Can the Working Class Change the World?

Michael D. Yates is associate editor of Monthly Review. He was for many years professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. He is author of Longer Hours, Fewer Jobs: Employment and Unemployment in the United States (1994), Why Unions Matter (1998), and Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global System (2004), all published by Monthly Review Press.

Radicals of every stripe believe that capitalist economies are incompatible with human liberation. That is, while human beings have enormous capacities to think and to do, capitalism prevents the vast majority of people from developing these capacities. Therefore if we want a society in which the full flowering of human competencies can become a reality, we will have to bring capitalism to an end and replace it with something radically different.

Marx believed that the new society would have to be one in which the means of production were controlled democratically and collectively and in which the goal was to create a society in which labor was offered voluntarily for the good of the whole and in which society’s outputs were distributed more or less equally. The primary agent of the transition from capitalism to this new society would be the class of wage laborers created by capitalism itself.

The question which immediately comes to mind is whether the working class is capable of fulfilling the role Marx sets for it. Today, the consensus among radicals is that it is probably not; it has had a lot of time to do so but so far has not. I disagree, and in this paper I attempt to say why.

Before doing so, some preliminary remarks are necessary, to put the question in its proper context. The first thing to note is that capitalism, like the class societies that preceded it, is an exploitive society. A class of property owners, capitalists, extracts a surplus from the non-owning or working class which actually does the work of producing society’s output.

While the history of capitalism shows that the working class has often enough included slave and serf labor, the largest and, over time, increasingly dominant part of this class consists of wage laborers, workers formally free, in the double sense of being free to sell their ability to work to any employer and free from the nonhuman means of production.

Second, unlike slaves and serfs, wage laborers are exploited not by direct coercion (although direct coercion may be used either by the capitalists or by the capitalist state) but behind the veil of the market. Wage workers are not owned by the capitalists nor do they pay a part of the output they produce directly to them. However, they are exploited nonetheless, by virtue of their dependence as a class upon being hired by employers. Employers use their ownership of the nonhuman means of production to compel wage workers to work longer hours than those necessary for the workers to produce the output needed for their own subsistence. This extraction of surplus labor, which is the source of the capitalists’ profits, is maintained in part by the creation of a reserve army of labor, brought about by the very nature of the system itself.

Third, capitalism, again by its nature, is an expansionary economic system. It pushes local markets into national markets and national markets into international markets. Since profits depend upon wage labor, the relentless accumulation of capital, the drive to maximize both profits and growth, which is the very heart of capitalism, tends to continuously enlarge the working class and more and more divide the world into two classes: capitalists and wage laborers.

Fourth, from the beginning, capital accumulation has been embedded inside strong states, and these have greatly aided the capitalists in their drive to accumulate capital, not least by suppressing the collective actions of workers. These states have shown no sign of collapsing or disappearing.

Fifth, the accumulation of capital requires the constant revolutionizing of the techniques of production, which in turn requires systematic thinking, that is, the development of science and engineering. Invention is, in effect, internalized, made a necessary part of the system.

Sixth, and of great importance, the constant development of the means of production, both human and nonhuman, opens up the possibility of abundance, that is, of a high level of material comfort for all, along with a reduction in the time each person must devote to work. The possibility, in other words, of the full flowering of human capacities. The possibility of an end to the base subsistence life of prior class society and a return to the egalitarian and integrated original economies of gatherers and hunters, but with a higher, conscious, level of development.

Is it possible that capitalism can fulfill the possibilities it creates? The answer must be no. This is because capitalism is a class system, and because of this, it presents insurmountable barriers to an abundant life. Let us look at these. We have seen that capital accumulation requires the exploitation of wage labor. This exploitation, in turn, requires things obviously detrimental to the good life, however defined. Exploitation demands a sharp separation between the conceptualization and execution of work. A few get to think and the many get to do. Exploitation demands a universally employed detailed division of labor which condemns the masses of people to boring and tedious labor. And exploitation demands a reserve army of labor. The ILO estimates that there are some 160 million openly unemployed persons in the world and between 700 and 900 million underemployed persons. Not much abundance for them.

