The original title of this diary was to be “Toward a Leftist Program by the Working Class, for the Working Class”, an neat, academic-sounding title reflecting an admirable goal: how can we, whatever our class background or position on the left, understand the needs and goals of working people in the United States and help to catalyze the development of a political program that reflects those needs and goals, one ideally led by the working class itself?
Looking at the critical ingredients of such a program, the lack of one especially stands out to me: the paralyzing absence of any significant consciousness among American workers of themselves as a class apart, one locked in a harrowing and historic struggle with the ruling class for the control of their lives and futures. The purpose of this diary, then, is to consider this problem in general programmatic terms using the thoughts proffered below as a point of departure.
Before going further, I hasten to note that I am not an academic, theorist, or long-time activist, just a working class guy and ecumenical socialist who was lucky enough to get a broad education. I am intent on understanding how my own class, so numerous and possessing a proud history of action and achievement, can embrace and use its own enormous power and what, if anything, the serious left can do to catalyze revolutionary working class consciousness.
First, some basic definitions. By “working class”, I mean agricultural workers and people working for wages in industrial, manual, and service occupations. By “left” and “serious left”, I mean the anti-capitalist left, including, for example, left anarchists, democratic socialists, orthodox socialists, and communists. “Revolutionary” means tending to the significant disruption and subversion of capitalism and its structures with the aim of its replacement by a leftist order. Finally, I am explicitly proceeding on the assumption that working people’s collective self perception as an oppressed but potentially powerful class is an indispensable component of the machinery of radical change.
To be effective, it’s important to be realistic about the scale of the change we’re working for and the speed at which we can accomplish it. If our goal is to nurture working class power to the point of profound social change, we must understand that we are not starting a project, but continuing one. We represent the current generation of a struggle that has been going on at least since the beginning of Industrialization. Thus, our task is to gather the threads of the struggle so far and pull them forward. But while we’re taking care to be realistic about the long time line of our struggle, it’s also important to understand that we have advantages, too.
As labor history shows us, we need not win over the entire working class, or even a majority, to further working class power. Periods of revolutionary change, whether for better or worse, are often sparked by an activist minority surrounded by a discouraged or indolent majority. Victories by key worker organizations in key industries drove the Gilded Age into the Progressive Era and then, after WWI and the Depression, into the period of worker militancy that brought about the New Deal. To use this advantage, what we might call activist leverage, we must identify where worker consciousness is at its greatest today and encourage it, while identifying where it is weak and strengthening it.
Here we come to a profound divide, but also to another advantage. My statement above about the paralyzing lack of class consciousness is really only true of the white majority. Among People of Color, an ever increasing proportion of the population, there is both current militancy and a history of militancy. Today, Latinos and African Americans lead the most visible and successful elements of working class opposition to capital and its systems of oppression, from Moral Mondays in the South to the movement to raise the wages of Fast Food and service workers nationally. In terms of boots on the ground, these movements are overwhelmingly Latino and African American and are significantly so in their leadership.
The Working Class of Color is building on a preexisting, ethnicity-based consciousness of itself to achieve economic and political goals. This demographic is growing, unstoppably it seems, as the white population ages and dwindles. It is significant for the stability and strength of this movement that both African Americans and Latinos already understand, given their histories, that radical change is not achieved without overcoming state repression, including state violence. One of the great disappointments of the Occupy Movement was how little resistance from the state was needed to force it’s dormancy. Black and Latino Americans, on the other hand, long ago understood the nature of their adversary, and have been able despite state oppression to credit themselves with the victories of the Civil Rights and Farm Workers’ Rights movements.
What does the left do here? Where there are active worker-oriented movements, get in behind the workers of color leading the charge and beside the rank and file in the street. Speak, write, and donate, of course, but get out into the street and make it clear we offer not just our mouths and checkbooks, but our dedicated physical presence. Embrace a leftist perspective dedicated to listening and learning from workers of color and pursuing their goals with the secondary purpose of modestly offering a systematic leftist perspective when appropriate and possible.
And what of the contemporary white working class? Particularly since the neo-liberal backlash, this decreasingly organized bloc has functioned more as a self-policing organ of capital than as a class with its own critical interests, something the ruling class has exploited to the hilt. Still, the recent downturn has increased white consciousness of class inequality, even if it hasn’t sparked a movement. Nevertheless, I believe white workers are more open to our message now than they have been in decades, both for direct economic reasons but also because younger working class whites are more accustomed to diversity and less indoctrinated to form a identity based on being “white”, i.e., a certified part of the ruling class.
Here, the task of promoting class consciousness is harder because we must penetrate the ideology that positions the left as alien, or at best irrelevant, to the working class. As with workers of color, the core principles take precedence: listening, learning, and working beside in order to promote working class accomplishment and to build trust and understanding.
We must also reconnect present workers to the achievements of past workers who can serve as models for activism in the present day. Of course the history I speak of is ethnically diverse, but workers of color already have recent and compelling examples of how working people like themselves changed history. We need to reconnect the white working class to their history, to the mine workers of Appalachia and the West, and to the steel and auto workers of the Midwest, people whose sacrifice and bravery changed America radically.
This is not to say we should–or need to–shy away from theory or intersectionality, but that to be effective among working people in general, especially among those so strongly indoctrinated against us, we must break decisively the persistent perception of the left as cold, distant, impractical, and exclusive. We must connect the left and its ideas to issues of direct, here-and-now economic importance to working people. We cannot influence people who simply do not see us.
Many thanks to you all for your attention. I’m not much of an essayist, but I hope this modest piece will bring our some useful conversation.