Can the working class unite?

November 4, 2010

Jen Roesch looks at where ideas that divide workers, like racism and sexism, come from--and how the working class can overcome these obstacles to unity and solidarity.

ONE OF the most common objections to socialism is the idea that the working class is too alienated, too tied to its narrow material interests and too internally divided to play the revolutionary role that Karl Marx envisioned for it.

In many ways, this objection rests on an elitist notion that workers are too weighed down by material concerns to have the ability to fight for broader social change. It also accepts not just that workers can hold racist, sexist, homophobic or other backward ideas, but also that they are somehow more susceptible to these ideas.

For example, it is almost common sense today, on both the right and the left, to equate the right-wing Tea Party movement with the working class. It is assumed that workers are more likely to be duped by the likes of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. However, analyses of the ranks of the Tea Party have shown that its supporters tend to be wealthier, older, better educated and whiter than the U.S. population as a whole.

Similarly, in the 2008 elections, "Joe the Plumber"--though he was actually a middle-class business owner--was hailed by the Republicans as the icon of blue-collar America, which was presumed to reject tax-and-spend liberalism. However, despite the Republican attacks on Barack Obama as the candidate of "latté-sipping East Coast liberals," Obama got his highest levels of support from voters earning under $50,000 a year (I have no idea what kind of coffee they drank).

Students marching against racist hate crimes at University of California, San Diego last spring
Students marching against racist hate crimes at University of California, San Diego last spring

To be clear, Marxists do not argue that workers never hold backward political ideas. They are at least as capable of reactionary ideas and general ignorance as the rest of the population. However, they are not uniquely so--and, more importantly, they are the one class in society with a material interest in challenging all forms of oppression.

The bigotry, selfishness and ignorance of those who run our society flow from their class position. In order to maintain their power, they must foster the idea that ordinary people are somehow less capable, and they must perpetuate all the backwards ideas that help keep working-class people divided from one another. For the working class, however, manifestations of these ideas are at odds with their class interests, and are therefore a challenge to be overcome.

In fact, Marx argued that the working class, a class "with radical chains," was the one class that in liberating itself had the potential to liberate all of humanity. In abolishing its own exploitation and oppression, the working class also must abolish every rotten aspect of society that is indissolubly bound up in that central axis of exploitation. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Frederick Engels wrote:

All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.

Elsewhere, Marx emphasized that the proletariat "cannot emancipate itself without abolishing the conditions of its own life. It cannot abolish the conditions of its own life without abolishing all the inhuman conditions of life of society today which are summed up in its own situation."

UNDER CAPITALISM, it is the exploitation of the working class that lies at the heart of the system. This economic foundation gives rise to and helps to structure all the other aspects of our society. This doesn't mean that the economic base determines everything else in a simplistic one-to-one fashion, but that all the aspects of our society have their roots in and must be understood in relationship to this central pivot.

Looking at economic and social relationships in their totality in this way positions Marxism as an emancipatory project. It unites the very concrete struggles of the working class against its own oppression and exploitation with the goal of human liberation. In the process, it points to the material basis on which that human liberation can be achieved.

This entire outlook stands in sharp contrast to the common view that counterposes questions of class exploitation to those of oppression. Exploitation is not a technological but a social relationship. As such, it inevitably involves the whole complex of social relations that arise from it. The working class cannot confront the conditions of its own exploitation without also calling into question these social relations.

Furthermore, if the working class is to play a revolutionary role, then it must achieve unity in its ranks. In order to do this, it must bring the question of oppression--which is rooted in capitalist exploitation and serves to perpetuate it--to the forefront. As the Marxist historian Gregory Meyerson explains:

Marxism, properly interpreted, emphasizes the primacy of class in a number of senses. One, of course, is the primacy of the working class as a revolutionary agent--a primacy which does not, as is often thought, render women and people of color "secondary." The primacy of class means that building a multiracial, multi-gendered international working-class organization or organizations should be the goal of any revolutionary movement: the primacy of class puts the fight against racism and sexism at the center. The intelligibility of this position is rooted in the explanatory primacy of class analysis for understanding the structural determinants of race, gender and class oppression. Oppression is multiple and intersecting, but its causes are not."

To be clear, when Marx discussed the liberatory capacity of the working class, he was describing a potential, not things as they currently stand. His theory does not rest on an idealization of the working class as more noble or self-sacrificing. Marx fully recognized the existence of prejudice within the working class and its frequent blindness to its own class interests.