Capitalism also creates and continually reproduces an uneven development both within and among nations. This, in turn implies that whatever inequality exists to start with will continue to exist as a result of the normal operation of market forces. As economist John Gurley put it, capitalism must and does “build on the best.” To put this into the vernacular: “them that’s got is them that gets.” What abundance there is must be concentrated into a few nations and a few hands within each nation.

Capitalist economies inevitably pass through periodic crises, so just as some people are beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel, the lights go out. And if those at the bottom get too uppity, the state always stands ready to use its many repressive apparatuses to beat them back down again.

We are led inexorably to the conclusion that to bring about that which capitalism makes possible, capitalism must be superseded, abolished and replaced by an egalitarian mode of production, one in which whatever surplus is created by labor is controlled by labor. How might this happen?

We know that, given capitalism’s great power and resilience, it will not likely collapse of its own weight. An agent (or agents) is needed to lead a struggle against capitalism. Our objective, then, is to identify the agents of change.

The capitalists themselves, even so-called “enlightened” capitalists like George Soros, will not be their own grave diggers. The most fundamental contradiction of capitalism, its inability to allow full human development, demands and end to the capitalist class.

This leaves the remaining classes. Let us look at each one in turn. In all capitalist societies there are independent proprietors, neither capitalists nor wage laborers. History tells us that most of those in family business, private practice, or cottage industry, are looking to become capitalists, and it is unusual when these people oppose themselves to the capitalist system. Sometimes they ally themselves with mass progressive movements, but this cannot be assured. The system can, in the end, function without them.

Peasants comprise another class in nearly all capitalist societies. Peasants are capitalism’s first victims; everywhere capitalism touches down, peasants find their ancient attachments to the land threatened by commodity-loving capital. Land cannot be used to produce food for subsistence. Instead it must be converted into private property for the production of profit-seeking commodities, including food for export,—an element of capital accumulation. As Marx was coming to understand toward the end of his life, peasants can be a revolutionary, anti-capitalist force. They want land and will often fight for it. In addition, they have collective ways of doing things, and these make them amenable to the more collective organization of a post-capitalist society. Mao grasped this most deeply and built his Red army upon a peasant base. Today, the communists in Nepal are doing the same thing. Egyptian economist Samir Amin estimates that nearly half the world’s population is still embedded in fundamentally peasant circumstances. Given this, we cannot ignore the radical potential of peasants nor refuse to ally ourselves with their existing progressive organizations, such as the Landless Peasants’ Movement in Brazil.

But while peasants can be important elements in a revolutionary struggle, it is doubtful that they can be the primary agent of it. For one thing, in many places peasants are isolated and under such intense economic pressure that it would be miraculous if they could organize effectively enough to challenge capitalism on a global scale. They are being dispossessed en masse, and it is more likely that they will cause trouble as members of the urban reserve army of labor than as peasants. Second, in the rich capitalist countries, peasants are such a tiny minority that their possible political strength is minimal. In the end, peasants are not needed by capital; the system can survive and expand without them. This is not to say that it is progressive to applaud their disappearance. We should do what we can to stop or slow down this process. Society is confronted daily with the anti-human nature of large-scale capitalist farming, which pollutes the environment and poisons the food supply. We are going to have to find ways to produce our food differently, and peasants and their knowledge are invaluable resources for all of us. [I might note in passing the tremendous strides toward a more human-centered agriculture being made in Cuba, which is pioneering a pesticide-free and smaller-scale farming still capable of achieving national food self-sufficiency. I might also note in passing a certain anti-rural bias among some leftists. They are too much taken with Marx’s famous comment about the “idiocy of rural life.” But as the editors of Monthly Review pointed out recently (October 2003), “idiocy” is not the correct translation of Marx’s German. A better word is “isolation.” And it is this isolation which must be ended as we strive for a better integration of urban and rural life. In this connection, let me recommend a fine article by Jeremy Seabrook in the April/June 2002 issue of Race & Class titled “The Soul of Man Under Globalism.”]

