It has been repeated many times that the traditional industrial working class in the West has been declining over the last decades. Nevertheless, it is still a substantial minority. On a world scale the traditional working class is actually growing.
What we see developing in Western Europe, North America, Australia and many parts of Asia, is the so called knowledge society, where cognitive and creative skills are becoming more and more important and where the old methods of the stick and the carrot do not work anymore. On the other hand, more and more work in the service sector becomes also routine-based and is exported to the countries of the underdeveloped world: certain kinds of accountancy, computer programming, etc.
That brings us to another point:
the composition of the working class in advanced capitalist societies.
In Marx? time, the working class was mainly male, industrial and homogeneous, although there were also huge differences between for instance the work of a coal miner, a steel worker, a seafarer and a mechanic. These differences were not much greater than those between a worker in a modern factory and a white-collar worker in the service sector. It was the experience of social conflicts and common struggle over many years that caused the traditional working class to feel itself as a united whole, and to place its common interests above narrow professional distinctions.
In a sense, it will be necessary to rebuild the labour movement in the same way as more than a hundred years ago. The modern ?proletariat? will have to go through similar experiences, taking into account that is far more heterogeneous than in the old days: half are women, you have the immigrants, part time workers, households with mixed social compositions, etc.
what is lacking more than ever is a coherent socialist programme
that unites this modern, heterogeneous army of wage earners and that scares the hell out of the capitalist class. And here is the main contradiction of our time. Neo-liberalism is collapsing before our eyes, yet the working class feels totally impotent because it lacks an ideology, a clear programme and a credible alternative.
These fundamental weaknesses do not stop the class struggle, as we see on a mass scale in Greece, Spain, Portugal and France. But the working class needs desperately a project to fight for, and that is impossible without at least a vision and a prospect for a better alternative to capitalism.
Let us not forget that capitalism is not popular. Quite recently in Liege (Belgium), a group of young people protested, carrying placards with titles: ?More money for the rich!?, ?Africa, pay your debt!?, ?More cuts in the health system!? And so on. Some people that did not understand that it was a fake demonstration by left students were horrified. If you make the programme of the right parties concrete, many who vote for them won?t agree. But without the weapon of a socialist alternative, we are completely unarmed against the attacks of the ruling class.
This alternative is today much more important than in the time of Marx or Lenin, because in the consciousness of broad layers of workers, the possibility of an alternative to the free market system no longer exists; let alone in the heads of the old leaders. The collapse of the Soviet system did not clear the decks for Marxism, but pushed the revolutionary left into a deep crisis, showing the bankruptcy of their political and organizational methods.
The Communist Manifesto written 162 years ago was not only a venomous attack on capitalism, but it breathed confidence and optimism about the future. Marx thought that capitalism was doomed because of its inherent contradictions. The workers would take power and create a socialist society based on egalitarian and democratic principles. Marx did not have a blueprint of this future society, nor did he thought that this was necessary, hence his attacks against the utopian socialists and anarchists. He relied on the capability of workers to run the future socialist society by themselves. One could argue that Marx had a determinist view of capitalism and a voluntaristic view on the working class and its organisations.
To a large extent the same can be said about the Bolsheviks. They did not have a clear idea how society would look like after taking power. The establishment of soviets was not a part of their original programme. But when the Soviets were formed, the Bolsheviks recognized the dual power developing in Russia and were creative enough to call for ?all power to the soviets?. It is also worthwhile to mention that the masses did not follow the party of Lenin on the basis of ideology or a clear vision on the future society. They supported the Bolsheviks because they were promised peace, land and bread.
The question is what can socialists promise or offer today? When the circumstances are much more demanding in this respect.