Why Are Socialists Always Talking About the Working Class?

A discussion about class in the 21st century.

In These Times Contributors

Striking building workers raise their fists in salute during a rally in the Bois de Vincennes, Paris, on June 13, 1936. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Only the work­ers can smash the machine
Bhaskar Sunkara

At the end of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca con­ven­tion this sum­mer, the par­tic­i­pants gath­ered to sing that ven­er­a­ble left­ist anthem, The Inter­na­tionale.” The del­e­gates and observers, most of whom like­ly weren’t a day old­er than 30, sang one line with spe­cial con­vic­tion: The inter­na­tion­al work­ing class shall be the human race.”

U.S. feminism over the last 50 years has struggled mightily with the fact that “women” (like “working class”) is not a unitary category.

To some it must have seemed ridicu­lous. But old habits die hard.

For the last cen­tu­ry and a half, the work­ing class has been at the cen­ter of social­ist pol­i­tics. Marx­ists, in par­tic­u­lar, didn’t roman­ti­cize work­ers because they were oppressed, ripped from their land and suf­fer­ing in crowd­ed fac­to­ries and squalid slums. They paid atten­tion to the work­ing class because work­ers were more pow­er­ful than they knew.

Cap­i­tal­ism saw the world increas­ing­ly divid­ed between those who con­trolled and coor­di­nat­ed pro­duc­tion and those who had to offer up their labor. The cap­i­tal­ists grew wealthy; work­ers remained poor. But it wasn’t just that. Work­ers’ lives were inse­cure, they had to give up their auton­o­my to keep their jobs — there was no alter­na­tive to sur­ren­der­ing them­selves to dom­i­na­tion and exploita­tion at the hands of oth­ers. They worked or they starved.

But work­ers of any race, gen­der and era, includ­ing our own, have some­thing in com­mon: an antag­o­nism toward the peo­ple who pose to them such an unfair bar­gain. This col­lec­tive injus­tice gives work­ers a com­mon inter­est in resis­tance. More impor­tant­ly, their key role in pro­duc­ing society’s wealth means that their dis­rup­tions can shake the sys­tem to its core. Indi­vid­ual work­ers, of course, can’t do it alone. They need to bridge divides and orga­nize with oth­ers to win con­ces­sions. Many have found it safer to avoid such actions and keep their heads down. That seems per­fect­ly ratio­nal — we may be many, but they are powerful.

Yet, at cer­tain moments, through the cre­ation of trade unions and polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions to rep­re­sent the spe­cif­ic class inter­ests of work­ers, col­lec­tive action has become a real option. Work­ers have tak­en this option to accom­plish incred­i­ble things. Across the world, work­er par­ties took pow­er to either try to man­age the cap­i­tal­ist state the best they could, in their inter­ests, or to try to over­come it entire­ly. The results were mixed, but the fact that we live in soci­eties with dos­es of human­i­ty and jus­tice is a cred­it to their efforts.

Of course, times have changed since Marx pub­lished Cap­i­tal 150 years ago — or even since pow­er­ful par­ties of the Left ruled from Kingston, Jamaica, to Stock­holm, Swe­den, in the 1960s and 1970s. There was once a time when you could go to a work­ing-class neigh­bor­hood in a place like Bologna, Italy, and imme­di­ate­ly know it. A few indus­tries might have been the key source of employ­ment for the area. Peo­ple lived dense­ly packed togeth­er, forced by cap­i­tal­ism into, if not bonds of sol­i­dar­i­ty, then at least com­mon­al­i­ty. True to this shared con­di­tion, they vot­ed in the main for par­ties of the broad Left. The job of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary was to con­vince work­ers com­mit­ted to a pol­i­tics of reform to embrace a pol­i­tics of rupture.

Today, you might find pock­ets of this across the advanced cap­i­tal­ist world, but it is the excep­tion, not the rule. The work­ing class is frag­ment­ed. William Mor­ris wrote in 1885 that while work­ers are a class, social­ists must con­vince them they ought to be Soci­ety.” Now we have to con­vince them about that class part, too.