If neither small-scale proprietors nor peasants are likely agents of change, the default class, so to speak, the only one which has the possibility of leading the struggle against capitalism, is the working class. This class has many advantages in terms of its capacity to wage war against capital. First, it is the dominant class everywhere capitalism has had enough time to assert its rule. The overwhelming tendency of capitalism is to create wage workers, so while peasants and independent proprietors live with the possibility of extinction, wage workers are always expanding in numbers, foolish talk of a “jobless future” notwithstanding. Second, and in connection with the first, wage workers are absolutely essential for capital, the source of the surplus value which is in turn the source of the profits which fuel capital accumulation. If as Istvan Meszaros argues, capitalism is the perfection of class society, the wage workers it creates are the perfect class in terms of exploitation. They are exploited, so to speak, behind their backs, behind the veil of seemingly equal market relationships, and what is more, they are wholly responsible for their own reproduction.

Third, since workers are at the center of the system, inside the workplaces where the surplus value is taken from them, they are best situated to figure out what is going on, to grasp the nature of the system. This is not to say that most workers will be able to grasp the nature of the system on their own. But some will and they can teach others. Often skilled workers have done this. And there will be those outside the working class who will com into opposition to capitalism, and they can be teachers as well. [Let me note here that I have been a labor educator for twenty-five years, and I can say that almost without exception, working people react positively to the labor theory of value. It fits their experiences, and when someone explains it to them, eyes light up around the room. It is always an “aha!” moment.] Of course, once workers understand the nature of the system, they are bound to become more class conscious and may become willing to struggle against it.

Fourth, wage workers are more likely to be forward looking. Unlike peasants they have not lost anything to look backward toward. They are propertyless, with only their labor power to sell. Skilled workers are sometimes backward looking, seeking a return to the time when their skills commanded status and respect. But capitalism wages war against skilled labor, so the homogenization of the masses of workers strengthens the forward-looking thinking of the working class.

Before examining the achievements and failures of the working class, that is, how it has changed the world and how it has failed to make a revolutionary change, I want to address an issue brought to the fore by Hardt and Negri in their much-discussed book Empire. In this book, they argue against the collectively organized working class (organized nationally and internationally) as an agent of revolutionary change. They argue in favor of working people disengaging from the system, deserting it in favor of self-production. While a “do-it-yourself” movement has arisen and has managed to engage in some production independent of the market mechanism, it seems to me that a politics of desertion is bound to fail. Capitalism has created at least some large-scale production units which we will no want to abandon. Can we “do it yourself” and get steel produced or electricity produced and distributed? Some production will always have to be coordinated across large territories. How will this get done? And can it really be imagined that tens of millions of workers are going to desert work and do their own thing? Under what coordination and with what strategies against the states that will actively and viciously oppose them? No wonder Hardt and Negri think the state is now irrelevant. It is a very convenient argument.

In terms of the working class as the primary agent of opposition to capitalism, I agree with Ralph Milliband, who said,

the “primacy” of organized labour in struggle arises from the fact that no other group, movement or force in capitalist society is remotely capable of mounting as effective and formidable a challenge to the existing structures of power and privilege as it is in the power of organized labour to mount. In no way is this to say that movements of women, blacks, peace activists, ecologists, gays, and others are not important, or cannot have effect, or that they ought to surrender separate identity. Not at all. It is only to say that the principal (not the only) “gravedigger” of capitalism remains the organized working class. Here is the necessary, indispensable “agency of historical change.”. And if, as one is constantly told is the case, the organized working class will refuse to do the job, then the job will not be done.(New Left Review, I (15), 1985)

It is easy to get discouraged by focusing on the failings of the working class, but it is necessary to take a look at our achievements. The self-consciousness of the working class is not much more than 200 years old. Subject to the control devices implemented by employers, workers take advantage of the contradictions brought forth by these devices and begin to organize themselves into trade unions. For example, employers introduce factory production to enhance control, but workers find themselves more class conscious due to their proximity with one another. Workers employ the very language of the bourgeoisie and turn it to their own advantage. When the capitalists speak of freedom of contract, the workers talk of freedom of assembly.

