Why workers must take the lead

During revolutionary upheavals, the decisive question is whether the working class puts its interests in the forefront of the struggle.

ONE OF the most important arguments of Marxism is that workers have the power to change society.

Columnist: Paul D'Amato

Paul D'Amato Paul D'Amato is managing editor of the International Socialist Review and author of The Meaning of Marxism, a lively and accessible introduction to the ideas of Karl Marx and the tradition he founded. Paul can be contacted at [email protected].

Workers produce all the wealth of society, and because of this, they have the ability to strike at the system. As the 18th century British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley asked of English workers: "Wherefore weave with toil and care / The rich robes your tyrants wear?"

The famous American labor song "Solidarity Forever" makes a similar point: "Without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel would turn." Workers have a power, to quote the same song, "greater than their hoarded gold"--the power to organize collectively and strike.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels put it this way in the Communist Manifesto: "[W]ith the development of industry, the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more."

The world working class today--those who work in factories, mines, schools, hospitals, offices and so on--is many, many times larger than the working class of Marx's day. And because of increases in productivity, workers have even greater power. After all, the United Auto Workers strike at a single production complex in Flint, Mich., a few years ago shut down practically all of General Motors' North American operations.

Workers have time and again demonstrated their power and their determination to fight for both economic and political demands.

The tremendous power of Black workers in South Africa was the most important factor in the downfall of apartheid--the political system of racial separation and white supremacy. Strikes by Iranian oil workers were key to bringing down the Shah of Iran in 1979. More recently, miners in Yugoslavia were at the center of the successful battle to topple Slobodan Milosevic. Yet in all these cases, while workers may have ploughed the ground, others gathered the fruits of victory.

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IN EACH case, the struggle united a variety of different forces who were agreed on what they opposed--a particular tyrant or dictatorship--but not on what they were for.

For example, in Yugoslavia, though workers fought Milosevic because they wanted jobs, decent pay and more government spending on social needs, the leaders of the broad opposition that took over after Milosevic support economic policies that conflict with workers' aims. They want privatization and a "good business climate" that favors wealthy business leaders and state bureaucrats.

There are diverging class interests between workers, who have an interest in taking the fight for a better society further, and middle-class and even ruling-class forces that want to contain the struggle. Writing a few months after the outbreak of the 1905 Revolution in Russia that challenged Tsarism, the revolutionary Lenin wrote:

The outcome of the revolution depends on whether the working class will play the part of a subsidiary to the bourgeoisie, a subsidiary that is powerful in the force of its onslaught against the autocracy, but impotent politically, or whether it will play the part of leader of the people's revolution.

Though feudal autocracy has long since disappeared, Lenin's formula still applies to the struggle against tyranny today. So when socialists talk about workers' power, we aren't talking simply about the impact of a well-placed strike.

We're talking about the need for the working class to play an independent and leading role in the struggle if we're to turn the fight against the system in its entirety.

Socialism--in which ordinary workers seize control of society and run it on the basis of human need--doesn't come automatically out of mass revolt. Workers can play the crucial role in a revolution, but without political organization, they can find their interests sidelined.

Unless workers organize as an independent force that fights for their aims, the struggle can only go so far. Marx learned this in struggle during the revolutions that swept Europe in 1848.

He argued that workers had to be organized into an independent political party that would "march with the petty-bourgeois democrats against the faction which it aims at overthrowing," but must "oppose them in everything whereby they seek to consolidate their position in their own interests."

First published in the December 8, 2000, issue of Socialist Worker.