Politics & The Working Class

Famous comedy sketch photo of 'upper class' John Cleese, looking down on 'middle class' Ronnie Barker, looking down on 'working class' Ronnie Corbett who "knows his place".

by Roy Ratcliffe

In recent discussions among the anti-Capitalist Left, a number of questions have been raised, and assumptions made, which seem to me to have missed the mark by a considerable margin.

An important assumption I heard recently, was that because the working class has not engaged in struggle ‘en-masse’ against the proposed cuts and austerity measures, the working classes must be politically backward.

The fact that they are also not turning up in great numbers to anti-cuts events organised by the Left was also voiced as evidence that the working class and oppressed are backward or have some other deficiency of understanding which impedes their fight-back. An allied assumption has been that working people need a political party of their own. One that truly represents them. Personally, I have not seen or heard of any such demands emanating from within the working and oppressed classes only from the Left, and can it ever be the case, that a party can truly represent them? We shall see. In the spirit of comradely discussion , I wish to argue against this type of  opinion which I suggest is more of an expression of ‘Left’ frustration, than it is of anything else.

Perhaps it is a frustration born of the fact that working people are not doing what the ‘Left’ think they should do.  And what is that?  Basically, the various left groups, think the workers and oppressed should follow one or other of the versions of the ‘Left’s’ suggestions currently on offer.  However, as yet, the vast majority of workers and non-working oppressed in the UK are still thinking about the situation, making economic adjustments and do not yet seem to have concluded they need to do more than they already are.  This situation should not be surprising.  It has historically been the case that working class and oppressed people in general only become really active – on mass, or otherwise –  when they think they need to as in Greece and elsewhere – not when the Left think they ought to. There are also of course, many good reasons for not quickly following the lead of those trying to provide a political way forward.

Scepticism Born of Years of Experience

For a start, there is a great deal of soundly based scepticism among the working class over politics and politicians – all politicians – left, right and centre. This scepticism is born of years of experience in which politicians have demonstrated that politics and political parties are a one-sided, self-serving, elite-controlling, means of obtaining power and influence ‘within the system’ for a relative few. Politics is full, bursting to the seams one might say, with politicos who make many promises, but keep very few. This scepticism, is not a symptom of backwardness. It is also extended to the Left, including the anti-Capitalist Left, who whilst often stridently advocating ‘political’ solutions at the same time make obvious their own mini, elite controlling, one-sided, sectarian patterns of behaviour.

For the last fifty years, or more, the anti-Capitalist Left, for example, have demonstrated to the working class and oppressed, very little other than divisions, disrespect for each other, demagogic outbursts and unrealistic calls such as for an immediate general strike. This well considered, intelligent scepticism about politics and politicians, of all shades, is nothing new. It is generations old. Indeed, Marx, after studying the problems workers were having in previous pre-revolutionary situations came to very clear conclusions, based not on his own experiences, but primarily that of workers in struggle. He noted;

“Where political parties exist, each party sees the root of every evil in the fact that instead of itself an opposing party stands at the helm of the state. Even radical and revolutionary politicians seek the root of the evil not in the essential nature of the state, but in a definite state form, which they wish to replace by a different state form.” (Marx/Engels. Collected Works. Volume 3.  page 197.)

This analysis has particular relevance to the development of politics in Russia, prior to and after the October 1917 revolution, but that’s a line of development for another article. However, the above is not the only criticism of the political mind-set with regard to understanding the nature of society and the needs of the working and oppressed classes. In more general terms, within the same article, Marx noted;

“The political mind is a political mind precisely because it thinks within the framework of politics. The keener and more lively it is, the more incapable is it of understanding social ills.” (ibid. page 199)

‘Omnipotence of the Will’

Let’s repeat the essence of that observation. ‘The keener and more lively the political mind, the more incapable it is of understanding social ills.” And further;

“The more one-sided and, therefore, the more perfected the political mind is, the more does it believe in the omnipotence of the will, the more is it blind to the natural and spiritual limits of the will, and the more incapable is it therefore of discovering the source of social ills.” (ibid. page 199)

These statements can come as quite a surprise to those who have become accustomed or ‘trained’ to view politics as the primary solution to human affairs. They did to me when I first came across them. Yet on reflection, this incapacity is exactly what I had encountered in my own experience mixing with the politicians in the Labour Party and the revolutionary politicos in various Left groups I joined.