The unions organized by workers serve not only as defensive organizations, winning for their members some protections against the insecurities inherent in a capitalist economy, but as educational enterprises, teaching workers the ABCs of the system in which they live and labor. The organization of the working class forces intellectuals to take notice of it, and some of these not only try to analyze the system but become active allies of the workers. From their workplaces, labor spreads its organization to the level of society as a whole, forming political organizations and parties, which both agitate for political reform and for direct control of the state itself. Workers also form self-help organizations, newspapers, music groups, theater; in a word, a working class culture forms alongside and in conjunction with unions and political parties.

It is difficult to think of a part of capitalist society that has not been transformed by the activities of the working class and its allies. It is not just that labor unions and labor-based political organizations have improved the material lives of workers, though they certainly have done that: Higher wages, benefits of all sorts, an end to arbitrary boss rule of workplaces, protections against the insecurities of layoffs, injuries, sickness, and old age, the right to vote, freedom of speech and assembly, safer workplaces, the opening up of the schools to the masses of people, the overall enhancement of democracy, and much more. But it is also that the working class has forced itself upon bourgeois society and changed all of its culture: from literature (think of how common it is to believe that the class surroundings of a writer matter in terms of what is written or of how the working class becomes a subject of literature) to art (think of the murals of Diego Rivera), to films (Eisenstein and many others), even to music (folk music of course but sometimes classical music too). What is more, there have been times when the working class, often in alliance with and sometimes in subordination to peasants, has overthrown capitalism and attempted to establish a noncapitalist, socialist mode of production. Examples include the USSR, China, and Cuba.

But despite its many achievements, the working class has not made much of a dent in capitalism’s hegemony. In fact, the Soviet Union, once the beacon of hope for working people around the world and even toward its end a counterbalance to the rule of capital, was ignominiously torn apart more than a decade ago, and since then the people in the former soviet republics have suffered the kind of degradation normally associated with the “primitive accumulation of capital.” And China, which once fired the radical imagination, is rushing headlong toward capitalism and has seen what must surely be one of the most massive regressive shifts in the distribution of income in world history, complete with an enormous reserve army of labor, starvation wages, and sweatshop labor. Only tiny Cuba holds onto the socialist vision, the two-tiered economy created by tourism notwithstanding.

In the rich capitalist countries, capital unleashed a vicious attack on the working class in the early 1970s and over the next three decades dealt workers a seemingly unending string of defeats. There is no use to spell these out; I am sure that you are well aware of them. In the poor capitalist countries, economists speak of lost decades. Everywhere neoliberalism had descended, and everywhere it is still the order of the day. Despite the onslaught of capital, workers are, for the most part, far from taking to the barricades and trying to put an end to this oppressive system. It is no wonder that many people who concern themselves with such matters have concluded that the world’s workers cannot and even if they could, will not lead the struggle for a better world.

What went wrong? Looking at the broad sweep of history, we can perhaps identify some of the forces at work and bad decisions taken. First, as Marx pointed out, capitalism creates workers in its own image. It is hard for workers to grasp the nature of their circumstances, to see that they create capital rather than the other way around. So even when organized, they strive for a “fairer” wage and better conditions rather than an end to the wage labor system that is the ultimate source of their circumstances. The system appears to them as inevitable and immutable, though they might win a better deal. Of course, this notion is reinforced by a vast propaganda machine, including the media and the schools.

Second, the accumulation process itself creates divisions among workers, and employers are quick to encourage these and to utilize those which predate capitalism. For example, capital accumulation inevitably creates a split between skilled and unskilled workers, a division often exacerbated by ethnic, gender, racial, and religious differences. In the United States, the most troublesome division has been that of race. The legacy of slavery had never been overcome and has poisoned the labor movement from its beginning. In addition, until recently the labor movement has been defined in gender terms, as a movement of men, and this too has sharply impeded the ability of the movement to both organize and unite the working class.

Capital accumulation also creates a reserve army of labor, and this mass of unemployed labor threatens those who are working. The circumstances of the unemployed make it hard for them to organize, and when they do they cannot be assured of support from the employed or even from the unions of the employed. The labor federations in Argentina were not in the forefront of support of the movement of Argentina’s unemployed.

