International Communist Seminar
Brussels, May 2-4, 1998


The changes in the composition of the working class and the
Jean Pestieau
Workers' Party of Belgium 



To say that in the industrialised countries, the working class is
disappearing as monopoly capitalism develops, is false. To the contrary,
its composition is changing with the development of technologies that
incorporate more and more intellectual labour in the production of
commodities. The working class is becoming more and more prominent in
the services sector. While acknowledging this evolution, the leading
role of the industrial proletariat - both in the industrialised
countries and in the Third World - must be underscored in terms of its
conscientisation, its organisation and its unification of all workers in
their fight for socialist revolution.

 The myth of the end of the working class

According to the majority of bourgeois ideologues and to the
reformists, today's workers in the industrialised countries are a
species on the road to extinction. Capital would no longer need the
working class to develop. The Manifesto of the communist party would be
a thing of the past, as it claims: "To the extent that the bourgeoisie
develops, i.e. capital, also the proletariat develops, the class of
modern workers who survive only on the condition that they find
employment, and who will find employment only if their labour increases
capital." (1)

To support their theses, those ideologues refer to the evolution of the
distribution of the active population in the three major traditional
sectors of the economy: 

the primary sector: agriculture, forestry and fisheries, 
the secondary sector or the industrial sector: manufacturing and
extraction, electricity, gas and water, construction, 
the tertiary sector or the services sector: trade, finance, public
administration, communications, education, health care,... 
From Tables I and II (2) it can be learnt that, 

in the industrialised countries, there is a net growth of the tertiary
sector to the detriment of the secondary sector, 
in the Third World countries, there is a contrasting growth of the
industrial and services sectors sto the detriment of agriculture. 
This suffices for the bourgeois theoreticians to bid the proletariat
goodbye: "By generating more than 60% of the Gross Domestic Product
(GDP) and of the employment in the industrialised countries, the
tertiary sector is dominating the world economy. (...) The developing
countries are still lagging behind, with ony 47% of their GDP and 25% of
their employment attributable to the tertiary sector." (3)

Before discussing the class content of the tertiary sector, a few
preliminary remarks are called for.

1. It is not the tertiary sector that dominates the world economy, but
the multinational corporations whose main activity is the production of
material goods. Here's an indicative classification (4) comparing the
size of some States (GDP) with that of the 10 major multinational
corporations* (business volume), in declining order:

*General Motors
South Africa
*Royal Dutch/Shell

The cumulated size of the two major multinationals is comparable to
that of India or the Netherlands; that of the three major MNC's to
Russia or Mexico; that of the four major MNC's to Brasil or China; and
that of the ten major ones to Great Britain.


2. The advanced capitalist countries concentrate the biggest part of
commodity production. In 1993, France and the US had 4 respectively 18.1
million wage earners in the manufacturing industry, on a total active
population of 25 respectively 139 million, while Mexico had 850.000 on
an active population of 33 million. In the same manufacturing industry,
France and the US had 0.2 respectively 1.2 million independent workers
as against Mexico's 1.5 million. These three countries are members of
the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development), by
virtue of which they have unified statistics. (5) These figures show the
numerical importance of the wage earners in the manufacturing industry
for the two industrialised countries (France and the US), where the
tertiary sector is the major sector. The comparison with Mexico, one of
the most industrialised Third World countries, is self-evident.


3. The development of the tertiary sector cannot hide the cancer that
grows with the capitalist system: the increasing gap between the
available work force on the world market, and the real existing jobs.

The bourgeois ideologues don't see any solution within the capitalist
system to absorb the constantly increasing additional work force. In the
industrial sector as well as in the services sector, the exploiters
notably increase their profits by reducing the permanent work force to a
small number of qualified workers, surrounded by temporary, flexible
workers. Apart from war, famine and massacres, capitalism has no
solution for the problem of employment (see table below): "If the number
of unemployed and underemployed are taken into account, almost one
billion jobs would have to be created in the next decade. This means
that there should be an increase in employment of more than 4% per year
in the 1990s, even as it has remained below 3% during the 1980s." (6)

    available work force (10) 
 developing countries 
1950    1.1 billion 
 0.8 billion 
1980    1.9 billion 
 1.3 billion 
1990  2.3 billion 
 1.7 billion 
2000(estimate)   2.7 billion 
 2.0 billion 
2025(estimate)   3.6 billion 
 2.8 billion 

