According to Marxist theory, a socialist revolution requires a class conscious working class. Consequently, most socialist political activity is directed one way or another to raising workers' consciousness.
Making a Marxist inquiry into the class-consciousness of today's workers on the other hand, requires that we bring the whole of this notion into focus. For this, we must clarify the nature of class and the consciousness of a class in Marxist theory. To begin with the latter, "consciousness" in the expression "class consciousness" does not mean the same thing as it does in the expression "individual consciousness." It is not just a matter of individuals being conscious, or having a certain understanding, of their class. Rather, class is the subject, and consequently, consciousness is not just a larger version of individual consciousness. What is it then? Before answering we must shift our attention to class.
We find that defining "class"—or indeed any other important notion in Marxism—proceeds from the whole to the part (class, in this case) rather than from still smaller parts (individuals) to class, viewed as some larger composite notion. According to Marx, "the subject, society, must always be envisaged as the precondition of comprehension" This whole, this society, is capitalism, or more specifically, Marx's analysis of capitalism, which captures both its distinctive character as a social formation and the unique dynamics, or "law of motion," that has transformed it from its beginnings in feudalism to and through the present to whatever future awaits it. Before we can offer more precision on Marx's notion of class, we need to have a better idea of the whole in which it plays such a crucial role.
Capitalism is not a perpetual motion machine destined to last forever and a day. But if it isn't, what is it about the way this system works and develops that will eventually bring on its destruction? Marx believed he found the answer to this question in the process of accumulation and centralization of capital (or wealth producing wealth), especially when view in connection with the limited purchasing power of the workers. This relationship is often expressed as the contradiction between social production and private appropriation. Production and consumption follow two different logics. The former is determined by profit maximization; the capitalists invest in order to make and maximize profits. While what gets bought and consumed is determined by what people, most of whom are workers, can afford. And, as the capitalist never return as much wealth to workers (in the form of wages) as the workers produce (in the form of commodities), there is a constant pressure on the system to find alternative buyers for this surplus.
This contradiction intensifies as the gap between the amount of wealth produced (and producible) and the amount returned to the workers as wages grows, as it invariably does, chiefly through advances in science and technology. Increases in the workers' real wages, which can occur from time to time and from place to place does not seriously impede this process. Every decade or so for the past 150 years this contradiction has resulted in a crisis of overproduction (or, viewed from the perspective of the workers, of underconsumption), with the accompanying destruction and wastage of factories, machines, goods and workers. Eventually the need to rebuild what has been destroyed or left to wear out together with the appearance of new markets makes investment more profitable. There is a renewed burst of accumulation, and the cycle starts over. The new beginning takes place on a higher level; more is invested, more people, tasks, and area are involved all around the world; more is at stake. Capitalism has been saved, but only at the cost of increasing the scale of risk in the next crisis. In Marx's estimation, capitalism is a little like a drunk who drinks in order to steady his nerves until the time that... And that time always comes. Marx's prediction of the downfall of capitalism is not to be read as the prediction of the arrival of a comet on such and such a day, but as the projection of the most likely outcome of a worsening impasse, whose development one can see and study in the past and present.
STATEMENTS SUCH as "the working class has disappeared" or "the barriers between the classes no longer exist" have been repeated for many years. This is often backed up by pointing to the de-industrialisation of Britain especially over the last two or three decades.
In fact there are still around four million workers in manufacturing industry in the UK. It is true that increased globalisation of the world economy has meant a large number of manufacturing jobs being transferred to areas such as Eastern Europe and China. But manufacturing jobs lost in the west have often been replaced by low-paid jobs in the service sector, for example in retail, finance and tourism. The fastest growing job sector in Britain is those who clean, shop, child-mind, garden etc for others.
In "white collar" jobs, measures such as performance related pay, imposed targets and casualisation have been increasingly introduced. Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) members in Revenue and Customs for example, have been fighting the introduction of 'lean processing' which breaks down tasks into small repetitive parts to create assembly line type work. Civil servants organised in the PCS have been one of the most militant sections of the working class in recent years and have elected a left union leadership.
New Labour and tory politicians and academics tend to talk of the poor being the 'underclass' living off benefits on council estates, or about 'social exclusion', thereby trying to separate the unemployed off from the rest of the working class. Effectively they repeat the old Victorian idea of the 'undeserving poor' and want people to be 'encouraged' into work by the threat of benefit cuts,
It is a strange solution to poverty - to cut the income of the poorest! And by forcing people into low paid work, they do not eliminate poverty. Millions are now described as the 'working poor'.
Capitalist definitions of class confuse the issue. The term "middle class" is often used very broadly, from a white collar worker on low pay in local government or the civil service to a rich businessman.
Official classifications also obscure the real class divide. The highest category according to the Office for National Statistics is 'professional and managerial' which includes people such as teachers and nurses. These certainly do not constitute the ruling class!
Marxists however say that the main class divide in society is between the ruling class - big businessmen and financiers who own "the means of production" on the one hand, and those who have to work for a boss to earn a living and actually create the wealth (value) on the other.