Once workers are at all successful in winning some of their demands, they inevitably develop a stake in the status quo. This may be true both of the relationship with employers and with the state. Successful negotiations with a particular employer can lead to a union embrace of labor-management cooperation, especially if this employer faces difficulties in the marketplace. This can lead to a situation in which the union members identify more with the employer than with workers at other facilities, even when these other workers are in the same union. This problem is exacerbated when the state uses its considerable power to coopt union leadership. When there was an opportunity for the new industrial unions of the United States to develop an independent politics in the1930s, the Roosevelt administration was able to coopt certain CIO leaders, such as Sidney Hillman and Phillip Murray, and use them as a wedge against the more independent John L. Lewis. Even the Communists fell into this trap, the end result of which was the close and deadly alliance between organized labor and the increasingly anti-labor Democratic Party. In Europe, the threat of the Soviet Union and the strength of left-led labor organizations added urgency to the cooptation strategy. A full-fledged partnership among employers, unions, and the state was established, and while this “labor accord” proved beneficial to workers in that it led to the formation of the welfare state, it has proved labor’s undoing in recent years when employers have abandoned the accord but unions have no alternative to it.

While seeking the protection of the state or even making alliances with employers can sometimes be useful tactics for labor, they cannot be labor’s strategy. In the United States, the consequences of the “labor accord” have proved particularly disastrous. The most basic condition for the embrace of the accord by some employers and the state was the abandonment of labor’s left-wing. The left-led unions were purged from the CIO, the very unions that not only embraced the struggle for civil rights and, to a lesser extent gender equality, and the unions that upheld the tradition of international working class solidarity, but also the unions that won the best contracts and were often the most democratic. As a consequence of the CIO’s embrace of a virulent anti-communism (joining the already rabidly anti-communist AFL), labor was left bereft of its best people and without any kind of working class ideology to guide working people as they tried to make sense of the world. Labor abandoned the growing civil rights movement and came to be dominated by white male bureaucrats, sometimes still dedicated to the members but often enough union careerists intent mainly on holding office and sometimes corrupt semi- mobsters. The president of the AFL-CIO, George Meany, actually bragged that he had never walked a picket line. Some of his minions worked for the CIA and helped overthrow democratic governments around the world. The post-World War Two economic boom and the initial unique power of the U.S. economy allowed the labor movement to claim a share of the booty for union members, but when the long expansion ended in the mid-1970s and employers went on the attack, labor’s weaknesses were glaring and near-complete capitulation followed.

The power of the market mechanism along with the deal labor made with capital made what went on inside the workplace off-limits for organized labor. While some workers won high wages and good benefits, their employers were given free reign to strengthen managerial control of the labor process. Continued use of the detailed division of labor, mechanization, and Taylorism, along with the many techniques developed first by Japanese auto companies and given the apt name of “management by stress” have allowed employers not only to rely less on union labor (by reducing the need for workers by mechanization, outsourcing, exporting jobs, etc.) but to make many modern workplaces into what Ben Hamper, in his book Rivethead, called modern gulags. With unions relinquishing the right to contest the nature of work, is it any wonder that so many workers buy into the various managerial schemes which claim to empower them?

Third, I think that the joint forces of nationalism and imperialism have seriously derailed the labor movements of the rich capitalist countries. As I said in an article I wrote in 2001:

Two important problems confront the unity of the world’s workers. First, capitalism has always developed in the context of a nation, with an active and complicit state. Second, capitalism has, from its beginning, developed unevenly in different parts of the world. The original capitalist nations of Europe and later those special cases of the United States and Japan subjugated the rest of the world through their military and economic might, creating an imperialistic system of rich and poor capitalist nations. These twin developments, nationalism and imperialism, have erected very substantial barriers against the unity of the workers of the world.

If capital is bound geographically within a nation, it is certainly possible that organized workers will be able through their own actions to compel their employers to pay them more money and benefits, reduce their hours, and better their working conditions. They will not need solidarity from workers in other nations to achieve these things. They may also be able to contest for state power on their own, so to speak. English craftsmen could and did organize effectively within England, and they did not require the help of French or German workers. The same is true for workers in the United States. Automobile workers organized the great sit down strikes which brought General Motors to heel, and while they needed their wives, other workers, and some sympathy from the governor and the courts, they did not need an alliance with Mexican or Canadian workers to establish their union and win their first collective bargaining agreements.