Today, there is practically no capitalist country that is capable of
maintaining its level of employment, not even in the countries of East
and Southeast Asia, which until a couple of months ago were presented as
models. (6) The countries that have been able to maintain their
employment level, however low, have done so by lowering the salaries and
recurring to part-time jobs. In 1996, the official rate of unemployment
in the industrialised countries was 7.7%, and that of Japan was 3.3%.
(7) In April 1998, the unemployment rate in the latter country is
estimated to be around 6-7%. (8)

After the financial krach of 1994, more than one million Mexicans lost
their jobs in the course of a few months. (9)


The definition of classes is based on the relations of production

Lenin defines classes as follows: "Classes are groups of which one can
live off the work of the other, can appropriate the labour of the
other." (11) "And what are classes in general? It is what it takes for a
part of society to appropriate the labour of the other part. If one part
of society appropriates all land, there will be a class of landlords and
a peasant class. If one part of society owns the factories, the stocks
and the capital while the other part has to work in those factories,
there will be a class of capitalists and another of proletarians." (12)
And he adds: "The notion of class is being formed in struggle and in
development. There is no wall to separating one class from the other.
There is no Chinese wall between workers and peasants." (13) Applied to
the current situation in the industrialised countries: there exists no
wall between the wage earners of the industrial sector and those of the
services sector.

What characterises the capitalist relations of production most, is the
fact that the owner of the means of production pays the worker a price
that is below the value of the goods he produces, goods that will be
exchanged on the market. The difference between the price of his labour
and the price produced by it, is the surplus value. The capitalists
appropriate the surplus value by means of profits, patents, rent,
interests on loans, etc.

Not all wage earners of the private sector produce commodities. A large
part of the workers in the private services sector sell their labour not
to produce commodities, but to allow bank and commercial capital to
seize part of the surplus value of the commodity production. In all
cases, labour, whether producing commodities or services, is exchanged
against capital at a price below the profit that the capitalist gets
from the utilisation of this labour. This relation between capital and
labour is at the basis of what constitutes the working class, and it
dominates the entire capitalist society. Of course not everybody works
directly under such relations. An independent artisan, a small peasant,
a government employee, a private lawyer, etc. are manifestatinos of
other relations of production exist in capitalist society. But these are
determined by the capitalist relations of production.

From this, it can be deducted that in today's capitalist society, the
following have to be distinguished:

(a) wage-labour that is being exchanged for capital 

industrial; this labour produces commodities and with it, surplus value

financial and commercial; this labour is necessary for the transfer of
surplus value. 
In the period of monopoly capitalism and multinationals, the
distinction between these two types of wage-labour is often minor.

(b) wage-labour that is exchanged for an income received from taxes:
this is the case mainly of salaried State employees. The salaries and
the methods of work are directly determined by the interests of monopoly
capitalism. Moreover, the wave of privatisations is reducing the size of
this category, adding to category (a).

(c) the independent workers: as a result of their living conditions,
some of them are close to the bourgeoisie, while others are closer to
the workers, namely the peasants, artisans and traders who are linked to
the multinationals by means of unequal contracts and who in fact have
nothing independent except their name and the idea they have of

(d) the bourgeoisie dominated by the monopoly bourgoisie, in struggle
with the working class, that can only win if it is led by the industrial


Classes are not defined only in relation to production of surplus

An engineer may produce surplus value as a worker in a factory, but
generally he doesn't belong to the working class. A government employee
or an employee in a shopping centre or a bank may be classified as a
worker, based on his social position and on his salary.

Lenin has pointed out how to define classes:

"Classes are called vast groups of people that can be distinguished by
the place they occupy in a historically defined system of social

by their relation (most of the time fixed and regulated by laws)
vis-à-vis the means of production, 
by their role in the social organisation of labour, 
thus, by the way of obtaining, and by the size of the social riches
they dispose of. 
Classes are groups of men of which one is able to appropriate the
labour of the other, because of the different place they occupy in a
determined structure, in the social economy." (14)

A fourth criterion must be added: the situation vis-à-vis the State
apparatus (15), which is particularly important in order to understand
why the repressive forces and the majority of the trade union leaders
don't belong to the working class.