However, as the socialist Hal Draper wrote: "It is not a question of how the proletariat can be deceived, betrayed, seduced, bought, brainwashed, or manipulated by the ruling powers of society, like every other class. The basic point is that it is the proletariat that it is crucial to deceive, seduce and so on."

In this light, the question becomes how the working class overcomes the divisions in its ranks in order to fulfill this potential. We have to start from the reality that in every aspect of their lives, workers are pitted against each other and forced to compete for seemingly scarce resources. This competition pervades every arena of society: from housing and jobs to a spot in a good school or a seat on a crowded subway train.

Marx explained how these divisions are an inevitable result of capitalism:

Competition separates individuals from one another, not only the bourgeois, but still more the workers, in spite of the fact that it brings them together. Hence it is a long time before these individuals can unite...Hence every organized power standing over these isolated individuals, who live in conditions daily reproducing this isolation, can only be overcome after long struggles. To demand the opposite would be tantamount to demanding that competition should not exist in this definite epoch of history, or that the individuals should banish from their minds conditions over which in their isolation they have no control.

Thus, competition is constantly disrupting the tendency towards unity in the working class. This would be true even if the working class were homogenous. However, capitalism has proved incredibly adept at exploiting differences within the working class.

There are the more natural differences of ability and inclination, of course--but capitalism has also created artificial divisions on the basis of race, gender, sexuality and nationality. These divisions are not natural in that such distinctions between people have either not existed throughout history (in the case of race or nationality) or have not always had the meaning that they do under capitalism (as with gender and sexuality). Instead, capitalism has created structures of oppression that both materially support the system and ideologically divide the working class internally.

IT WOULD be impossible to fully discuss here the roots of these various systems of oppression. But it is worth pointing out how each is based in the development of capitalism. Contrary to popular myth, both Marx and Engels paid a great deal of attention to questions of oppression. Marx described how, from its very beginnings, capitalism rested on outright plunder and conquest:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of black skins are all things that characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation. In fact the veiled slavery of the wage laborers in Europe needed the unqualified slavery of the New World as its pedestal...Capital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.

It is these developments--the rise of the slave trade and the conquest of the colonies--that gave rise to racism. While xenophobic ideas may have existed previously, it was only with the development of capitalism that an explicit theory of the inferiority of non-white people was developed to justify slavery and colonialism. Similarly, the rise of the nation state was central to the development of capitalism. It is only the creation of these artificial borders that makes meaningful any distinction between, for example, a Mexican worker and an American worker.

Divisions of gender and sexuality arose separately, but have also been closely intertwined first with the development of class society and later with capitalism. Engels, in his The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, argued that: "The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male."

The nuclear family first arose as a means to establish the transmission of property rights from one generation to the next. Prior to the rise of private property, these distinctions held little relevance. The primacy of the nuclear family, based on monogamous, reproductive-oriented marriage, also gave rise to the idea that heterosexuality was the norm and all other forms of sexuality were "deviant."

The powerful changes wrought by over two centuries of capitalist development, as well as the immense and heroic struggles of the exploited and oppressed themselves, have shaken and transformed these structures of oppression. However, capitalism has been flexible at adapting itself to changed circumstances and reimposing divisions within the working class.

So, for example, the growing contradiction between developing industrial capitalism and the slave system--as well as the struggle of slaves and abolitionists--led to the abolition of slavery in the U.S. at the end of the Civil War. This opened up a period of radical struggle, known as Reconstruction, in which there was a real potential to get rid of racism and build a new, united, multi-racial working class. However, the defeat of Reconstruction paved the way for the establishment of a system of white supremacy--Jim Crow segregation laws backed up by the terror of vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

This backlash was not a revolt of white workers threatened by the newly emancipated slaves. In fact, the period of Reconstruction was marked by many common struggles of poor whites and freed Blacks. Instead, it was a movement of the white ruling elite determined to re-exert its power and control. As such, it was directly primarily at Blacks, but also at any opposition to elite rule. Jim Crow laws were consciously used to divide poor whites from Blacks.

A titanic wave of struggle in the 1950s and 1960s, known as the Second Reconstruction, finally toppled this system of white supremacy in the South. However, capitalism again proved agile in maintaining Blacks as second-class citizens.

