Anton Pannekoek (as J. Harper)

The Power of the Classes

Published: International Council Correspondence, vol. 2, no. 6. May 1936.
Transcription/Markup: Micah Muer, 2017.


The power of the capitalist class is enormous. Never in history was there a ruling class with such power. Their power is first, money power. All the treasures of the world are theirs, and modern capital, produced by the ceaseless toil of millions of workers, exceeds all the treasures of the old world. The surplus value is partly accumulated into ever more and new capital; partly it must be spent by the capitalists. They buy servants for their personal attendants; they also buy People to defend them, to safeguard their power and their dominating position. In capitalism everything can be bought for money; muscles and brain as well as love and honor have become market goods. Said old John D. Rockefeller: "Everyone can be bought if you only know his price". The statement is not exactly true, but it shows the capitalist's view of the world.

The capitalists buy young proletarians to form a fighting force. In the same way as they buy Pinkertons against strikers, they will, in times of greater danger, organize huge armies of Volunteers provided with the best modern arms, well-fed and well-paid, to defend their sacred capitalist order.

But capitalism cannot be defended by brutal force alone. Being itself the outcome of a high development of intellectual forces, it must consequently be defended by these same intellectual forces. Behind the physical struggle in the class war, stands the spiritual contest of ideas. Capitalists know that, often better than the workers. Hence they buy all the good brains they can. Often in a coarse, open way; most often however, indirectly. This is done, for instance, by donating money for cultural purposes. Numerous students of science the world over have profited in their researches from the "Rockefeller Foundation". Thus the name 'Rockefeller' has a reputation in the field of natural sciences where 'Ludlow' is never heard of. This kind of philanthropy serves capitalism well. Capitalists have founded universities all over the United States where among other sciences sociology is taught, to demonstrate the impossibility and wickedness of communism. The young people leave the universities imbued with these ideas and they know high salaries and public honor await them if they do not deviate from the straight path of capitalism.

The capitalists buy the press; they buy the editors; they buy all the means of publicity, and in this way they mould public opinion. It is an invisible spiritual despotism by which the entire nation is made to think as the capitalist class wish it to think. Money reigns over the world, thus it can buy the brain power available.

Capitalist power in the second place is political. The State is the organization of the capitalist class. Its task is to render possible private production, and to enable the individual capitalists to carry on their businesses by protecting and regulating their intercourse.

The government makes laws for the protection of "honest" businessmen against "thieves" and "murderers". Against strikers and revolutionists, who are far more dangerous to the existing social order, laws even more drastic are made. For the enforcing of these laws, the police and jail are used. In every strike, in every political demonstration, the workers find the police arrayed against them, clubbing and throwing them into jail for the benefit of the capitalist class and to protect the capitalists profits. Gangs of hired thugs are sworn in as deputy sheriffs and given police authority; and when the workers cannot be subdued in this way, militia and citizen guards are mobilized against them.

In each capitalist country the army is the strongest force in the service of the capitalist class, because for its wars with other countries, it needs the fighting power of the whole country, all classes included.

The army is an organized body bound together by the strictest military discipline, provided with the most cruel, refined and effective means of killing and destroying. If it is used in political wars, where in the worst case the capitalist class suffers only heavy losses, is it not to be used then in case of revolution where the capitalist class is menaced with complete loss of all it possesses?

Thus the nation is the stronghold of capitalism. As a strongly organized power, nation-wide, directed by the uniform will of the central government, provided With a powerful army, it protects the capitalist class. Physical force, however, is not sufficient to subdue a people or a class. How many strong governments in history, though well-armed, have been overthrown by rebellions. Spiritual forces in most cases are decisive above mere physical power. In capitalism the rule holds good that in the long run it is more effectual to fool people than to beat them.

So capitalist power consists thirdly in its intellectual power. The ideas of a ruling class pervade the majority of the members of society. Certainly the capitalist class could not buy guards and intellectuals if these fellows did not share its ideology and sentiments. Capitalist government could not govern, even with its strong physical force, if the mass of the people were not filled with the same spirit as the government itself. How is it possible that in the mass of the people, even in the working class, this capitalist spirit prevails?

