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Nothing to Lose but Their Chains

Lawrence 1912: The Bread and Roses Strike

Labor activist and painter Ralph Fasanella's 1977 painting, "Lawrence 1912: The Bread and Roses Strike."

Michael D. Yates is the editorial director of Monthly Review Press. This article is adapted from Can the Working Class Change the World?, forthcoming from Monthly Review Press.

“The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Proletarians of All Countries, Unite!” These are the final three sentences of the Manifesto of the Communist Party, better known simply as the Communist Manifesto, published in 1848, and written the year before by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.1 The words are a stirring rallying cry for working men and women to join in revolt against a social order that keeps them in chains, and then collectively build a better, freer world. The year 1848 was one of radical revolt throughout Europe, and the two revolutionaries were hopeful that capitalism would soon end and that upon its ashes a new society could be constructed.

The Rise of the Working Class

Let us examine the famous exhortation penned by Marx and Engels. First, proletarians are wage laborers, members of one of the two great social classes in the capitalist mode of production, the other class being the capitalists who employ them. Because workers own no or insufficient means of production, they cannot survive unless they sell their labor power to employers.

Marx believed, correctly, that as capitalism developed, wage labor would become the overwhelmingly dominant form of work. When capitalism was in its infancy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there were many other types of work arrangements because several modes of production coexisted: gathering and hunting, slavery, and various tributary systems such as feudalism. All but gatherers and hunters labored under coercive conditions, ruled by slave owners or feudal lords. Capitalism gradually undermined its feudal predecessor, breaking the direct, personal, and highly unequal relationship that existed between the lords who controlled the rural estates and the serfs who did the work. Land became private property, and serfs were forced from the land and into the wage labor force, either in the towns and cities or on sheep farms in the countryside. In both town and country, many former serfs were unemployed.

Although feudalism declined as capitalism grew, the same cannot be said for slavery.2 As historian Gerald Horne has shown, there was a vibrant market for slaves throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, Eurasia, and the Arab world. And as Horne and others have shown, slavery and capitalism were intimately connected. From the beginning, the brutal treatment of slaves by profit-seeking slave owners was racialized to distinguish those who were slaves and typically of darker skin color from those who were “white.” Capitalism, then, and especially in the Americas and Europe, was a racialized capitalism.

Second, Marx and Engels say that “proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.” Here they imply that there is something special about these proletarians. Human beings have existed for at least one hundred thousand years, and perhaps, as some archaeologists now believe, much longer. This means that for probably 90 to 95 percent of our time on Earth, humans lived in relatively small bands, living by gathering nuts, berries, and plants, supplemented whenever possible by meat from hunted animals. The production of life’s necessities, as well as their distribution, was carried out in an egalitarian way, without permanent leaders and without the division of skilled tasks—like making tools or clothing—into unskilled details or subtasks. Remarkably, gatherers and hunters eventually populated most of the earth, an astonishing achievement for those who modernists call “primitive.”

Sharp changes in social organization arose once humans learned to cultivate plants. Over a long period of time, sedentary agriculture began to replace gathering and hunting, and along with it came the division of society into classes. Farming allowed the production of a surplus above basic needs, and this in turn made possible the existence of people who performed a social role but did no work. Feudal lords, emperors, priests, slave owners, and the like marked pre-capitalist class society, and these men (and some women) were able to use their positions of relative leisure and access to the surplus of production to exert power over the peasants, serfs, and slaves who performed the necessary tasks of producing output. Though there was great variability in class structures, the most basic commonality was the direct and personal relationship between exploiters and exploited.