Structural forms of discrimination created a situation in which Blacks have significantly higher levels of unemployment, have been barred from housing and lending, and go to segregated and unequal schools. Furthermore, a racist backlash against the gains of the civil rights and Black Power movements--primarily in the form of the "war on crime"--has led to appallingly high rates of incarceration, execution and police brutality directed against Blacks.

Equally seismic shifts have taken place in the role of the family and the position of women and sexual minorities in our society.

For example, Marx and Engels believed that the working-class family would disappear under capitalism as it was deprived of any private property to transmit to future generations. However, the nuclear family has also proved to be a remarkably flexible institution. Under the brutal conditions of early capitalism, it became what Marx referred to as a "haven in a heartless world." In these conditions, both working-class men and women played a key role in maintaining the nuclear family.

But more important was the function of the family in reproducing the labor force. That is, women within the family bore all the burden of raising and caring for the next generation of workers. Rather than socializing these functions, capitalism benefits from pushing these costs onto individual families.

The entry of women into the labor force also undermined the basis of the private family and provided the basis for women's liberation, as women were freed from the isolated domestic sphere and joined public life. The women's liberation movement and gay liberation movement in particular shook the foundations of gender and sexual oppression. The 1970s saw the legalization of abortion and the spread of birth control so that women could control their own reproduction. Divorce became much easier to obtain, and women were able to break into jobs and professions that had once been denied to them.

Today, the traditional nuclear family is more myth than reality, with a multiplicity of different family structures. However, the continued privatization of reproduction ensures that women bear the double burden of paid work outside the home and unpaid work inside it. And the ideology of the family continues to impose rigid gender and sexual stereotypes, as well as to discriminate against sexual minorities.

THERE ARE two important things to say about these developments. First, capitalism has shown an enormous capacity to provide a path for advancement for a layer of the oppressed, while maintaining the overall structures of oppression. So, for example, we can have the election of a Black president alongside record levels of Black unemployment and incarceration, and a society disfigured by rampant racism. Similarly, a layer of middle-class women have been able to break the "glass ceiling" while the majority of women face worsening conditions.

The changes that have taken place have produced a growing class divide among the oppressed. The cooptation of a layer of the oppressed into the ruling echelons of society has allowed the ruling class to falsely recast questions of institutional discrimination as ones of personal responsibility.

Major struggles of the oppressed have shaken the system and even won far-reaching reforms. In many ways, the lives of and opportunities for Blacks, women, LGBT people would be unrecognizable to previous generations. But even more striking is the amazing persistence of racism, sexism and homophobia, despite centuries of "progress." This only underscores the point that any struggle against oppression must ultimately challenge and uproot the system of exploitation if it is to be fully successful.

The second point to make about the changing, yet persistent, nature of oppression is that the ruling class has perfected a strategy of divide and conquer.

While all of the different forms of oppression serve to materially benefit capitalism on their own terms, they also play an equally important role in pitting different sections of workers against each other. If these divisions have had to be continually re-imposed, it begs the question of why the ruling class has been successful in doing so. How is it that it was successful in imposing Jim Crow segregation? How has it maintained women's subordinate position despite the breakdown of traditional forms of the family? Why is it able to get away with attacking immigrants?

The most common explanation is that different sections of the working class benefit from the oppression of other sections. So while the working class as a whole may share an interest in challenging capitalism, different sections within it are simultaneously bound to the system by material privileges afforded to it. White workers are seen as enjoying privileges at the expense of Blacks. Men are believed to enjoy a position of domination within the family that shapes and maintains women's oppression. "First World" workers are charged with benefiting from the super-exploitation of Third World workers.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this thinking was this statement by the Weatherman radicals of the 1960s:

The primary task of revolutionary struggle is to solve the principal contradiction on the side of the people of the world. It is the oppressed peoples of the world who have created the wealth of this empire, and it is to them that it belongs; the goal of the revolutionary struggle must be the control and use of this wealth in the interests of the oppressed peoples of the world. Your television set, car and wardrobe already belong, to a large degree, to the people of the rest of the world.

The implications of such a theory are far-reaching. Because there is no material basis for groups of workers breaking with racist, sexist or other chauvinist ideas, it places the struggle against oppression on a purely moral plane. Different sections of the oppressed and exploited are asked to support the struggles of other sections on the basis of "solidarity," de-linked from any notion of actual common interests.

