Can the Working Class Change the World

Can the Working Class Change the World? It’s a fundamental political question in every economy and society, relevant to all concerned with and aware of class interests tangled in exploitative production relations. Politics in countries has centered around this question of class power. At times, the question has shaped geopolitics on the world stage. Michael D. Yates re-examines the question in his recently released book Can the Working Class Change the World? (Monthly Review Press, New York, October 2018)

The question is not limited to a single country or region; neither is it concerned with a few branches of economy. The question, rather, covers all countries and societies, encompassing the entire economy and all of politics. Sometimes, the question stays invisible to ordinary political minds, and at times and in countries, it stands bold in the center stage of politics. The issue is rooted in the arena of class struggle, and is concerned with the destiny of world humanity, because, capital in its constant contradiction with labor is unceasingly pushing the world to a sphere named destruction. Thus, the question raised by Professor Michael Yates is universal, and is concerned with the universe.

Michael Yates, director of Monthly Review Press and former Associate Editor of Monthly Review magazine, re-examines the question analyzed and discussed by Marx and his comrades; he like they understands that this question concerns the life of the overwhelming majority of the world’s population – the exploited, the working classes. The professor of economics had to embark on the question, given that the world working class is still marching through the path of history, has experienced many developments since its victories of historical significance in the short-lived Paris Commune and in the Great October Revolution in Russia, which shook the foundations of bourgeois civilization. The world working class has gained experiences from China in the east to Cuba in the west, from Indonesia in the south to Sweden in the north, in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nepal. There are experiences of victory, of setbacks, of compelling capital to come to compromises, and of defeating Fascism, the worst part of decaying capitalism. The achievements and advancements the working class has made have been unprecedented on the world scale. These strides on the march of humanity toward liberation have improved life and brought relief, positively impacting all the exploited and broader sections of people in countries. These are, as Michael Yates writes in the preface of the book, “a great deal in nearly every country in the world.”

Also there are experiences of the working class that include capital’s brutal assault on rights and life under the streamer of neo-liberalism, sectarianism, supremacist politics, austerity, and dismantling of welfare measures in many countries. Michael Yates, a labor educator for more than 30 years, writes in the book:

“Capitalism […] and those who control its operations are relentless in their efforts […] to beat back whatever gains […] working class political organizations have won. With rare exceptions, the power of capital has remained intact. Gains made have soon enough been taken back. Victorious revolutions have, in time, been reversed.” (“Preface”)

No doubt, the reversals, the losses, are sources of lessons for organizing the next assault on the world capitalist system. To learn from the lessons, the question should be asked: How have the gains made so far have been taken back?

This reality of reversals and setbacks demands careful assessment of capital’s present position and power, its politics and propaganda, and the tools of its politics, propaganda, and ideological war.

With this backdrop, Michael Yates, a regular participant in the labor’s struggle against capital, proposes a strategic move: “[F]undamental, radical change, […] will not happen unless the working class and its allies attack capitalism and its multiple oppressions head-on, on every front, all the time.” (ibid.) It is a political plan that concerns strategic and tactical questions, areas of organization, allies, political moves, and theoretical discourse.

It is a renewed call for class war by labor against capital. It takes into account the class war that capital carries on relentlessly against all around it, against all it dominates and tries to dominate, against labor and nature, against all lives on the earth. Capital carries on this war in the areas of economy and politics, and in all the areas dependent on these two – ideology, education and culture, environment and ecology.

Michael Yates sets the tone of the book by narrating, in brief, incident of selling of his labor and organizing the labor, both are related to survival:

“I joined the labor force at twelve and have been in it ever since, delivering newspapers, serving as a night watchman at a state park, doing clerical work in a factory, grading papers for a professor, selling life insurance, teaching in colleges and universities, arbitrating labor disputes, consulting for attorneys, desk clerking at a hotel, editing a magazine and books. I have spearheaded union organizing campaigns and helped in others. For more than thirty years, I have taught workers in several labor studies programs, people in every imaginable occupation, from plumbers, bricklayers, postal employees, chemical workers, garment workers, and elevator operators to librarians, nurses, air line pilots, firefighters, and teachers. I once worked for the United Farm Workers Union, meeting campesinos and campesinas and helping them in legal disputes and collective bargaining.” (ibid.)

