A new look at the role of Working Class

Can the Working Class Change the World

Can the Working Class Change the World? Michael D Yates, 2018, Monthly Review Press, New York

This book is divided into six chapters and focus is on the role of working class in social transformation or revolution. Michael D Yates is Marxist and is associate editor of most respected international Marxist journal Monthly Review. With the fall of Soviet Union, the revival of Capitalism in China and upsurge of right-wing movements and governments in large parts of the world with the exception of few countries of Latin America, author’s basic concern is whether this neo liberal right-wing trend can be overcome in favour of socialist revival? And who is going to lead this revival. Coming himself from working class background, author has reiterated his faith on working class to lead this uphill task. However, he has made documented study of changes in the structure of working class in last few decades and its new form.

In brief preface Michael refers to his own working-class background and working in early age as real worker and then coming over to academics, where too he focussed on the study of working class and even combined the two-working as well as teaching and researching on working class. He defines new forms of working class in first chapter ‘The Working Class’; which is unorganised and more exploited. There is exploitation and expropriation in the form of theft of peasant lands for corporates and a reserve army of labour racialisation created. Even in US Communists party-white/black division exists. Child labour is prevalent in new forms-fifteen year and above workers and even workers from five to fifteen years of age. In a way showing the dark times of pre-industrial revolution stage of society.

In second chapter-‘Some theoretical considerations and third chapter ‘nothing to lose but chains’ author refers to present stage, author thinks that due to central control of machinery has deepened the alienation of working class. He considers labour to be a homogenous mass, which have a sense of collective power as individual is powerless. Author has referred to spontaneous rebellions of working class and earliest anti-capitalist labour unions under first international of 1864-74, of which Karl Marx himself was a part of. The author sticks to old hope for working class that they have nothing to lose except chains. He refers to the studies of human life being one lakh year old.

Author opines that now 10 hour or 8 hour working day cannot be won by single union. Michael also refers to the twin role of Nationalism, it could be anti-colonial progressive role which is progressive or as ideology of exclusiveness, which is very powerful and is prevalent in more parts of the world now.

In fourth chapter-What has the Working Class Wrought-Michael focuses on South Asia and refers to the historic strike of 180 million Indian workers in 2016 in which unorganised workers also took part. Millions of women workers also joined this historic strike. Their main demands were minimum wage of 18000/ rupees per month and pension to retired workers @the rate of 3000/ rupees per month. He underlines that such strike cannot take place in this period in Europe. Author expresses concern at neo-fascist regime in India letting an orgy of anti-Muslim violence claiming two thousand lives in Gujarat in 2002.

Michael makes a comparative study of Unions in USA and Europe. Whereas in USA, density of Unions has declined to just 10%, in Scandinavian countries it is up to 65%, especially in Iceland it is even 92%. American federation of labour insists upon being non-political and wage oriented only.

In Global South author opines that Unions and worker protective laws are weak. In Iran there is suppression of working class. He appreciates Cuban working class as larger one.

In fifth chapter-The Power of Capital is still Intact-author contrasts 1985 world situation, when out of 4.45 billion world population, Soviet Union and China alone counted for 1.25 billion; 28% of world population, where Capitalism did not hold ground. At the time of Communist revolution in China in 1949, Socialist bloc had put a break on US imperialism. Communist parties in Greece, France, and Italy were quite strong. In 1976, Rudolf Meidner tried 51% shares of workers in factories in Sweden for a peaceful transition to socialism, but he was defeated by capitalist forces. In the last forty years now, neo-liberal project is going on in the world. It has brought epidemic of theft of peasant lands. It is imploding as calamity for workers. Capitalism has returned to Russia with a vengeance, where largest and quickest theft of public property was done by Communist party elites. Mao also failed to control capitalist roader enemies in CPC. In US, Clintons did away with social welfare in 1990’s. In Greece 30% population has fallen below poverty line. Labour leadership is enjoying the fruits of corrupt life style. Norwegian labour officials live in richest countries.

Michael concludes this chapter with posing stark choice-

‘Continue to accept Capitalism as a given and try to squeeze whatever crumbs it might be willing to let fall from its table’


‘Radically change direction and begin to build a global movement that can transcend capitalism once for all’

Then Michael moves to his final chapter-Can the Working Class Radically Change the World? –

He begins by posing binary of I and We with clear advice of moving from I to We. He wishes that there should be strikes everywhere in the world-China, India, Algeria, Indonesia, South Africa, Italy, Portugal, Greece, France, Spain etc. He wants that labour unions should be political entities and favours Venezuela model and wishes Military must be opposed. He wishes that radical political demands be raised and tactical compromises may be made but not as strategy. Ecological issues must be raised. 150 years left movements have still not been rid from racialism or casteism in India. He refers to Kollontai leading women and sexual liberation. LGBT concerns should also be joined. He wishes working class to make direct attack on Capitalism and confront state directly. Make Occupy, Resist, and produce cooperation as Jackson movement. Michael refers to eight billionaires holding half of world’s wealth and work is still hell for workers, except few.

In his last chapter Michael refers to great revolutionary tradition of Bhagat Singh in India =

‘Speaking of his native India, the revolutionary, Bhagat Singh, who was executed by the British colonialists in 1931 when he was twenty-three years old, said something still true: “The real revolutionary armies are in the villages and in factories, the peasantry and the labourers…”….’

Michael makes a study of new world order with detailed socio-economic data and poses the old question, once positively asserted by Marx-‘Workers of the world Unite, you have nothing to lose, except chains’!

Michael D Yates’s answer to his own posed question-Can the Working class change the world? is yes and underlining the difficulties and complexity of new situation, he focusses upon shedding of individuality and putting faith in collective will and collective efforts of not only just one country’s working class, rather he suggests that the working class of whole world needs to unitedly fight and resist the onslaught of worst form of capitalist phase under corporate world.

Such faith in working class was also expressed by Indian socialist revolutionary Bhagat Singh in 1929 in his statement to the sessions court on 6th June, when world was faced with similar depressing situation, yet Bhagat Singh asserted-

Revolution is an inalienable right of mankind. Freedom is an imperishable birth right of all. Labour is the real sustainers of society, the sovereignty of the ultimate destiny of the workers.

Chaman Lal is retired Professor from JNU, New Delhi and researcher on Bhagat Singh. Email: Prof.chaman@gmail.com


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