An article written by two members of the Independent Socialists in 1969 pointed out where this logic can lead:

The programmatic conclusion of the "white skin privilege" theory, therefore, is that in addressing whites, and particularly white workers, it is necessary to convince them to give up their "white skin privilege," to convince them to recognize that they are getting more than they deserve while others are getting less. Overcoming one's racism is thus the willingness to reject one's self interest and to make sacrifices in support of the black and anti-imperialist struggle.

THE IDEA that different sections of the working class must protect their "privileges" against other sections can pit potential allies against one another. Within this framework, bonds of solidarity forged out of common class interests are replaced by the politics of moralism. Workers are asked to support the oppressed despite their class interests rather than because of them.

Furthermore, if the working class is split into many different groups, each of which is oppressed by other sections of the class and each of which must organize separately against its "oppressor," than the struggle itself must split along those lines. The stage is set for fragmentation.

If it is true that different sections of workers benefit from the oppression of others, then we are indeed in a cul-de-sac. Marx's description of the working class as "a class which has to bear all the burdens of society without enjoying any of its advantages" falls apart. If working-class unity is not based on the objective interests of the class, then the process of achieving it becomes a purely educational endeavor. It is not a far leap from this to the idea that it must be enlightened intellectuals who do this educating.

But Marxism begins from a dramatically different starting point, perhaps best summed up in the famous words of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass: "They divided both to conquer each." It is indeed the case that capitalism has pitted different sections of workers against one another. But this has not been to the benefit of different sections of the working class--instead, it has lowered the standard of living and prospects of the class as a whole.

Thus, in describing the impact of slavery on the labor movement in the U.S., Marx wrote: "[E]very independent movement of the workers was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labor with a white skin cannot emancipate itself where labor with a black skin is branded."

The Marxist claim is not that workers will not accept or even assist in perpetuating racism (or sexism or any other form of oppression), but that they do so to their own detriment. The Black historian W.E.B DuBois sharply captured this dynamic in his description of the role of racism in the period following Reconstruction in the South:

The race element was emphasized in order that property-holders could get the support of the majority of white laborers and make it more possible to exploit Negro labor. But the race philosophy came as a new and terrible thing to make labor unity or labor class-consciousness impossible. So long as the Southern white laborers could be induced to prefer poverty to equality with the Negro, just so long was a labor movement in the South made impossible.

The legacy of this defeat persists to this day where wages for both Black and white workers are significantly lower in the South as a result of much lower levels of working-class organization.

All this is true regardless of workers' consciousness of their own interests. Groups of workers may feel themselves superior to or embittered toward others. They may perceive themselves as having an advantage relative to other workers that must be defended. And they may identify not with their fellow workers, but with the dominant class. Marx described how "[t]he ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and so turns himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists of his country against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself."

DuBois points to the same dynamic in the United States:

[T]he theory of race was supplemented by a carefully planned and slowly evolved method, which drove such a wedge between the white and black workers that there probably are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply and persistently and who are kept so far apart that neither sees anything of common interest.

Racist, sexist, homophobic and nationalist ideas are consciously stoked by the ruling class. As Marx pointed out, "This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And that class is fully aware of it."

Thus, rather than reflecting a power relationship, workers' acceptance of backwards ideas is a reflection of their own powerlessness. A husband and father may attempt to act as a petty despot within the family, but he is only expressing in a displaced way his own frustration and rage with the oppression and exploitation he faces in his daily life. This dynamic can be seen in the fact that racist, sexist, nationalist and homophobic ideas take root most easily in periods of defeat and demoralization.

GIVEN THIS, the questions remain: Why do workers accept these ideas if they so contradict their material interests? And how can the divisions become overcome?

To answer this, we need to understand the dynamics of class struggle. Marx distinguished between what he called a "class in itself" and a "class for itself." Most of the time, workers experience life as isolated and atomized individuals. As individuals, they are much more likely to accept the ruling ideas of society. As the British socialist Duncan Hallas put it:

The assumptions convenient to the ruling class are the daily diet of all of us. Individuals, whether bus drivers or lecturers in aesthetics, can resist the conditioning process to a point. Only a collective can develop a systematic alternative world view, can overcome to some degree the alienation of manual and mental work that imposes on everyone, on workers and intellectuals alike, a partial and fragmented view of reality.

