‘Can the Working Class Change the World?’ by Michael D Yates reviewed by Lucia Morgans

Can the Working Class Change the World?

Monthly Review Press, New York, 2018. 218 pp., $19 pb
ISBN 9781583677100

Reviewed by Lucia Morgans

About the reviewer

Lucia Morgans is a PhD student at Swansea University. She is researching conceptions of reification …


Those who have watched with amazement and dismay as the power of capital has been ever-more violently consolidated over the last forty years may very well be asking themselves the same question as Yates poses in the title of his latest book: Can the Working Class Change the World? In just under 200 clearly written pages, this book provides a powerful and timely medicine for all socialists battling pessimism. Furnishing the Marxian critique of capitalism with contemporary examples drawn from not only the US experience, but the global condition and struggles of the working-class, Yates provides a compelling argument for why the answer is affirmative. Not only can the working class change the world; it must – ‘there really is no choice’ (183). This book puts paid to any suggestion that such sentiments are utopian.

Published in 2018, this book comes at a time when popular interest in socialism is on the rise, as evidenced in the increased membership of the British Labour Party and the DSA. Yates, however, is under no illusions that traditional social democratic politics can bring about the radical social transformation required to pluck humanity from its alienated existence and avert the course of climate catastrophe. Incremental changes, history has shown, can ‘soon enough be reversed and usually are’ (184). This has been evinced of late, with the evisceration of hard-fought for worker-rights, welfare benefits and public investment under an era of austerity that has caused a ‘very large number of murders and condemned millions of people to lives of hopelessness’ (117). At a time when neoliberalism has ensured that ‘capital no longer sees a need to accommodate the working class in any way,’ (123) how can workers challenge the terrible imbalance of power between labour and capital and create the world anew?

It is no small feat to argue for the transformative power of a class whose members often act against their own objective interests and are wrought with seemingly insurmountable divisions. Nevertheless, in six carefully crafted chapters, Yates manages to achieve just this. In a format and style accessible to those in which he places his faith, he explains who the contemporary working class is, why it is capable of changing the world, its victories thus far and the challenges before it, and crucially, provides practical suggestions for its struggle against exploitation and expropriation.

Born and raised in a Pennsylvanian manufacturing town, Yates’s commitment to his working-class roots has driven his career as one of the leading labour educators in the US. His Why Unions Matter (1998), published over two decades ago, has become a best-seller in worker education circles, a testament to his ability to engage socialist ideas and practice at the grassroots level. Such ability is also the central strength of this latest book. Despite a career in academia and role as editorial director of Monthly Review Press, Yates’ impassioned yet accessible writing eschews the often-times abstract academic debates with which Marxist scholars can be engaged. Theory is of little use if it does not guide practice, and practice is susceptible to go amiss if not guided by theory. This book strikes the balance with comprehension and a non-compromising style.

Since the 1970s, changes in capitalist production and the rise of so-called identity politics have rendered it difficult to define just who the working class are. Nevertheless, Yates tackles this necessary starting point head on. Arguing for a broader definition of the working class, he refutes the traditional Marxian emphasis on wage-labour as the necessary condition of inclusion as it ‘miss[es] hundreds of millions who are not paid wages but labor in such a way that capital benefits’ (12). To the employed, he adds those in the reserve army of labour, informal workers, unpaid homemakers and the world’s some three billion peasants. Drawing upon powerful examples, from construction workers in the US (25-6) to the electronics workers pushed towards suicide in the Shenzhen Foxconn plant (27-8), he demonstrates that the experience of the working class is marked by misery and precariousness.

In the second chapter, Yates elucidates central tenets of Marx’s analysis of capitalism to show that ‘working people are exploited and expropriated, making it impossible for them to achieve real freedom, autonomy, and unalienated lives in a capitalist society’ (33). He supplements a comprehensive exposition of the theory of surplus value with a clear account of the ways in which the expropriation of nature, the non-market labour of women and the bodies of black and other minority people is intertwined with the exploitation of wage labour.

