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What leads workers to fight together?

By Paul D'Amato | November 22, 2002 | Page 9

IN MARX'S Capital, we find two contradictory ideas about the working class.

Here is the first passage: "The organization of the capitalist process of production, once fully developed, breaks down all resistance. The constant generation of a relative surplus-population keeps the law of supply and demand of labor, and therefore keeps wages, in a rut that corresponds with the wants of capital. The dull compulsion of economic relations completes the subjection of the laborer to the capitalist. Direct force, outside economic conditions, is of course still used, but only exceptionally. In the ordinary run of things, the laborer can be left to the 'natural laws of production,' i.e., to his dependence on capital, a dependence springing from, and guaranteed in perpetuity by, the conditions of production themselves.'"

A few pages later, Marx says exactly the opposite: "Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolize all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation. But with this too grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself."

Can both be true? Taken in isolation, each statement is one-sided. If workers "by tradition" see the laws of capitalism as "self-evident laws of nature," whose smooth operation (and threat of unemployment) "breaks down all…resistance," then they're incapable of resisting the system that imprisons them. The second statement, on the other hand, tells us that workers are driven by these same conditions of production to collectively fight back.

Both statements express an aspect of the truth. The same conditions that drive workers to compete with one another for jobs, and that impose themselves as "natural laws," also propel workers into collective struggle--into organizing and fighting back.

Underpinning exploitation, whereby the bosses continually suck profits from our labor, is the uncertainty created by the cyclical onset of economic crisis, where flagging profits prompt employers to intensify the pace of work, increase hours, cut wages and lay people off.

Marx combines the two halves of the contradiction in the Communist Manifesto, when he writes, "The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the laborers, due to competition, by their revolutionary combination, due to association."

The onset of crisis increases the competition between workers, in the first instance. But workers are forced by their very working conditions to labor collectively. Under the zigzags of capitalist boom and bust, which creates uncertainty for workers, they are also compelled to combine together--in order to try and defend themselves against these attacks on their living and working conditions.

The experience of collective action in the form of strikes in turn gives workers more confidence, and sharpens their consciousness of the nature of the system and how to challenge it. From the elementary idea of combination into unions for the purposes of defense of living standards, workers are able to develop a sense of themselves as an exploited class, and from there, the idea that their interests are diametrically opposed to those who rule society. But because of the contradiction Marx describes, this doesn't happen automatically or smoothly, but with wild swings in the level of struggle, and unevenly, so that some workers are more accepting of the system, and others ready to fight destroy it.

The balance between these two poles depends on the level of organization, of struggle, and of consciousness in the working class as a whole. The key is bringing together in the course of struggle the most militant, class-conscious workers into an organization that can lead others in struggle against the system as a whole, reducing the level of unevenness and increasing the level of conscious opposition to the system.

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