Capitalism radically transformed class society. In place of personal, direct relationships between those who controlled production and those who did not, the new system’s relations of production were mediated by an impersonal market. Today, it is uncommon for workers to know the owners of the enterprises that employ them, not just personally but even to recognize their names, and it is rare for consumers to know who made the things they purchase. What is more, the extraction of the surplus value from the efforts of those who toil in factories, mines, mills, offices, and the multitude of other capitalist businesses is hidden by the market. It appears that we workers are paid a wage determined by the impersonal forces of supply and demand. It is not obvious that we are being exploited, that a surplus created by us has somehow become the property of the owner. We do not appear to be in the same position as a serf who could have been seen delivering part of the family’s crop to the lord. Much less are we similar to slaves, whose very bodies are owned by the masters. We are not tied by the threat of violence or even death to a lord or master but are free to work for anyone who will hire us. How is it, then, that we have nothing to lose but our chains?

To grasp Marx and Engels’s meaning, it is necessary to understand just how radical capitalism is. Of great significance is the fact that it is the first economic system in which there is an inherent growth imperative. We know that the goal of every capitalist is to accumulate capital. What compels this and makes growth necessary is competition among capitals. A business either succeeds in growing or it dies. The search for profitable markets drives employers to discover new products, new markets, everywhere and anywhere. From local to national to global, that is capital’s trajectory. Today, there is barely a part of our lives, from birth to death, or any part of the world where capital has failed to penetrate. As this has happened, global business gets divided into a relatively small number of great capitals, owned in large part by a tiny fraction of the world’s people. The enterprises employ an enormous class of persons who must sell to them their ability to work. Businesses, aided and abetted by governments, force small farmers, peasants, and local business owners out of the marketplace and into wage labor. The development of capitalism creates an ever-larger group of wage workers and makes alternatives to this mode of being either less appealing or unlikely to bear fruit.

Inside workplaces, equally dramatic changes occur. As all successful employers know, the key to generating profits is to control, as absolutely as possible, every aspect of their business. And nothing is more critical than the command of the workers, because they are the main active agents in production. By control, we mean the ways in which workers interact with one another and with the tools and machines they utilize. These interactions comprise the labor process, and it is this that must be ruled. Historically, many and varied methods of controlling the labor process have been implemented. Let us look at some of the most important techniques, each of which reduced the influence that workers could exert over production.

First came centralization. In England, for example, the production of woven wool cloth initially took place in the weavers’ homes, with raw wool and sometimes looms supplied by wool merchants. The wool would be worked up into cloth and the finished product returned to the merchant for a price per unit. The merchant would then endeavor to sell the woven cloth. While this way of making cloth (and many other products), known as the outworking or putting-out system, was profitable and allowed merchants to pit one group of weavers against others in bidding wars, it did not allow sufficient control by the owners of the wool. It was difficult for them to prevent theft through the making of inferior cloth, and it thwarted the use of machinery. To get around these problems, employers began to recruit workers into factories, usually one-story buildings, in which labor carried on as usual but now came under the direct supervision of the owners or their hired managers. A whistle could sound the call to work, and punishments could be meted out to latecomers. Theft would be discouraged by the watchful eyes of foremen. The larger scale of production implicit in factories also made machinery economically viable.

Centralization made it possible for supervisors to observe how skilled weavers and other artisans performed their labor. They began to see that these craftsmen divided their task into subtasks or details. Harry Braverman described such labor division in the making of a metal funnel:

For example, a tinsmith makes a funnel: he draws the elevation view on sheetmetal, and from this develops the outline of an unrolled funnel and its bottom spout. He then cuts out each piece with snips and shears, rolls it to its proper shape, and crimps or rivets the seams. He then rolls the top edge, solders the seams, solders on a hanging ring, washes away the acid used in soldering, and rounds the funnel to its final shape.

