The class struggle arises from the conditions of life of human beings. It’s a struggle of living forces; there are complicated and complicating factors. Different industries have different conditions; there are different traditions of struggle, different forms of organisation, different political conditions over time and different leaders.
But under capitalism it is also entirely true to say that the development of big industry, and also the development of technology, means that the conditions of life of workers are similar, that working class consciousness is a product of capitalism and that the working class of all countries have far more in common with each other than they do with the bourgeoisie of any country.
The key to understanding the fundamental processes at work in society begins at the point of production. How do we live and how do we reproduce our labour power.
To quote some figures from our latest British Perspectives :
"The most significant trend in the world today is proletarianisation. Global head counts are hard to come by and figures come with a time lag. The last estimate of numbers seems to have been by Filmer for the World Bank in 1995. He worked out there were 880m workers in the world. Since we know the ‘South’ has been industrialising fast, there are almost certainly now one billion humans who make their living exclusively by working for a wage."
Together with their families, they are now a majority of the world’s workforce for the first time in history.
On a day to day basis it seems quite clear that something particularly serious has happened to British industry. Instead of coalfields the countryside is littered with clean rivers, country parks and newly landscaped colliery yard shaped lakes and so on.
Welsh Valleys and County Durham villages struggle on with no visible means of support. As the Ashington-born conservative thinker John Gray pointed out in his book ‘False Dawn’ – work is the glue that holds communities together. Take it away and you are left with huge social problems.
Shipyards and docks close down and huge car factories are swept away. Steel works and printing plants disappear. Although it’s obvious that this process is hugely destructive to the communities dependent on these industries it is also true that in many cases, although the numbers of employed workers has fallen, the effect of increasing productivity has been that more goods are actually produced by fewer workers.
Increases in the productivity of agriculture have meant that although the number of farm workers in the OECD countries has fallen dramatically since 1900 and the service sector has massively expanded, according to Feinstein the proportion of workers in manufacturing has stayed stable at around 30%. [Feinstein, C.H. (1972) National Income, Expenditure and Output of the United Kingdom, 1855-1965.]
In fact manufacturing grew in all the OECD countries between 1950 -1995 faster than national income, everywhere apart from the USA. What was produced in Britain in the 1960s by 8 million workers can now be produced by less than 4 million.
By concentrating production and increasing productivity the workers who remain in industry have more power in their hands relatively than ever before. In many cases small groups of workers or sections in key parts of a factory can paralyse production and profits.
The middle class
Bourgeois academics and the right wing in the Labour Movement like to talk about the middle class and the service sector, as a counterweight to Marxist ideas, as if they had discovered the philosopher’s stone, or a mistake in Marx’s writings.
The intermediate layers in society – the mass of small industrialists and shopkeepers that existed in Marx’s time - have, as he brilliantly predicted, been squeezed by mass production and forced out of existence.
Napoleon called the English a nation of shopkeepers, but with the rows of estate agents and charity shops on the High Street he would have been forced to do his shopping at TESCO like the rest of us.
Teachers, doctors and many other ‘professions’ are now under much the same pressures as the mass of white collar workers. Unions like the NUT are likely to begin balloting for a political fund, while doctors’ contracts are under pressure to increase productivity.
Workers like bus drivers and train drivers are fairly clearly workers and have always identified as such. Yet together with many others they are thrown into the official category of "service sector workers".
Traditionally difficult to organise and low paid, the service sector has also been subject to the general development of capitalism and technology. Many service sector workers are thrown together in call centres and huge office complexes like Canary Wharf. Far from being isolated they are very much part of a social system of production. It’s no surprise that unions like the old ISTC (Iron and Steel Trades Confederation),reshaped as Community, have orientated their recruitment towards them.
The experience of civil servants and local government workers has been of increased unionisation and a developing class consciousness over decades.
When the CPSA (now called PCS) swung to the left in the 1970s and 1980s it wasn’t down to Trotskyist infiltration, it was down to a developing class consciousness and understanding of the programme of privatisation, cuts and closures that the Tories imposed. Under those conditions, the Marxists were seen as the best, most consistent class fighters.
If you were to describe a workplace full of dozens or even hundreds of women doing the same mundane job day after day, you would have to assume that it was a sewing factory, a mill or a factory. But in fact the DHSS ran on the basis of millions of punch cards and thousands of operators, a clerical factory at Longbenton in the North East.
Common conditions create common consciousness. No wonder the Tories and New Labour have sought to divide the work force into this agency or that agency, this employer or that employer on the same site.
The complexity of much of this work and the demands of employers have meant that within the service sector there is a much greater emphasis on training and qualification than previously. Conscious development of "core workforce policy" has strengthened the hand of sections of workers in the service sector.
Many things have changed since Marx’s day, but the fundamentals remain, the working class are those who have only their labour to sell. The days of frock coated managers with troops of servants have gone. The working class now represents some 80% to 90% of the British population.
Many of the old working class communities may have gone. But now nurses live next door to fire fighters, teachers live beside plumbers and joiners. The working class as a whole live in the city and towns, they shop in the same supermarkets, drink in the same pubs. The distinctive mining and shipbuilding areas reflected production in the past. With public transport and cars, people travel to work now. But at the point of production, the factory office or hospital the social relations between the classes are fundamentally framed by the same issues.
An uneven process
Stephen Jay Gould managed to explain many of the contradictions in evolutionary theory by explaining changes in species didn’t happen gradually and predictably, but that in reality there was a ‘punctuated equilibrium’ where big shifts and changes took place in response to changes in the environment. Likewise the development of industrial and political struggle in Britain isn’t even. It’s very, very far from the Tory view that we do things ‘differently’ in Britain.
As early as 1798 the bourgeoisie outlawed trade unions in the ‘Combination Acts’. This was incidentally at the time of huge movements in Ireland as well. The Peterloo massacre in 1819, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Chartists represent the development of trade unions and working class movements, at a time when industry was in its very early stages.
Capitalism in the sense of big factories and industry was in its infancy in the 1830s and 1840s. Conditions were appalling in the towns and cities as Engels pointed out in his 1844 masterpiece ‘The condition of the working class in England’.
Political struggle led to a widening of the electoral franchise, but prior to 1890 Engels was able to talk about the British working class having been asleep for 40 years.
The 1890s was the beginning of the period of the development of General Trade Unions, starting with the struggle of the gas workers, the dockers and the Bryant and May match girls. Previously the trade unions had been restricted to the craft sections of the working class. The unskilled workers were seen as being impossible to organise. In the same way that in more recent history the right wing argued it would be impossible to organise women workers.
The movement that developed before the First World War was cut across on the outbreak of hostilities but there are some clear examples of industrial militancy. Particularly in Ireland with the development of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union led by Connolly and Larkin and the Dublin lock-out in 1913.
After the war, there were a whole series of movements including the famous 1919 police strike and the great 1926 General Strike – the last ripple of the Russian Revolution. The defeat of the General Strike led to a downturn and to a terrible revenge particularly on the part of the coal owners. But the movement swung onto the political plane with the Labour election result in 1929.
The depression of the 1930s held back the movement, but by 1938/39 the British bourgeoisie were making preparations for the possibility of civil war in Britain. Again the Second World War cut across the developing class struggle.