Workers of the World After 150 Years
by Peter Symon
When Marx and Engels advanced the slogan “Workers of the World, Unite!” in the Communist Manifesto (first published in 1848), a world’s working class did not exist. A modern working class had emerged only in England, and to a lesser extent in some other European countries at that time. The working class grew as capitalism advanced in other countries.
Because Britain was the first country in the world to become an industrialised nation, it was in Britain that Marx and Engels were able to study the capitalist system and its mechanism for the exploitation of the working class (surplus value). They discovered the class struggle as the motive force in modern history; that the spread of capitalism using new forms of production and the new technologies coming into existence, was inevitable. They foresaw that the working class would increase in size and importance.
Industrialisation steadily advanced in other European countries, in North America and in Australia where by the 1820s the first trade unions were formed. This development was based on the migration of experienced class conscious workers from Britain. However, the early development of Australia was associated with creating an infrastructure and the first workers’ organisations were to be found in timber-felling, sheep-shearing, mining, shipping, building houses and small-scale manufacture.
At this time (in the 1800s) there were no railways, no motor cars, no electricity generation and no large scale steel industry. Radio had not yet been invented.
The 1800s was also the age of imperialism. The capitalist countries of Europe sailed the world with their steel ships, guns and armies and divided the rest of the globe between them, establishing the colonial system dominated by Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, and Spain in particular. They had to find new markets for their surplus manufactures and new fields for the investment of their profits.
The objective of imperialism was to seize control of the rich resources of the colonies — not to develop them industrially. While colonialism lasted there was little opportunity for these countries to establish modern industries and consequently there was little growth of a working class. These countries remained predominantly agricultural supplying raw materials for the industries of Europe.
Very little was done to educate the populations of the colonial countries. A small number of the indigenous elite was bought off, educated and trained to a certain extent but only for the purpose of helping to maintain the control of the imperialist power over the local population.
The more far-sighted of the rulers recognised the need to create a native bourgeoisie which had the same class interests as the bourgeoisie of Britain and the other capitalist countries which would help the colonial powers keep the people in subjection and defeat the inevitable liberation struggles which were even then arising.
But when Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto colonialism seemed secure and unchallengable.
The United States came late on the scene and although it grew rapidly as an industrialised country, the world had already been divided up among the European powers and its direct colonial possessions were limited to its immediate vicinity — in the Caribbean, (Cuba, Puerto Rica, Haiti, etc.) and the Philippines — where it took over from the collapsing Spanish empire.
There was, therefore, little by way of a working class in Africa, the Middle East, Russia, Asia and Latin America when Marx and Engels made their ringing declaration — “Workers of the World, Unite!”
It was their genius which recognised the inevitability of the development of the working class and that the working class was destined to play the primary role in the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of the new order of socialism.
Despite its seemingly all-powerful dominance, imperialism was not able to stamp out the demands of the people of the colonial countries for freedom and independence — freedom from exploitation and independence for their country. There were many revolts which were put down with incredible savagery.
Some of these episodes found their way into the history books of Britain — such as the revolts of the people of India and the massacres carried out by the British colonial governments — but generally they have been covered up so the people of the former colonial powers know little if anything about the millions that were slaughtered in Africa, China, Latin and Central America in their name. Only now is the full significance of the genocide practiced against the Aboriginal people of the Australian continent coming to light, as one example.
As capitalism spread, it brought into existence a working class and working class struggles began to grow. It created its own “grave-diggers” as Marx and Engels pointed out.
The first great working class break-through came with the Paris Commune of 1871 during which a revolutionary workers’ power was established for a time. It was crushed by the armed intervention of Germany and the deposed French ruling class. What was mainly missing in the Paris Commune was a revolutionary political party capable of providing the necessary leadership. But, none-the-less, the Paris Commune was proof of the assertions of Marx and Engels as to the revolutionary role of the working class. Despite its defeat it provided many lessons for Lenin and other future revolutionaries.
The Russian revolution of October 1917 was the next major workers’ break-through. Even though the Russian working class was relatively small compared to the total population which was primarily peasant, the Russian revolution was led by the working class and its revolutionary party.
The Russian revolution again provided proof that the working class was that class in society which had a primary interest in overthrowing capitalism and was capable of undertaking that task.
It was proof of the theory that because of its position in the process of production, its political consciousness and organisation the working class could “storm the heavens” and start to build a socialist society — providing there existed a political party capable of giving the necessary leadership.
Following World War I, working class revolutions also took place in Germany and Hungary. In Hungary a revolutionary workers’ government was established for a number of months.
In 1911 an anti-feudal, bourgeois-democratic revolution took place in China. The giant of the East was beginning to stir — together with the first emergence of an infant working class in China. In the early 1920s the Communist Party of China was formed. These were early signals that revolutionary workers’ uprisings, together with other class allies, were beginning in the East.
The consolidation of the socialist Soviet Union and its example to the rest of the world, speeded up considerably the development of the working class movements and the anti-colonial liberation movements. Communist Parties came into existence in one country after another.
The defeat of fascism in World War II represented another great leap forward in that it showed in practice to many people how a socialist system and a workers’ government could renovate a country, make it strong and independent and bring great social, economic and political gains to the working people.
In the aftermath of World War II, colonialism collapsed under the blows of the militant national liberation movements and for the first time in the present era independence provided the opportunity for the development of industries in the former colonial countries. With industry, a modern working class came into existence. We need look no further than Indonesia or South Korea to see this happening.
Following the overthrow of Dutch colonialism, Indonesia began to develop its industries. They were established on the basis of a capitalist system, often using foreign capital which had control. To that extent the political independence of Indonesia and a number of other former colonies did not lead to economic independence.