Not needing the support of workers in other nations does not, of course, mean that such support might not be useful or that it should not be requested. Perhaps the position of English craftsmen and U.S. automobile workers would have been even stronger, if not in the short run certainly in the long run, had they aligned themselves with the workers of other nations. So, why hasn’t international solidarity been labor’s rallying cry from the beginning? Two reasons can be offered. First, nationalism as an ideology of exclusiveness quickly became very powerful. The establishment of official languages, the institution of a universal propaganda mechanism in the public schools, and the drafting of working people into national armies all had the effect of encouraging workers to be loyal to the nation. The converse of this loyalty has been distrust or even hatred of those who are “foreign.” My father was a union factory laborer for 44 years, but his life experiences were not conducive to international solidarity. The Second World War especially shaped him as an almost fanatical supporter of the U.S. government (and defacto supporter of U.S. capital in most respects) and as an outright xenophobe when it came to the Japanese or the Soviets or the Chinese.

Second, nationalism in the advanced capitalist nations was intimately connected to imperialism. The vicious exploitation of workers and peasants in Africa, Asia, and Latin America went hand-in-hand with the promotion of a racist ideology that taught that these peoples either deserved what they were getting or were lucky to be associated with the rich nations. Furthermore, the surplus value pumped out of the peripheral nations gave the large multinational corporations money which, under enough trade union pressure, they could be convinced to share with workers. This went along with successful efforts by the corporations and the government to coopt labor leaders, through the formation of various kinds of labor-management organizations, assignment to public boards and commissions and the like. The goal here was to convince labor’s leaders as well as union members that imperialism was good for workers in the core capitalist nations. All of these efforts were, for the most part, successful. Labor organizations in all of the advanced capitalist countries have not only supported their own multinationals in the brutal exploitation of the economies and workers of the poor nations, they have even supported wars in which the workers of one rich nation fought against those of another. (Monthly Review, July/August 2000).

Of course, we no longer live in a world in which capital is bound inside a nation. Far from it. But the nationalism and the racism deriving from an earlier period linger on and make it difficult to do the things which must be done to forge an international labor movement. Even today, some years after the AFL-CIO notorious International Affairs Department was abolished, the AFL-CIO’s website has precious little news about workers in the rest of the world. When unemployed workers in Argentina were blockading highways and discharged workers were occupying factories, the AFL-CIO took little note. Today, the occupation of Iraq is providing cover for the oppression of Iraq’s nascent labor movement, but you don’t hear much about this from organized labor. On another level, labor organizations find it necessary to begin meetings with the national anthem or worse yet, a flag salute. Worst of all, working class parents countenance the enlistment of their children into the military and, with rare exceptions, hale them as heroes even if they get killed.

I suppose that it is fair to say that, given the array of forces set against them, it is amazing that workers have accomplished what they have.

Now it is time to return to our initial question: Can labor change the world? Let me make two preliminary points. First, I want to reiterate what I said before. The world will not be changed permanently for the better unless the mass of workers do the changing. Wage workers are necessary for capitalism to reproduce itself, so it is clear that only labor can stop this reproduction and reorganize society mode of production and distribution.

Second, we have seen that capitalism inevitably generates contradictions and these open up chances for workers and their allies to challenge the power of capital. However, capital always stands ready to learn from these challenges and blunt their impact or even turn them to its advantage. Capitalism is resilient and hegemonic in its development. This makes the task of its supersession a daunting one.

So, given this, what does the future hold? Even in the midst of what appears to be a desperate environment for the working class, there are many hopeful signs. I am sure readers are aware of most of these so I won’t go into details, but merely mention the burgeoning global justice movement, the student-led anti-sweatshop movement, numerous successful living wage campaigns, all sorts of successful bridge-building by the labor movement (these along with innovative organizing campaigns, many led by women, minorities, and immigrants are skillfully analyzed by Dan Clawson in his new book The Next Upsurge: Labor and the New Social Movements), the current debate within organized labor about how to increase union density, the anti-war movement, which now includes U.S. Labor Against the War, and many others. I have also discussed some of the new movements, here and in the rest of the world, in the last chapter of my book Naming the System.

