The working class exists for humanity; if it is to radically change the world, it must wage its own war against the “I” and for the “We”, learning about and building on the struggles of the past to save humanity.
“California is a state of geographical extremes: the deserts, the sierras, the long ocean coast, and the central valleys. It is a critical agricultural state, and every visitor ought to travel through the San Joaquin, Imperial, or Sacramento Valleys to see the sources of the food we eat. Go during a harvest and watch the brown-skinned men, women, and children pick the crops, the people who so many in the United States now fear and hate though without them they wouldn’t have such cheap food, or any at all.” Thus begins the last chapter of Can the Working Class Change the World?, the recently released book by Michael D. Yates.
With a reference to Tom Joad, the central character in The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s world- famous novel, chapter 6 continues as Michael Yates tells of a journey his wife and he made across California:
“My wife and I drove north and west through parts of the San Joaquin Valley, along the irrigation ditches that help subsidise the growers. As we choked on the pesticides, we lamented that the air was so fouled we couldn’t see the mountains not far to the east. The farms and ranches are enormous and highly mechanised. The research that made the machines possible is carried out at public expense in our great state universities […], another subsidy for the growers. The labour is still cheap, too, a subsidy extorted from the government by the growers’ money, which is large enough to prevent better laws and keep those on the books inadequately enforced. Also large enough to bribe and intimidate the local police, who still harass and persecute the immigrant farm labourers […]”
The chapter tells a fact hidden in the brain of capitalism:
“Capitalism is a system of stark individualism. For the capitalist system to reproduce itself, for its outcomes to become its suppositions, people must behave in a self-interested way. Mainstream economists assume that every social actor is a maximiser of something – profits or individual satisfaction from consuming and supplying labour. They spread this view to millions of students in nearly every introductory economics class taught in universities. There is some evidence suggesting that both economics professors and students are less compassionate than others who have neither taught nor taken economics classes. The primary institutions of capitalist society work in concert to inculcate the ‘I’ in everyone, with the corollary that the ‘We’ is detrimental to human welfare. It doesn’t matter why we take self-centred actions; desire or fear serve equally well in terms of the needs of the dominant class, the imperative being the accumulation of capital.
“For capitalism to end, the ‘I’ must be suppressed and the ‘We’ must come to the fore. This would sound strange to the gatherers and hunters who inhabited the earth for almost the entirety of human existence. They had no word for ‘I’ and saw no difference between themselves and the natural world around them. Their lives hinged on cooperation and sharing, and their rituals and institutions helped to ensure that these were maintained. For them, the earth was a commons, the property of all. They managed their existence in ways harmonious with nature and kept the earth’s metabolism in balance with their own. [….]
“What the exploitation and expropriation central to capitalism meant historically was a war, waged by law and by violence, against common ownership and customary group rights. The ‘I’ was never natural and therefore had to be imposed. If the working class is to radically change the world, it must wage its own war against the ‘I’ and for the ‘We’, learning about and building on the struggles of the past.” (emphasis added except in the last paragraph cited here, which is in the original)
It’s like the saying young Marx made:
“[H]appiest the man who has made the greatest number of people happy [….]
“If we have chosen the position in life in which we can most of all work for mankind, no burdens can bow us down, because they are sacrifices for the benefit of all; then […] our happiness will belong to millions […]” (“Reflections of a young man on the choice of a profession”, Karl Marx Frederick Engels Collected Works, vol. 1, Progress Publishers, Moscow, erstwhile USSR, 1975)
The professor not only mentions the “I” and “we” facts hidden by not only capitalists and their allies, but also identifies an area of struggle. It’s in the area of education, in the area of curriculum, in the area of syllabus. It has to be organised by intellectuals, especially teachers and student activists upholding the interests of the exploited.
In the section “What does changing the world mean?”, Michael Yates writes:
“To transform the world, we first must have at least a general idea of the world we want to inhabit, and second, we need to know how to go about bringing such a place into existence. We can start by stating that, if capitalism is the source of the multiple woes facing the working class and its peasant comrades-in-arms, then what we desire is the antithesis of capitalist society.”
