Does the working class, as Marx thought of it, really exist?
Aside from being an interesting debate prompt, this is a question vital to understanding just why the great socialist revolution, the mass uprising of a proletariat united in a solidarity born of common interest, never quite seems to happen.
If Marx was right about the nature of capitalism and the exploitation of the lower classes, where is the ﬂaw?
It may be in Marxʼs understanding of the working class itself, particularly as articulated in the Communist Manifesto. Far from uniting people through a multitude of shared interests, the minds of men and women under capitalism are trained to seek out their differences. In a society based on competition, this makes it easier for a person to rationalize stepping on the toes of others while engaging in the proverbial “rat race.”.
As such, the working class becomes stratiﬁed and divided against itself. Not necessarily by some secret capitalist conspiracy, but by the darker side of the human psyche — the greed, fear, and jealousy within everyone (to varying degrees) and the encouragement to grow within the capitalist system. The working class is divided by race, sex, gender, sexuality, income, occupation, religion, nationality, and a whole host of other factors, all of which was true during Marx time.
This makes it a curious omission from his early works, one that would not be addressed until his less-read work The Theory of Surplus Value, which was not published until 20 years after his death.
As opposed to making an in-depth criticism of Marxism, my purpose in this article is to understand and counter act this stratiﬁcation — to better understand the reality of the working class and to encourage class awareness amongst people who may lack it.
If we, as socialists, are to accept the idea of working class stratiﬁcation as being a major impediment to progress, how are we to address and move beyond it?
Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to a complex problem, but the ﬁrst steps on this journey lie within each of us. As members of a movement, we represent our ideas when we express them.
We become the ﬁrst impressions of real socialism when speaking with someone who may not have met a socialist before. And it is crucial to keep this in mind.
What the individual socialist can do is twofold: We can educate, and we can listen. We can help others empathize with the struggles of others, and explain why the liberation of our neighbors is necessary for our own. We can open up a meaningful dialogue.
In order to do so, however, we must also listen — and often must do so before we speak. Many people of all backgrounds feel (rightly) powerless and voiceless in the America of the 21st century. Having a sympathetic ear to hear people’s concerns and the tales of their struggles can be all a person needs sometimes to feel valued.
Listening to an individual’s struggles and then thinking together about how the various ideas and theories could change their lives for the better, if acted upon, makes for a truly cooperative discussion. As socialists, we should aim to talk to people, not at people.
By listening ﬁrst and speaking second, we allow people to tell their stories. When people know you have a genuine interest in being part of the solution to their problems, it’s often easier to get them to connect to and empathize with the problems of others — and to understand the shared condition of exploitation.
This can be new force against capitalist self-interest. With every person who understands that they do not suffer alone, and that the oppression of others is theirs as well, the working class becomes more uniﬁed, and a socialist future takes a small step forward.