However, no matter how you slice it, capitalism shows little sign of imminent collapse, and even its most virulent form, neoliberalism, shows few signs of waning in significance. So, what kinds of things might be done to really rejuvenate the labor movement, to at least make it ready to lead the “next upsurge?” I confine myself to the United States here, although some of my points are probably relevant to the rest of the world. And I suggest these things with the assumption that I am talking about what we on the left can do. We must try to build the left in everything we do. In my labor education I must stress the nature of capitalism first and foremost. In environmental work, we must argue that capitalism is the primary source of our alienation from the natural world. We must do what we can to make the anti-globalization movement an anti-capitalist movement. We must push a left perspective in our unions. We must never cease pointing out the essential sameness of the major political parties. We must be alert to show the connections between capitalism and patriarchy and race oppression. And all forms of oppression.

Specifically, here are some things to consider:

  1. Organized labor (the AFL-CIO in particular) must confront its racist and anti-left past. We must continue to demand national meetings within organized labor on these issues, and we must bring them up whenever we can. We must proudly point out the tremendous achievements of the left-led unions, not just on nationally and internationally critical issues such as race and peace but in terms of collective bargaining agreements and union democracy.
  2. We must promote a left ideology, a worker-friendly way of seeing the world. We must hammer home the same themes (right to a job, health care, right to organize, meaningful labor, community and worker control, a democratic state, a healthy environment, no to war, anti- imperialism, equality in all human relationships, etc.) over and over as the right did with its demands from the 1960s on. Workers have to know why they are organizing. Here we need to promote and develop a left culture—in all of the arts.
  3. We must focus on democracy and equality. All forms of oppression must be fought together, not least of all in our unions. And we must insist on as much democracy as possible in all of our organizations. This is not to say that leaders shouldn’t lead and be out front in terms of the demands made on employers and the state but only to say that change cannot come solely from the top down.
  4. The working class needs to educate itself, and this means that there must be a lot more labor education. Working people need to embrace a working class way of looking at the world, an ideology which will give them direction and a way to judge what is going on in the world. What if the AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions spent some of the millions they now spend supporting Democratic Party politicians, with precious little in return, on labor education (classes for every new union member, full-time education directors, labor radio, etc.)?
  5. International solidarity is a must. U.S. labor does a better job here than it used to do, but lots more could be done, including real support for all progressive activities by workers abroad and, most especially, opposition to U.S. foreign policy, which is invariably anti-worker in both intent and impact.
  6. Building the left inside and outside the labor movement means building political independence. And this means keeping class foremost in mind (broadly construed) and trying to build a labor political presence.
  7. The working class must, and soon, come to grips with the rapid despoliation of our natural environment. As labor productivity continues to rise, output must grow more and more rapidly to absorb a growing labor force. However, under capitalism, this can only mean more poisons in the water and air, more contaminated food, and more workplace sickness and injuries. What will be needed is more labor-intensive, smaller-scale, more localized, and energy-conserving production. Such a production regime could be combined with demands for universal health insurance, meaningful job training, generous leave programs, universal education, and reduced working hours— all things the working class should champion, with its leaders showing the way.

Let me conclude by saying that this is not the time to abandon the working class. Capital is conquering the world, making the earth a gigantic cesspool of exploitation. What is more, this is happening pretty much as Marx said it would. His analysis is as relevant today as it ever was. And his singling out of the working class as the only viable agent of capital’s demise is as correct now as it was when he wrote Capital. Workers are the necessary element of the system, and they are the only force capable of forcing this system into the dustbin of history. Those who write it off as reactionary or too nationalistic or racist or sexist or not attuned to the environment cannot offer us an agent to replace it. Of course, if we look to our history, we do see that workers have been all of the things those who dismiss it revolutionary potential. But we also see that workers have done the most remarkable things too, and have shown the world what collective solidarity and the action based upon it can do. We must remember that the class struggle is a long hard slog. But one well-worth making and the only one capable of leading us toward a society that can even begin to realize the radical dream: From each according to ability, to each according to need.