The labour educator, then, points out the following things, central to capitalism, that must end:
- “Private ownership of the means of production, including land.
- “Production for profit.
- “The obsession with endless economic growth.
- “The exploitation of wage labour.
- “The expropriation of peasant land, of urban and rural common spaces, of the labour and bodies of women, of black bodies, of all forms of patriarchy and racism.
- “The private plunder of the natural world.
- “The pro-capitalist role of all institutions and mechanisms that reproduce society, from family to state and from education and media to the legal system.”
Ideologies and political programmes of the capitalists, and of the medieval age stand in sharp contrast to the above tasks. The same goes with all the classes but the working class. The tasks act like a touchstone of any ideology and political programme: Whether it aims to end exploitation or not. What is the utility of an ideology or political programme to the exploited masses, if it doesn’t stand for eliminating exploitation? Today, many followers of backward/supremacist ideology raise their voices condemning imperialism in a certain number of areas, but they shy away from condemning imperialism’s economy, its root, and exploitation.
The same pattern is found among a group of rights activists claiming to be upholding rights of the marginalised/aborigines/children/women/under-privileged. They keep their mouths shut on the questions of the system based on exploitation, which pushes down all working people, all the weaker parts of society. Private ownership of the means of production, exploitation of wage labour, profit hunger, etc. are at the root of all marginalisation. These critics are also silent on these questions of exploitative relations in human society based on private property. Consequently, the questions of class, class struggle and imperialism are not included in their political agenda. The working class has to raise these issues persistently as these help identify friend and foe.
So, Michael Yates tells us unequivocally:
“To put matters bluntly, the rule of capital must be terminated. Because everything that must end is central to the unceasing accumulation of capital, it is impossible to abolish any of these within the confines of this system.”
He points out with respect to reformism:
“There can be […] some lessening of exploitation and expropriation, won through various forms of struggle. Wage labourers can win safer workplaces; civil rights laws can improve the lives of women and people of colour; imperial wars can sometimes be averted, or poor nations can win a bit of economic independence; peasants can at least temporarily deny capital their land; a few decent politicians might win office; schools might improve some; and media might occasionally serve the public. But none of this subverts the ultimate power of the capitalist class, namely its monopoly of ownership of the world’s productive property.”
The question is “the ultimate power of the capitalist class, namely its monopoly of ownership of the world’s productive property.” Today, the working class has to confront this power; and to successfully confront this power; there should be intense discussions, as part of political education, among the working class, and among the political forces standing with the working class.
To begin with the radical tasks, the economics professor proposes minimum demands, which can build up broader alliances:
“A sustainable environment. [….] All economic decisions should be made with sustainable environment a central determining factor.”
“A planned economy. The anarchy of the marketplace should be replaced by conscious planning of what is produced. [….] Corporations plan, so why can’t society as a whole plan?”
“Socialisation of as much consumption as possible, especially transportation and childcare. Living arrangements could be more collective as well. [….]”
“Democratic worker-community control of workplaces [….] The abolition of wage labour.”
“Public ownership of all the social institutions that help a society reproduce itself, from schools to media. [….]”
“A radically egalitarian society, with equality in all spheres of life – between men and women, among all racial and ethnic groups, among all people irrespective of their gender identity or sexual preference, among and within every country with respect to work, region, and access to all social services and amenities.”
Michael Yates, then, raises a fundamental issue, a lofty goal: Liberation. He writes:
“What the working class must be against is a society built upon individualism and the rule of the many by the few. No social system with inequality of power and multiple hierarchies touching most of life can be liberating, if liberation means living unalienated lives, lives in which we are not artificially and intentionally separated from one another, from what we produce, from our natures as thinking, purposive beings, and from the natural world. By contrast, the working class must be for whatever is social, collective, sharing, and unalienating.”
