discuss on page 2), and while American bourgeois thinkers may be grateful for their exceptional position, they have no license to deny the rule. The "rule" is that all over the world organized working-class struggle is inextricably bound up with every effort toward freedom and human emancipation. Where the working class has been defeated, democracy and progress and humanity has been defeated too. Where the forces of freedom have fought, it is the working-class forces that have been in the van. There is no other sector of society of which this or anything like it can be said—not the middle class, not the "intelligentsia," not the "educated classes," not the students, not the "managers," not anyone else except the organized proletariat, for good or ill.

What is this "advantage" which the working class possesses willy-nilly, by virtue of the terms of its own existence under capitalism? Here are in outline form the special characteristics inherent in a social class whose individual human components (remember) are no better or worse than you or I or any other Tom, Dick and Harry.

(1) The conditions of life of the working class lead it to organisation in the first place—and most solidly as a
homogeneous movement. There is, of course, one other class which rivals the working class in this respect: the capitalists themselves, whose class-consciousness and sense of class solidarity are ever-present models for the workers themselves. But we are speaking of forces for freedom. Nowhere and at no time has a predominantly agrarian population (farmers or peasants) been able to duplicate the organizational achievements of the working class. The difference is no reflection on the individual farmer. By terms of their life, they live in atomized groups which stress self-sufficiency, separateness, reliance in individual effort; they are not thrown together in crowds and subjected to simultaneous stresses in the heat of social struggles as are workers. Workers are taught organization not by their superior intelligence or by outside agitators, but by the capitalists themselves. They are organised on the assembly lines, in the factory gangs, in shifts, in work teams, in the division of labor of capitalism itself. Capitalism cannot live and cannot grow without "organizing" its workers and teaching them the virtues of a form of "solidarity." of working together. It teaches discipline. It enforces centralization of effort. It hammers home every day the advantages of pooled effort, and the subordination of the interests of an individual to the needs of the group.

It does not teach this lesson equally to all workers: it is plainer for assembly-line workers in the mass-production in-dustries than for (say) an office secretary who takes dictation from a personal boss, who works with a boss rather than with fellow workers. We use this simple example so that the reader can himself imagine the various degrees of "education" which the conditions of capitalism grant to different kinds of workers, and link these various degrees up with the social ideologies which arise from these different strata of workers, simply on the basis of this first point: class organization.

(2) The interests of workers as a solidarized group, organized by capitalism, lead them to struggle. This is the whole theme of the article on page 3, and so we can pass over it briefly here. What that article will emphasize so clearly is that this can take place quite apart from the conscious desires and wishes of the labor leaders themselves. Labor leaders, who have risen from the ranks of lowly workers and aspire to be accepted as respectable and responsible members of bourgeois society, often want to substitute pleasant and friendly conferences with management for any kind of conflict. Having freed themselves from the condition of existence to which the mass of workers are condemned, they are "bourgeoisified," they want to integrate themselves into the ruling class, or at least find as respectable a niche there as a corporation lawyer. And indeed they could do so - so many others do! - if not for the fact that it is the working class that they are standing on in order to reach so high. For the working class needs representatives in order to oppose the bosses' interests; but the bosses accept the friendship of these labor leaders only insofar as they "behave". From below these bourgeoisified bureaucrats, there always arises the pressure of mass demands, the unslakable needs of the workers which cannot be "wished away" with fine talk about class-collaboration, the aspirations steaming up from the depths of the class for delivery of the goods.

Class Struggle Instruments

Some bureaucrats can continue their precarious balancing act for substantial periods in "normal" times of class quiet particularly, as everybody knows; but even the most conservative and most bourgeoisified union leader must to some extent satisfy the class needs of his constituent base, or else. This is in the worst case, of course, and there are not a few such "worst" cases in the bourgeoisified labor bureaucracy of this country. But it is by no means the typical case even here. Timidly or militantly, consistently or hesitantly, competently or crudely, even the conservative union leader who does not "believe" in class struggle must be its instrument to the extent that he functions as a labor leader at all.

(3) The 'directions of the workers' organized struggle inevitably tends to be against capitalism—or, to put it more finely, this struggle always tends to go outside the framework of capitalist institutions and ideas. Steadily the labor movement's insistence on social responsibility for all asepcts of life comes in conflict with the capitalist insistence on the rights of private property. For the essence of capitalist private property relations is that this whole area of man's life - the economic sphere - is to be withdrawn from the rule of social responsibility and is to be ruled by the unilateral power of capital, as its birthright.

Many are the compromises that capitalism has been forced into here, as is well known, the compromise being mainly that (a) the state is accorded power to intervene as representative of "society," provided (b) that the associated capitalist class retain full control of this intervening state. (This is the process of "statification" under capitalism in a nutshell.) But whatever the compromises, the working-class movement - even the undeveloped union-conscious labor movement of this country - can never be satisfied.

