Communist Party of Australia

We acknowledge the Sovereignty of the First Nations’ Peoples.


Journal of the Communist Party of Australia


Working class in Australia

by Laurie Kiek and Tony Kushelew

We wish to contribute to the discussion that has been going on, in the Congress Discussion Journal and the AMR, as to who constitute the working class, who are workers. This is no mere academic question. We are a working class party and seek to serve the working class. Consequently, our response to the question affects our work. There are those who hold that only, and almost only, the workers who produce material values (the industrial workers) constitute the working class and that our attention should focus on them. Others take a very much broader view that all, or almost all, who sell their labour power in order to live are workers and that our efforts and interest should be more widely spread.

The concept of “the working class” long precedes Marx. In England the idea included a number of concepts — being employed for wages, having a poor standard of living and a certain manner of speech and behaviour. This vague concept however, does not go to the root of the matter — the question of who, or what the working class is, a question which has bedevilled even the communists.

Philosophy and method

To deal with this requires a little preliminary discussion of philosophy and method.

Food, shelter and air are the primary needs of humanity. Without them, thought, feeling and social life cannot exist. That is the materialist position. Marxists however, do not regard our mental and emotional processes simply as a mirror image or direct derivative of the material world, as vulgar materialists (positivists), tend to do. Thought and reality are two different things and affect each other, and it is possible to think (or invent) things which do not exist. Thought and material reality are linked by human activity — praxis. This statement does not fall into the error of pragmatism — that truth is that which works.

The Ptolematic theory, that the sun revolves around the earth each day, led to the development of a very complicated physical model which could be used in navigation. This was pragmatic but in no way does it reflect the truth demonstrated by Copernicus; that we live in a heliocentric (sun-centred) solar system. Our theories and categories generally simplify and make reality useable for us. Of course, they do leave out aspects and details of reality: otherwise we would be quite unable to cope with the information overload. Our categories and abstractions must correspond with the real attributes of things described if they are to be usefully employed.

A person in society has many attributes. The person may be a single mother, an athlete, indigenous etc. Each of these categories may be useful for a particular purpose. We, however, consider the most basic and determining category to be how a person makes a living and the social relations which are entered into to make that possible.

Modes of production

The founders of communism recognised there had been a succession of societies, from primitive-tribal, to slave societies, then feudal, leading to mercantile-capitalist and the modern form of capitalism. Each of these societies has a characteristic mode of production i.e. a dominant method of organising production by which it meets the primary needs of its members for food and shelter — the fundamental prerequisites for survival. Not only survival is essential, so is reproduction, unless that society is to become extinct. Marx analysed the capitalist mode of production. He distinguished two basic elements which he called the forces of production and the relations of production. The former are the technologies in use (including human labour-power) while the latter can be paraphrased as “who owns what” in the productive process. Capitalists own factories, machinery and buy raw materials. Workers own no means of production and so must sell their labour-power in order to subsist and reproduce.

Adam Smith

In Australia in 2006, the capitalist mode of production predominates and the values created in production are exchanged in a market at a price. Adam Smith, the 18th Century classical bourgeois economist, was the first to abstract the notion of “natural price”, which was the amount of labour involved in producing the goods concerned. The term “value” was used by Marx and others for this, but unfortunately financial writers and even some economists have confused, or deliberately misconstrued the equivalence of value with price, even though every shopper knows the difference.

There are a number of problems, about which volumes have been written, dealing with Adam Smith’s idea of value and price, under conditions of perfect and imperfect competition, and many practices, such as futures markets, currency speculation, dealing in rare objects and art etc., require analysis. But these are not central to Smith’s idea of value, which even bourgeois economists such as Marshall and Keynes readily accepted.

There are other problems to be worked through. Labour is not uniform. Smith took an hour of the most unskilled labour as his unit of value. The former Arbitration Court of Australia accepted this but added training and unusual attributes to it, (“danger money” etc.).

The technology of a particular time affects value, the value of steel has fallen over millennia, for example. This may or may not involve the value of inputs, of raw materials, human labour-power and capital equipment, which is really “potted labour” from the past. Some techniques actually reduce both types of input, (geothermal electricity, for example provides cheaper energy to carry on the process).

Karl Marx

Marx added the essential element to the labour theory of value, by distinguishing between labour and labour-power (which is what the worker sells to the employer) and is the source of all production and value.