The main force is tradition and inheritance. The ideology of the capitalist class is nothing but the ideology of the former middle classes, the petty producers. The idea of private property as a natural right, the belief that everyone should build his own fortune and that free competition guarantees the best results, the maxim that everyone has only to care for himself and God will take care of the rest, the conviction that thrift and industry are the virtues which secure prosperity, and that America is the best country and should be defended against other nations, all these beliefs are inherited from the time and the class of small business. And this is the very creed big business wants the masses to believe in as eternal truths today.

The fathers or grandfathers of the proletarians of today were such small business men themselves; small farmers, settlers, craftsmen, even small capitalists, ridden down by competition. They, too, have inherited these ideas, and in their youth found them to be true. Then society changed rapidly and big industry developed, and they became forever proletarians. Their ideas, however, could not change so rapidly and their mind clings to the old ideology.

Still, the school of life is powerful and impresses the mind with new ideas in line with the changing world. But now the capitalist school comes into action. With all available means, the capitalist ideas are propagated and artificially forced upon the minds of the people. At first in the schools when the children's minds are flexible and impressionable; afterwards for the adults from the pulpit, in the daily press, by the radio, the movies, etc. Their task is not only to keep the capitalistic way of thinking alive in the working class minds, but still more, to prevent them thinking at all. By filling their time and their minds with exciting futilities, they kill every wish for serious reading and thinking.

May this be called fooling the workers? The capitalistic class is sincere in this propaganda; it believes what it tries to urge upon the workers. But capitalistic ideology is foolishness for the workers. The workers have to foster the new ideas that are growing out of the changing world; they have to acquire the knowledge of the evolution of labor and of the class struggle as the way to communism.

Thus the power of the capitalist class is more than their money and political power alone. The small business men, the small farmers, who believe they will succeed by personal effort — as sometimes they do — are a part of the capitalist power. Every workman who only cares for himself and not for the future of his class, every workmen who only reads capitalist newspapers and finds his chief interest in boxing matches, etc., by so doing contributes to the power of the capitalist class.

In the rapid development of technical and economic forms of production, the mind of man is left behind. This mental backwardness of the working masses is the chief power of the capitalist class.


What power can the working class set forth against it? First, the working class is the most numerous class in society. By the growth of industry it continually increases, whereas the number of independent businessmen has relatively decreased. The available statistics show that in the United States the working class is the largest class. Only the farmers and the salaried employees follow at some distance as important classes. The capitalist class proper is insignificant in numbers; and the small and middle class men and petty dealers are much less numerous than the wage workers. But number is not the only thing that counts. A number of millions, dispersed in widely separated homes all over the land, cannot exert the same power as the same number of millions pressed together in the towns. The big towns are the centers of economical, cultural and political life. The millions of workers, forming the majorities in the population in these centers, assembled into big class-agglomerations, must, under these conditions exert a strong social power.

In ancient Rome the proletarians were numerous also, and strongly concentrated. Their social power, however, was nothing because they did not work. They were parasites; they lived from public moneys. With the modern proletarians, the matter is the reverse.

The second element of power for the working class is its importance in human society. It is on their work that society is founded. The capitalists might be dismissed, the petty producers and dealers might be dispensed with, without impairing the production of life necessities which mostly takes place in the big factories. But the working class cannot be dispensed with. With its essential, fundamental role only the work of the farmers can be compared.

The workers have their hand on the production apparatus. They manage it; they work it; they command it; they have direct power over it. Not legally, for legally they have to obey the capitalists, and police and soldiers may come to enforce this legal right. But actually it is theirs, for without them the living producing machinery is a dead carcass. If they refuse to work, society cannot exist. It has happened already, that a general strike has paralyzed the entire economic and social life, and thereby wrung important concessions from the unwilling ruling class. Then for a moment, like a flash of lightning, that mighty power of the proletarian class, its intimate connection with the production apparatus, was disclosed.

