A story written by the working class itself

October 9, 2018

Karl Marx believed that socialism would be created by the working class liberating itself. Elizabeth Schulte explains why this principle is important today.

JUST ABOUT every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. If you come in during the middle, it helps to know what happened before you got there.

But the end of the story is also important. And if this is the story about winning a socialist society, then even if you’re still in the middle, it makes a big difference knowing where you hope the story will go.

Depending on where you are in the story, it can seem similar to the others with different endings: Many of the plot points are the same: brave struggles, bitter defeats, long periods where it seems nothing happens. But depending on where you’d like the story to end up, these things in the middle can have different meanings.

Before I give up on this analogy, I’ll skip to what the “end” of the story means for revolutionary socialists. The answer is workers’ power — meaning workers’ control over all aspects of society, both political and economic.

Of course, that’s not exactly the end of the story. The assumption is that there’s a lot more after that, but the key is that this part of the story will be written by the working class itself.

Labor activists march against gentrification and exploitation in New York City
Labor activists march against gentrification and exploitation in New York City (nylecet | Facebook)

Karl Marx made sure there was no confusion on where he thought socialists should want their story to go. When he drafted the rules for the International Workingman’s Association in 1864, he started with the statement: “That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”

No other class could do the work of liberating the working class, only the working class itself, Marx believed. This stood in sharp distinction to other ideas about achieving full human liberation and equality at the time.

During his time, Marx engaged with the ideas of other socialist currents in order to sharpen the debates within the socialist movement and make it stronger. Utopian ideas, for instance, centered around the idea that people of means could be convinced to invest in creating pockets of socialism.

Marx recognized that these schemes weren’t just misguided ways that aimed at getting to the same place, but they had a different goal in mind. Writing in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and his collaborator Frederick Engels said of the utopian socialists:

Only from the point of view of being the most suffering class does the proletariat exist for them.

The undeveloped state of the class struggle, as well as their own surroundings, causes socialists of this kind to consider themselves far superior to all class antagonisms. They want to improve the condition of every member of society, even that of the most favored. Hence, they habitually appeal to society at large, without distinction of class; nay, by preference, to the ruling class. For how can people, when once they understand their system, fail to see it in the best possible plan of the best possible state of society?

Hence, they reject all political, and especially all revolutionary, action; they wish to attain their ends by peaceful means, and endeavor, by small experiments, necessarily doomed to failure, and by the force of example, to pave the way for the new social Gospel.

More broadly, Marx was taking on the concept of what the American Marxist Hal Draper would later call “socialism from above.”

BY STUDYING the historical development of capitalism and its inner workings, Marx identified the potential revolutionary role of the working class in winning a socialist society.

By the nature of workers’ role under capitalism — forced to sell their labor power in workplaces where they neither own nor control the means of production — workers came into conflict with the existing system and the bosses who own and control these workplaces.

The Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs explained this relationship in a 1905 speech, focusing in on a famous member of the ruling class, industrialist Andrew Carnegie:

The capitalists own the tools they do not use, and the workers use the tools they do not own. The capitalists, who own the tools that the working class use, appropriate to themselves what the working class produce, and this accounts for the fact that a few capitalists become fabulously rich while the toiling millions remain in poverty, ignorance and dependence...

Andrew Carnegie, who owns these tools, has absolutely nothing to do with the production of steel...His mills at Pittsburgh, Duquesne and Homestead, where these tools are located, are thronged with thousands of toolless wage workers, who work day and night, in winter’s cold and summer’s heat, who endure all the privations and make all the sacrifices of health and limb and life, producing thousands upon thousands of tons of steel, yet not having an interest, even the slightest, in the product.

Carnegie, who owns the tools, appropriates the product, and the workers, in exchange for their labor power, receive a wage that serves to keep them in producing order; and the more industrious they are, and the more they produce, the worse off they are; for when they have produced more than Carnegie can get rid of in the markets, the tool houses are shut down and the workers are locked out in the cold.

This is a beautiful arrangement for Mr. Carnegie; he does not want a change...and he is doing what he can to induce you to think that this ideal relation ought to be maintained forever.

AS DEBS pointed out, this conflict between those who work and those who rule isn’t always obvious. In fact, capitalism does its best to obscure it. But nonetheless, these contradictions are ever present.

For instance, class conflicts may exist quietly in a workers’ paycheck, which constitutes payment for only a fraction of the wealth that a worker creates with their labor every day. Or these conflicts can burst out into the open, as in the case of a grievance or a strike over conditions that workers can no longer tolerate.

