Can Workers Run Society?

 In Labor and Unions

One thing that has been conclusively proved by the Covid pandemic is just who the ‘essential’ workers are. This May Day, John Molyneux asks if workers could ever go one futher – could they run the world?

Essential workers are not billionaires like Denis O’Brien , Richard ‘bail me out’ Branson or Jeff Bezos, nor ridiculously overpaid TV presenters like Ryan Tubridy. Neither are they celebrities or ‘influencers’, or even Presidents, Prime Ministers or Taoisigh. 

Essential workers are the underpaid, overworked and regularly undervalued ordinary people who staff our hospitals, care for our elderly and our children, run our transport, produce and sell  our food, clean our streets, maintain our power supplies and perform a thousand and one other vital tasks that keep our society running on a day to day basis and whose failure to perform their duties is felt in hours or even minutes. 

But can such people actually run society? 

Can they run the country? 

Can they run the world?

Let me say at the outset that if working people were in the saddle and making the key decisions we would have a very different response to the current crisis from that of the Trumps, Johnsons and Varadkars. 

We would not have toying with the idea of a ‘cull’ of old people or abandoning them in care homes  or dragging their feet about providing PPE for front line staff and masks for the general population. We wouldn’t have a two tier health service where your access to life saving treatment depends on the size of your wallet, and so on.

Of course what I’m talking about is working class people running society collectively, not an individual or two from a working class background. That wouldn’t change how the system works any more than having a woman Prime Minister made Britain more equal or having a Black President made the US less racist and imperialist. 

Unfortunately the working class cannot run society through parliament. Obviously it is a good thing to elect socialist parliamentary representatives who will fight for working class interests, such as the People Before Profit MLAs and TDs in Stormont and the Dail, but even if such socialists had a parliamentary majority, the working class would not really be in power. 

All the key centres of power in society – the armed forces and the police, the Special Branch and the rest of the deep state, the judges and top civil servants, the media bosses, the banks and the major industries – are outside of parliament and are run by people whose primary loyalty would be to their class and to the existing system. These people would use their power and resources to frustrate and undermine socialist parliamentarians. 

If Jeremy Corbyn had won the recent general election in Britain, which socialists would have celebrated, working people would still not have been in power and all the forces listed above would have combined to prevent him implementing the kind of socialist policies he sincerely advocated, just as they combined to prevent him being elected.

So how can workers take real political power?  Some history is useful here. 

The Paris Commune

The first time working people ever held political power was in the Paris Commune of 1871. On 18 March of that year there was an uprising by the workers of Paris who won over the soldiers sent against them and marched down from their strongholds in the hills of Montmartre and Belleville to capture the town hall where they declared the Commune of Paris. 

The Commune only lasted 74 days till the last week in May when it was crushed by the armed forces of reaction in la semaine sanglante (‘the Bloody Week’) leaving 30,000 workers dead in the streets. But even in that short embattled space of time the Commune did many progressive things, such as separating church and state and nationalising abandoned workshops. More importantly it left a model of how workers’ power could operate. 

The classic account of the Commune is The Civil War in France, written by Karl Marx at the time, in which Marx identifies three key lessons to be learned from how the Commune was organised. First, he says, the Commune proved that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes’. 

This is extremely important because laying hold of the existing state machinery (through parliamentary elections) is exactly what the large majority of social democratic and reformist socialist parties have been trying to do for the last hundred years or more, with miserable consequences.  Instead Marx argues, and the argument was elaborated by Lenin in The State and Revolution, it is necessary for the working class to dismantle, break up the existing state apparatus and create a new state of their own. 

The second lesson Marx drew was the importance of elected representatives being recallable. In capitalist parliaments there is no recallability except in a general election every five years, at the discretion of the Government.

In the meantime the electorate remain atomised individuals who never meet as a collective. As a result politicians can make election promises and break them with impunity. But in a new Commune-type workers’ state representatives could be elected as delegates from collectives such as workplaces, working class communities and associations and these would be able to meet and recall their delegates if they ceased to represent the will of those who elected them. 

Think what a difference this would have made in Ireland with the likes of Fine Gael and the Labour Party after the 2011 election, when they immediately went back on all their election pledges.

The third lesson was that all representatives and state officials should be paid an average workers’ wage. This is to prevent politicians and officials becoming a privileged layer distinct from the working class people they are representing. This principle, drawn directly from the Commune of 150 years ago, remains operative on the socialist left in Ireland and elsewhere so that the likes of Gerry Carroll MLA and the PBP TDs take only an average wage, giving the rest of their state salaries to the cause. 

To this it must be added that the Paris Commune was not a one-off. Time again when working people have sought to challenge or overthrow capitalism they have formed or started to form popular assemblies. 