In the past, the average worker sold their "labour power" in a factory. Today, in addition to the millions who still do this there are others working in different fields who also produce new value. Others again, such as many public sector workers, do not strictly fit into this category but are part of the working class because of their social outlook and economic situation. The working class is not homogenous; far from it, there are many sections and layers. There are also middle layers in between the working class and ruling (capitalist) class, what Marx called the petit-bourgeoisie, particularly the self-employed, including small farmers, shopkeepers etc - altogether a wide and varied range of people. Many of them however are in debt to the big banks and have much in common with "workers".
In dealing with the possibility of socialist revolution in the present however, whether Marx's present or our own, it is not enough to treat people as embodiments of social-economic functions. As much as this helps us understand their conditions, the pressures they are under, and their options and opportunities, the people involved must still respond to these influences in ways that make what is possible actual. In Marxist terminology, they must become class conscious. To study whether this can actually occur here and now, or at least soon, we must add a subjective, people-oriented, more directly and narrowly human element and focus to the objective, system-oriented view of class that has been presented so far. In short, in analyzing history and political economy, Marx could operate with an essentially functionalist conception of class derived from the place of a function within the system. Class here is something to which recognizable individuals are attached. In this way, incidentally, it is possible for an individual who serves more than one function (managers and wage-earning professionals, for example) to belong to more than one class. But in analyzing the present state of the class struggle and in developing political strategy, this view has to be supplemented, not replaced, by a conception of class that gives priority to the actual people who occupy this place and perform this function. Sharing a social space and functions, they also tend to acquire over time other common characteristics as regards income, life-style, political consciousness, and organization that become, in turn, further evidence for membership in their class and subsidiary criteria for determining when to use the class label. Here, class is a quality that is attached to people, who posses other qualities—such as nationality, race or sex, for example—that reduce and may even nullify the influence on thinking and action that comes from their membership in the class. Conceived as a complex social relation, in line with Marx's dialectical outlook on the world, class invites analysis as both a function and a group, that is to say, from different sides of this relation.
Exploitation and inequality are built into the system. To get rid of them, capitalism needs to be removed and replaced with a socialist society. The multinational companies owned by the rich need to become publicly owned.
An end to the chaos of the market and the introduction of socialist planning would mean an overall increase in the real wealth of society, not just a redistribution of the wealth that already exists.
IN THE last 30 odd years, there has been a relative lull in trade union struggle in Britain. In the wake of the collapse of Stalinism in the USSR and eastern Europe, there was a shift of former working-class based parties such as the Labour Party, towards being openly bosses" parties with a full acceptance of the market. This, together with the effects of a long period of modest economic growth, led to a drop in consciousness of socialist ideas.
Despite this, there is still clear recognition of the existence of classes. Surveys have consistently shown that the majority of people in Britain describe themselves as working class. The latest British Social Attitudes survey shows 57% of people consider themselves working class.
The report authors call this 'remarkable' considering that only 31% of the workforce is in traditional "blue collar" sectors. In reality it gives the lie to the idea that class politics is no longer relevant. How much more sharpened will class-consciousness be in the future when big workers' struggles take place and when economic downturn has an impact on millions of people
Even those who see themselves as middle class, or who are on relatively comfortable incomes, have plenty of reasons to oppose the capitalist system, run for the benefit of big business.
Many problems created by capitalism affect them. The rising cost of university tuition fees for example, or the cutbacks in public services such as the NHS. For the vast majority of people who have private health insurance, it is very limited, only covering routine things.
For socialists it is not just that the working class is exploited under capitalism and therefore has good reason to end it, but also that it has the power to do it. Through struggles to defend and extend their own livelihoods, working-class people develop a greater class-consciousness. On a mass scale this can go together with a growth in socialist ideas.
But in particular, workers have the power to change things because of their role in society - their position in relation to the functioning of the economy and the "means of production". Even small groups of workers taking strike action, especially in an era of high technology, can have a massive effect. This power will be decisive when the working class moves together.
The removal of capitalism, led by the working class and with the support of most of the middle layers of society, can create the beginnings of conditions for a genuinely classless society.
This would be a socialist society where, for example, you would not have a higher chance of dying early simply because of where you were born, and where the resources of society would be democratically planned and used for the benefit of all.
Studying class consciousness has something in common with trying to catch a wave at the moment when it breaks. All movement toward this point is treated as development, as preliminary, as the unfolding of a potential. Everything that either contributes to or helps it movement is equally the object of study, but the constant point of repair, the perspective from which the whole process is viewed and interpreted, the event that gives everything that proceeded it its distinctive meaning, is the moment at which the wave breaks. Naturally, there is the assumption, derived from a Marxist analysis of capitalism, that the waves will almost certainly break, that sooner or later the worsening problems of the system, together with the reduction and eventual disappearance of system-approved alternatives for dealing with them, will drive most workers to embody the consciousness of their class.