Well, this is not an easy question to answer in a short article like this. Before we go any further, we may need the actual definition of “working class”. I admit again this is not easy either.
There are different concepts or definitions for “working class”. According to the Cambridge English dictionary it is “a social group that consists of people who earn little money, often being paid only for the hours or days that they work, and who usually do physical work. The working class (also laboring class and proletariat) are the people employed for wages, especially in manual-labor occupations and in skilled, industrial work. Working-class occupations include blue-collar jobs, some white-collar jobs, and most service-work jobs.”
The most general definition, used by Marxists and socialists, is that the working class includes all those who have nothing to sell but their labor power and skill. In that sense it includes both white and blue-collar workers, manual and mental workers of all types, excluding only individuals who derive their income from business ownership and the labor of others.
It is very obvious the world that Marx used to live in has changed dramatically as has the working class itself. What has not changed in society is the fact that there are still three classes – working class, middle class and upper class.
As long as the majority of Marxists and Socialists and some anarchists believe that the working class is the only dynamic power that can take us to a socialist society, the definition of “working class” is still important. The different definitions of “working class” may provide us with different eventual outcomes or different kinds of society in the future.
Many of us believe that the vast majority of people in society are working class. This includes all types of workers, pensioners, unemployed, the self-employed even students and those people who are getting quite a lot of money who are sometimes called middle class.
If we define the working class in these terms, we can conclude that the working class is not a coherent class, their present aims are different and unity among them may be almost impossible. Perhaps this is the reason for little support or solidarity between them, leading to their defeat when advancing separate demands.
If we agree that traditional workers plus those currently working in farms, shops, offices, the catering industry and others are working class we still face another problem. While these people are still not the majority in society, it will be difficult to achieve the classless society we want. Also due to different conditions of work and different trade unions workers belong to, solidarity and unity between them can be very hard.
Before I go further, we need to ask what is a revolution? Is it some fundamental reform? Is it class struggle which is expected to lead us to a dictatorship of the pproletariat? A forcible overthrow of a government or social order, in favor of a new system? Or simply is it a social transformation that results in a non-hierarchical and classless society through the struggle of the vast majority of us regardless of our social backgrounds?
In my opinion the revolution is a social revolution and it is a long process that takes us towards this future. We probably share many of the same goal as Marxists and Communists but our ways and means of achieving them are very different.
Whatever our definition of the working class is, all the evidence shows that in the real world the working class is not a revolutionary class. If the meaning of revolution is to change the present society to a classless and non-hierarchical one, in my opinion, it never has been revolutionary. Revolution is not the task of the working class and never has been.
An important question comes up here. If the working class is a revolutionary class, why do the Marxists want to form a political vanguard party to organize them and transfer the class consciousness?
Marx made a crucial statement when he said “It is not consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness”. I think Marx contradicts his own statement as he insists that the revolution is the task of the working class. The working class from its origins to the present has had economic not political struggles and it has not taken power. As such, workers restrict their struggles to working through Trade Unions and rely on political parties. They work and struggle in line with Marx’s statement above, and thus their consciousness cannot break free of this to create a classless society and refute the dictatorship of the proletariat. They are neither against the state nor do they want a dictatorship of the proletariat. Marx was not fair in imposing a very onerous role on them.
I personally conclude from Marx’s statement a clear meaning. The working class should not be more revolutionary than pensioners, students, unemployed, people on disability and other benefits. While those who work financially may be much better than the groups that I mentioned. Certainly this is the reason we usually see the above groups of people who are more active. They are the one who are taking part in demonstrations and protests and are involved in community politics. It is they who support the workers who are in dispute with management while their own colleagues from different sections in the same office or the same company continuee doing whatever they are told.
It’s true the working class have a power and ability to bring down a government in a short time if they took certain actions collectively. They can stop the system from working, but that is not their aim or task. No wonder the Conservative government can challenge the trade unions and take them to court if they have political demands instead of economic ones.
The global history of the working class movement shows that those who wanted to change society simply were not the working class. In fact, it was the socialist and anarchist workers among the working class who were the powerful elements in most movements and in society.
We can see this in Russia in 1905 or Feb 1917 and the Spanish revolution in 1936-1937 as they were anarchist/socialist revolutions. It was socialists and anarchist workers who had a major role and driving powers behind the rest of the workers to go beyond their own financial or economic demands.
The initial idea behind the proletariat as a revolution class and creator of the socialist society is Marx. Reality has proved that his economic and political theory has served capitalism rather than socialism. Das Kapital has never been as important for the working class as it has for those serving the capitalism system. In my article in the links below I have touched on this issue: http://zaherbaher.com/2016/10/06/leftists-and-communists-have-damaged-the-socialist-movement-as-much-as-the-right-wing-did/
After the Second World War the world changed and working class movements became weaker and weaker. For a long time, the working class has achieved very little throughout the part of the world. In fact, they haven’t even managed to maintain or protect the small gains they achieved.
Under the current system the working class have became exactly what Murray Bookchin described: “By an incredible irony of history, Marx failed to anticipate in the dialectic of capitalism. The proletariat, instead of developing into a revolutionary class within the womb of capitalism, turns out to be an organ within the body of bourgeois society….” (The Murray Bookchin Reader, Edited by Janet Biehl, pp131-132.)
In fact, the working class has managed to make the system more powerful by maintaining and protecting it. The workers serve this system like any other sections of society like the police, military and spy networks.
It is the working class who create the wealth, profit and capital and maintain war wherever it happens. War kills many innocent people and destroy their environments. Workers continue to produce more profits and wealth and defeat people’s movements including workers in other parts of the world. Moreover, the evidence shows the workers are only concerned about their own and their family’s life even if that comes at the expenses of killing people (their comrades) in other countries.
We need to understand this and look at the evidence rather than believing in texts that have been written over 150 years ago. We need the living to analyze current situations, not the dead. We must remember that anarchism is not a frozen ideology, it is an idea, a way of life, a practical method of analyzing events and situations through the facts and reality rather than texts.
Assuming the proletariat “Working class” are the only class who can take us toward socialism means restricting the revolution to industrialized countries only and nowhere else. It means ignoring the fact that wherever social justice, equality or freedom are missing it is a ripe environment for revolution and building a socialist/anarchist society. It means denying that pre-capitalist societies have a chance of socialist revolution because the proletarian class and advanced technology are absent. It means not considering the question of hierarchy seriously, as it formed developing class and class society. It means not considering ecological issues as a central question in the revolutionary process.
The revolution needs to be a social revolution. It is a community revolution as a whole, and not simply just a working class revolution. It needs to be a revolution involving almost everybody in a community regardless of their different backgrounds and involving them in different ways. It pre supposes self-organization in radical, independent and non-hierarchical local groups. They coordinate their struggles, their actions, they set up a confederation to fight back against the system as a whole.