But when he applies the same process to a quantity of identical funnels, his mode of operation changes. Instead of laying out the work directly on the material, he makes a pattern and uses it to mark off the total quantity of funnels needed; then he cuts them all out, one after the other, rolls them, etc. In this case, instead of making a single funnel in the course of an hour or two, he spends hours or even days on each step of the process, creating in each case fixtures, clamps, devices, etc., which would not be worth making for a single funnel but which, where a sufficiently large quantity of funnels is to be made, speed each step sufficiently so that the saving justifies the extra outlay of time. Quantities, he has discovered, will be produced with less trouble and greater economy of time in this way than by finishing each funnel individually before starting the next.3

It was but a short step from managerial observation to deducing that it would be much cheaper to assign unskilled laborers to perform the separate details repetitively over the course of the workday. The key was to economize on the use of skilled, more expensive labor. Inventor and engineer Charles Babbage systematically explained this in his book On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, so Braverman coined this as the Babbage Principle.4 Not only did it greatly cheapen production, it also enhanced the employer’s control over the labor process by making workers relatively interchangeable and easily replaced. It was even possible for factory owners to employ children to do repetitive tasks.

Both centralization and the detailed division of labor gave a sharp impetus to mechanization, which in turn further enhanced capital’s control, both by making the pace of production determined by machines and by further de-skilling work.5 Frederick Winslow Taylor, the celebrated guru of management control, was able, as the consequence of the widespread use of machinery in capitalist factories, to conceptualize what workers did in machine terms, and then urge employers to put into practice his “scientific management.” First, managers would carefully observe, sometimes with cameras, and time all the movements employees made as they performed their jobs (today, this can be done electronically, without workers knowing they are being watched). In this way, the employers could learn exactly what their hired hands did and how they did it, thereby gaining knowledge that previously only the workers had. Tasks were reconceptualized in machine terms and a set of exact instructions for each task was developed. Then, those hired would be compelled to perform their tasks in a machine-like fashion, doing just what they were told, that is, when to start, when to rest, how to move, and so forth. All conceptualization of the labor was now monopolized by the employer and his coterie of managers and industrial engineers. Workers simply carried out orders.

In terms of our explication of Marx and Engels’s passage, these managerial control mechanisms had two effects upon the workers. First, they significantly deepened the alienation inherent in capitalism. The capacity to transform nature through purposive work defines us as a species. In capitalism, this becomes someone else’s property. Workers no longer have formal control over it. Before capitalism, most work was relatively skilled, and in early capitalist society, it still was. And since the owners could not do it, this gave the artisans some leverage in terms of their production. With the centralization of production, detailed division of labor, machinery, and Taylorism, those who toiled became simply “hands,” separated from what they make, from the natural world around them, from themselves. They were now no longer whole human beings but mere sellers of labor power.

Second, and with some irony, the alienation capitalism creates tends to make labor a homogeneous mass. Workers begin to see themselves in one another inside the factory—all of them wage laborers under the thumb of capital. Machinery and the detailed division of labor reinforce their sense of similarity, all as interchangeable parts, or as Marx put it, “appendages” to the machines. As the process of homogenization spreads, as alienation becomes more evident, and as capitalism creates ever more wage workers, a working class is created. All societies come to be divided into capitalist and working classes. Sooner or later, those who work begin to see both that their options are limited and that their lives are circumscribed by the fact that they are considered by their employer as costs of production to be ruthlessly kept within strict limits—often at a level that does not allow for anything but a marginal existence. In all likelihood, they will be wage workers until they are too old or crippled physically and mentally to be hired. Their skills, their dreams, their obvious ability to do other things are permanently stifled. Can they become capitalists? Improbable. Can they become independent artisans? Hardly. Can they obtain a plot of land and become successful farmers? Doubtful. Inside this system, their prospects are dim.

Out of these realizations the germ of an idea takes hold. As individuals, workers are powerless. But because they are so large in number and their employers so dependent on their labor, if they were to come together in solidarity, they could challenge the control to which they are subjected. At first, they rebel in seemingly spontaneous ways, although in any attempts to secure justice and disrupt production there are always leaders and forethought. When, for example, the price of some necessity like bread rose above what were historically fixed or “just” prices, they rioted (in Great Britain in 1795, for example), taking bread from bakeries and destroying the property of their “betters.”6 Sailors sometimes rampaged against their impressment, that is, their capture and compulsory labor on ships. In London in 1780, “the polyglot working class of London liberated the prisons amid the greatest municipal insurrection of the eighteenth century.”7 In the early nineteenth century, the famous Luddite rebellion of English weavers and textile workers shook the government itself.8 And one of the most critical elements in the making of capitalism, namely slaves, who were surely workers though unpaid and not even nominally free, rebelled in multiple ways throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.

