On May 15, 2011, tens of thousands of fed up youth — known as the indignados — came out into the streets of Spain, starting the “15-M” movement. Young people demanded “real democracy now,” opposing the corrupt political caste who, they declared, “do not represent us.” These young people had suffered from years of economic crisis, austerity measures and precarious jobs. Since the established parties and trade unions were not doing anything about these crises, they decided to take matters into their own hands.
The sentiment was part of a global protest cycle that appeared a few months earlier in Tahrir Square in Cairo and a few months later in Zuccotti Park in New York City. These protests claimed to represent the people — or 99 percent of them.
The idea of the 99% represented an incipient class consciousness that had not existed in the U.S. in decades. It implies that a tiny minority of the population profits off the misery of the vast majority. The idea took hold in the imaginations of tens of thousands of youth and working-class people. Occupy and the Indignados movements, therefore, represented progressive phenomena. But they also had their limitations. As Marxists, we need to think about the pitfalls of a strategy that seeks to unite fully 99% of the population.
This desire to represent everyone has led to some bizarre scenes. In the summer of 2011 in Barcelona, more than 10,000 people gathered at the Plaça Catalunya — one of the biggest assemblies of the 15-M Movement — to debate the way forward. An overwhelming majority of those present supported the demand of self-determination for oppressed nationalities (which has only become more pressing in the last six years). But a group of about 40 Spanish nationalists were opposed to this demand. In the name of finding a “consensus” of “the 99 percent,” the movement didn’t raise this very popular demand. The leaders of this movement even welcomed police officers onto their stage, since they were also supposedly members of “the people”.
This problem has existed since the dawn of capitalism: In a market economy, the means of production are owned by an infinitesimally small number of capitalists, whom Marxists refer to as the bourgeoisie. They live off the labor of the vast majority, who do not own the means of production and thus need to sell their labor power to survive; we refer to this group as the proletariat. But the bourgeoisie does not rule directly. A complex regime (often with democratic, constitutional and parliamentary mechanisms) creates countless layers between the two major poles of capitalist society. If the conditions were as simple as just 1 percent or even 0.1 percent of the population (as liberal economist Paul Krugman has suggested) ruling over the rest, then a social revolution would be exceedingly easy!
An Analogy from 1930
To pose a historical analogy: By 1930, the once-revolutionary Communist Party of Germany (KPD) had been taken over by Stalinist bureaucrats under Ernst Thälmann. Faced with the explosive growth of the Nazis, these Stalinist leaders started to copy the fascists’ slogans. Instead of a proletarian revolution, they called for a “people’s revolution.”
Leon Trotsky, an exiled leader of the Russian Revolution who led the fight against Stalinism, criticized this idea sharply:
Now the new turn: the people’s revolution instead of the proletarian revolution. The fascist Strasser says 95 percent of the people are interested in the revolution, consequently it is not a class revolution but a people’s revolution. Thälmann sings in chorus. In reality, the worker-Communist should say to the fascist worker: of course, 95 percent of the population, if not 98 percent, is exploited by finance capital. But this exploitation is organized hierarchically: there are exploiters, there are subexploiters, sub-subexploiters, etc. Only thanks to this hierarchy do the superexploiters keep in subjection the majority of the nation. In order that the nation should indeed be able to reconstruct itself around a new class core, it must be reconstructed ideologically and this can be achieved only if the proletariat does not dissolve itself into the “people,” into the “nation,” but on the contrary develops a program of its proletarian revolution and compels the petty bourgeoisie to choose between two regimes. The slogan of the people’s revolution lulls the petty bourgeoisie as well as the broad masses of the workers, reconciles them to the bourgeois-hierarchical structure of the “people and retards their liberation. But under present conditions in Germany, the slogan of a “people’s revolution” wipes away the ideological demarcation between Marxism and fascism and reconciles part of the workers and the petty bourgeoisie to the ideology of fascism, allowing them to think that they are not compelled to make a choice, because in both camps it is all a matter of a people’s revolution. These wretched revolutionists, in a conflict with any serious enemy, think first of all of how to imitate him, how to repaint themselves in his colors, and how to win the masses by means of a smart trick and not by revolutionary struggle.
(Leon Trotsky: Thälmann and the “People’s Revolution)
Neither Left Nor Right?
All over the world, old political regimes are decaying, and new parties are coming to the fore, both on the left and the right. France’s Front National is on the extreme right, while Podemos in the Spanish State is left-social democratic. Both, however, claim to be “neither left nor right.” Despite all their ideological differences, they both believe that the concepts of “left” and “right” are now anachronistic. For the FN, the real conflict is between patriots and globalists, while Podemos sees a struggle between the political caste and democracy.
