“Can the Working Class Change the World?” by Michael Yates, 2018
This is a short book that does not answer the question in its title. It should have been called “The Working Class Must Change the World.”
The first part of the book is a basic analysis of capital from a Marxist international perspective. Sort of a primer that looks at how profit is created through labor and inputs from nature. It includes a brief description of the class structure, and how different strata intersect – or don’t. The second part is a look at some of the main forces working people have used to combat capital – unions and labor parties, revolution and the workers’ states created by them, along with a focus on small farmers and peasants. The third is ‘why’ working class people must replace capital with a sustainable, planned and equal society worldwide. A society of ‘we’ not ‘I.’ Basically Yates sees it as unavoidable or things are only going to get worse.
|Yes, because middle-class liberal won't do it.|
So anyone buying this book will be asking – where are the material sources of optimism for all those who labor? What are capital’s weaknesses now? And what are its non-material and theoretical weaknesses? Clearly, his brief history shows that the working classes HAVE changed the world in the past, in many, many ways and have been the main force for social progress since the 1700s. Yates’ present examples of progress click on some familiar groups that have made headway recently, like Occupy, BLM, continuing Swedish or German labor power, Indian Naxalites or the MST in Brazil.
But the main question remains. Just in this country, a cursory look at the weak, divided and politically confused U.S. working class makes the Marxist insistence that those who labor will one day embrace the abolition of wage slavery – to be somewhat pessimistic. The book “On New Terrain” by Kim Moody actually gives some material reasons why labor might be able to grow once again in the ‘global north’ due to long supply chains, connecting technologies, vulnerable just-in-time methods, corporate oligopolies and heavy urban and sectoral concentrations of workers. One thing Moody did not include is the weakening Rightist grip on the U.S. South. On the ideological level, capitalist institutions are in low repute everywhere. The corporate faction fight between Democrats and Republicans is just more evidence of that. The ‘global South’ is certainly more organized and active than anything in the wealthy capitalist countries, and that will continue. This is where I certainly look. Only in parts of Europe does labor still hold many institutional cards. Yates has almost nothing about these issues.
This book is a good primer for those who are unfamiliar with the labor movement or socialism. It includes a concentration on the question of food, as agriculture is ignored many times by leftists. It ignores rentier or financial capital. It is aware of the ‘metabolic rift’ between nature and society created by capital that Marx understood. It looks to indigenous peoples’ early communism for a guide to the future and gives a list of programmatic demands. It ignores the question of what forms of organization the actual Left can take to grow. The military question does not come up.
Yates does not seem to directly address the question – why the working class or even an economic focus? The working classes, including small farmers, are the vast majority in the world, so ‘democracy’ demands a proletarian and peasant focus. A large aggressive proletarian political party would dominate any representative society, even one where it was forced to go underground. Working class labor is far more essential than many of the highly compensated, lauded and worthless occupations that dominate capitalist societies. Just think of the many useless lawyers, corporate managers, advertising executives and sales people modern capital has created, just as a start. Because of workers’ inherent power, withdrawing labor is one of the most powerful forces there is. The world-wide ideological campaign against ‘communism’ has limited unity and organization since 1991, but that shows signs of weakening in some places – even in the U.S. Instead, political polarization is now becoming the norm. The neo-liberal bourgeois center is crumbling as its cruel and incompetent face is exposed. Another serious economic collapse similar to 2008 could spell the death knell for capital on a world-scale, but it also might usher in barbarism once again.
Just to be cranky, I sometimes look to see if there are scratches on used LPs I buy. Perhaps I need to start reading a few paragraphs in books before I buy for the same purpose. But for you, this book might be dynamite!
Other reviews on this topic, or by Yates: “On New Terrain,” “In and Out of the Working Class” (Yates), “Reviving the Strike,” “Embedded With Organized Labor,” “Save Our Unions,” “Re-Building Power in Open Shop America,” “Class Against Class,” “Southern Insurgency,” “Is the East Still Red?” ”From Commune to Capitalism,” “The Rise of China,” “The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism,” “Walking With the Comrades,” “The God Market.”
And I bought it at May Day Books most thorough selection of Left books!
November 9, 2018