Politicos on the Left, as in mainstream politics, also felt they must speak more often than anyone else, felt they must speak longer than anyone else, must speak more eloquently than anyone else, would patronisingly listen or rudely brush aside criticism – Why? Because these are the requirements of politics.

The Culture of Politics is one of Grooming and Competition!

The culture of politics is one of grooming and competition for leadership positions, control of membership, always knowing better and never admitting being wrong. I think it should be frankly stated that this process occurs within some parts of the anti-Capitalist Left as well as elsewhere. As a consequence of this ‘culture‘, the more perfected the political mind – the more one-sided and limited it is. What a body blow Marx delivers to politics – all politics – including revolutionary politics. This is an amazing 19th century theoretical indictment of full-time (and even part-time) politicians of whatever persuasion. And yet it is still one fully in line with the experiences and opinions of 21st century working and oppressed people across the globe.

The over-politicised reader may need to ponder the implications of this pivotal insight for a moment or two. It implies that dedicated anti-capitalist ‘politicians’ can be incapable of discovering the real source of social ills. It implies that professional revolutionaries can also become blind to the natural and spiritual limits of the will. And this by the way is not simply a personal failing.

It is not merely that there are one-sided and blind politicians, it is that politics itself is a one-sided and frequently deceitful human endeavour. It is not just that there are ineffective politicians, it is that politics by its very nature, beyond a certain narrow range of circumstances, is ineffective.

This enhances and supplements the frequent working-class observation that all politicians, even their own representatives, soon get out of touch with them. The term ‘out of touch’ being a catch-all term to cover the one-sided, self-serving and narrow concerns of politicians, who love it when you follow and hate it when you don‘t.

Tracing the Material Foundations of Political Culture

In tracing the material foundations of political culture, Marx argued that social distress, often experienced by workers, does not produce political understanding but on the contrary, it is social well being which produces political understanding. In other words political understanding and political culture arises and is developed in those who already are relatively comfortably situated, who therefore have the time and opportunity to develop their political mentality and reflexes and dedicate their lives to it. But this very development, where it occurs among workers, can create problems. Marx pointed to the example of the French workers of Lyons. They felt confident in their success since they were pursuing clear political objectives. Marx commented;

“Thus their political understanding concealed from them the roots of social distress, thus it falsified their insight into their real aim, thus their political understanding deceived their social instinct.” (ibid. page 204)

A similar problem may well have arose with regard to the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. Mass participation in 2011 uprisings destroyed the political figureheads of Mubarak and Ben Ali, and brought about their removal.  However, the military power, behind the political throne, so to speak, still remains. The political focus given to the revolts and later dominating them led the participants to place political demands upon the regime rather than pursue their own social and economic needs. In granting these political demands, the regime has now created a massive checkpoint barrier across the road to their real needs.

The workers and oppressed must now divide themselves, form political parties, fund them, elect representatives, woo voters, win elections – and still the real power will lie elsewhere.  In Egypt it is an economic and military power which will be used to corrupt and control their newly elected representatives and frustrate their aspirations.

The Egyptian, Tunisians and Libyans now nearly have what we have in UK, Europe and North America. Nearly, because they still have the military really in charge – we in Europe don’t – yet? Their situation may be better than the circumstances they previously faced, but it by no means solves their problems and the political system granted them will remain a substantial barrier to be overcome, (as it is for us) not an instrument of their liberation. And it is the type of case that was anticipated by Marx;

“Hence, too, a revolution with a political soul, in accordance with the limited and dichotomous nature of this soul, organises a ruling stratum in society at the expense of society itself.” (ibid.)

Political Forms Need to Correspond with Needs of the Masses

In uprisings and revolutions with a political focus, the results will invariably be political, and politics is the system of rule by a particular stratum over the rest of society. In a period of crisis and mass uprisings, the political form needs to correspond to the numbers, and direct needs of the masses, which are social and economic, not directly political. This is the reason that Peoples Assemblies, Soviets and other mass forms of participation were devised. The real political act of the masses engaged in a social revolution is to organise to create a dual power and use this to overthrow the existing political system of power and to dissolve the old socio-economic forms.