Many of these new parties claim to represent “the people.” But in capitalist society, “the people” are divided into antagonistic classes. The bosses cut our wages to increase their profits — and we strike to get better wages, cutting into their profits. Every gain for them is a loss for us and vice versa. We have no interests in common. So who can claim to represent the common interests of these two warring camps? Anyone referring to an overriding “national interest”, divorced from class analysis, is inevitably defending the interests of the owners of the nation, i.e. the bourgeoisie.
The Petty Bourgeoisie
Marxists refer to the social layers between the two poles of capitalist society as the petty bourgeoisie. In the narrow sense, this refers to people who own the means of production, but on such a limited scale that they can not live off the labor of others. A member of the petty bourgeoisie might be a shop owner or an independent contractor. But in a broader sense, the term encompasses all kinds of in-between layers, including professionals of all kinds, military officers, state bureaucrats, mid-level-managers — even if they technically work for a salary.
These middle layers were defined by Belgian Revolutionary Victor Serge:
people of the middling sort, more or less exploited but highly privileged within the system of exploitation and participating in it. The technical intelligence is simultaneously the organizer of production and of exploitation; is is thereby led to identify itself with the system, and to conceive of the capitalist mode of production as the only one possible. The petty-bourgeoisie, educated, comfortable and held in a position of subordinancy by the bourgeoisie, is often threatened with impoverishment, and consequently tends toward Socialism; it is, however, inclined toward fatal illusions. More cultured than the proletariat, more numerous and advanced in ideology than the bourgeoisie proper, it feels that its vocation is that of running society. Nineteenth-century democratic illusions were born out of this state of mind and have, in their turn, helped to nurture it. The Socialism of the petty-bourgeois is a Socialism of administrators; liberal, confused, individualist, sometimes Utopian, sometimes reactionary. Petty-bourgeois culture is capitalistic, fixated on the defense of the old order and on a mass education which will conform to the interests of the propertied classes. The petty-bourgeois mentality tends, above all in politics, to separate action from the word; the word is conceived as an antagonist to action or as a false substitute for it (…). The bravest souls of the Russian middle classes, who sympathized with the revolution long before it became a reality, thought it should be confined to the bourgeois revolution which would open an era of sound reforms. Proletarian revolution appears to them like an invasion of barbarians, a collapse into anarchy, a blasphemy against the idea of revolution itself. (…) The middle classes wanted the bourgeois revolution to inaugurate a democratic republic in which they would have constituted the administrative classes and where capitalist development would have proceeded unchecked (…). The Utopianism of this class was also shocked by the reality of the revolution: the harsh, bloody reality that was so different from the romantic idyll they had often dreamed of. The workers and soldiers had quite another approach here, accustomed as they were to living among harsh and bloody reality, enduring necessities in all their naked brutality, brought up in the school of recession and imperialist war.
(Victor Serge: Year One of the Russian Revolution. This quote is from a printed edition and differs slightly from the online version.)
The petty bourgeoisie is more ideologically advanced and numerous than the “big” bourgeoisie, thus they call for democracy. But they are simultaneously more educated and privileged than the proletariat — and they undercut their own democratic program with warnings against “mob rule,” i.e. rule by the working masses themselves.
This leads to a stunning contradiction: While, as a rule, petty bourgeois parties define themselves as “democratic”, they are inevitably constructed in an authoritarian, vertical and bureaucratic way.
Podemos is a perfect example. Podemos is led by academics who grew up in the 1980s with a belief in the dynamic capitalism of the the Spanish State. They feel that, due to their high level of education, they are called upon to lead society — but corrupt politicians are blocking their career paths, and this is why they scream for “democracy.” At the same time, they want to make sure political power is in the hands of “experts,” i.e. themselves.
This seems like a contradiction. The “democratic” formation led by Pablo Iglesias has an internal regime that is more bureaucratic even than the right-wing parties. Iglesias’ position as “General Secretary” gives him unlimited power within the party. Leading bodies are made up entirely of his supporters — opposition platforms are not allowed any representation. The plebiscitary idea that important decisions can be made by online votes gives political power to those figures with easy access to the bourgeois media — they get to frame the discussions in TV talk shows and thus decide what questions are put to a vote in the first place.
The petty bourgeoisie is a social stratum that thinks it wants revolution but inevitably recoils in horror from the consequences. They demand democracy from the big bourgeoisie above them, but remain anti-democratic towards the workers below them. Successful petty bourgeois “revolutionaries” are thus integrated into the bourgeoisie’s regime.