His class origin is also told, in brief, in the preface of the book:

“By any imaginable definition of the working class, I was born into it. Almost every member of my extended family – parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins – were wage laborers. They mined coal, hauled steel, made plate glass, labored on construction sites and as office secretaries, served the wealthy as domestic workers, clerked in company stores, cleaned offices and homes, took in laundry, cooked on tugboats, even unloaded trucks laden with dynamite.”

More than hundred years ago, Lenin wrote:

“There is nothing more important to class-conscious workers than to have an understanding of the significance of their movement and a thorough knowledge of it. The only source of strength of the working-class movement – and an invincible one at that –is the class-consciousness of the workers and the broad scope of their struggle, that is, the participation in it of the masses of the wage-workers.” (“The working class and its press”, Collected Works, vol. 20, Progress Publishers, Moscow, erstwhile USSR, 1972, emphasis in the original)

Can the Working Class Change the World? takes a role in having class-consciousness of the working class, understanding of the significance of movement of the working class, and knowledge of the working class movement.

Rich with information, data, analysis, and arguments the book unfolds issues facing the working class today. Brutal austerity programs were imposed on the working people in countries following the Great Financial Crisis. The dominating capital successfully transferred the burden of its sin – financialization, banking/housing/credit crisis – on the working class; and the working class organized resistance to that hostile move by capital. However, those were sporadic, isolated, sudden outbursts, and of short duration. In the area of politics in a few countries, hardcore bank capital representatives were isolated away in elections following the crises. Greece jolted the European Union with its election result. But, those were of very short duration. Ultimately, the bankers prevailed.

Nevertheless, the crisis of/in capitalism persists. But, the working class is yet to organize effective barricades with a working-class leadership – a leadership equipped with a radical program for crushing the citadel of capital – although imperialism is in continuous problem within itself, that is, it is subject to severe contradictions. In areas, imperialism is making temporary retreats, while it is organizing assaults in some other areas.

Capital, craftily, has organized/is organizing its extreme right wing – xenophobes, neo-Nazis, regressive elements, armed forces with a Middle-Age ideology – to hoodwink the working population in countries irrespective of the level of economy, advanced or backward. It is a new challenge to the working class.

Capital is fuelling sectarian politics, another extreme rightist move. A part of left/progressive political forces is sticking to sectarian slogans in the name of standing by the marginalized as this brand of the “progressives” is trying to make one sect or other its political base. Unions, shamefully, based on color are being run – a theoretical bankruptcy of a part in the rank of the working class. Even, the practice goes on without any debate.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), political organizations with an apolitical appearance, are trying to mobilize the working class to carry on capital’s factional fight, are trying to take leadership in political fight of the working class.

A section of NGOs is organizing “fight” for environmental-ecological-climate rights while many working class organizations have not yet included the issue into their agenda although environmental-ecological-climate crises are going to hurt the working class most.

Many people’s organizations are yet to discuss imperialist intervention in countries. A few of them, even, extend support to or prepare ground for imperialist support under the guise of defending/restoring bourgeois democracy.

The same with the concept of democracy – many working class organizations do not discuss the issue of democracy from a class point of view, which makes them easy prey of imperialism-designed propaganda carried out for the marketing of bourgeois democracy.

In this reality, a reality filled with confusing currents of bourgeois ideas, Can the Working Class Change the World? presents a worldview of the working class related to the task of changing the world.

Michael Yates, whose academic fields were labor economics and the relationship between capital and labor, deals issues concerning changing of the world by the working class in his 216-page book with six chapters. The chapters are: “The working class”, “Some theoretical considerations”, “Nothing to lose but their chains”, “What hath the working class wrought?”, “The power of capital is still intact”, and “Can the working class radically change the world?”.


Robin D. G. Kelley, author, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination writes:

Michael Yates not only answers his question with a resounding “Yes,” but insists that the working class must change the world. Our very survival as a people and a planet depend on it. What makes this book invaluable, however, is […] Yates’s clear-eyed, global analysis of capitalism (historically and in its latest form), the social and environmental consequences of exploitation, the composition of a working class structured by other modalities of difference, class struggle, power, and a brilliant delineation of what exactly needs to change in order to radically remake the world. Insightful, inspiring, indispensable.

