Workers' Liberty #59


The working class at the turn of the twenty-first century

The working class worldwide is larger than it has ever been before.

By Chris Reynolds

The working class in the 21st century

The world has over 2.8 billion wage-workers today (2,806 million in 1997, according to the World Bank). Of those, about 550 million work in industry, and 850 million in services.

Of the 1.4 billion in agriculture, an increasing number work under more-or-less modern capitalist social relations, rather than in archaic or semi-feudal relations, but exact figures are unavailable. Forty per cent of the population of the "low and middle income" countries live in cities now, and 77% of the population of the "high income" countries.

In the cities of the Third World, large and growing proportions of workers are "informal" (in petty trade, repairs, transport, construction, and contracted-out manufacturing). This work, as the International Labour Organisation notes, "rarely involves a clear-cut employer-employee relationship... In Asia, the sector absorbs an average of 40 to 50% of the urban labour forces, a proportion which rises to 65% in the poorer countries... In Africa, it is estimated the urban informal sector currently employs 61% of the urban labour force".

Thus the wage-working class proper is surrounded by, and shades off at the edges into, a class, maybe equally large, of "semi-proletarians" - people who scrape a living by varying combinations of petty trade, self-employment, theft, begging, domestic work, and straightforward wage-work. But probably today, for the first time in history, the wage-workers and their periphery are a majority, or near a majority, of the population.

This is a tremendous shift. In Russia, at the time of the 1917 revolution, the wage-workers, both city and country, with their families, were only 17% of the population. Only 2% of the population lived in large cities. In Germany, the country which Marxists at that time cited as the epitome of high industrial development, fully 34% of the labour force were self-employed or working for their families. Of the agricultural workers (35% of the total), most still worked under feudal regulations (the Gesindeordnung, abolished only in 1918) which made them semi-serfs. Only 27% of the population lived in cities; only 11% in big cities (of over 300,000 people; all figures for 1910).

At the time Karl Marx published Capital volume 1, in 1867, the total employed in more-or-less modern capitalist industry in England and Wales (textiles, clothing, metalworking, mines, railways, gas, etc.) was just 1.7 million - 17% or less of the population of working age. Other countries were far less industrially developed.

The increase of the wage-working class is not just one economic statistic among others. It has huge political and social implications. We sell our labour-power for a wage because other people, the capitalists, monopolise the means of production - large-scale means of production, which the individual worker cannot hope to own. Around those large-scale means of production, we are educated, trained, and organised, and assembled in large numbers, primarily in cities. More and more these days, we move from job to job, the constant in our lives not being a particular trade or location but the social fact of being a wage-worker.

Built into the wage-bargain is constant conflict. How high or low will the wage be? Once having bought our labour-power, how much labour will the boss squeeze out of us? Against the boss, how far can we assert the priorities of our health, our nerves, and the human interests which we can pursue generally only outside the tyranny of work?

Wage-workers organise, in a way no other basic producing class ever has done. Today there are 164 million trade unionists world-wide (latest ILO figures, dated 1995). In 1869, two years after Marx published Capital, there were only 250,000 trade unionists in Britain, and hardly any in other countries.

Official statistics show a recent decline in trade union numbers. Part of that is real (a 16% drop in Western Europe, a 10% drop in Central and South America, and a 19% drop in Australia and New Zealand, in 1985-95). Part is artificial. The membership of trade unions in Eastern Europe and the USSR is sharply down, but now they are real (if weak) trade unions, where before they were police-state labour fronts.

In many key areas trade unionism is growing. In South Korea trade union membership grew 61% in 1985-95, in Taiwan 50%, in Thailand 77%, and in South Africa 127%. There are now 34 million trade unionists in Asia, not far short of the 41 million in Western Europe.

South Korean workers organised a tremendous general strike in January 1997. Their Confederation of Trade Unions finally won legal recognition from the government in November 1999. Workers played a central role in the overthrow of South Africa's apartheid (in 1993-4) and Indonesia's military dictatorship (in 1998). Increasing numbers of strikes and underground trade unions are challenging China's Stalinist state. Ecuador, Bolivia, Nigeria and many other countries saw mass political strikes in 1994-7.

The workers of the "old" industrial countries do not dominate the world labour movement as they used to, but are far from a spent force. France's mass strikes in November-December 1995 involved more workers in positive activity (meetings, delegations to other workplaces to spread the action, demonstrations) than the famous general strike of May-June 1968.

Such class struggles have a society-changing logic both in countries where most workers would describe themselves as broadly "socialist" or "communist" (like France) and in those (like Indonesia or Korea) where the words "socialist" and "communist" convey only images of brutality and enforced uniformity. A large-scale class struggle inevitably raises the question of who owns and controls the social wealth, the means of production. It points towards a definite answer - that the means of production should be owned in common, and their use democratically planned for the common good rather than being governed by a destructive, greedy race to expand the already-gross wealth of rival profiteers.

Back to the contents page for this issue of Workers' Liberty

Back to the Workers' Liberty magazine index

[ Home | Publications | Links ]