The fundamental element in the cited proposals and the goal – liberation – is the organising and leading capacity required for realising these. It’s basically a class question: Which class to organise and lead these endeavours? Which class has the capacity to organise and lead these? It’s the working class. And, this – the capacity to organise and lead – is the strength and power of the working class. This capacity is neither self-declared nor a boasting self, but within the class interests the working class has and does not have. The working class shall not lose anything but gain while implementing these; and on the contrary, classes opposed to the working class fear of losing at least “something” in the process of realising these, which, among a few other reasons, make them incapable of leading and organising. Ideologues with a middle-class orientation, theoreticians formulating theories without anchoring them in the reality of class conflict/interest ridden societies, and the bourgeois theoreticians with the task of confusing people’s struggle for a democratic life deliver this “manna”: Forget the issues of class and leadership. Thus, they propose/propagate the idea of subordinating the working class to other classes although those classes don’t have the capacity. The incapacity of these classes is moored within their interests.
So, it’s found that the sporadic fights and skirmishes of different forces, often a group of non-governmental organisations and the so-called civil society, initiate, provoke and/or organise ultimately lend credibility to and strengthen the existing system of exploitation. It’s a political question, and these organisations have no capacity to deal with these political questions as only the political organisations have the capacity to deal with political questions. Moreover, forgetting the leadership question ultimately ignores the question of organisation, the basic and most powerful requirement in any journey in the socio-economic-political sphere, the question anarchists ignore, and the exploiters try their best to let the working class forget. It’s one of the reasons for the absence of efforts to build up organisations that operate during high and low tides.
The last chapter of the book moves on to the section “The multiple terrains of struggle”: “There are many arenas of class struggle. In each, there are both matters to fight against and to fight for.”
It says: “Statements and commitments [of principles] are rare today, but that makes them all the more important. People naturally gravitate toward organisations and leaders who have standards from which they do not deviate.” This rarity is a reflection of immaturity, unpreparedness, in cases dishonesty, and lack of sense about its importance among a group of organisers and leaders involved with the working class. They can’t move a millimetre forward with their initiative without commitment and a statement declaring their principles on issues to be dealt with.
The section discusses the issue of radical education: “Radical, critical, and continued education is needed. It will not only help to put our lives and actions into context, but it also will give us a better understanding of what needs to be done in the future.”
In countries, irrespective of hemisphere, hundreds and thousands of organisations claiming to be of the working class are ignoring the task of radical education. Michael Yates finds the same fact: “Most unions in the United States have little or no member education, much less radical education.” A strange reality with contradictory elements: an economy gripping highest achievements in the areas of natural and social sciences while its workforce is forced into ignorance related to their life! It’s a powerful act by capital!
However, the US is not an exceptional case. Hundreds of Bangladesh unions, many associated with political parties propagating revolution and, claiming to be standing for radical change have not organised a single class for political education over the years. Politicians with postures of radical-change are of the same category – no effort to carry on political education, neither for self nor for the members of the organisations the persons lead. What’s found: These persons turn busy with self-promotion, posting those photos with messages “Now, I’m on a Moscow avenue”, “I’m riding a car rushing to the Red Square”, “We’re sitting in a five-star hotel lounge in [a city in Europe]” while enjoying foreign tours in the name of international conferences. It’s almost impossible to find a single discussion meeting for briefing fellow members about the conference or debate held or declaration and resolutions adopted in the conference the “comrade” attended.
But, news and photos of “labour” leaders making statements in hearings of House/Senate sub-committees are there. This is going on for years, and the story is long. How many copies of a May Day 13-page Baanglaa booklet – an interview of Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster, and his comrades, Fred Magdoff and Michael D. Yates, on three questions important in today’s labour struggle – did unions ask for in Bangladesh? The publisher of the booklet with a price tag of Taka 10 (around Taka 80 now makes a US dollar) for general buyers and Taka 5 for workers, peasants, students, and their organisers, knows best. It’s not even a thousand copies.
The other facts are Bangladesh is a country with more than 160 million persons; with private banks making profits in the year of the Great Financial Crisis, when their big brothers in Europe and the US were collapsing, and were begging for bailing them out with tax payers’ money; with the 2nd largest foreign reserve in South Asia, the result of labour appropriated in home and abroad; with an increasing number of workers now numbering millions in factories, in the manufacturing, processing and construction sectors.