As capitalism began to conquer the world and displace prior modes of production, workers became used to it, in the sense that it came to seem “normal” and unlikely to succumb to immediate destruction. However, when the system was young, before, say, the middle of the nineteenth century, people felt the new system as a shock, as the complete destruction of their previous ways of living. British historian E. P. Thompson laid out their grievances:

The rise of a master-class without traditional authority or obligations: the growing distance between master and man: the transparency of the exploitation at the source of their new wealth and power: the loss of status and above all of independence for the worker, his reduction to total dependence on the master’s instruments of production: the partiality of the law: the disruption of the traditional family economy: the discipline, monotony, hours and conditions of work: loss of leisure and amenities: the reduction of the man to the status of an “instrument.”9

Multiply these many times, and we have an idea of how slaves suffered. No doubt the jolt, the blow that capitalism delivered, helps to explain the rage and violence that accompanied the initial working-class uprisings. Even today, when hurts mount and can no longer be endured, similar insurrections occur. However, as time passed, workers became habituated to the capitalist work regimen, and as they realized that prior ways of living could not be recovered, they began to develop more permanent organizations, capable of resisting capital on a long-term basis. The two nearly universal institutions they formed are labor unions and labor political parties.

I will have much more to say about these two working-class formations, but it is important here to understand that many unions and parties originally had a strong anti-capitalist focus. The resolutions and reports of the International Workingmen’s Association (1864–74), in which Karl Marx was the dominant voice, are filled with examples of the exploitation of workers, the need for worker-managed cooperatives in production, the assumption that the ultimate aim of the working class is its full emancipation, and the necessity to support workers in every country. It is either stated directly or implied that complete freedom for workers cannot be achieved within capitalism; it will only happen with its abolition and replacement with a commonwealth of associated producers.10

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was more forceful still, with the preamble to its constitution stating:

The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people, and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.

Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.11

Even the conservative American Federation of Labor, in its founding constitution, said: “Whereas, a struggle is going on in all the nations of the civilized world, between the oppressors and the oppressed of all countries, a struggle between the capitalist and the laborer, which grows in intensity from year to year, will work disastrous results to the toiling millions, if they are not combined for mutual protection and benefit.”12

While individual unions typically have not been explicitly anti-capitalist, socialists have often been among their founders and leaders. Unions have also been key elements in social revolutions, for example, in Russia and Cuba.13

When workers develop enough consciousness to grasp their collective power, they naturally want things to change in their workplaces. Whether their efforts are uprisings like those of the Luddites or the formation of labor unions, what they always seek is improvements in their current conditions of employment. We can call their demands defensive, in the sense that they are combating something an employer has done. They seek limitations on the length of the workday or reductions in it, higher wages, safer working conditions, and so forth. When they see that their brothers and sisters in other countries face similar circumstances, they do what they can to support them. They are “proletarians of all countries.”

Soon enough, though, workers grasp that their unions cannot always affect matters outside their places of employment. A ten-hour or eight-hour limit on the workday for all who labor cannot be won by a single union. The same is true for constraints on child labor or the outlawing of dangerous substances in all factories. Unions cannot easily prevent wars, slavery, or colonial plunder. These matters are national and international in scope. Capitalism has always come into full flower under the aegis of a national state, which provides for the sanctity of commercial contracts, law and order, a military, and a national treasury that raises money through taxation and borrowing and spends the money necessary to pay for whatever functions it chooses to serve. In those countries allowing voting, workers began to agitate for their right to cast ballots, a right almost always denied them. Where there was no voting, they demanded that there be elections. And in all cases, they began to insist that the state serve their needs. To formalize their political presence they created political organizations, most prominently working-class political parties. If these could gain control of the government, either by electoral means or armed insurgency, then they could dictate what the state did.