Expanding upon central claims of the Communist Manifesto, in chapter three Yates explains why the working class is capable of radically changing the world. He considers the forces that unite workers against capital, as well as the barriers that thwart class solidarity: differing levels of skill, the mobility of capital, the ideology of nationalism, racialized and gendered social attitudes and structures, divide and rule strategies in the workplace and in capitalism’s hidden abodes, and diminishing health of workers (74-82).

Despite these barriers to class unity, the working class has, since the dawn of capitalism, already changed the world in significant ways. In chapter four, Yates draws predominantly upon the US and European experience to demonstrate how labour unions have raised the wages and benefits of union and non-union members, improved working conditions and weakened the control employers have over hiring, firing, and the labour process (87-97). Where the labour movement has been strengthened by high union density, labour political parties have represented working-class interests, often securing redistributive social policies, generous social welfare benefits, protective legislation and public service investments: the post-war British labour government and the Swedish SAP are given as pertinent examples (101-104.) Furthermore, the examples of Russia, China, Vietnam and Cuba are proof of the power of workers and peasants to instigate revolutionary transformations of society. In the case of the latter, tremendous advances have been achieved, where ‘education, healthcare, and today, organic farming, urban agriculture, and medical research are world class’ (109).

Despite these gains, the power of capital remains firmly intact, as revealed in the penultimate chapter. The demise of the socialist bloc and China’s headlong rush towards capitalism has altered the global balance of power between labour and capital, and has meant that Western capitalist states are no longer pressured to grant concessions to the working class out of fear of popular revolt (117-19). Capital’s assault on the social democratic welfare state, bolstered by the ideology of neoliberalism, has gone largely unchallenged by mainstream labour parties, whilst labour unions, insufficiently democratic and tarnished with corruption, have not caught up to the fact that capital long ago abandoned corporatist cooperation (124-30). As a result, ‘left behind’ workers have forsaken traditional parties and unions, and their insecurities have been capitalised upon by neo-fascist politicians, whose central concerns lie in keeping the working class divided (133).

How can the working class challenge the hegemony of capitalism on all fronts? In the last, largest, and most important chapter, Yates suggests multiple ways in which the working class can utilize its radical agency to change the world. Central to this is a call for solidarity – an emphatic ‘we’ – that can stave off the spell of individualism that is the raison d’être of capitalism (141). In order to bring about radical social transformation, Yates declares that the working class must not look to traditional social democratic politics, nor the ‘mainstream environmental groups, the non-governmental organizations that have proliferated like invasive species [or] the plethora of liberal feminist and ethnic and racial advocacy associations [whose] stakes are tied to the bourgeois order of things’ (184). Its activities and demands must resist co-option by capital’s demagogues, and its mission to reclaim the commons, build substantive democracy and engage self-sufficiency must be instigated from the ground-up. Yates explores ‘multiple terrains of struggle’ through which workers can push back against capitalist exploitation and expropriation: joining and supporting workers centres and cooperatives, forging alliances with peasants and immigrants, sustained insistence on radically democratized labour unions and political parties, and engagement in direct action such as strikes, boycotts and protests are some of the many illuminating suggestions on offer.

Unlike other books of its like, Yates stresses the imperative of averting the course of climate change and places a welcome wager on the capacity of the working class to restore Earth’s metabolism. He argues convincingly that by engaging in mass levels of ‘occupy, resist, produce,’ the working class can reject the irrational and abhorrently wasteful capitalist food production and distribution system, replenish the environment and forge collective consciousness in the process. On this, there are a great many lessons to be learnt from the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (156), Cuba’s mass Urban Agriculture Programme (152-53) and Cooperation Jackson (180-81).

One of the many strengths of Can the Working Class Change the World? is its perspicuous explanation of the inextricable relationship between class exploitation and racism, patriarchy and environmental destruction. If the working class is to overcome its divisions in this age of ‘identity politics,’ then it must heed Yates’ observation that ‘capitalism has been racialized, gendered and wasteful of nature from its inception’ (56) and act upon his insistence to confront issues of racism, imperialism, patriarchy and climate change as urgently as economic exploitation.