Consequently, there are propagation of ideas upholding exploiters’ interests, serving imperialist designs, entering into alliance with political forces equipped with medieval ideas, the shameful and despicable acts from the standpoint of the working class. The results of these acts are in the open: These “crusaders” find friends among oppositionists serving medieval-imperialist design while imperialism and medieval forces build up an axis of exploitation/intervention; all acts of “opposition” appear “crusades for democracy”, with space given to medieval forces while ideas upholding working class interests are denied space. This, a forceful trend, is shamefully happening after the working class gained experiences over long years of struggle, and Marx, Lenin and their comrades scientifically theorised the struggles of the working class.
So, the labour educator writes: “[E]very entity seeking radical change must have an education component integral to its operation. Labour unions and peasant organisations need to set aside time and resources for this.”
Why no initiative for political education? A group of “union officers”, borrowing from Michael Yates, “fear an educated membership […] might decide to replace them.”
Michael Yates mentions specifically: “Political parties and formations, Occupy Wall Street-types of movements, anti-war organisations, anti-racist and anti-patriarchy movements need education efforts as well, ones that become permanently built into their structures.”
The professor taking political classes for labour suggests:
“Planning actions, carrying them out, assessing successes and failures – all are vital subjects of education for members and participants.”
On the question of the education of workers, Kalinin’s words are worthy to recall. Kalinin, a factory worker turned communist revolutionary turned president of the Soviet Union, referred to their studies in underground circles: “[W]hile we studied the basic principles of Marxism we also covered a course of general education, beginning with the Russian classics – fiction writers, historians, critics – in a word, the whole range of knowledge to be found in books. While working in a plant, we at the same time got an all-round education in literature, science, etc.” (On Communist Education, Selected Speeches and Articles, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1950, Moscow, erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the speech was delivered in 1926) He suggested acquiring political knowledge “based on those branches of general education and knowledge that are considered the necessary attributes of every more or less developed person. This development, this knowledge, should not be ignored.” (ibid.)
The chapter, longest in the book, covers issues of relation between agriculture, peasants, farm workers, the environment, and class struggle around agriculture. It also discusses food. But, it again makes a statement, not endearing to slogan-mongers: “If unions mirror corporations in their structures, which all too many do, there isn’t much hope that they will confront capital. And this is all the more the case if they have entered into a compact with employers that views the two sides as co-operators interested primarily in the profitability of the owners’ businesses.”
Michael Yates writes: “Since it is unlikely that current leaders will seek to do either of these things, the only way forward is to get rid of the leadership.”
He informs about the US: There “have been frequent attempts by rank-and-file activists to take control of their unions and put them on a democratic and militant path.”
However, he writes, “[a] few have been successful, most have not. [….] Those in power seldom want to relinquish control, and they will be as ruthless as necessary to beat back rivals. Still, labour rebellions have been successful, at all levels of unions.”
The Niyogi-example, discussed in part 6 of this series, is there in India. There are similar examples in other countries. This fact demands dissection and analysis if similar future attempts are to be made successful.
Michael Yates emphasises education if democratisation of unions is to be achieved: “[E]ducation must be a priority. Compulsory classes should greet new members, teaching them about the union’s history and that of the labour movement as a whole. And regular short courses, summer schools, and longer learning experiences should be made available, with at least some courses required to maintain membership. In these classes, the construction of a broader array of principles and aspirations can be developed.”
He mentions a few cases from the global South, which the working class has to resolve:
“There, wage labourers need to consider the needs and actions of peasants. In Brazil, for example, unions felt they should lead the way in land reform issues, rather than the Landless Workers Movement. However, ‘Many in large Brazilian labour unions believed the fight for agrarian reform should take place within union ranks – but unions didn’t accept landless farmers as members.’ Even if one were to argue that this was short-sighted, it still didn’t preclude active union support for what the farmers and peasants were doing. In India, labour unions have failed to offer full-throated support for the Maoist rebellions in the countryside. A worker-peasant alliance is essential for the working class to change the world, and until wage labourers embrace it, such change will not happen.”