This is not to say that workers are dupes, blindly accepting the crap handed down from above. Workers' conditions of life always force them to challenge at least some aspects of the ruling dogma. But ideas that run counter to the system can co-exist for long periods of time with those that reenforce it. In periods of capitalist stability, there is little reason for workers to question the status quo. The dominant ideas will tend to prevail. This doesn't mean that some workers will not reject them and become revolutionaries, but they will be a minority.

But if there is one thing guaranteed by capitalism, it is that such stability is always temporary. Because it is an irrational system based on competition and profit, crises are endemic to capitalism. In these crises, the ruling class will always seek to make workers pay the price. The conditions of life become intolerable and can only be endured for so long before workers are compelled to fight back.

Thus, struggle is a product of the very contradictions of capitalism itself. As Hal Draper put it, "To engage in class struggle it is not necessary to 'believe in' the class struggle any more than it is necessary to believe in Newton to fall from an airplane. There is no evidence that workers like to struggle any more than anyone else; the evidence is that capitalism compels and accustoms them to do so."

It is this process of struggle that opens up the possibility for divisions to be overcome. In struggle, the common class interests of workers are pushed to the fore. They cannot effectively resist without combining with their fellow workers.

In this process, two things happen. First, the hold of bourgeois ideology begins to break down. For example, when workers see the supposedly neutral police and courts set against them, they begin to question what interests the state actually represents. Once one set of lies begin to crumble, the entire ideological edifice of capitalism is called into question. Second, workers begin to change not only their conditions but also themselves. The alienation and pettiness that can dominate life is replaced by an impetus towards solidarity and a belief in one's own capacity to shape their world.

Struggle is the key element in the transformation from a class in itself to a class for itself. Marx argued that it was not men and women as we know them under capitalism, but those transformed by this process of struggle who will found a new society:

Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; the revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the old crap and become fitted to found society anew.

EVEN THE smallest struggles can show this possibility in embryonic form. In late 2008, the largely immigrant workforce at the Republic Windows & Doors factory in Chicago occupied their workplace. This action itself was in many ways inspired by the great immigrant rights struggles of recent years.

But it took place in a context of economic uncertainty, in which the example of struggle could engender identification and solidarity not only from other workers, but also from oppressed groups engaged in their own battles. So LGBT activists came down to support the occupation. The day after their victory, a representative of the Republic workers joined a forum on gay marriage, declaring, "Our victory is yours. Now we must join with you in your battle for rights and return the solidarity you showed us."

But it is when struggle spreads and encompasses wider sections of the working class that the question of unity gets posed at its sharpest. In a revolution, when the entire social order is cast into question and workers and the oppressed move to the forefront of political life, the changes are the most transformative.

This is why the Russian Marxist Lenin referred to revolution as a "festival of the oppressed". In the 1917 Russian Revolution, women won the right to vote, divorce was made freely accessible, abortion and homosexuality were legalized, and Jews (who were a persecuted minority in Russia) were elected to leadership positions. The colonies were given the right to secede and establish their own governments. In a country that was economically backward and had been through the destruction of the First World War, oppressed people won rights that we still struggle for today.

However, we are again only describing a potential. In every struggle, the possibility of divisions being overcome exists. But the disorganizing tendency of capitalism exists as well--racist, sexist, nationalist or other ideas can also be used to push struggle backwards. Perhaps more importantly, the defeat of struggle can reinforce backward and reactionary ideas. There is an episodic nature to struggle that means it is crucial which direction each particular struggle goes in, and the lessons that are learned.

That is why revolutionary organization, itself a product of working-class struggles, is so important. Lenin argued that a revolutionary party must be the "tribune of the oppressed, trained to respond to every instance of oppression whatever class it affects." As struggles develop, socialists argue for unity and solidarity, and for tactics that will take them forward. In the event of defeat, socialist preserve the lessons from the high point of struggle to help to prepare and strengthen the working class for its future battles.

The last 200 years has shown the lengths to which the ruling class will go to preserve its rule. Capitalism has been highly successful in reimposing divisions within the working class as well as creating new ones.

But this is only one side of the picture. Time and again, there have been explosive struggles that have shown the potential for solidarity and posed an alternative to the system. That these have not yet won does not make them any less significant or invalidate the Marxist perspective of working-class self-emancipation. It simply means that we must deepen and extend our own level of political organization to be prepared to meet the battles to come.

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