Though the work­ing class has indeed changed, the shifts are over­stat­ed by those, such as Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don pro­fes­sor Guy Stand­ing, who pro­claim this to be the era of the pre­cari­at.” There’s noth­ing new about work­ers suf­fer­ing through pre­car­i­ous, low-wage employ­ment. What­ev­er sem­blance of secu­ri­ty was pos­si­ble in decades past was not due to the inher­ent nature of pre-neolib­er­al” cap­i­tal­ism, but the result of suc­cess­ful class strug­gle and organization.

True, the per­cent­age of work­ers employed in indus­tri­al man­u­fac­tur­ing has declined in recent decades — but that’s been the case since the late 19th cen­tu­ry. The work­ers still left in those sec­tors (in raw num­bers, more than ever) aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly less pow­er­ful as a result — but it does mean that for the sake of build­ing a majori­tar­i­an elec­toral coali­tion, social­ists need to think more broadly.

Luck­i­ly, our con­cep­tion of a work­ing class goes beyond for­mal­ly employed work­ers, to the labor and polit­i­cal agency found in house­holds and com­mu­ni­ties. But the tra­di­tion­al work­place should still be cen­tral to our vision. In the 21st cen­tu­ry, that means putting spe­cial empha­sis on work­ers in grow­ing sec­tors, like teach­ers and health­care pro­fes­sion­als, as well as those work­ing in sup­ply and logis­tics. It also means devel­op­ing con­nec­tions between the unem­ployed and the employed and pur­su­ing a broad prac­tice of social jus­tice union­ism (union orga­niz­ing that goes beyond typ­i­cal labor demands) capa­ble of mar­shal­ing sup­port for strikes and pol­i­cy ini­tia­tives that spring up from the labor movement.

Fig­ur­ing out how to put this vision into prac­tice will require con­stant­ly inno­vat­ing our tac­tics and polit­i­cal strat­e­gy, as well as strug­gles focused around com­bat­ing racism, sex­ism and nativism.

Work­ing peo­ple are as dif­fer­ent and divid­ed as ever, yet they are still posi­tioned to rat­tle the sys­tem and win real gains. We sim­ply can­not have an eman­ci­pa­to­ry pol­i­tics with­in cap­i­tal­ism that doesn’t revolve around the class whose labor makes the sys­tem run. 

There are more sys­tems to smash
Kathi Weeks

I agree with Bhaskar about both the the­o­ret­i­cal impor­tance of class analy­sis and the prac­ti­cal suc­cess­es of class strug­gle his­tor­i­cal­ly. But I also think his valu­able insights about the het­ero­gene­ity of work­ers, along­side his call for a more expan­sive con­cep­tion of social­ist pol­i­tics, should be devel­oped fur­ther. We must embrace mul­ti­ple lines of social analy­sis beyond class and cap­i­tal­ism, and move toward a ful­ly coali­tion­al mod­el of eman­ci­pa­to­ry politics.

For the last cen­tu­ry and a half,” Bhaskar writes, the work­ing class has been at the cen­ter of social­ist pol­i­tics.” This may be true. But this telling of left his­to­ry risks eclips­ing the roles played by the tale’s oth­er pro­tag­o­nists. To his cred­it, Bhaskar rec­og­nizes that work­ing peo­ple are as dif­fer­ent and divid­ed as ever,” and acknowl­edges that social­ist pol­i­tics today must include strug­gles focused around com­bat­ing racism, sex­ism and nativism.” Yet in the end, class uni­ty seems to pre­vail: Work­ers of any race, gen­der and era, includ­ing our own, have some­thing in com­mon: an antag­o­nism toward the peo­ple who pose to them such an unfair bar­gain.” While I appre­ci­ate this account of how com­mon ground can be found with­in dif­fer­ence, this for­mu­la­tion threat­ens to pose gen­der and race antag­o­nism as sub­or­di­nate to class antagonism.

Mem­bers of the work­ing class do not have only class inter­ests, and cap­i­tal­ism is not the only mode of dom­i­na­tion we need to study and con­test. We are nev­er only work­ers, but work­ers whose lives are shaped by our gen­der, race, sex­u­al­i­ty, cit­i­zen­ship and dis­abil­i­ty. Fur­ther­more, it is not only racism, sex­ism and nativism that we must attend to but the sys­tems of white suprema­cy, patri­archy and nation­al sov­er­eign­ty of which they serve as ide­o­log­i­cal sup­ports. Just as cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion can­not be reduced to the prob­lem of mere class bias, the prob­lems that fem­i­nists, anti-racists and oth­ers take on have deep struc­tur­al roots. Cer­tain­ly these oth­er sys­tems inter­sect and inter­act with cap­i­tal­ism, but they can­not be sub­sumed under cap­i­tal­ism as if they were some­how sec­ondary to or mere off­shoots of it.