Recurring throughout Can the Working Class Change the World? is an emphatic call for unions, teachers and grassroot activists to ensure that the working class is educated about the history, principles and struggles of the radical labour movement, so that its members can situate themselves historically and realize their potential to change the world. On every page, Yates practices what he preaches. In the hands of workers, educators and activists, this book will go a long way in inspiring radical thinking and action. And if, as Yates says, ‘only radical thinking and acting have any chance of staving off accelerating levels of barbarism’ (184), then this book will go a long way in changing the world.

4 August 2020


  1. Lucia Morgans’s review of my book almost had me blushing. She has gotten what I was trying to do, write clearly for workers and peasants and not just about them. To provide a rousing call to action. Let me thank her from the bottom of my heart for this review and send her solidarity and best wishes.

  2. Lest we forget, Marx’s advice to workers back in 1865 was to inscribed on their banners, abolish the wage system and junk the conservative slogan of “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work”.

    “What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”
    ― Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

    The totality of the social relation of Capital is constructed by subjects who are dependent on wages to survive. “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

    1. Absolutely right. There is no socialism without the abolition of the wage labour relation. Btw this is the reason the regimes of “actually existing socialism” were not socialist. Instead of abolishing wage labour they generalised it.
      The author ‘destroys’ the concept of the working class (“he refutes the traditional Marxian emphasis on wage-labour” says the reviewer) by over-expanding it to include almost everyone on the basis of the criterion of “labor[ing] in such a way that capital benefits”. By this criterion the political elites that ‘toil’ to serve and benefit capital belong to the ‘working class’. Bourgeois intellectuals, apologists and high-echelon technocrats who overwork themselves to ‘legitimise’ the capitalist mode of production belong to the ‘working class’ according to this criterion.
      Three billion peasants are included in this elastic definition. The concept of the “mode of production” as a specific sociohistorical form of organised social relations of production and its attendant class formation disappears. Such a heteroclite ‘working class’ does not have many chances to ever develop a “class consciousness for-itself” in spite of the fact that the ‘refuted Marxian working class of wage labor’ is ever-growing globally in the last two decades (150 million new proletarians in China, 180 million in India, 210 million in Africa).
      Beyond a well-meaning prescriptivism, ‘theory guiding practice’ must always focus on the objective conditions of class determinations defining the conditions of living and the immanent conditions of possibility for the working class’ self-emancipation. And the ‘working class’ has always been changing the world, for the wo/man-made world is its self-product albeit not in self-chosen “historical circumstances”. The point is to do it in a self-determining, rational and self-transcending way (abolition of class existence).

      1. Thanks for your comment, George. I’m hoping that the concept of “socialism” begins to take on an emancipatory tone vis a vis the wage system, otherwise, I fear, workers will be stuck with leftist leaderships who continue to peddle a sacrificial, moralistic, almost religious whine within the politics of identity.

        Here’s my political programme for workers in Australia. Feel free to modify it for whatever political State you live in:

