Friday, November 02, 2018

Michael D. Yates - Can the Working Class Change the World?

I started reading this book the day that news arrived from Brazil that the extreme right-wing Jair Bolsonaro had been elected President. It made me reflect how the failure of left-projects that fail to challenge the capitalist state can open the door to right-wing and fascist politicians that will decimate the working classes and their institutions.

To start at the end, in his conclusion, Michael D. Yates notes that the "working class must change the world. There really no choice." This short book is thus dedicated to not only explaining why the working class has the power to change the world, but showing that there are no other forces in society that can bring about fundamental change. In a world where the far-right is on the ascendancy and we are threatened by economic crisis and environmental catastrophe the lessons are obvious to all.

Yates returns to the core of Marx's ideas to show the central role of the working class under capitalism. Capitalism requires workers to make profits - they create the surplus value that the bosses need to make their profits and to keep the system growing. But Yates also shows how the bosses need to continually attack workers in order to maximise their profits in a competitive system. This means a continual fight over working conditions, wages and our societies. The system, Yates points out systematically destroys those who labour for it:
[This] takes the form of an assault on the body and mind of the labourer, relentless and unending. Throughout the history of capitalism and in every country, most workers have been and are rendered at least partially incapacitated after a lifetime of toil.
Capitalism doesn't simply destroy the worker, or the peasant, but also ravages the planet in its quest for profits:
Land, water, even air, are made into commodities that can be bought and sold, again creating new arenas for accumulation. The social costs of capital's abuse of nature is typically borne by workers and peasants. They live where air pollution is worst, where the soil has been most degraded. They drink contaminated water... When floods, hurricanes and droughts, caused and exacerbated by capitalist-induced global warming, descend upon humanity the least of us suffer the most.
The question remains then, why does the mass of the population accept this state of affairs? A tiny minority live on the backs of the masses - so why does capitalism survive? Yates shows how capitalism has a number of ways of protecting its interests. Firstly the use of brute force - the police and army - to undermine protest, strikes and revolution. Secondly Yates puts great emphasis on the role of education in creating a pliable workforce that accepts the status quo and is ready to work for capital. Thirdly there are all sorts of in built aspects to capitalism that turn worker against worker, undermining the unity that is required to beat the bosses. Yates writes:
A racial and patriarchal capitalism generated fundamental splits in the working class, and these have been among the most critical impediments to class unity. Objectively , a working class exist, but this does not mean that its members are conscious of their capacity to disrupt production and the system itself.
While I agree with Yates' argument here, I thought it could have been developed further. One Marxist who isn't mentioned is the Italian Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci showed how workers have contradictory consciousness - they can hold both backward and progressive ideas at the same time. Because capitalism brings workers together and forces them into a class struggle, the backward ideas are constantly challenged and progressive ideas can develop further. In a recent strike by 8000 Glasgow care workers, almost all of whom are women, 400 male rubbish collectors refused to cross their picket lines. Many, if not most, of those men would have held sexist ideas, but they did not break the strike because they understood the need for class unity - in doing so they would also have found their own ideas about women challenged.

Yates points out how capitalism stokes racism and misogyny etc to divide workers, but it also creates the conditions when they can be over-come, particularly if workers are organised in trade unions and political parties that challenge these ideas systematically.

In this framework I also slightly disagree with Yates' comments on migration which he seemed to suggest (in the context of the collapse of the Eastern European regimes) weakens the working class. Yates writes:
The exodus [from the former Eastern Bloc] of people seeking employment wherever they might find it provided cheap labour in the Global North. Thus, the working classes everywhere were weakened.

The danger here is to blame migrants for driving down wages, when it is precisely the capitalists, through the mechanisms that Yates' highlights that use division to undermine working class unity. But recent years in the UK have also shown that despite very high levels of racism towards refugees and migrants from the press and politicians, large numbers of people have shown solidarity - either joining protests or, in far greater numbers, giving to refugee charities.

Yates is writing mainly from a US perspectives so readers in Europe and elsewhere will find that some of his discussions are specific to the US situation, though there are many parallels. I cannot but agree with his calls to improve democracy within the trade union movement, or to increase the amount of education the unions have for their members against homophobia, sexism and racism; as well as the history of the movement.

But sometimes I think there are too many generalisations. For instance, Yates says that "unions have proven unable to reverse the impact of neo-liberalism". But I would phrase this differently, and argue that in most countries (I'm especially thinking of here in the UK) the union movement hasn't fought the type of battle that could have ended neo-liberalism or even austerity. I'm thinking of the swift calling off of the 2011 public sector strikes that could easily have put the British government on the back foot over austerity, but were undermined by a section of the union leadership.

And while I agree that social democracy (reformism) has been severely weakened, I don't think Yates is right to say that "Social Democracy has been thoroughly defeated in Great Britain". In fact quite the opposite. Corbyn's election and the massive growth of the Labour Party has seen a huge resurgence in reformist ideas and the rebirth of Labour as a vehicle for social democracy - something that provides big challenges for those of us in the Marxist left outside the Party.

I do think that there is a missing section though which is crucially linked to the question of working class power - which is the need for independent, Marxist, revolution organisation based in the working class. Yates ably shows that workers simply fighting will not lead to the defeat of capitalism - in fact capital can cope with even significant resistance (not the large number of general strikes in Greece for instance). The working class needs clear, principled political leadership - not in a vanguard sense, but in the sense of the best militants being grouped together to try and shape a struggle against the system. I still think that the lessons of the Bolshevik party in Russia in the early 20th century are key to understanding this role.

If this review seems like a list of criticisms, that's because I've focused on sections that I have differences with. There are many other stimulating and positive aspects to this short book. For instance I was struck how it, unlike many others of its type, discusses the crucial role of the peasantry and landless workers, and does not neglect the question of the environment. I didn't always initially agree with what Yates wrote about the former Soviet bloc, China or Cuba, but I found his arguments interesting and informative. I also got a great deal out of the US perspective - particularly Yates comments on struggles against oppression such as Black Lives Matter. At a time when radical left-wing ideas are needed more than ever, a book with the title Can the Working Class Change the World? will undoubtedly get a big readership and I hope that those readers are stimulated as much as I was to think through these important questions.

Related Reviews

Miliband - Parliamentary Socialism

Harman - Revolution in the 21st Century
Choonara & Kimber - Arguments for Revolution
Haider - Mistaken Identity
Marx - Value, Price and Profit
Molyneux - The Point is to Change It

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks for your review, Martin. I hope that Corbyn continues to succeed and that Labour moves much further to the left. In the US, there is a resurgence of social democracy but I don't have much faith here that this will lead to a left-wing movement directly challenging capitalism. On a couple of points, I do disagree with your assessment of what I wrote. I certainly do discuss how capitalism creates conditions for class consciousness and from this we get the tremendous achievements of the working class in changing the world, even as the power of capital has remained intact. Also, there is a good deal of material on the Global South and how nationalism and imperialism in the Global North do great harm to workers and peasants there. Finally, I wish readers to understand that I have many practical suggestions for changing things radically in the last and by far the largest chapter of the book.

Your review has helped me to think further about all of this and to realize that I might have made certain obvious improvements. However, I suppose that a book like this is meant to stimulate comradely discussion and ultimately action. Thanks for writing a review. I have definitely become more pessimistic as I have gotten older. So examples of positive working class action such as the ones you describe in the review are much appreciated. Solidarity, Michael