Paul Le Blanc, Professor of History, La Roche College; author, A Short History of the U.S. Working Class and October Song: Bolshevik Triumph, Communist Tragedy, 1917-1924 writes:

Readers of Michael Yates’s classic Why Unions Matter might expect a down-to-earth discussion of the working class that most of us are part of – and this book doesn’t disappoint. Revolutionary theory is used in a way that doesn’t obscure our world’s complex realities, but instead helps us make sense of them. Can the Working Class Change the World? matter-of-factly blends economics, sociology, and political science with an inspiring call to action. Those who want to understand our world and help change it for the better should read this book – and share it with friends.

Sam Gindin, former chief economist, Canadian Auto Workers Union; Packer Visitor in Social Justice, Political Science Dept., York University, Toronto writes:

Michael Yates’s passion and respect for the class he came out of delivers a book that is especially accessible without retreating from the complexities and internal contradictions of working class life and organization – a book committed not only to defending workers, but also to building on their potentials to transform society.

Working class study circles, it is hoped, will include the book in their study program as the book focuses on issues essential to the working class.

Farooque Chowdhury writes from Dhaka.


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  1. Sumanta Banerjee says:

    Dear Farooque, although I haven’t read the book that you reviewed, I have a few queries: (i) by the term `working class’, does Michael D. Yates mean only the workers employed in factories, or include those employed in manual labour in the unorganized sector like mining, construction and other similar activities that are related to industrialization ? These vast sections of the working class are fragmented because of the nature of their work – the regular factory workers are more interested in higher wages and better working hours which are often ensured by their unions which negotiate with their employers; the temporary workers employed by these factories on a contractual basis fight shy of demanding such rights since they can’t have any union to defend them; the manual labourers (mainly migrants from the rural sector) working in urban construction sites or mining and damn-building projects, who have been forced to seek these jobs because of their ouster from their homelands, who need basic needs like housing and medical facilities . Can all these various segments of the our sub-continental `working class’ – each having different priorities and interests – be brought together on the common platform of the `proletariat’ — the term that was used by Karl Marx in the Western context of industrialization – in order to unify the `working class’ of his Europe ? (ii) does the author of the book include the rural small peasants and agricultural labourers in the Third World economy who constitute the vast majority of the `working class’ ? How does he envisage their role as a `working class’ ?

    Sumanta Banerjee

    • Farooque Chowdhury says:

      Sumanta da, thanks for your queries. It’s encouraging that you have given importance to the critical issue. I’m trying to attend to your questions on the basis of the the book:

      (i) No, Michael Yates doesn’t mean only the workers employed in factories. He also includes, as you have mentioned, “those employed in manual labor in the unorganized sector like mining, construction and other similar activities that are related to industrialization”.

      (ii) Michael Yates also includes the rural small peasants and agricultural laborers in the Third World economy who constitute the vast majority of the `working class’.

      I’m not attending to your two other questions:

      (i) “Can all these various segments of the our sub-continental `working class’ – each having different priorities and interests – be brought together on the common platform of the `proletariat’ — the term that was used by Karl Marx in the Western context of industrialization – in order to unify the `working class’ of his Europe?


      (ii) “How does he [Michael Yates] envisage their role as a `working class’?”

      I’m not attending to the two questions above, because, I should not present my explanation in the name of Michael Yates. That would be (i) dishonesty from my part, and to you and to the author, (ii) creating confusion. Moreover, I have my explanation. The author may have a different explanation. But, I should not add mine in his name.

      The author has, as far as I understand, provided a global view that encompasses role of the working class on a global context. He has not discussed on a region-basis. Answers to the questions in the context of this sub-continent has to be searched by political forces in this sub-continent. Even, in this sub-continent, it has to be seen differently as there are different, to put it in a simple way, sub-divisions — areas demarcated by political borders. What is appropriate for India may not be applicable for some other country. Providing an all encompassing suggestion would be like “advising all”, an arroganr practice. Probably, he has avoided that practice.

      I don’t know whether I have been able to attend to your queries or not. But, I have tried to attend.

      Thanks, Sumanta da.

    • Farooque Chowdhury says:

      Sumanta da, in the next part, I hope, you will have the answers to, at least, a few of your queries. This article is part of a series. Thanks.

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