Working Class Culture: The Culture of the Poor


Certain topics fail to enter our historical memory, or are barely mentioned. Such is the case with the working class culture that arose from the labour movement. There is a premeditated desire to ensure that the history of solidarity between the poor is permanently hidden, along with an attempt to hide how they have been capable of being agents of change in their own lives, constructing amazing realities from small beginnings.

Poor working class militants didn’t look exclusively to improve their material lot. Above all, they sought to generate a new culture that allowed them to create and sustain organisations that could bring about political and economic revolution. This coordinated action is summarised very well in the phrase of one member of the First International: “Man lives only from political and economic demands”. Benoit Malon continues by saying that “a political and economic transformation cannot be separated from a moral revolution”. This spirit remains intact in the slogan of the Spaniards present at that same internationalist meeting: “Misery and ignorance are the main enemies of the people. Wage war on ignorance and misery! To fight ignorance, revolutionise newspapers and books; to end misery, encourage cooperation and collaboration”.

The components of this working-class culture had an overwhelming sense of morality. This explains why the most conscious militants placed immense importance on their own personal conduct and lifestyle. This was an expression of the comprehensive character of the culture they defended. Ricardo Mella illustrates this morality: “I remember the courageous combatants of the past with great admiration! They were serious, upright, of unfailing morality, and capable of great audacity without resorting to ridiculous rudeness. They were thoughtful and reflective to the point of never compromising the interests of the proletariat, fighting for their ideas with determination and without weakness. They spread their ideas tirelessly but without rowdiness, and when the moments of struggle arrived, they would never turn their backs or beg for mercy if defeated.

The history of the workers’ movement has been a history of liberation – of changing situations of oppression and injustice into situations of emancipation. However, we must not hide the fact that it has also been a history of betrayal, with workers’ organisations choosing bureaucracy over commitment to activism, and alliance with the powers that be over freedom.

In Spain, we owe the knowledge of this working-class consciousness to a small group of converted Christian activists who, hand in hand with Guillermo Rovirosa and Julián Gómez del Castllo, began the Editorial ZYX under Franco’s dictatorship, though dyed-in-the-wool sectarians might not wish to accept this fact. The working class today, however, is far from living with this consciousness, and the gap has been filled with bourgeois values of profits, power, individualism, and materialism. In constructing a new society, economy, and political system, we must never forget the cultural and revolutionary morals upon which this new society must be sustained. That lesson is one that the culture of working class activism taught us.

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