Social Responsibility

Its best sections (UAW, for example) raise slogans like trade-union intervention in the setting of prices or in peering lever the capitalists' books to check their profit. In periods of intense class struggle, sit-downers take over the factories without a qualm over the rights of private property. The tendency of the unions in politics is to support federal Government controls all the way down the line—over offshore oil, or natural gas, or prices, or the Salk vaccine, or health insurance, etc. - in the name of social responsibility vs. private property. Insofar as this support of "statification" takes place without concomitant insistence on control by a social democracy, this is indeed labor's contribution to the bureaucratization of capitalism, rather than its democratization. But given a socialist framework it is this insistence on social responsibility vs. private property which is the germ of the labor movement's inherent and ineradicable "creeping socialism."

The intuition of the reactionaries is not altogether baseless in this respect, though wildly exaggerated and viciously directed. Even Samuel Gompers used to argue that his simple slogan of "More!" for the labor movement was a more "revolutionary" slogan than anything the socialists offered. And surely it is true, that, insofar as labor incessantly presses for "more" out of the economic pie for itself, even when decent wages are incompatible with capitalist needs; insofar as labor presses for "more" social responsibility and less rule by private profit; insofar as labor presses in this direction without drawing back when the capitalists yell too violently, to this extent labor drives the logic of its own existence outside the bounds of the capitalist framework, and tends to explode it.

Of course, we socialists would maintain, and experience unanimously shows, that this does not happen except when the working-class movement grows up to adopting socialist leadership and program; but all we are stressing in the present connection is that the class conditions and needs and interests of the workers drive their organized movement, in the course of its struggle, right up against the bounds of the capitalist system. This is not true of any other group in society – only of individuals from other classes, who may decide to throw in their lot with the working-class struggle. It is enlightening, for example to make a study of the type of political program commonly adopted by non-working-class parties which set out to express protest and struggle: radical peasant parties, or urban parties appealing to the middle class, or farmers' parties in the U. S. Peasant parties most typically stop well short of proposing the abolition of capitalism, confining themselves to proposals for improving their class's lot in ways compatible with the rule of private property; for the peasant is a very tenacious small private-property-holder himself, and does not easily see beyond this question. In a quite different kind of case, as in the case of the Nazi appeal to middle-class elements, a kind of pseudo-anti-capitalism was patched up by directing slogans against bank capital as distinct from "good" productive capital; or, as in the case of Henry Wallace's program, supporting "progressive" capitalists against "reactionary" capitalists.

But what is noteworthy is this: only in the case of working class parties, all over the world, does the program and goal of the movement turn fast or slow toward a basic assault on the bastions of the capitalist, system itself. Now obviously not all American readers will consider this inherent turn of proletarian parties toward anti-capitalism as necessarily a good thing in iteslf, nor are we arguing this point at the moment. The fact itself is what we point to, as illuminating the "special role of the working class," for the benefit of so many Americans who cannot see that the working class as a class can and does play any special role whatsoever.

Courage. Boldness, Militancy

(4) The conditions and interests of working class not only push it toward organized struggle against capitalism but impel it toward a courage and boldness and militancy which are well nigh unique to it, at critical moments of struggle when these qualities are called for. Now at first blush this may seem to be in contradiction with our earlier statements that workers are not necessarily personally "better" in any sense. Are we now saying that workers are braver and bolder?

Only with the same qualifications previously explained. We are talking about their potentialities as an organized class - plus perhaps, for many individuals whatever carry-over takes place from organized behavior to personal behavior as a result of education and conditioning in life situations. But it is the class behavior we are interested in. Stereotypes are bad, including class stereotypes, but while we should avoid them we should not ignore the kernels of truth that they often contain (and, containing, exaggerate). Thus: there is the "timid professor." We have known many professors not at all personally timid. Yet the sweeping stereotype contains a kernel of truth about the impact of academic life and its pressures upon the social psychology of professors. In the last chapter of his White Collar, a study of the middle class in America, Professor (non-timid variety) C. Wright Mills draws a generalized picture of the new middle class which, as it happens, was also quoted in our last week's issue of Challenge in connection with a study of student types. Here it is again, in our present connection, as summarized by Debbie Meier. The new middle class are the "rearguarders," says Mill, waiting for someone else to move. As a group they have no cohesion, but are on sale to the highest bidder or the most likely winner.

"They have no steady discontent or responsible struggle with the conditions of their lives. For discontent of this sort requires imagination, even a little vision; and responsible struggle requires leadership." As individuals with private positions, continues Mills, "they hesitate, confused and vacillating in their opinions, unfocused and discontinuous in their actions . . . they have no targets on which to focus their worry and distrust. They may be politically irritable, but they have no political passion. They are a chorus, too afraid to grumble, too hysterical in their applause."