Starting from these criteria, it becomes possible to comprehend why
railway workers, postmen, telecommunication and airport workers belong
to the working class and why the majority of scientific and intellectual
professionals belong to the petit bourgeoisie, vacillating between the
bourgeoisie and the proletariat. In any case, the working class must not
be limited to only the manual workers, as we will explain in detail.


The working class in Belgium

1. The example of Belgium is used to concretely analyse the classes.
(16) The portion of the active population consisting of wage earners has
increased from 78% in 1966 to 83% today. In 1997, 29% of the active
population (and 35% of the wage earners) are classified as "labourers",
i.e. manual workers, of which 26% are women and 74% are men.

The number of manual workers has decreased with 30% between 1974 and
1997, and the number of wage earners in the secondary sector has
diminished by 35.5%. In 1997, 62% of the wage earners in the
manufacturing industry are manual workers. They comprise 15% of the
total of wage earners. They form the industrial proletariat, the core of
the working class. Between 1974 and 1995, unemployment has increased
from 2% to 13%, while total employment decreased by 1.5%.


2. During the same period, employment of women has increased by 7.5%
compared to total employment, while male employment decreased by 9%. It
is more beneficial to the bourgeoisie to employ women rather than men,
because for equal work the salaries of women are generally lower than
those of men, and it is easier to impose a precarious condition and/or
part-time jobs on women than on men. Indeed, the female reserve army of
labour is considerable: 57% of the unemployed, while women comprise only
43% of the active population.

In 1996, 14% of the total of wage earners were part-time, but 30% of
women worked part-time, as compared to 3% of the men. It can be
estimated that 60% of the woman wage earners belong to the working
class, even if the manual workers comprise only 22% of the totality of
woman wage earners.


3. In the industrialised countries, the manufacturing industry
represents less than a fifth of the demand for lowly qualified labour.
(17) In Belgium, the non-qualified workers comprise 11% of the wage
earners. Intellectual labour is more and more integrated in the
production of commodities. In the 25-29 age bracket, 24% of the
population have at the most a certificate of lower secondary education
and thus have a much reduced chance of finding a job. 59% have a
certificate of higher secondary education or of short-type higher
education. It is from these 83% that the younger section of the working
class comes from. They are subject to job insecurity, flexible contracts
and working conditions, and various forms of marginal jobs. (18) Today,
the sector of interim work represents 37% of the entries on the Belgian
job market. (19)


4. Between 1963 and 1996, the portion of jobs in the services sector
has increased from 47.3% to 69.7%, while that in the secondary sector
has decreased from 45.3% to 27.7%. The division in secondary and
tertiary sectors doesn't correspond to the Marxist distinction between
productive and non-productive sectors, between services that are
essential for the production of commodities and those that are not.

In the ' services ' sector, the category that has seen the strongest
growth is that of services rendered to companies, for the simple reason
that a good number of the services which used to be assured by the
industrial company itself, are now taken up by specialised companies
dependent on the tertiary sector: marketing, management, cleaning and
maintenance services, security, computerisation, product development and
the conceptualisation of manufacturing procedures. The services section
of "transportation, storage and communications" represents 7.4% of the
working people. (16) A large part of this section is integral to the
commodity producing sector. A good example is that of the American
multinational corporation UPS that transports packages mainly for
industry - and went on a historical strike in the summer of 1997, for
real jobs and against hamburger jobs.

Another services section, "financial services, real estate, rental and
service activities for companies", represents 10.6% of the employed.
Notably, this section comprises the activities of information
technology, nowadays essential to any production process. These
activities are increasing rapidly and enormously, particularly because
of the approaching year 2000, the introduction of the Euro, and the
acceleration of the computerisation of all activities of commodity
production and services. In Belgium there is currently a need for
between 5000 and 20.000 computer specialists of higher educational
level. The capitalists are very worried about this situation, not only
because it slows down the economic activity, but also because, without a
reserve army in the information technology, the salaries are increasing
much beyond their liking. Thus, the Ministry of Employment and Labour is
linking up with IBM to educate thousands of computer specialists in the
shortest possible time in order to avoid such losses of surplus value.
(21) The objective is not only to fulfill the demand in the sector, but
to form a reserve army as soon as possible.