Yet, workers were not ignorant of the political power of capital, so it became clear to some proletarians and their allies among intellectuals like Marx and Engels that political efforts had to be tied to the transformation of both the state and the system of production and distribution. Which meant that they conceived the ever-growing working class as the agent of the ultimate abolition of itself, the ending of class society, and the building of a world of associated producers, ending the multiple alienations of a class society. The proletarians of all countries must unite, with this emblazoned on their battle flags: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”14 They have nothing to lose but their chains.

Barriers to Class Unity

While the above discussion of the final lines of the Communist Manifesto has a satisfying logic, there is a high level of abstraction implicit in it. Marx and Engels were aware of this, and they wrote about aspects of the concrete reality of capitalist society that were impediments to the class consciousness and radical actions of the working class. There were as well matters they failed to consider. Let us look at a variety of obstacles that impede the class consciousness and unity of the working class.

The control mechanisms employed by capital open new possibilities for wage workers to develop consciousness of themselves as a class and not simply as abused individuals. Nevertheless, they also are profoundly alienating, and estrangement does not necessarily give rise to coherent thinking. The detailed division of labor, the machinery that deepens it, and Taylorism’s de-skilling of labor make work a monotonous, brain-numbing endeavor. Adam Smith, in the Wealth of Nations, extolled the virtues of the division of labor, but he also wrote this:

In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many of even the ordinary duties of private life.15

This is somewhat extreme and may reflect Smith’s own class biases. But consider how autoworker Ben Hamper described a visit to the factory, made with his family when he was a boy, to see what his dad did:

We stood there for forty minutes or so, a miniature lifetime, and the pattern never changed. Car, windshield. Car, windshield. Drudgery piled atop drudgery. Cigarette to cigarette. Decades rolling through the rafters, bones turning to dust, stubborn clocks gagging down flesh, another windshield, another cigarette, wars blinking on and off, thunderstorms muttering the alphabet, crows on power lines asleep or dead, that mechanical octopus squirming against nothing, nothing, nothingness.16

The problem is that capitalism tends to create the workforce it needs. It must have control, and so the institutions that comprise the system—the market, the schools, the bourgeois scholars, especially the economists, whose work justifies whatever capital does, the ideology of individualism that buttresses the entire edifice—bring forth workers who are compliant. Another way to put this is to say that over time, once the generations whose lifeworlds were turned upside down by the new society have disappeared, those who sell their labor power come to see it as normal, something they have no choice but to do. The normality extends to the power their bosses have over them. As their humanity is diminished and they cannot exhibit their innate capacity to conceptualize and execute complex tasks, they naturally internalize this as the way things are. When the praises of capital are incessantly sung, it is but a short step to the feeling that if you are not “successful,” it must be your fault. You made poor choices, and now you must suffer the consequences.

Beyond the debilitating impact of alienation on working-class struggle, there are, despite the homogeneity that managerial control produces, multiple differences among workers that militate against solidarity. Here are important examples, some of which were touched on above.

Skill. In any business, the skill levels of employees differ, sometimes considerably, and often these variations are associated with other differences. Artisans, masters of a craft, were typically the first wage workers to form labor unions. They had many advantages over the unskilled. They were more likely to be literate; they were more difficult to replace; they were typically homogeneous by gender, race, and ethnicity. In early factories, the less skilled toilers were women and children, frequently orphans farmed out by orphanages to capitalists.17 Children could hardly resist their exploitation, though the skilled workers could agitate for the abolition of child labor. With respect to women, the patriarchy that has marked capitalism from its inception made it unlikely that men would show solidarity with female workers, especially considering that today men still resent women’s employment in many workplaces and make life unpleasant for them. Later, in factories where modern machinery had yet to be introduced, skilled workers employed unskilled helpers.18 In the United States, the former were usually from northern Europe, and the latter were Irish or from the southern and eastern parts of Europe. Language barriers and the ethnic and cultural biases of English and German craftsmen, as well as their economic incentive to pay the unskilled as low a wage as possible, made solidarity unlikely. The labor unions of skilled workers did not admit the unskilled as members, and federations of craft unions did not offer charters to unions of the unskilled.