Economic Power

The most famous example is the Soviets that took power in the Russian Revolution . ‘Soviets’ – Councils of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Deputies – started in Petrograd and spread round the country becoming the basis for Lenin’s revolutionary government in October 1917. 

Similar Workers’ Councils were formed in the German Revolution of 1919 and in Italy during the factory occupations of the ‘two red years’ in 1919-20. They reappeared in Chile in 1972 as cordones or industrial belts or in the Iranian Revolution of 1979 as shoras and there were moves in that direction in the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. 

The point is these forms of organisation can grow organically out of  the need to coordinate large scale struggles such as mass strikes and workplace occupations and then go on to be the core of workers’ political power.

But this is not the whole story. To run society workers need not only political power but economic power. Without economic power anything the workers state/government tries to do will be undermined.  

To achieve workers’ economic power the workers’ state will have to take the major banks, businesses and corporations into public ownership  – not every corner shop and local take away but the main industries and services. Then they will have to be run under workers’ control , not just managed by the same old privileged, pro-capitalist state bureaucrats who manage state companies at present.  

James Connolly was insistent on this point one hundred and twenty years ago when he wrote:

‘Socialism properly implies above all things the co-operative control by the workers of the machinery of production; without this co-operative control the public ownership by the State is not Socialism – it is only State capitalism.’ 

And he has been proved right time and again by examples ranging from Russia under Stalin to the old nationalised industries in Britain, and RTE and the HSE in Ireland. Only workers control of industry will allow democratic management of the economy in the interests of the people.


Talking of workers’ control is bound to raise the objection that working people as a rule lack the expertise, the specialist technical and scientific knowledge required to run industry. Now it is true that many industries do need people with very specialised expert knowledge not all working people hold.

An example would be the pharmaceutical industry which requires highly trained scientists and medical experts for the manufacture and testing of new drugs and vaccines, but the same would apply to the oil and gas industry or any engineering corporation. 

This is not an argument against workers control. It is quite false to imagine that under capitalism the people who run industry and other corporations are scientific or technical experts. Not at all. The people who run the big corporations are not scientific experts but experts in business, experts in management – experts in making profits who pay the scientists, engineers etc., to work for them to serve the business and its shareholders in their core activity of accumulating capital.

 Emma Walmsley, CEO, of the big pharma company GlaxoSmithKline, and daughter of Sir Robert Walmsley and Lady Christine Walmsley, has a Masters Degree in Classics and  Modern Languages from Oxford . She worked for seventeen years at L’Oreal in general management and marketing in Paris, London, and New York, and at GSK she specialised in leading the company’s sales drive in ‘emerging’ markets (business speak for the ‘Global South’). She also served as a non-executive director at Walmart and Microsoft. An expert indeed – but not in pharmaceuticals.

With a workers’ state, public ownership and workers control, experts and specialists will certainly be needed but they will work for the workers’ government and the workers’ management committees in industry instead of for the Emma Walmsleys of this world, and scientific knowledge would be made to serve the interests of working people not the interests of profit. 

There is, however, a much deeper and more serious problem standing in the way of workers controlling the state and industry than lack of technical expertise, namely lack of confidence. From earliest childhood working class people are conditioned by the circumstances of their lives to believe they are not able to run society. 

The biggest difference between the upbringing and schooling of the likes of Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson and ordinary children, between those who go to Clongowes Wood and Eton and those who go to the local National school, is not simply that the former have better classrooms or more facilities  but that from the start they are reared to lead and command whereas the latter are reared to follow and obey. 

This conditioning is reinforced at every turn by wider society and leaves a deep mark. The truth is that most of the time, many working class people do not believe they have the ability to unite with their fellows and take over society. So how can this lack of confidence be overcome? 


The answer is through mass struggle. It may seem outlandish that a working class lacking in confidence would engage, suddenly, in mass struggle, but workers often first get involved in mass struggle for very limited objectives which they do believe they can achieve: a pay increase, to save their jobs, to stop water charges or remove a hated ruler. 

It is in the course of struggle that we get a sense of our collective power, our horizons widen and our political consciousness rises. 

As an example let’s condense the experience of the Russian Revolution into four sentences. In February 1917 the workers protested for bread. When the soldiers joined in they realized they could also overthrow the Tsar. In the process of overthrowing the Tsar they formed workers councils (soviets). Through the workers councils, they realised they could end the war, get rid of capitalism and take power themselves.

Marx, with characteristic genius and foresight, summed up the whole process in The German Ideology:

‘Revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.’

Most working class people do not yet believe they can take over and run society but a minority do. That minority has to join together and get organised. If they do they can play a huge role in advancing the struggle and winning the rest of the working class to it.

By John Molynuex on rebelnews

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