In the short run, he concludes, they follow the panicky way of prestige; in the long run they follow the ways of power. This scathing portrait by Professor Mills is a portrait of a social class, not an insult directed against middle-class individuals; just as we have heen analyzing the social potentialities of a class, and not "idealizing" workers. But surely, with this portrait before one, and realizing the truth that it contains, it is easy to see why middle-class groups simply cannot work up the dynamic drive which is necessary before one can be "courageous and bold and militant," or to struggle "For Something Better."

Let us take a simple model: a factory worker on a picket line can, and often does, abuse entering scabs and may have to be restrained from physical attack; he is not constrained by notions of bourgeois respectability from acting this way, even though he may be quite "respectable" and "bourgeois" in his behavior on all other normal occasions. He is more alienated from class society, no matter how he thinks - or how he thinks he thinks. But go along the scale of workers up (or down) toward more and more "respectable white-collar workers and employees, to office employees, to bank tellers, to fashion-house fitters, to . . . college professors. And try to imagine them yelling at scabs on a picket line. Not because we think yelling at scabs is itself the height of courage or boldness or militancy, but because it is a handy and visualizable token of what is at stake: the dynamism of the class in its organized struggle for "something better", and against what is.

We should rather examine the record of the working class in far more crucial situations; we should rather see how some of the heights of valor and self-sacrifice have been reached by unknown workers, not named heroes, in revolutionary struggles; but these are not visualizable for the average American reader, who after all is himself the product of a society dominated by middle-class mediocrity.

(5) Finally, we are talking about the organized and militant anti-capitalist struggle of the only class which has the social power and weight to abolish the old order and build a new society. Whatever a historian says about the role of force in revolutions, it is a Marxist principle that social revolutions are not made by bullets. This is the caricature of socialist revolution implanted in the mind of the ignorant man by certain types of policemen and certain types of professors. The Marxist socialist believes that when the working class, and its associated allies from other sections of the people, are in their massed majority ready for the abolition of capitalism, it is their social power which will determine the result in the last analysis; the social power of the class depends not only on its numbers. It depends also on its homogeneity and organizability, as we have discussed, its striking power. It also depends on the indispensability of the services which it performs in keeping the world's work going. No class has its hands so closely on the basic work without which the system grinds to a halt. Not a wheel can turn without them. No other class can precipitate a social crisis by the deliberate decision of its organized cadres as in a large-scale strike. When the working class goes into battle, all of society is embroiled, for all depends on it. Every time the working class stirs, the rest of society shakes. Yet there is debate over its "special role" After all of the above, there is still a deeper "why" to be asked, a question that goes behind all of the points we have made up to now. Within the confines of the plan for this pamphlet-issue, we have an opportunity only to point to it.

No Social Program

In the last analysis, the "rearguard" character of the middle classes, which Professor Mills points to, reflects their political and social blind-alley. They cannot give society a lead because there is no social program which in any way corresponds to the special interests of the middle class. From the conditions of their existence arises no pointer to a way out for all of society. In contrast, the working class, as the bottom layer of all classes, cannot, even stir without pointing to a program, even when it itself rejects it: the abolition of capitalism, its class antagonist, and the assumption of social responsibility by the democratically organized people regardless of private profit. At bottom, it is because the interests of the working class, inherently contained in its struggles, point a program for a basic transformation and reconstruction of society that this class is pushed to take a vanguard role in every struggle for freedom and emancipation.

We need hardly spend much space affirming how cognizant we are of how often the working class and its interests have been deceived and betrayed by its enemies and false frinds. The history of capitalism, from one point of view," is nothing but a history of continued duping of the working class. In fact, deception of the working class is one of the most important conditions for the maintenance of capitalism or any other exploitive system. It is hardly necessary for us to learn all about this, then, from critics who like to argue that socialists "faith" in the working class is misplaced. It is hardly necessary for us to be told, also, that today, in good part, the Stalinist menace feeds on its ability to dupe and deceive the working class in a number of capitalist countries like France and Italy; The battle for socialist democracy against both capitalism and Stalinism can even be summed up as the battle to free the working class from its deception by each of these class enemies.

Crucial Working Class

But this is a battle which, by definition, is won as soon as the workers are "undeceived." It is meanwhile a downright irrelevancy in this connection for critics to tell us, as they do every so often, that because the working class has so long been deceived and betrayed, we must conclude that it is hopeless. We point out only: it is the working class that it is crucial for the reaction to deceive, not the petty-bourgeoisie or any of its fellow rearguarders. And this is because only the working class can lead the movement to overthrow it, whether it be capitalist or Stalinist reaction. The socialist revolution, once observed Rosa Luxemburg, is a war in which there are necessarily an unending series of "defeats" followed by only one victory.

We guarantee nothing, of course, except the honor and dignity of fighting for a new and better world, rather than the
vileness of adapting one's mind and heart to a vile one. We guarantee no one that the working class is predestined
to behave according to our blueprints even if we sit by in interested passivity to see whether it does so. We offer only
a road of struggle and a choice of allies in the only war worth fighting, the battle for a socialist democracy against the
rival world blocs of war and exploitation.