The Working Class
The working class, in contrast, makes up 60, 70 or 80 percent of a developed capitalist economy. It’s hard to give an exact number. According to official statistics, almost 50 percent of the US population is involved in full-time wage labour. But the working class also includes part-time workers, as well as dependents. The working class doesn’t only include people who work on an assembly line and didn’t go to college, which is often how the term is misused in U.S. discourse. Friedrich Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto that the proletariat includes everyone who lacks the means of production and thus has to sell their labor power for a wage. It also includes people who are dependent on selling their labor power but are currently unable to do so, i.e. the unemployed. It includes workers in every profession and of every nationality, gender, and legal status. It does not, however, include the armed thugs at the service of the capitalists (the cops). And it does not include people who exploit the labor power of others, even if they remain poor.
As Marxists, we believe the working class is central to the project of human liberation. Marx referred to the proletariat as a “universal class,” a class that owns nothing and can only obtain its own liberation via the liberation of all. Proletarians are the only “consistently revolutionary class” under capitalism — the only social force with a material interest in ending every form of exploitation and oppression.
This does not mean proletarians are immune to racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of oppression. On the contrary, workers are indoctrinated with bourgeois ideology every second of their lives. But they can only improve their own living conditions when the lives of their fellow workers are likewise improved. Workers have a material interest in ending racism, sexism and homophobia, whether they realize it or not.
A party of the 99 percent?
To transform society, we need a workers’ program that aims to destroy the bourgeois state and expropriate the means of production. Workers will need to create a socialist republic based on council democracy in which production is subject to a democratically-decided plan. This creates the foundation for a society without oppression. Oppression will not disappear automatically — that will require a constant struggle both before and after the revolution — but revolution lays the foundations for this process.
This is why the idea of a “party of the 99 percent,” as advocated by some leftists in the U.S., is so nonsensical. A party of the 99 percent would be incapable of solving any of the central contradictions of bourgeois society. Such a party would be unable to end low wages and exploitation since small business owners — who clearly belong to the 99 percent — need to exploit us in order to make their profits. Similarly, such a party couldn’t end racism since cops — also members of the 99 percent — rely on racism to do their jobs.
We need a workers’ party to fight for the interests of our class which means a party of the 60 or 70 percent. But we don’t need a party that organizes all wage earners. The working class is huge — now more than half the world’s population sells their labour power for a wage, not including dependents and the unemployed — and suffers from all kinds of divisions. There are workers with an extremely backwards consciousness who support racism and sexism (and thus damage their own class interests). There are workers who understand their place in the history of human society, and therefore fight for the unity of all workers.
We must unite the most conscious workers, the workers who can lead our class into battle against the capitalists. Marxists refer to these layers as the vanguard. Only this most advanced sector, united in a party, can organize the class based on the lessons of the last 200 years of workers’ struggle against capitalism. As Emilio Albamonte and Matías Maello wrote :
for the working class the essential element of the maturation of their interests is determined by its accumulated historical experience and education in the process of class struggle, a continuity that can only be sustained by an organized vanguard, because never under the conditions of capitalism at all times, and even less in times of decline, can this consciousness be that of the whole class.
(Emilio Albamonte and Matías Maello: En los límites de la ‘restauración Burguesa’, our translation.)
We need to fight confidently for our own program, the program of the working class. This program has a lot of offer for all oppressed layers to the petty bourgeoisie, who are constantly crushed into the ground by the competition of the big bourgeoisie, and sometimes driven into deeper poverty than workers themselves. But these middle layers can only find liberation when they organize themselves behind the proletarian party.
We fight for a workers’ government in order to transform society. Such a government would not just govern in the interests of workers, but in the interest of all working and oppressed people, including most of the middle classes. Such a government would fight for the rights of all oppressed groups, even if they don’t belong directly to the working class. Even small capitalists who have the wrong skin color can still face daily police violence, discrimination, harassments and deportations.
Our strategy must be based on the recognition that more than 1 percent of the population will oppose the transition to socialism. It won’t be opposed by just the big capitalists, but also by their armed thugs (cops), tiny capitalists, and and by many other in-between layers. That is why we need a revolution in the first place — to get rid of the bourgeoisie’s mechanisms of power. When a Social Democratic politician like Bernie Sanders offers a program against the “Billionaire class”, he implies that we can join together with small and middle capitalists against the large ones. This is a dangerous illusion, as the capitalists will recognize their joint interests as a ruling class when they are threatened.
To win this struggle, we need an independent organization and confidence in our own strength as a class. We can offer new lives to the small business owners who are wracked by crisis, and any police with a conscience, and treat them as normal workers in a workers’ world — but only if we fight for a revolutionary workers’ party.