The Industrial Core of The Working Class

Danny Goldstick

On the basis that the industrial working class is “the decisive core of the working class”, we often have theoretically worried whether its proportional share in the working class as a whole, if not its absolute number, has been shrinking. But that will have to depend, of course, on what we are going to mean by the phrase “industrial working class”.

Just who are the industrial workers? Without some idea of which workers count as industrial workers and which workers count as nonindustrial, any talk about their numbers or proportions is meaningless.

It is not as if we clearly know that we all mean exactly the same thing in speaking of the “industrial workers”. Are industrial workers:

(1) workers in “smokestack industries”?

(2) manual workers?

(3) workers whose mode of labour is highly organized and collective?

(4) workers whose labour creates surplus value?

(5) workers engaged in the “material production’ of goods rather than services?

(6) workers who could conceivably “shut the economy down” in a general strike?

Or what? These different answers certainly do not all come to the same thing. There are plenty of manual workers outside of the smokestack industries (and non-manual workers in them). Transport and communications workers mostly work in the service sector of “nonmaterial” production, but their participation would certainly be essential to “shutting the economy down”.

Who are the industrial workers? I think the right answer is number (3). Marxism holds that industrial capitalism is doomed because of the basic contradiction in it between, on the one hand, the social character of the industrial forces of production (workers and the means of production) and, on the other hand, the continued private appropriation of the product. Why should that doom capitalism? Because it unavoidably produces recurrent crises (depressions, wars, etc.) and at the same time, above all, produces what the Communist Manifesto calls capitalism’s “grave-diggers”, the Industrial Working Class. It is the first mass class of the oppressed in history imbued by its daily work experience at the point of production with a collectivity and discipline enabling its members to act together effectively on behalf of their common interests – when they see the need – up to the point, in a revolutionary crisis, of taking the country over, together with their class allies.

The industrial workers are the natural leaders (“vanguard”) of mass movements of the oppressed and exploited, up to and including revolutionary take-over, because of their superior capacity of collectivity and discipline in action. It is accordingly the industrial workers, in this sense, who are the easiest to organize, and potentially the most powerful in organized mass action. In Karl Marx’s words:

"Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital ... grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working-class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of production itself." (Capital, Vol. I, Chapter 32)

The two most serious alternatives to (3) here would no doubt be (6) and (4). As for (6), a general strike might play a key role in the process of socialist revolution in Canada, but it has not yet played a decisive role in any other country’s socialist revolution, and in only a few socialist revolutions has it played any major role at all. In fact, the general strike has never been the key point in Marxism’s theory of socialist revolution. In any case, service workers in communications or “non-productive” workers in banking might well be better placed to shut the capitalist economy down by strike action than, say, manufacturing workers in the automobile industry. What is key is differences in collectivity and discipline between different groups of workers.

However, the collectivity and discipline of the workers in the production process is a matter of degree, making any statistics difficult. And modern technological changes sometimes increase and sometimes decrease the collectivity and discipline of the work force. Typing pools with computerized word-processing are surely more industrial, in the sense of collectivity and discipline, than individual typists working under separate bosses. But “work-teams” are probably at least a little less industrial, in this sense, than are assembly lines. The general overall long-term tendency surely has in the main been to increase greatly the industrial character of wage-labour.

In Marx’s day, white-collar wage workers tended to be few in numbers, relatively privileged, and almost entirely individual, rather than collective, in the manner in which their work was organized. Today almost all of that has changed, but our thinking has only partly caught up with the changes.

There is, lastly, the sub-category of workers whose labour actually creates surplus value. The ruling class of the capitalist system is indeed based on the private profit-making sector of the economy, but it surely does not follow that it is just the workers there – the “productive workers”, in the parlance of classical political economy – who alone make up the “decisive core” of the working class. Marx ridiculed any idea of attaching deep class significance to the distinction between “productive” and “non-productive” workers as such, pointing out, for example, that teachers in a profit-making private school do create surplus value for their employer – while other teachers, of course, do not (Theories of Surplus Value, Part I, page 411).

Can anybody explain why CP Rail workers belong to the “decisive core” of the working class while CN workers do not? To be sure, as a matter of economic analysis, only the former create value in their work. To those who argued that even, say, government employees could be seen as contributing indirectly to the creation of value, Marx replied in effect that perhaps they could, but then so also, for example, could common criminals whose activities undoubtedly create opportunities for the publishers of law books and the manufacturers of padlocks, etc. (T.S.V., I, 387-8)!

All in all, there would appear to be good grounds for concluding that, when it comes to economic and political class action, the industrial workers are indeed the “decisive core” of the working class, but not at all for drawing the conclusion that the size of the industrial working class has fallen as a proportion of the working class as a whole.

Spark! #2 – pgs. 8-11