"The development of a ' service economy ' independent of production is
fiction. The services sector cannot grow if not in relation with a
strong industrial sector. A faster turnover of constant capital
(machines and stocks) is, at this moment, one of the main objectives of
the employers, in order to increase their profit rate. The
subcontracting of services and the development of new services are means
to accelerate this turnover. By leaving specialised tasks to a services
company that assures these tasks for several capitalists together, the
productive sector is able to produce in a more profitable way. Thus, the
most important development is the following: as a result of the new
technologies, the computerisation of numerous components of the
production process (of commodities and services), the growing
specialisation and subcontracting, production and its allied services
have increasingly become entangled, while the distinction between '
material and non-material ' goods has been blurred. Many operations
classified as ' services ' are in fact integral components of the
production process to which they are linked." (20)


5. The coming together of labourers-employees-government employees.

Within the process of commodity production, the development of
technology, with a major role for factors such as control and
management, has brought about the increase of the part played by
intellectual labour. More qualified personnel is being required. For
highly computerised processes, production tasks have become control
tasks. Nevertheless, all predictions about the impending disappearance
of manual labour have been proven wrong, and the robotisation is
developing at a much slower pace than initially expected. The factory
worker remains the indispensible link in the production of goods and
surplus value. He is the spearhead of the working class. The management
demands of the worker much more manual and intellectual work, which
means a more intense and complex job, in order to produce more surplus

On one hand, this augments the worker's grip on the course of the
production and demands higher qualifications and polyvalent qualities
for certain categories of workers. On the other hand, we are witnessing
the proletarisation of intellectual tasks. Many tasks that, in the past,
were dissociated from production, have now become part of it. According
to the Taylorian concept, intellectual labour is composed of
standardised elements that are transferred to the computer. In this
respect, an ever larger part of the work of an employee ressembles ever
more the work at a production chain. The working conditions of the
employees ressemble more and more those of the workers directly involved
in the production of commodities. Rather than seeing the statute and the
salary of the labourer upwardly approaching those of the employee, we
are witnessing the reverse: the statute and the salary of the employee
are downwardly approaching those of the labourer. What, according to the
reformists, would have led to the generalisation of the petit-bourgeois
condition, has in fact led to the generalisation of the proletarian

This is not only the case for services linked to production, but it
applies to the entirety of the services sector, public as well as
private, trading as well as non-profit. All restrictions imposed by the
bourgeoisie on the public and non-profit sectors have resulted in
rationalisations and in the establishment of 'contracts for autonomous
management ' where the imperatives of the market and of profit have
completely overtaken the principles of public interest; and have
resulted in the progressive elimination of the statute of government
employee, which guaranteed job security and retirement benefits a
labourer doesn't have.

The offensive to privatise the State services and make them subject to
profit-making, has contributed a lot to the expansion of the sector of
direct capitalist exploitation. The privatisation of the transport and
communications sector, the hospitals, education has multiplied the
number of wage earners who exchange their labour for private capital
instead of for income derived from taxes.

Capitalism does not only let wage earners compete among themselves, but
even with the machines. It attempts to put the production of services in
competition with the production of commodities in order to multiply
profits: bank, assurance and government employees against automatic
vending machines, teachers against multimedia kits, sanitation personnel
against medical kits. As they suffer competition, notably from the
machine, all wage earners, intellectuals as well as manual workers, are
affected by their condition of being a commodity in the capitalist
system, a mouse in the claws of the cat. They become proletarised.

But they will put themselves under the leadership of the proletariat of
the big companies only if the revolutionary trade-unionists and the
communists in general do a good job. The intervention of the communists
of the Workers ' Party of Belgium (PTB) and of trade-unionists in the
factories of Clabecq, Caterpillar and VW and in the struggle of the
teachers and the pupils in 1996 shows the way forward. The same goes for
the struggle of the non-profit sector in 1998. To return to Lenin: "The
notion of class is being formed in struggle and in development. There is
no wall separating one class from the other. (... Marx) insisted on
scientific concepts teaching us that a class becomes bigger through
class struggle and that it must be helped to mature." (23)

