This is the text of a talk at the conference of the Irish Labour History Society on September 17, 2023.
What does Marxism bring to a conference on visions of labour and class?
For me, this is connected to what Marxism brings to everything: context, clarity, coherence, comprehensiveness.
Marxism is an intellectual tradition connected to a political movement that focuses on totality, on how everything is connected to everything else. It is a theory of everything, one that is open-ended and always evolving. There are certain tenets that are basic as well as many matters where there are serious differences and lively debates.
It is a philosophy of economics, politics, history, culture, even psychology, that sees all of these spheres as decisively shaped by the dominant mode of production. It is in particular a critique of the capitalist mode of production and an orientation toward socialism as an alternative mode of production.
Class is a key concept for Marxism. The word has many uses as a term of differentiation and stratification. In social-political-economic terms, it is a way of categorising social groups in terms of wealth, status, education, occupation, and culture, often in a very loose and somewhat shoddy way, when it is addressed at all. For Marxism, it is a more precise concept and one that is central to its whole analysis of society.
So what is class for Marxism and how is it different from other approaches? Basically, Marxism sees class in terms of relationship to the means of production. In capitalist society, there are two primary classes: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat—those who own the means of production and those who depend on wage labour to live. Within these classes, there are various strata and other differences, but the great divide is between those who do the work of the world and those who are able to appropriate the fruits of their work, who can extract the surplus value of labour without labouring.
I am assuming a broad definition of who is the working class here, including not only the prototypical proletarian, a male manual labourer, but all who work by hand or brain, those who make the world as we know it happen, those who live by their labour, whether plumbers or pilots or professors, whether they build houses, stack shelves, perform surgery, or pursue scientific research, of all genders, races, ethnicities, and nations, the many who are manipulated into serving the interests of the few.
There is a near absence of discourse about class in contemporary society. This is because capitalism functions in such a way as to mask the nature of itself as a system.
There is a liberal discourse about diversity, inclusion, fairness, and helping those in need that conceals the realities of class. Whenever issues of social distribution are discussed, there is always lip service given to protecting those who are most vulnerable, often reducing the working class to those who need rather than those who do, those who take rather than those who give.
The trade union movement is nearly alone in addressing the real relationship between production and distribution, to argue that what people are demanding is what they have earned through their labour. Even then, it is most often a matter of making the case in terms of specific disputes and what is being demanded in terms of wages and conditions for particular groups of workers. We rarely hear trade union officials speak about the working class as a class making demands for radical redistribution in connection with their overall role in social production.
However, look at the massive response to Mick Lynch when he has been in the media spotlight and spoken not only about railway workers, but about the working class, the working class without whom the lights aren’t turned on, the trains don’t run, the streets aren’t swept, the sick aren’t nursed, the students aren’t taught. The clarity and simplicity of that has resonated powerfully.
We have a great tradition of literature and song that expresses this powerfully.
We were here in Liberty Hall a few months ago celebrating Robert Tressell’s great novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. The title itself stresses what the working class gives rather than what it takes.
There is Bertholt Brecht’s great poem “Questions from a Worker Who Reads”:
Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books, you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times?
Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
Who erected them?
And there is that great anthem of the labour movement, “Solidarity Forever”:
It is we who ploughed the prairies, built the cities where they trade,
dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railways laid.
Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made…
They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,
but without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn…
There needs to be a new and constant reassertion of that.
The aim of socialism animating the best of the labour movement is a form of social organisation shaped by the principle of “from each according to their abilities / to each according to their needs.”
All that exists and is of value comes from nature or labour, and mostly from a combination of both. Everyone who exists has the same number of hours in a day. Why should some people who spend some hours organising production be able to accrue more in a few seconds than someone engaging in hard manual labour can earn in a year? Even worse, why should others who never in their whole lives do any work whatsoever but inherit shares (or crowns) be able to take enormous unearned wealth extracted from the labour of others?
How did so much built by so many come to be expropriated by so few? It has not, on the whole, despite rags-to-riches myths, come from genius invention or entrepreneurial skill. It has come largely by force, whether by marauding armies or through oligarchic manipulation of the state passing and enforcing laws favourable to such expropriation.
This is why the most conscious of the working class have organised for a system based on social ownership of the means of social production, allowing for more just distribution and more efficient reinvestment, not only in the enterprise itself, but in the whole social infrastructure on which it depends.
This is the only way to harness the resources of society in such a way as to save our planet from the path of self-destruction on which we are hurtling along a trajectory that is inherent in the logic of capitalism.
To me, this is as clear as the rising sun, but the prevailing climate clouds over it fills the space with clutter and noise and diverts even progressive impulses into blind alleys.
For example, the cultural turn constitutes a shift in analysis of social phenomena in terms of culture and away from economics and science, away from class and mode of production—basically postmodernism as opposed to Marxism. I do not believe that the cultural turn was good even for the study of culture, which Marxism has done even better. I wrote two books about Irish television drama where my editor insisted that class had nothing to do with it, whereas I thought otherwise and wrote better books because I did.
Another blind alley is the reduction of everything to identity politics, without taking class into account. I understand the contemporary concern with identity. We live lives very different from our ancestors; we live in more complex times and identities have become more complex. What begins as a liberating attention to gender, race, and ethnicity can mutate into a displaced fixation with gender, race, and ethnicity at the expense of class.
There is also a way of speaking about class without really talking about class. I hear voices on Raidió Teilifís Éireann talking about growing up in drug-infested working-class communities, rising above addiction, turning to education as a lever of social mobility, arguing that working-class people are as good as anybody, given the right help from good government policies.
No. The working class is not as good as anybody else. The working class makes life as we live it possible. The working class makes the world go round. The working class should not be positioned as the most vulnerable in need of help, but as those who labour and deserve a just distribution of the fruits of their labour. The working class comes not with a begging bowl, but with a clear strong voice and, when necessary, a clenched fist.
This is why we need to engage in a discourse that provokes the working class to see themselves more clearly as the working class and to embark on a road that will lead from capitalism to socialism.