Let me offer two brief exam­ples that show the need for a more expan­sive set of ana­lyt­i­cal tools and polit­i­cal strate­gies. First, vio­lence against women: To grasp the caus­es and find solu­tions, we should also inter­ro­gate the his­tor­i­cal con­nec­tions between the gen­der divi­sions of labor under cap­i­tal­ism — for exam­ple, how women are con­fined to low­er-waged jobs and tied more close­ly to fam­i­ly respon­si­bil­i­ties — and gen­dered rela­tions of pow­er in soci­ety more broad­ly that might man­i­fest in vio­lence. Sec­ond, police vio­lence against peo­ple of col­or: To con­front this cri­sis, we must map out the his­tor­i­cal entan­gle­ments of a cap­i­tal­ist polit­i­cal econ­o­my with slav­ery, the prison-indus­tri­al com­plex and oth­er forms of insti­tu­tion­al racism, includ­ing racist polic­ing. Nei­ther prob­lem, vio­lence against women nor police vio­lence against com­mu­ni­ties of col­or, can be addressed by class analy­sis alone or sole­ly through work­ing-class activism.

Rather than cling to class as a mas­ter cat­e­go­ry, class uni­ty as an ide­al and the work­ing class as the agent of eman­ci­pa­tion, I want to argue for rec­og­niz­ing the rel­a­tive auton­o­my of myr­i­ad polit­i­cal strug­gles — among oth­ers, those orga­nized around the cat­e­gories of class, race, gen­der, sex­u­al­i­ty and dis­abil­i­ty. Build­ing on the same log­ic, we can also appre­ci­ate the poten­tial for coali­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty and coop­er­a­tion among them.

A com­par­i­son might bring my claim into sharp­er focus. U.S. fem­i­nist the­o­ry and pol­i­tics over the last 50 years has strug­gled might­i­ly with the fact that women” (like work­ing class”) is not a uni­tary cat­e­go­ry, and has been forced to respond to var­i­ous instances where white, mid­dle-class, het­ero­sex­u­al and cis women have mis­tak­en­ly imag­ined them­selves as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of women.” To the extent that fem­i­nists have made good on this insight — def­i­nite­ly a work in progress — we have built a more inclu­sive move­ment that ful­ly acknowl­edges our dif­fer­ences, and fem­i­nist pol­i­tics has been made stronger.

In order to achieve the laud­able goal Bhaskar lays out, to rat­tle the sys­tem and win real gains,” I would argue in favor of trad­ing uni­ty for coali­tion. By expand­ing our the­o­ries and prac­tices, I think eman­ci­pa­to­ry pol­i­tics — includ­ing social­ist pol­i­tics specif­i­cal­ly and anti-cap­i­tal­ist pol­i­tics more broad­ly — would not be dimin­ished but made more pow­er­ful and durable. 

We can build a bet­ter system
Kali Akuno

For the first time, vir­tu­al­ly all of human­i­ty is incor­po­rat­ed into one social order and one mode of pro­duc­tion: the cap­i­tal­ist world-sys­tem. More peo­ple are involved in com­mod­i­ty pro­duc­tion and exchange — as wage-labor­ers, inden­tured ser­vants, pris­on­ers or slaves — than ever. This means that the work­ing class is larg­er and poten­tial­ly more pow­er­ful than at any oth­er point in history.

So I agree with Bhaskar that the work­ing class is in a cen­tral posi­tion to trans­form the world-sys­tem. He is also right that the work­ing class is frag­ment­ed, for all the rea­sons that Kathi men­tions (and then some).