The difference between the value of labour power and the value it produces, Marx called surplus value. It is the source of all capital accumulation and profit appropriated by the employer. The division between worker and capitalist seems clear.

Not all producers of value are workers. Independent craftsmen and working owners of small business produce value with their labour, but do not sell their labour power or enter into a dependent social relation which allows another to dictate their hours of work or alienate the product. It is this social relation of dependency which distinguishes the worker.

Productive labour

Nor is all labour productive of value or surplus value. Marx takes the case of domestic servants. Today there are many more kinds of unproductive labour. Marx defined unproductive labour as that which produced no commodities.

It is not easy to distinguish productive from unproductive labour. There are transport workers, health workers in public hospitals, teachers in public schools, advertising personnel, computer people and so on. There are also large numbers of wage earners engaged in sharing surplus value around via the financial system, bank staff, stock exchange people, tax collectors and agents. It is less difficult to distinguish show business and sport, culture and journalism.

If we take for example, transport workers, health workers in public hospitals and teachers in public schools, it is clear that none produce commodities, if we consider commodities only as tangible, physical objects. But it is also clear that these workers, who are sellers of labour-power, provide socially necessary services. Services can be sold and bought and thus used to realise surplus value. Therefore most services must be considered to be commodities.

Who is a worker?

The focus of Marx’s analysis is on the social relation which arises from the workers selling their labour power. When workers sell their labour power, they give up control of it to the buyers — when, how, where, what etc. They also give up control of the products to their employers. Usually products are appropriated by capitalist employers, but the buyer of labour power may also be the state or even a cooperative of workers. That does not really alter a worker’s essentially powerless position. A worker’s position may not, however, be entirely powerless, if they have a strong union, or special skills, but the relation of production is essentially one-sided.

We can now define a worker as a person who sells their labour power and loses control of both their labour (when, how and what) and its product.

The status of being a worker therefore depends entirely upon the social relations arising from the wage transaction. What happens to the product of the worker’s labour is beyond their ken and irrelevant. Normally, the wage transaction only happens when a capitalist employer hopes to extract surplus value, but wage transactions can occur with employers who are not capitalists. This still leaves the worker without power and alienated from their labour process and its product. So they are still a worker, even if they are not producing surplus value.

This position of powerlessness and alienation is quite obvious in Australia. Many seek to “be their own boss” by engaging in small business, often at considerable loss. Others seek to defend themselves through their union or, to some extent by state intervention, which has often brought industrial peace in the interests of employers. The alienation (loss of control) of both the labour process and the products of labour in the transaction of the sale of labour power, is the feature which distinguishes a worker from others.

Grey areas

This still leaves some “grey” areas. Are soldiers workers, or unproductive workers? Perhaps we should not count as workers those who are unproductive by the nature of their employment. Like most other categories, there is a doubtful margin, but that does not invalidate the category.

We have no choice here but to abstract the essential notion of a worker as one who sells his/her labour power and the capitalist as one who buys it for the purpose of appropriating surplus value.

It is a fact that most questions in public life have two (or more) sides which correspond with the class interests of the seller of labour power or its buyer. Services such as childcare, public hospitals, public transport, and a myriad of others that come up are of this nature. Sometimes things get complicated (e.g. felling old forests) but the touchstone we use for most of them is class interest.

Class consciousness and socialism

Not everyone is “class conscious”. Individualism, ignorance and prejudice often lead people who are clearly of one class to adopt an opposite position.

Then there is the vexed question of conscience, which could be the subject of another article. Suffice it to say that the notion of the working class is valid because it embodies the real contradictions at the heart of the social system and if we decide our attitudes and actions on the basis of the interests of the wage worker we will not go far astray.

Who will support our positions is not as clear-cut as it once was. All kinds of people have taken working class positions. Many are objectively workers (according to our definition above), and resent and resist their lived experience of oppression. Others, who may fall into what we have called “grey” areas, e.g. students, clergy and some greens, are moved by conscience and outraged by the oppression and social injustice which exist in our country.

Our task as communists is to educate, persuade and organise activity to create a working class for itself (and to form effective links with potential allies) rather than just groups which fight only for their own wages and conditions. The latter is what Lenin called “economism”.

The notion of the “working class” is the most powerful in the Marxist armoury. A peaceful, in fact a successful movement to socialism is unthinkable without the vast majority taking the side of the working class.

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