Tony Cliff

Where are the workers?

(October 1987))

From Letters, Socialist Worker Review, No. 102, October 1987.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

NIGEL HARRIS’S article in the last issue of SWR depressed me deeply. Writing on South Korea he hardly mentions the working class. Even if the workers of Korea were involved only in a very few spasmodic strikes it does not do to put them in a footnote.

For Marxists the working class is the central agent of world history, we are interested in describing and analysing the economic and political circumstances of any country only as an explanation of the conditions in which workers find themselves.

We are not in an ivory tower, but partisans of the workers and their struggles.

Adding insult to injury, Nigel looks through rose-tinted glasses when he describes the South Korean bourgeoisie. He writes that what it faces is not 1905 or 1917 but 1848.

Marx and Engels in 1850–1 described the German bourgeoisie as cowardly, frightened of “the shadows of the proletariat”. It capitulated to the Junkers, to the princes and the King of Prussia. (See Engels, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany.)

The later the bourgeoisie appears in the arena of history the more reactionary it is, argued Plekhanov in 1898, hence, “the revolutionary movement in Russia can triumph only as the revolutionary movement of the workers”.

In 1904 Lenin wrote “the antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie with us is much deeper than it was in 1789, 1848 or 1871; hence the bourgeoisie wilt be more fearful of the ‘proletarian’ revolution and will throw itself more readily into the arms of reaction.”

Now, 139 years after the cowardly behaviour of the German bourgeoisie, the Korean bourgeoisie, according to Nigel, is suddenly full of vigour. And that in an age that Lenin called the “age of wars and revolutions”.

The Korean working class of today is far stronger than the German working class of 1848. There are far more industrial workers and they are concentrated in larger workplaces (the German workers were by and large in tiny workplaces).

Today’s Korean bourgeoisie is more craven and cowardly than the German bourgeoisie of 1848.

What a damaging article is Nigel’s!

It opens the door to Hobsbawmism and popular frontism.

Last updated on 7.3.2012