Social per­cep­tions and con­scious­ness can change rapid­ly, giv­en the right con­di­tions, as the past sev­en years of glob­al events demon­strate. The insta­bil­i­ty we are now expe­ri­enc­ing — wars, eth­no­cen­tric and reli­gious vio­lence, ter­ror­ism, mass migra­tion, and the rise of right-wing nation­al­ism and out­right fas­cism — is accel­er­at­ing the trans­for­ma­tion of con­scious­ness and polit­i­cal action the world over. On the pro­gres­sive side, we have seen mil­lions of work­ing-class peo­ple chal­lenge and even top­ple dic­ta­tor­ships in Africa and Asia, and mil­lions mobi­lize to con­front grow­ing inequal­i­ty and dis­pos­ses­sion in the democ­ra­cies of Europe and North Amer­i­ca. This shows that even with­out mass left orga­ni­za­tions, the work­ing class can act as a polit­i­cal force.

But for the most part, the Left has been evis­cer­at­ed through polit­i­cal repres­sion, capit­u­la­tion to neolib­er­al­ism and the trap­pings of elec­toral pol­i­tics that serve to legit­imize rather than chal­lenge the sys­tem. In places like Egypt, Libya and Syr­ia, this evis­cer­a­tion led to the reor­ga­ni­za­tion of dic­ta­tor­ships. It also means that the gains in Europe and the Unit­ed States have been lim­it­ed to shifts in the pub­lic dis­course about class and inequal­i­ty, and rel­a­tive­ly minor pro­gres­sive pol­i­cy shifts. More is clear­ly needed.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, in much of the world (includ­ing the Unit­ed States), the Right is doing bet­ter than the Left at reach­ing work­ing peo­ple who feel they are los­ing their sta­tus, priv­i­leges and birthrights. For the work­ing class to play a trans­for­ma­tive role in soci­ety, we must build our own left-ori­ent­ed orga­ni­za­tions and insti­tu­tions, and quickly.

These orga­ni­za­tions and insti­tu­tions must not aim to recre­ate the social-demo­c­ra­t­ic or elec­toral routes to pow­er of the past cen­tu­ry. Instead, the Left must build a new type of rev­o­lu­tion­ary work­ing-class orga­ni­za­tion. This type of orga­ni­za­tion must learn from and tran­scend the 20th cen­tu­ry’s fail­ures of both the van­guard — with its empha­sis on cen­tral­ism over democ­ra­cy — and social-demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ties — with their faith in rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy and the neu­tral­i­ty of capital.

We must be pre­pared to both build and fight: fight the impo­si­tions of cap­i­tal where we work, live, play and pray, and build, from the ground up, insti­tu­tions on the basis of social sol­i­dar­i­ty and eco­log­i­cal regen­er­a­tion, such as work­er coop­er­a­tives and time banks.

Kathi’s empha­sis on coali­tion­al pol­i­tics may go too far in decen­ter­ing cap­i­tal­ism, but she is right that a new work­ing-class move­ment must take on mul­ti­ple modes of dom­i­na­tion, oppres­sion and hier­ar­chy. In my view, cap­i­tal­ism is the nexus of oppres­sion in our era, and fash­ions and con­di­tions all oth­er forms of oppres­sion in its own ser­vice — colo­nial­ism, eth­no­cen­trism, racism, white suprema­cy, patri­archy, het­ero­sex­ism, ageism, ableism, et al. Of course, oth­er sys­tems of oppres­sion have their own log­ic and ani­mus, and some, like patri­archy and het­ero­sex­ism, are much old­er and social­ly entrenched than capitalism.

This new type of orga­ni­za­tion must rec­og­nize that work­ing-class peo­ple aren’t just one-dimen­sion­al beings: They have con­cerns, needs, wants and desires that go beyond wages and work con­di­tions. It must also rec­og­nize that class posi­tion is con­di­tioned by race, eth­nic­i­ty, nation­al­i­ty, lan­guage, reli­gion, sex­u­al­i­ty, gen­der, age and phys­i­cal abil­i­ty — these con­cerns are not just add-ons” to the class struggle.

On this basis, our move­ment can advance a vision of a whol­ly new sys­tem, a new com­mu­nist civ­i­liza­tion, rather than set­tling for an exploita­tive sys­tem with the where­with­al to accom­mo­date more Black pres­i­dents, Queer sol­diers and Woman preach­ers. We can and must do bet­ter. The suf­fer­ing mass of human­i­ty, and all the life forms cap­i­tal­ism is rapid­ly extin­guish­ing, demand noth­ing less.

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