He brings to notice another aspect missing in many countries, but present in the US – union-like groups that take up the cause of the working class. He proposes: “[c]o-operation between unions and worker centres could be a strategy to rebuild labour movements.” Such cooperation not only broadens the scope for organising struggle of the working class, but also unites allies, helps fight out bourgeois ideas and bad elements – ruffians, hoodlums, hirelings, and NGO- and capitalist-employees engaged to take away initiative from the revolutionary working class leadership in favour of capitalists.
On the question of labour and politics, Michael Yates, the economist with working class origin, says:
“What has been said about unions can be applied with equal force to labour’s political path, so just a few points can be made here. First, substantive equality must prevail in political entities, just as it must in labour unions. This means that social democratic parties will have to be replaced by democratic working-class parties. Here too, democracy is more than voting. Those in the party must run it. It must have radical principles and have radical goals. It must be built from the ground up, with those at the top responsible to those at the bottom. [….] Local assemblies seize the political initiative and then the assemblies begin to consolidate in larger geographical areas, culminating in a national party. These could then ally themselves with similar parties in other countries. At each level, the forming groups would commit to a set of principles. Second, working-class political parties can contend for state power, but in most cases this isn’t likely to result in electoral victory. Education could then be the modus operandi of the party. In any case, radical pressure on the existing state should be exerted at all times. If special circumstances allow electoral victory, radical goals should be enunciated and movement toward achieving them should begin immediately.
“The collective power of the working class should be the weapon employed to do this – mass demonstrations and strikes, for example. The military must be challenged and most of its officers must be demobilised. There could be cases in which a party has a military wing, in parts of the global South, for example, and then revolutionary warfare can be considered, as in Nepal in the early part of this century or in the Indian countryside, which has been happening over the past several decades. [….] [T]here is no reason for a working-class political project to exist unless its aim is the defeat of capital. Demands should be radical and principled, and they should be adhered to. Tactical compromise might sometimes be necessary, but this can never be a strategy.”
The paragraph cited above is significant, especially in terms of politics. It also challenges many existences with a red flag.
As an example of political moves by the working class, Michael Yates cites Venezuela and the Richmond Progressive Alliance, a labour-community coalition in the city of Richmond, California.
The chapter makes significant statements challenging many ideas in vogue:
“It is an unworthy argument that says race and gender are mere identities, whereas class is a social relationship. [….] ‘Class is a social relationship that is structured by race, gender, sexuality, nationality, and a whole range of other determinations.’ [….] With respect to social policies, a narrow class-first approach will be similarly unable to dismantle racist and patriarchal structures.”
Michael Yates writes:
“It takes boldness and courage to attack capital. But attack we must. [….]
“If unions, peasant associations, and political entities are to work together to change the world, to bring an unalienating society into existence, then the motto of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement must become the rallying cry for everyone: ‘Occupy, Resist, Produce.’ [….]
“Rather than waste time voting for traditional political parties, believing that they can be pressured to the left, workers must confront the state directly. [….]
“Occupation is a direct action that can take various forms, but it typically involves efforts to retake the commons or convert private property into common property.”
“The unstated implication of everything said in this book is that the working class must change the world. There is really no choice. The long rule of capital has created profoundly alienated conditions for nearly all of humanity.” (emphasis in the original)
He calls on us to:
“Fight landlords, disrupt classrooms, take on bosses, write, nothing is unimportant. And as we do this, remember that those who have suffered the most – workers and peasants in the global South, minorities in the global North, working-class women everywhere – are going to lead struggles or they are likely to fail.”
He cites Bhagat Singh, the revolutionary leader in India executed by the British colonialists in 1931 when he was twenty-three years old: “The real revolutionary armies are in the villages and in factories, the peasantry and the labourers.”
He says Bhagat Singh’s hope on the peasantry and labourers is still true today. Michael Yates concludes the book by saying: “With humility, I offer them my solidarity. I hope we all do.”
* Farooque Chowdhury, writing from Dhaka, Bangladesh, thankfully acknowledges the editing of the series by Professor Michael D. Yates.
* Note: This is the concluding part of a seven-part series review of Can the Working Class Change the World?.