"The Manifesto of the communist party" seems to have been written in
Brussels only yesterday, to guide our work not only among the workers of
the big factories, but also among the wage earners that are becoming
proletarised: "As a consequence of the growing competition of the
bourgeois between themselves and of the subsequent commercial crises,
salaries are becoming more and more unstable; the constant and ever
faster perfectioning of the machine renders the condition of the worker
ever more precarious; the individual conflicts between the worker and
the bourgeois acquire more and more the caracter of a conflict between
two classes (...). The existence of the bourgeois class and its
domination have as essential condition the accumulation of riches in the
hands of individuals, the formation of capital and its growth; and the
condition for the existence of capital, is wage-labour. Wage-labour is
exclusively based on the competition between workers. The progress of
industry, of which the bourgeoisie is the agent, albeit beyond its own
will and without resistance, replaces the isolation of the workers
resulting from their competition, with their revolutionary union by
association (...). More than anything, the bourgeoisie produces its own
gravediggers." (24)


The working class is international

On a world scale, the growth of commodity production is so much faster
than the growth of jobs, while the growth of jobs is so much slower than
the increase of the available work force (25), that "the development of
big industry is eliminating from under the feet of the bourgeoisie, the
ground itself on which it has established its system of production and
appropriation" (26). "The bourgeois system has become too restricted to
contain the riches within it." (27)

Indeed, "in 1990, there were at least 35.000 transnational companies
with more than 150.000 branches abroad. On the 22 million people they
employ abroad, almost 7 million are directly employed in the developing
countries, or less than 1% of the active population of the latter. We
should add to this an equal number of people that work for them as
suppliers or renderers of services." (25)

In the industrialised countries, the multinationals are engendering
unemployment and inferior statutes. In the Third World, they are
organising underdevelopment in a devious manner, exploiting to the hilt
less than 2% of the active population and putting the other 98% into
agony. In the formerly socialist countries, they are acting the same

The multinationals and the world capitalist system will dig their own
graves on the condition that the communists unite, in the process
uniting the international proletariat.

Table I (2) - Structure of the active population (%)  
United States 
United Kingdom 
Table II (2) - Structure of the BIP (%)  
United States 
United Kingdom 


 (1) Le Manifeste du Parti communiste, Etudes Marxistes 41/98, EPO
(Bruxelles); chap.1, p.103.

(2) L'Etat du Monde, Edition 1998, La Découverte (Paris).

(3) Rapport mondial sur le développement humain 1993, PNUD, Economica
(Paris); p.46.

(4) Rapport mondial sur le développement humain 1997, PNUD, Economica
(Paris); p.102, 220-221, 242.

(5) La base de données STAN de l'OCDE pour l'analyse de l'industrie
1975-1994, Edition 1995 (Paris); p.126-127, 226, 348-349.

Stastistiques des structures industrielles 1994, Edition 1996, OCDE
(Paris); p.266-267, 120, 219.

Voir réf.(2) et (4). 

(6) Voir réf.(3); p.41-47.

(7) World Economic Outlook, October 1997, International Monetary Fund
(Washington); p.171.

(8) Eco-Soir, Le Soir (Bruxelles), 24 avril 1998; p.2.

(9) Voir réf.(4); p.97. 

(10) The World. A Third World Guide 1995/96; p.28.

(11) Lénine, "7ème Congrès des Soviets de Russie", section 4, Volume
30; p.256.

(12) Lénine, "Les tâches des unions de la jeunesse", Volume 31; p.302.

(13) Lénine, "Discours au 3ème Congrès des syndicats de Russie", Volume
30; p.525.

(14) Lénine, "La grande initiative", Volume 29; p.425.

(15) Jo Cottenier et Kris Hertogen, "Le temps travaille pour nous.
Militant syndical dans les années 90", EPO (Bruxelles), 1991; p.255.

(16) "Statistiques sociales. Enquête sur les forces de travail, Année
1997", Institut national de statistique (Bruxelles).

"La population active en Belgique", "1. Le pays - Situation au 30 juin
1995", "2. Récapitulatif depuis 1970", Ministère fédéral de l'emploi et
du travail, mai 1997 (Bruxelles).

(17) Voir réf.(4); p.99.

(18) Voir réf.(15); p.184

(19) Le Soir (Bruxelles), 11-13.04.98; p.15.

(20) Voir réf.(15); p.180-182.

(21) Le Soir (Bruxelles), 4-5.04.98; p.15.

(22) Voir réf. (15); p.182.

(23) Lénine, Volume 30; p. 525-526.

(24) Voir réf.(1); p.105 et 108.

(25) Voir réf.(3); p.38 à 41.

(26) Voir réf.(1); p.108.

(27) Voir réf.(1); p.103.

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