        That the emancipation of the productive class is that of all human beings without distinction of sex or so-called “racial difference”;
        That the producers can be free only when they are in possession of the means of production;
        That there are only two forms under which the means of production can belong to them
        The individual form which has never existed in a general state and which is increasingly eliminated by industrial progress;
        The collective form the material and intellectual elements of which are constituted by the very development of capitalist society;
        That this collective appropriation can arise only from the revolutionary action of the productive class – or workers – organized in a distinct political party;
        That a such an organisation must be pursued by all the means the working class has at its disposal including universal suffrage which will thus be transformed from the instrument of deception that it has been until now into an instrument of emancipation;
        The Australian workers, in adopting as the aim of their efforts the political and economic expropriation of the capitalist class and the return to community of all the means of production so that the community can have the power to live in harmony with Nature and establish equal political power between all human beings, have decided, as a means of organisation and struggle, to enter the elections with the following immediate demands:
        1. All individuals, companies, banks, institutions and governments immediately halt all investments in fossil fuel exploration and extraction, immediately end all fossil fuel subsidies and immediately and completely divest from fossil fuels.
        2. Abolition of all laws over the press, meetings and associations.
        3. Suppression of the public debt.
        4. Legislated reduction of the working day to four hours.
        5. Protective supervision of apprentices by the workers’ organisations.
        6. Increase in funds allocated to the Age Pension with 55 being the age of eligibility.
        7. Abolition of all indirect taxes and transformation of all direct taxes into a progressive tax on incomes over $60,000. An increase of the company tax to 49% (where it was in 1987).
        8. Construction of social housing with the goal of eliminating the waiting list by December, 2022.
        9. Universal bulk billing for healthcare.
        10. Free public education through university and TAFE for all citizens.
        11. Abolition of standing armies and the general arming of the people;
        12. The Community to be master of its administration and its police.
        13. Responsibility of the bosses in the matter of accidents, guaranteed by a security paid by the employer into the workers’ funds, and in proportion to the number of workers employed and the danger that the industry presents;
        14. Intervention by the workers in the special regulations of the various workshops; an end to the right usurped by the bosses to impose any penalty on their workers in the form of fines or withholding of wages.

        1. A very interesting transitional programme. We could add workers’ representation in corporate boards of large companies (the problem of capital flight has to be addressed, co-determination of long range strategic investments).
          Re-organization of the mass media sector. Information of the public is a major public good and cannot be provided by for-profit companies. This is the greatest blindspot in all Left political programmes. They do not understand the exorbitant power the mass media system possesses in shaping the ‘general mind’ and the belief systems of the population. Hence public (by state & civil society) ownership of the mediatic system. Without a workers’ media ‘ecosystem’ no socialism can be brought about. Socialist values have to be promulgated, debated, exemplified, refined and “socialised” contesting the dominant ideology of ‘competitive individualism’ and market primacy over society.
          I have a reservation about the “general arming of the people” due to the culture of violence ravishing contemporary societies.
          Public accountability of all major social institutions, recall and limited terms of office, reinforcement of representative democracy in tandem with direct democratic forms and decentralisation of political power.
          And “internationalism” has to be put in the agenda.

          1. Thanks for your input, George. I think I’ve got it covered in:

            That there are only two forms under which the means of production can belong to them
            The individual form which has never existed in a general state and which is increasingly eliminated by industrial progress;
            The collective form the material and intellectual elements of which are constituted by the very development of capitalist society;

            The basic principle is:

            We should socially own and democratically manage the wealth we produce and that which lies in natural resources so that we can have the power to distribute it on the basis of need and live in harmony with the Earth.

      2. Perhaps you should read the book. The author certainly does not argue that those technocrats, etc. you mention are in the working class. Rather the ideas is to consider those who might become a class for itself and challenge the rule of capital. Cops work for wages and support capital, but I don’t consider them part of the working class.

        1. Cops are ‘public servants’ employed by the state. They do not work for capital and certainly do not produce surplus value.
          I never argued that the author claims that the ‘technocrats’ etc. belong to the working class. I argued that his ‘definition’ of working class is contradictory (=over-expansive lacking a consistent criterion) and allows for such inclusion.
          I will try to read the book.

  3. Leí la reseña del libro de Michael Yates y me pareció importante desde todo punto de vista, iniciando con la pregunta¿Cómo vencer al gran capital consolidado?. Igualmente me llevó a dos consideraciones que creo deben tratarse; una es ¿Y cómo se llega al poder? y la otra es que hacer cuando se llega al poder, porque debemos tener claro cuales son los pasos necesarios para llegar al socialismo después de alcanzar el poder, pues esa debe ser la propuesta diferenciadora que convenza y mantenga unida a los trabajadores al gobierno revolucionario

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