We should not certainly underestimate the importance of the emergence of a mass industrial (in the broadest sense) working class in countries like China, India, or Brazil. This means that the working class in Europe and the USA is not isolated in a huge world sea of peasantry as it was in 1917: the working class today is more a truly world working class.
However the numbers alone sometimes conceal more than they reveal, and one should not overestimate the political strength of the working class in China (for example):
- The working class in China has completely lost touch with its past history and experience. As far as one can tell, those who criticise the present situation in China generally tend to look back to... Mao. Memory of the appalling disaster of the Great Leap Forward (20 million deaths by famine) seems to be hidden by an omerta, and anything further back is lost to view.
- The Chinese working class is very new: mostly first or at best second generation. Hence with a "peasant consciousness" rather than a working-class consciousness, if I can put it like that.
- The Chinese workers generally are very isolated from the outside world by censorship and language.
- There is no mass immigration into China.
Compare that with the situation in Europe:
- Although the mass of workers certainly are not aware of the lessons of their history, those lessons are there for those who look. The groups of communists (and anarchists and others) are certainly very small, but they are there and they represent a storehouse of the seeds of class consciousness, ready to germinate when the conditions are ripe.
- The working class in Europe is the oldest in the world, with the oldest traditions and the most experience of confrontation with the two major mystifications of today: democracy and the trades unions.
- Europe is probably the one place in the world where internationalism in struggle is most able to be seen as most immediately necessary and most immediately possible, with 20-odd industrialised countries very close together and struggles going cross-border very quickly in some cases (the Continental tyre struggle for example). True, for the moment that is very much controlled by the unions, but it nonetheless represents a rich potential. It also encourages workers to see that their problems cannot be solved in a national context.
- Immigration has changed the face of the European working class. All the major industrial cities have seen an influx of immigrant workers since 1945, from Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece, then more recently from Poland, the ex-DDR, and looking further afield from the Caribbean, Africa, Turkey, China, Latin America, India etc etc. Despite the difficulties this is fundamentally positive because it has the potential for breaking down barriers and giving the working class as a whole a much broader world view.
Another point I would add, is that the working class today is far better educated, in general, than it was 100 years ago. This is a result both of an increasing need for high-skilled workers, and the "proletarianisation" of jobs that were once considered "professional". And this is something important for the long-run too: remember that Lenin considered that the low cultural level of the Russian working class was one of its greatest weaknesses.