Making matters more complicated is the fact that capitalism is an extraordinarily dynamic system. Firms fail, and employees lose their jobs. New firms enter the fray. Old occupations die, and new ones are born. Both changes make working-class organizations fragile. For example, the trade of machinist required a knowledge of engineering drawings, a mastery of geometry, and delicate physical touch. The workers used their skills to build a strong union. However, after the Second World War, numerical control technology, developed by the Air Force at public expense, destroyed the craft. What the machinists knew is now embedded in computer programs, which in turn operate the machines that convert engineering drawings into machine parts. This has greatly reduced the power on the job of the machinists, who now no longer need a multi-year apprenticeship to perform their work effectively.19

Capital Mobility. Capital is mobile both within nations and globally. In the United States, during the three decades after the end of the Second World War, manufacturing was concentrated in the Northeast, Midwest, and Northwest. Labor strongholds existed in many cities and towns, both in terms of economic and political muscle. Today, this power has dissipated or disappeared as corporations moved their operations south and southwest where labor was weak. And they began a rapid shift of production to the global South, in pursuit of low wages and supportive political climates.20 The same phenomenon is present in all the rich capitalist countries. With this has come a considerable attenuation of political influence at all levels of government, resulting in a loss of the social welfare gains that raised the living standards of workers and made them less vulnerable to the ravages of unemployment, disability, and poor health.

Nationalism and Imperialism. Capitalism developed within the womb of the nation-state, aiding and abetting capital, which, as Marx said, “comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”21 While state repression has been a critical factor impeding both the birth and the growth of radical labor movements, so too has been the promotion of nationalism, the idea that every person in a country is privileged somehow to be in it, and that it is the duty of all to pledge allegiance to their government. There are circumstances in which nationalism can be a progressive force, such as in anti-colonial and anti-imperial efforts. In general, however, it is antithetical to global labor solidarity. This is because it signals an exclusiveness that makes those from other countries suspect, as I noted in another context:

Nationalism as an ideology of exclusiveness quickly became very powerful. The establishment of official languages, the institution of a universal propaganda mechanism in the public schools, and the drafting of working people into national armies all had the effect of encouraging workers to be loyal to the nation. The converse of this loyalty has been distrust or even hatred of those who are “foreign.” My father was a union-factory laborer for forty-four years, but his life experiences were not conducive to international solidarity. The Second World War, especially, shaped him into an almost fanatical supporter of the U.S. government (and de facto supporter of U.S. capital in most respects) and into an outright xenophobe when it came to the Japanese or the Soviets or the Chinese.22

The sway of nationalism in the global North is evident whenever a nation goes to war. Immediately, most people and organizations give knee-jerk support, including the labor unions. Flag waving, pledges of allegiance, the singing of national anthems at sporting events give ample evidence to this power. When the First World War began, the Social Democratic Party of Germany, heir to Marx and Engels’s International Workingmen’s Association, had its elected officials in the German legislature vote in favor of financing the nation’s entry into the war. Even erstwhile socialists have succumbed to the lure of nationalism.

Nationalism in the rich capitalist countries is intimately connected to imperialism, the use of state power to dominate the global South, and, in the process, generating enormous money flows from the dominated to the dominant nations. England, Germany, and the United States have concocted all manner of rationales for their pillage. Racist arguments were used, suggesting that the workers and peasants of the global South could not develop their own lands and were fortunate that the rich countries helped them do so. The amounts of money extracted from the global South were large enough that workers in the imperial nations could be co-opted with some of it and be convinced that imperialism was a good thing. It has not been uncommon for labor unions and labor political parties in the rich countries to support imperial wars and their employers’ foreign despoliations.23