The political actions, energies and sacrifices of the masses organised in their own committees and assemblies, is ill-advised if it is directed to ‘re-forming’ the rule politics, rather than abolishing political forms of rule. Any uprisings against the present conditions will be an uprising against the current social and economic system, including its present political forms. To mistakenly channel such uprisings into the framework of existing political structures would be to betray its social purpose and delay or demolish this purpose. Hence the money and influence of the ‘powers that be’ will press in this ‘reform’ direction in the future as they have in the past.  ‘Lets give them reform or they might give us revolution’ many currently pro-capitalist, will start to think as the crisis deepens and if many are already asking for it – well they are half-way there!

As Marx emphasised again, with regard to any sustained political emphasis in a revolution;

“The ‘political soul‘ of revolution, on the other hand, consists in the tendency of classes having no political influence to abolish their isolation from statehood and ‘rule‘.” (ibid. page 205.)

New Form of Mass Political Act

Uprisings are political acts in themselves and a revolution is also a continuation of this new form of mass political act. As a consequence, in a revolution, mass participation must destroy politics and positions of power, or politics and positions of power, will destroy mass participation. The two cannot co-exist. Marx again.

“Revolution in general – the overthrow of the existing power and the dissolution of the old relationships – is a political act. But socialism cannot be realised without revolution. It needs this political act insofar as it needs destruction and dissolution. But where its organising activity begins, where its proper object, its soul comes to the fore – there socialism throws off the political cloak.” (ibid. page 206).

Revolution is itself a political act. It does not need any further political form than those participative ones it throws up during any pre-revolutionary uprising. And after the dissolution of the old forms of politics, social and economic forms, consistent revolutionaries cast off the political form and begin their organisational activities. Why would this be the case?  And yes it’s Marx yet again.

“The community from which the worker is isolated by his own labour is life itself, physical and mental life, human morality, human activity, human enjoyment, human nature….The disastrous isolation from this essential nature is incomparably more universal, more intolerable, more dreadful, and more contradictory, than isolation from the political community. Hence to the ‘abolition‘ of this isolation…” (ibid page 205)

How well that speaks to real experiences of the working and oppressed classes. Before such an outcome are the processes which lead up to it. And of course, Marx, as usual, had something interesting to say on how this process of emancipation might develop.

The Emancipation of the Working Class

“The emancipation of the working classes must be achieved by the working classes themselves. We cannot therefore co-operate with people who openly state that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves and must be freed from above by philanthropic persons from the upper and lower middle classes.” (Marx/Engels. Selected Correspondence. Progress. page 307.emphasis added. RR)

This was Marx’s position with regard to the level of education and abilities of workers in the 19th century. Those who think that modern 21st century workers are backward and need leading everywhere and must be freed by the benevolent efforts of those who think they know better in this or that Left group, will need to mount a powerful case against Marx and simultaneously against the abilities of contemporary working people.  We on the anti-Capitalist Left would be better to critically look to our own development in order to ensure we eventually don’t fall into the following category ourselves.

“In every revolution there intrude, at the side of its true agents, men of a different stamp; some of them survivors and devotees to past revolutions, without insight into the present movement, but preserving popular influence by their known honesty and courage, or by the sheer force of tradition; others mere brawlers, who by dint of repeating year after year the same set of stereotyped declamations against the government of the day, have sneaked into the reputation of revolutionists of the first water. After the 18th of March, some such men did also turn up, and in some cases contrived to play pre-eminent parts. As far as their power went they hampered the real action of the working class, exactly as men of that sort have hampered the full development of every previous revolution.” (Marx. ibid. page 84 emphasis added. RR)

So I would argue, that when you think about it carefully, it is not (as many sectarians themselves often imagine) that working people need a ‘higher level’ of consciousness or more revolutionary commitment in order to join or ‘follow’ the direction advocated by this or that anti-Capitalist sect.  The real situation is that working people  – with revolutionary thoughts or not – do not yet feel the need or desire to rise up.

Barren Soil of Sectarianism

It would seem they also realise that the barren soil of sectarianism, with its petty internal wrangles and its arrogant assumption of correctness, is of no use to them in furtherance of any of their struggles. So on the contrary, I would suggest it is many of us anti-capitalists within our sects or outside them who need to reach a higher level of unity and consciousness, in order to transcend an inherited narrow sectarian outlook and become of some real use to any unfolding anti-capitalist struggle.

Viewed from the standpoint of the anti-capitalist struggle, it is the Left who are often backward and need to learn from workers and in particular from a critical examination of the history of their own, often dysfunctional, tradition.