The industrial growth of Indonesia, South Korea and a number of other former colonies led to the rapid formation of a modern working class where none existed before. Trade unions came into existence. Today we are beginning to see this working class take up the struggle against capital and for the completion of their struggle for liberation. The next great historic step is the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of working class power, leading to the building of a socialist society.
During this whole historic period, capitalism also changed. From mercantile capitalism, through laissez-faire capitalism, to the development of monopolies, the marriage between the bourgeois state and the monopolies to form state-monopoly capitalism, to the emergence of transnational corporations (TNCs).
These giant industrial and financial corporations do not owe allegiance to any particular state but straddle the whole world. This is the stage of globalisation which is based on the advance in production processes, technology, telecommunications and radio, air travel, and the creation of a world market. These developments are also inevitable.
In the same way that capitalism has become global, so too has the working class.
The trade union movement has formed its international, world-wide networks — the World Federation of Trade Unions, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and a number of other regional trade union bodies. Despite the split between the WFTU and the ICFTU, which limited for a time the possibilities for world-wide working class action, common action is again developing.
For a time the communist parties also had their international — the Communist Third International and although this body went out of existence during World War II (1943), the co-operation of communist parties is today becoming stronger and more practical. Many international conferences are taking place at which policies and campaigns are mapped out.
An important vehicle for working class internationalism — the Internet — is playing an increasingly important part in this for trade unions and for communist parties.
Compared to 1848 or even 1900, there has been a vast increase in the size and militancy of the world’s working class. It can now be truly said that the working class has a world-wide dimension. While the concept of “Workers of the World, Unite!” could only have limited application in 1848, it is now becoming a reality.
It was the understanding by Marx and Engels of the processes taking place in society, the inevitability of the spread of capitalism and, with it, the creation of a working class and their recognition of the revolutionary role of the working class that enabled them to advance such a slogan. This was also the basis for their conclusion that capitalism would inevitably be replaced by socialism.
Although there have been solidarity actions in the past the scope of the present international campaigns is much wider than ever before.
The recent solidarity extended to the Maritime Union of Australia as the Australian Government and some would-be stevedoring companies attempted to introduce “industrial mercenaries” onto the Australian waterfront is a magnificent example.
The world-wide support for the Liverpool dockers is another. Last year militant South Korean trade unions conducted strike action and won their demands with the solidarity support of other unions around the world. They made effective use of the Internet to get their message out.
Czech and German steel workers co-operated together in a struggle against a company which had plants in both the Czech Republic and Germany; international support was given during negotiations by General Electric workers in the US. There are many other examples.
In its transnational corporate form, capitalism strides the world. It is intensifying the exploitation of the working people everywhere. It too has created its international bodies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation. Through these organisations the TNCs are attempting to impose their diktat not only on the people of all countries but also on the governments of supposedly independent states. They have openly instructed the governments of Indonesia, Thailand and South Korea to sack workers, close down industries, privatise publicly-owned enterprises, cut government expenditures (meaning the services and monies provided for education, health services, social welfare programs).
Capitalist governments in Australia, France, Britain, etc. have been implementing similar programs for some time. Capital is also acting internationally. One leader after another of the capitalist countries has visited Indonesia to tell its government that it must carry out the policy instructions of the IMF.
But the globalisation of capital and the globalisation of the working class means that the working people of all countries are facing identical or similar issues. And, consequently, the policies and demands of the progressive organisations have never been more similar.
The same TNCs operating in Indonesia are also operating in Australia, France, Chile, etc. A common enemy presents itself to the working people of all countries. For example, the rapacious and anti-trade union Rio Tinto has operations in many countries mining iron ore, copper, coal, diamonds, gold and other metals. It describes itself as “one of the world’s largest iron ore producers”. Australia’s Broken Hill Propriety Coy (BHP) operates enterprises in 80 countries.
The intensification of the exploitation of the working class in all countries is resulting in unparalleled levels of class struggle and this will intensify. In this situation, international solidarity has become a potent factor in the world-wide struggle against capitalism.
Undoubtedly, capitalism will not go quietly and there are many signs that the defenders of TNC rule are preparing ever new repressive legislation and are beefing up military and police forces to use against the workers and their organisations. A headline in a recent daily newspaper tells the story. It said: “Military ready for trouble in Indonesia”. The article went on: “Indonesia’s military said that as many as two million people have lost their jobs during the nation’s financial crisis and soldiers were ready to crack down on any uprisings.” (Courier Mail, 03/01/1998)
The vicious anti-union legislation of the Australian Government is part of the same picture. The support by Workplace Relations Minister, Peter Reith, for the “industrial mercenaries” project is but another example.
However, the power of working class solidarity was the factor which defeated this anti-trade union plan on the waterfront. The globalisation of capital and the globalisation of the working class, the emergence of a clearly identifiable common enemy confronting the working class everywhere, the fact that the working class now has common policies and demands means that the possibilities for more working class-led revolutionary struggles has increased. These will be struggles not only for immediate economic, social and political demands but for the overthrow of capitalism whose continued rule is becoming more and more intolerable.
The great panoramic and historic sweep of the vision of Marx and Engels set forth so brilliantly in the Communist Manifesto remains a statement of splendid scientific clarity. Its program has not yet been fulfilled. The “spectre of communism” has yet to be transformed into the reality of a world communist society with socialism as its transitional form. It will take more decades, even a century or two. Only then will the communists throughout the world be able to say that the program of the Communist Manifesto has been fulfilled.
The new century will see a resumption of revolutionary upheavals with more countries taking the socialist path. In this process the unity of the world’s working class, foreseen by Marx and Engels just 150 years ago, will play a more potent part. “Workers of the world, unite!” will become an increasing reality.