Race and Gender. Modern scholars of the origins of capitalism, following in the footsteps of writers like W. E. B. Du Bois, have argued persuasively that racism and patriarchy are not peripheral to capitalism. That is, it is impossible to imagine a non-racist and non-sexist capitalism. Rather, both have been integral to the capitalist system, essential for its functioning, then and now.24 For example, slavery was integral to capitalism, and in the United States, by the late seventeenth century, this was a racial slavery.25 A deep and complex web of racist ideology came with racialized slavery, so that a “white” race was, in effect, created, superior to the “black” race. So much was this so that it became part of everyone’s lived reality. That is, even though biology tells us that there is no such thing as race, this fact is overcome by our identification as white, black, brown, and so forth. We act accordingly, and our societies are structured racially:

We make individual choices about all sorts of things, we, at the same time, make “social choices.” These structure the larger society, which, in turn, conditions our individual decisions. Our political system is a case in point. The United States was founded as a nation whose prosperity depended heavily upon slavery, which was the dominant mode of production in the southern states and tightly integrated into northern capitalism. The slave trade, the production of important commodities such as cotton and tobacco, the textile industry, shipping, construction, the manufacture of agricultural implements, and many other economic activities were intimately tied to slavery.

The slave economy was supported by a constellation of laws that maintained the entire oppressive system. Who enacted these laws? That is, were the “social choices” that allowed, defended, and maintained slavery made by everyone equally or were the choices of some weighted more heavily than those of others? It would take someone…obtuse…to argue that in 1789 there was political equality in the United States. Slaves had no political power, and even among those who were not slaves, women could not vote, and, in many states, whites had to own property to cast a ballot. Blacks in the North were nominally free but subject to extreme race and class discrimination. So politics was dominated by white, male property owners, who shaped the government decisively to serve their interests, including the institution of slavery. And by the time slavery ended, inequalities of income and wealth had developed to the point that this white, male, economically elite power was thoroughly entrenched and difficult to unseat. So what this elite wrought was also hard to change. Slavery ended, but the institutional setting in which it flourished did not.26

The same argument can be made about patriarchy. Capitalism took the patriarchy that already existed and shaped it to suit the needs of capital.

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 exists, but this does not mean that its members are conscious of their capacity to disrupt production and the system itself. However, once the importance of race and gender are realized—along with capitalism’s third pillar, imperialism—then the way is cleared for the possibility of building a cohesive and radical working class. But this is easier said than done.

Divide and Rule. Capital’s representatives quickly grasped the need for and their power to divide workers into hostile and competing parts. Skill, nationality, race, gender—all have been used to split the working class, both in production and what we will call capitalism’s hidden abodes.27 Businesses have gone so far as to structure workplaces with artificial hierarchies, that is, those with no direct connection to productive efficiency, simply to divide their employees into contending groups.28

Health. To employers, workers are nothing more than costs of production, to be controlled and minimized. This has profound implications for how employees will be treated. Marx puts the matter forcefully:

On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities, which furnishes the “Free-trader Vulgaris” with his views and ideas, and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but—a hiding.29

The hiding takes the form of an assault on the body and mind of the laborer, 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. Suffice it to say that the health of the working class does nothing positive in terms of it changing the world.30

Questions and Uncertainties

From here, we delve into the meat of the matters at hand. How much has the working class changed the world so far? Can it go further and bring about a global transition in which capitalism is superseded by a radically democratic socialist mode of production, with maximum substantive equality across as many social outcomes as possible? Such a society would be one where Marx’s dictum, from each according to ability, to each according to need, becomes reality.31 From what I have written up to this point, we can only say that there are forces at work within the capitalist social order that move workers in this direction. Yet there are other forces that counteract this movement. Therefore, the answer to the question depends on which has the greater weight. This is not simply a matter that can be settled by observation of the objective conditions. The two contending classes, capital and labor, have agency—each can act to further its ends. At the same time, the past weighs heavily on each, limiting not only what we can achieve but what we can know with clarity. Not everything will be possible at any given time. First, we must grasp the nature of the world in which we live. Second, we must work out a plan of action to change our circumstances. Third, we must act. And fourth, as we act, we must see what happens, how we are affected, how our comprehension of things changes consequent on our activities, and how our possibilities have been altered. Each step is complex, and we can never be certain of our perceptions, much less the success of our endeavors.