During the recent teachers’ strikes in several states over the summer, workers drew attention to their low wages and long hours, making public the fact that a teacher in Oklahoma may have to work two or more jobs in order to make ends meet.

In West Virginia, strikers offered a solution to the government when it claimed it didn’t have enough money to fund health care coverage for state workers: Try collecting taxes from wealthy corporations and individuals — specifically, the highly profitable energy companies.

During struggles like these, the unfair working conditions of an individual workplace come into the light for all to see — and so, too, can the unfairness of a system based on theft and greed that lay hidden just beneath the surface.

In the process, these struggles also expose how little our political “leaders” and our political system actually deliver for workers, and how they ultimately work in the interest of a few at the expense of the majority.

Debs, for example, lost his trust in the Democratic Party after the experience of a Democratic president calling in troops against the strike he led against the Pullman railroad company in 1894. Along with Debs, workers saw with their own eyes what side President Grover Cleveland was on, and where the supposedly neutral state stood, too.

Debs later said of the crushing of the strike: “At this juncture there were delivered, from wholly unexpected quarters, a swift succession of blows that blinded me for an instant and then opened wide my eyes — and in the gleam of every bayonet and the flash of every rifle the class struggle was revealed.”

Marx emphasized that these lessons in struggle weren’t handed down from above, but the product of the inevitable conflicts that workers face as a consequence of their role in capitalist society. Hal Draper explained it this way:

[E]mancipation is not a form of graduation ceremony (getting the diploma from teacher for passing the exam), but rather it is a process of struggle by people who are not yet “ready” for emancipation, and who can become ready for emancipation only by launching the struggle themselves, before anyone considers them ready for it.

ON ANY average day, workers feel powerless in their workplaces. It can seem like the last place where they could have their voices heard — and for good reason. In most workplaces, you check your opinions and your rights at the door in exchange for employment, and you are forced to bend to the rules laid out by your employer.

It hardly feels like a place, as Marx argued, where workers have the most power. This is why — though there has been an increase in strikes, including the explosive teachers’ strikes of last spring and this fall — the workplace is still not the epicenter of most working-class struggle today.

Plus, it’s important to point out that workers have been involved in struggles that aren’t at their workplaces — such as the Women’s Marches, the #MeToo movement, protests against the Trump administration’s family detention policies and more.

These are important points of struggle where class issues are fought out. But it’s the potential power that workers have at work which Marx believed made them the prime force for change.

In ways that are unlike any other group in society, workers are brought together by capitalism into a common situation and usually a common location — and by being subject to a common discipline, they have an interest in taking action collectively. This is why Marx said capitalism created its own “gravedigger.”

Of course, many factors keep the underlying contradictions from turning into outright revolt. They often are specifically designed to keep workers’ eyes trained on one another rather than the bosses — such as competition for jobs or sexism and racism.

But when workplace struggles do break out, not only are the contradictions laid bare, but so is workers’ potential power as workers. Strikes can play the role of demonstrating to workers their collective power to shut down a workplace, and even a city and more.

The more the struggle is able to challenge the status quo, the more questions come up about who should be making the decisions about our everyday lives — inside and outside the workplace.

During the Seattle General Strike of 1919, which was inspired by the Russian Revolution, workers demonstrated a high level of organization — both so they could have the strongest impact on the bosses and to make sure that their families received the food and milk they needed, and much more.

The General Strike Committee became the real government of the city, as First World War veterans replaced the police, and radical literature was passed from hand to hand to provide the news that the bosses’ newspapers refused to report.

In the process of this kind of struggle, one that grows beyond individual workplaces and begins to challenge the existing governments and social structures, history shows that workers see that they have to reorganize society if they are going to win against those who would like to keep the status quo.

Marx learned this through the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871. He concluded that while many democratic changes could happen quite quickly, a complete transformation of society is necessary if workers’ power is going to prevail.

By no means is any of this inevitable. We need to build every struggle today that gives confidence to working people to fight back, that teaches the lessons about who is really going to make lasting change in society — whether these struggles simply show that there is power in numbers or go further to show the special power workers’ possess of stopping work.

Because while Marx and the socialists after him may have laid out why the self-emancipation of the working class was the key to socialism, they didn’t say it was automatic. Socialists have to take part in organization that applies theory and history to practical struggles — while keeping the goal of workers’ power in our sights.

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