The working class has the most direct interest in overthrowing capitalism. After all, this is the system which exploits workers, excludes them from real decision-making in the workplace and in wider society, condemns them to poverty at one or more stages in life, and confines most of them to a lifetime of inequality and insecurity.
At the core of the working class are those engaged in manufacturing, engineering, construction, energy, transport and manual work, who produce commodities directly for capitalist profit. Experience of such unconcealed exploitation, especially in large workplaces, has tended to make them the most class-conscious sections. But administrative and other staff in the public and private sectors are equally part of the working class.
Of course, some workers do not recognise themselves as members of the working class. They believe that they are ‘middle class’, or that class is defined by the type of job, by professional status, skill, type of residence, personal possessions, accent or social habits. But the reality is that class is defined objectively.
The capitalists derive their main forms of income – profit, interest or rent – from their ownership of economic and financial property (usually in the form of stocks and shares, other financial assets and property deeds).
Some workers may own stocks and shares directly, or indirectly through a pension or other fund. But their chief, if not sole, source of income is their wage. They depend on their wages to live. Furthermore, what all waged workers also have in common as a class under capitalism is that they are exploited. This includes those in the public sector whose unpaid surplus labour does not directly produce surplus value for capitalist employers, but keeps down the costs of running the capitalist state. Their surplus value is appropriated by the state for the benefit of the capitalist class as a whole, whose interests are served in a variety of ways by the public services provided.
Often, following redundancy, many workers are hired for their labour power by capitalist enterprises as ‘self-employed’ or through sub-contractors. They, too, produce surplus value for capitalists as though directly employed by them. Moreover, they are further exploited as their de facto ’employer’ provides no pension contributions, sickness cover, paid holidays or redundancy pay.
Yet the conditions of capitalist production, trade and administration also create the potential for the working class to liberate itself. Workers are brought together in factories, offices and other workplaces, where they share a common interest in organising to improve their terms and conditions of employment. They form trade unions which express and develop their collective strength as a disciplined force in society.
Trade unions often play a defensive role under capitalism, seeking to protect workers against excessive exploitation, dangerous working conditions, redundancy, bullying and harassment. But they also go on the offensive to improve the terms and conditions of their members. Moreover, they also seek to represent the wider and more fundamental interests of workers in society. Trade unions campaign for changes in government policy, establishing or supporting political parties. They involve themselves in a wide range of economic, social, cultural and political issues, both domestic and international.
Through the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and together with socialist organisations, unions established the Labour Party at the beginning of the 20th century, not only to represent working class interests in parliament but to strive for a socialist society.
The most politically advanced elements of the working class founded the Communist Party in 1920 to fight not only for reform, but for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, for socialism.
These organisations, together with the cooperative movement and a host of other bodies built by the working class, comprise the labour movement. Only this movement has the organisational capacity to overcome the forces of state-monopoly capitalism. This potential has been glimpsed when, for example, the TUC and the trade unions have organised enormous, broad-based demonstrations against racism and fascism (1994), in defence of the National Health Service (2007) and against the austerity policies of the Tory-Liberal Democrat government (March 2011).
But what enables the working class, uniquely, to be the leading force in the struggle for socialism is the fact that capitalism would cease to function without its labour power.
Furthermore, the working class has also gained extensive experience, born of necessity, in developing unity between people. Whether in industry or services, in the private or public sector, large enterprises embrace the greatest diversity of workers. They reflect in miniature the diversity of the whole working class. Building and maintaining trade unions in large workplaces that can confront monopolist employers and the state inevitably gives these workers the longest and deepest experience of overcoming sectionalism. They learn why it is essential to combine the legitimate, immediate interests of any one section of the working class with the long-term interests of the class as a whole.
Trades union organisation and ideas of class solidarity have spread among workers in the state apparatus, in the mass media and other key areas of society. Nor should the importance of these ideas in smaller enterprises, including in the most technologically advanced sectors, be underestimated. Such developments represent an important extension of the power of the working class to engage in mass struggle, utilising an ever-wider range of tactics and techniques.
Over recent decades many more women, black and migrant workers have entered the workforce, often in temporary or part-time jobs. Employers have tried to use such workers to undermine general levels of pay, conditions and trade union collective bargaining. It is therefore in the interests of all workers, not only those being super-exploited, to fight for equal pay for work of equal value, for better conditions and for the full implementation of negotiated agreements
The scandal of low pay must become a central issue for the unions. They also have a responsibility to step up the fight against all forms of prejudice and discrimination. The demands for genuine equality for women, black workers and other oppressed sections are essential aspects of the class struggle. As such, they must be recognised as a priority for the whole working class. Campaigning along these lines will help to build confidence in the role of the labour movement among women, black, young and migrant workers, enabling and encouraging them to participate in it fully on the basis of equality.
At the all-Britain level, the TUC and its equalities committees and conferences must play a leading role in taking bold, broad-based and campaigning initiatives. The Scottish TUC, Welsh TUC, English regional TUCs and local Trades Councils are also crucial to building campaigning alliances for progressive and left-wing policies, although they must have the resources to do so effectively.
There is no substitute in modern capitalist society for the organised working class as the leading force in the struggle for progressive and revolutionary change.