R. Ratcliffe (February 2012)  http://www.critical-mass.net

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5 Responses to Politics & The Working Class

  1. Stephen Hall says:

    I think you raise some important issues Roy. I agree with you that “….the vast majority of workers and non-working oppressed in the UK are still thinking about the situation, making economic adjustments and do not yet seem to have concluded they need to do more than they already are.” and that this situation is “not surprising.”

    I think this contrasts starkly with the ‘wishful thinking’ of some on the Left, who appear to believe that large sections of the working class and the oppressed have developed a political consciousness and willingness to fightback against the employers and the bosses austerity programme, inspired by events in Greece & North Africa, which is way in advance of the reality on the ground.

    It also contrasts with the view of who those who think the further development of the mass movement, is only held in check by the combined efforts of the TU & Labour bureaucracy, if not also to some extent the sectarian behaviour of others. That all that is needed is for everyone to follow their own group or party’s direction and we might have an all out general strike to bring down the Government in next to no time, and all our problems would be solved.

    Further, I agree that there are also of course, many good reasons for the working class “…not quickly following the lead of those trying to provide a political way forward.” as a result of a “great deal of soundly based scepticism among the working class over politics and politicians – all politicians – left, right and centre.” That: “This scepticism is born of years of experience in which politicians have demonstrated that politics and political parties are a one-sided, self-serving, elite-controlling, means of obtaining power and influence ‘within the system’ for a relative few.” That “Politics is full, bursting to the seams one might say, with politicos who make many promises, but keep very few.” and that “…this scepticism, is not a symptom of backwardness.”

    I also agree this view of political parties and politics is extended to the anti-Capitalist Left who many likely regard as even less politically credible than some of the others, having shown itself for decades to have, as you say “very little other than divisions, disrespect for each other” and who are prone to ill-thought out political turns and unrealistic calls, such as for an ‘immediate general strike’ and behaviour akin to that in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”.

    Most of all I think I also agree with you, although you do not address this in your article, in being critical of those, who are not only not critical of themselves, but who belittle the value of theory and theoretical discussion and debate, and apparently think we can just get on with the overthrow of Capitalism without recourse to any kind of theory or advance thought or planning whatsoever, or far worse, that ‘theorising’ is something only engaged in by ‘full of shit people’.

    I must however say I disagree with you on a number of other points, namely concerning what you, and indeed Marx (in 1844) have/had to say about the state, politics and political parties, and also as you will no doubt suspect, on the question of whether the working class and the mass of the people need a political party (or parties) of whatever kind or not.

    There is an interesting article at: http://libcom.org/forums/thought/marxism-and-anarchism concerning some of the quotations you refer to from Marx’s 1844 article “Critical Remarks on the Article: ‘The King of Prussia and Social Reform”. It makes the same point as I.

    This earlier view is in stark contrast to those of his more famous 1848 “Manifesto of the Communist Party” which might I suggest, defines Marxism, more than any earlier work, which clearly in this case contain views on the party, politics and the state which Marx himself would clearly appear to have abandoned himself:

    “…every class struggle is a political struggle.”

    “This organisation of the proletarians into a class, and, consequently into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves. But it ever rises up again, stronger, firmer, mightier. It compels legislative recognition of particular interests of the workers, by taking advantage of the divisions among the bourgeoisie itself. Thus, the ten-hours’ bill in England was carried.”

    “The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.”

    “Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word.”

    “The first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy.”

    “The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.”

    Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production.

    These measures will, of course, be different in different countries.

    Nevertheless, in most advanced countries, the following will be pretty generally applicable.

    1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
    2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
    3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance.
    4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
    5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
    6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.
    7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
    8. Equal liability of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
    9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.
    10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, etc, etc.”

    I think the above quotations from the ‘Manifesto’ of a proposed ‘political party’ called ‘The Communist Party’, written only four years later and which didn’t emanate from the working class either, combined with this very last quote below, defines Marx’s own, rest of life view of the party, politics, and the state and is closer to my own.

    “When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character.

    “Political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organise itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.”

  2. Hi Steve!,

    Thanks for your comments and I welcome this discussion. Lets hope others join in. The first thing we should perhaps remember is the difference between the essence of something and the form which this might take. The second point in this discussion is that we should recognise that Marx was never an egotist and if new evidence came to bear on a question, Marx would always change his mind if this was required. He did this frequently as did Engels. At one time, in some places, they both thought it might be possible to get socialism via a Parliamentary majority, but on later evidence, decided to scrap that form of revolutionary progress.