  1. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998).
  2. It should be noted that feudal entities existed long into at least the nineteenth century—for example, large agricultural estates in Latin America—and these operated much like slavery, though probably not without the same drive to accumulate capital as slave plantations in the United States.
  3. Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998).
  4. Charles Babbage, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, 4th ed. (London: Knight, 1835). Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital, 54–57.
  5. Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital, 146–53.
  6. On bread riots in Tewkesbury, England, see Derek Benson, “The Tewkesbury Bread Riot of 1795,” Bristol Radical History Group, 2013, For a list of food riots, see “List of Food Riots,” Wikipedia,
  7. Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh, “The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, and the Atlantic Working Class in the Eighteenth Century,” Journal of Historical Sociology 3, no. 3 (1990): 225–52.
  8. E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage, 1966).
  9. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class.
  10. For examples, see collection of documents and writings from the First International at
  11. See the “Preamble to the IWW Constitution,”
  12. The AFL was founded in 1886. The quotation is from the first paragraph, replicated in the 1912 version: “Constitution of the American Federation of Labor,” 1912, available at
  13. For Russia, see Paul LeBlanc, October Song (Chicago: Haymarket, 2017); for Cuba, see Steve Cushion, A Hidden History of the Cuban Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016).
  14. Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, 1875, available at http://
  15. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (New York: Modern Library, 1937), 734–35.
  16. Ben Hamper, Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line (New York: Warner, 1991), 2.
  17. For the gruesome details of orphan labor in British factories, see the novel by Glyn Rose, The Rape of the Rose (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993).
  18. Dan Clawson, Bureaucracy and the Labor Process (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1980).
  19. See David Noble, Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation (New York: Knopf, 1984).
  20. See the seminal work of John Smith, Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016).
  21. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 2004).
  22. Michael D. Yates, “Workers of All Countries, Unite: Will This Include the U.S. Labor Movement?Monthly Review 52, no. 3 (July–August 2000): 48.
  23. Yates, “Workers of All Countries, Unite.”
  24. See, among many others, David R. Roediger, Class, Race and Marxism (New York: Verso, 2017); W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); Gerald Horne, The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2018); Peter James Hudson, “The Racist Dawn of Capitalism,” Boston Review, March 14, 2016,; Robin D. G. Kelley, “What Is Racial Capitalism and Why Does It Matter,” lecture given at the University of Washington, November 7, 2017, available at; Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston: Beacon, 2014); Nancy Fraser, “Expropriation and Exploitation in Racialized Capitalism: A Reply to Michael Dawson,” Critical Historical Studies 3, no. 1 (2016): 162–78; Nancy Fraser, “Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode: For an Expanded Conception of Capitalism,” New Left Review 86 (2014): 55–72; and John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, “Women, Nature, and Capital in the Industrial Revolution,” Monthly Review 69, no. 8 (January 2018): 1–24.
  25. See Theodore W. Allen, The Invention of the White Race, vol. 1 (New York: Verso, 2012); Horne, The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism; Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).
  26. Michael D. Yates, “It’s Still Slavery by Another Name,” Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate blog, February 23, 2012,
  27. Fraser, “Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode.”
  28. Two classic studies are Katherine Stone, “The Origin of Job Structures in the Steel Industry,” Review of Radical Political Economics 6 no. 2 (1974): 113–73; and Stephen A. Marglin, “What Do Bosses Do? The Origins and Functions of Hierarchy in Capitalist Production,” Review of Radical Political Economics 6 no. 2 (1974): 60–112.
  29. Marx, Capital, vol. 1.
  30. See Michael D. Yates, “Work Is Hell,” in The Great Inequality (London: Routledge, 2016), 73–90.
  31. See Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program. His full statement: “In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”
2018, Volume 70, Issue 05 (October 2018)
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