To be sure, if this possible power is to become a living, actual power, a weighty condition must he fulfilled. Such united action of the whole class is not possible, if it is not sustained by a strong moral force. So, as the third element of proletarian power, we find solidarity, the spirit of unity, organization. Solidarity is the bond that unites the will of all the separate individuals into one common will, thus achieving one mighty organized action.

Is it right to speak of a specifically proletarian virtue? Does not capitalism itself practice organization and united action in its factories, in its trusts, in its armies? Here the unity is based upon command, upon fines, upon penalties. Certainly, for common interests combined action must take place in each class, but here again the true economic position manifests itself, that capitalists are competitors, and workers are comrades.

Capitalism is based upon private business, private interests. The more eagerly the capitalist pursues his personal interests, the better for his business. Hence a hard egotism is developed that submerges natural human sympathies. The workers, on the other hand, cannot win anything by egotism. So long as they face capital individually, they are powerless and miserable; only by collective action can they win better conditions. The more they pursue personal interests, the more they are beaten down. The more they develop a feeling of fellowship, of mutual aid, of self-sacrifice for their class, the better it is for their interests.

When at the dawn of civilization, private property came into being, men separated, each to work on his own lot, in order to develop productivity of labor in mutual competition. In this century-long development, from small crafts to modern industry, civilized man rose to a sturdy self-determinism, to independence, to confidence in his own powers and to a strong feeling of individualism. All his energies and faculties were awakened to the service or his fighting powers. But this was at the cost of moral losses; egotism and cruelty grew in mankind, and distrust and enmity sprang up amidst fellowmen.

Now the modern proletariat is coming up, for the first time a class without property, hence without real interests one against the other. Still endowed with the personal energies and faculties inherited from their ancestors, they are trained by the machine into the discipline of common action. And though their attempts for a better living standard are helplessly beaten down by the overwhelming power of capitalism, much good comes from these attempts. Their common interests against the capitalist class awakens in them the feelings of brotherhood.

As the working class finds strength in its moral superiority over the capitalist class, it also finds strength in its intellectual superiority. To the feeling is added the knowledge. First comes the deed, the action of solidarity, that springs spontaneously from the depth of emotion and passion. After that comes the insight that there is an unavoidable conflict of opposing interests. It is the first form of class-consciousness. With the deepening of knowledge, the ways of action, the fighting conditions are seen more clearly; and as is the case of all science, this insight will lead future actions along the most efficient ways of getting results.

After their number, their social importance, their moral force of solidarity, this knowledge is the fourth element in proletarian power. It is the science developed chiefly by Marx and Engels which explains, first, the course of history from the growth of society in its primitive beginnings, thru feudalism and capitalism, thence to communism, basing this analysis upon the development of labor and its productivity. And second, it explains the structure of capitalist production and shows how capitalism must break down by means of its own forces, by developing and exploiting the proletarian class, by driving it into revolt thru its own collapses, and by increasing thereby the proletarians' fighting powers.

This science, Marxism, is a proletarian science. The capitalist class rejects it; its scientists deny its truth. Indeed, it is impossible for the capitalist class to accept it. No class can accept a theory that proclaims its own collapse and death; for by accepting it, it could not fight with full confidence and with full force. To fight against annihilation is a primary instinct, in a class as well as in an organism.

The capitalist class cannot see beyond the horizon of capitalism. So it sees the growing concentration of capital, the growing power of big finance, the heavy crises and the impending world wars, the rising tide of the proletarian fight with its threat of revolution, it sees all these phenomena without drawing one rational conclusion from them. It sees no sense in history, though its ablest scientists investigate every detail; it sees no light in the future, uncertainty and mysticism fill its mind. But it has one determination, to fight for its supremacy.

For the workers this science enlightens their arduous course to the future. It makes clear to them their life, their work, their poverty, their relation to their employers, and to the other classes. It explains to them the reality of the world as they experience it, different indeed from the capitalist teachings. Whereas the school of life impresses their minds with new ideas in line with the new world, it is this science of society that moulds these ideas into a firm consistent knowledge. And so the workers will eventually acquire the wisdom they need in their fight for freedom.