    The interesting thing about the Communist Manifesto which you quote at length is that it is a historical document and contains both the essence of Marx’s position at the time and the form he and Engels thought it might take. The essence, which I suggest is not in need of any change is contained within the statements;

    “The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever-expanding union of the workers.” (p44)


    “The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority.” (p 47.)

    And of course a number of others. This essence of Marx’s position is distilled throughout everything he wrote from the 1944 manuscripts, through the Grundrisse and on to Capital. For example my guess is he would revise the insertion

    “National differences and antagonisms between peoples are daily more vanishing owing to the development of the bourgeoisie…” (page 57.)

    However, my own estimation based upon my knowledge of Marx is that he would have changed his mind on the question of a party and on the question of state control of everything in the list you quote after the experience of the Soviet Union. The Bolsheviks as a party (eventually called a Communist Party) instituted the measures you quote and did much more which would have had Marx spinning in his grave, if that were possible. I have no doubt in my mind that he would have quickly revised his opinion on whether the unity of the working class and its post-capitalist re-construction could be actually achieved by the leadership of a top-down party and by state control of everything. This is precisely because these were ‘forms’ proposed at the time for achieving the ‘essence‘, which was the revolutionary self-activity and the post-capitalist self-determination of working people. Which actually is also the essence of the final quote you propose. So I don’t accept on the evidence you provide that your position is closer to Marx’s own than other alternatives. Note also in the above article I am not against organisation of the anti-capitalist left, just this taking the form of a political party with a political focus. Also see my recent article ‘THE REVOLUTIONARY PARTY’ on the record of Bolshevism in 1917 and beyond at http://www.critical-mass.net for more information and views on this question. Now I think I know you agree on the essence of Marx’s position, so our disagreement is over the form this will or can take.

    Now I may be wrong on this and you may be right, but only serious discussion and evaluation will ascertain this, not even rival quotes from Marx. Marx is very important but so is real life and the results of the practice of working class party building, either reformist or revolutionary, to my mind is absolutely dire. This to my mind this experience confirms Marx’s earlier position in Critical notes, rather than any later position inserted into the Manifesto. However, if you and some others can demonstrate an alternative, which in theory and practice doesn’t perpetuate all the ills, distortions and of the political mind-set which over the last 100 years or so, then I will be forced to admit I got it wrong. Meanwhile I will try to support the essence of Marx’s views in the new circumstances we encounter and not remain uncritical of past forms.

    Best regards,


  3. PS.
    Hi Steve!
    I just got out my copy of the manifesto to check if I had got certain things right from memory and it seems I don’t have to trust my own judgement of Marx on changing his mind on forms entirely, for in the preface to the German edition of 1872 Marx and Engels wrote;

    “The practical application of the principles will depend, as the Manifesto itself states, everywhere and at all times ,on the historical conditions for the time being existing and for that reason no special stress is made on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of section 2. That passage would, in many respects, be very differently worded today………But then, the Manifesto has become a historical document which we have no longer any right to alter.”

    The ‘principles’ he refers to I would argue are the bits I have called the essence.



  4. Graham says:

    La Trahison des Clercs? Is this what you mean Ray?

    Left thinkers almost always put themselves in a vanguard position. Not to do would be an admission that their thinking was wrong. A blessed few admit – “Well, I don’t really know.” We need more of them.
    This self-perception as a vanguard owes much to revolutionary precedents – e.g. Lenin identified a necessary role for “Intellectuals”, but in a situation where the working class lacked much formal education. These intellectuals were drawn from the middle and upper classes, (class traitors) and saw themselves as “declasse”
    Those conditions no longer apply. Today the working class- especially in the developed world – is comprehensively a class of intellectuals and for our left thinkers to behave as if they somehow occupy and advanced theoretical and political psition is erroneous and (as Ray suggests) they will be distrusted and rejected as “Polticians.”

    to be continued…

  5. Spot on Graham. What you say is well worth repeating! So I will!

    “Lenin identified a necessary role for “Intellectuals”, but in a situation where the working class lacked much formal education. These intellectuals were drawn from the middle and upper classes, (class traitors) and saw themselves as “declasse”
    Those conditions no longer apply. Today the working class- especially in the developed world – is comprehensively a class of intellectuals and for our left thinkers to behave as if they somehow occupy and advanced theoretical and political psition is erroneous and (as Roy suggests) they will be distrusted and rejected as “Polticians.”

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