Should socialists centre the working class?

24 July 2020
Omar Hassan

The impressive resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US is shining a spotlight on the depravity of this system. Protesters are grasping that something radical needs to be done to deal with systematic racism in the “land of the free”.

But after decades of racial inequality increasing, despite determined resistance, the exact nature of the change needed is, for many in this unprecedented multi-racial movement, hard to define.

Protesting is important, and can win real gains, as recent events have shown. But even the most inspiring protests eventually peter out if they don’t find a way to draw in wider layers of support and increase the pressure on those in power. To do this, an understanding of where movements have the potential to garner the most support, and what sort of challenge to the system is needed to end racism for good, is needed.

Different forms of oppression, including racism, are endemic to capitalism. They are produced by the same institutions, rules and norms that defend the power of the wealthy elite. This means that, if the system as a whole isn’t overthrown, oppressive institutions and ideologies will make a comeback.

Time and again the gains of protest movements are rolled back because, despite making some temporary concessions, the same people remain in control of the economy and society. Once the heat of struggle dies away, they strike back. That’s why women are still discriminated against, despite the efforts and gains of the women’s liberation movement 50 years ago. And it’s why the organised murder of Black people carries on – by the police now instead of lynch mobs – despite the hard-fought victories of the civil rights campaigns.

So to end oppression we need to end capitalism, not tinker around the edges. But what is capitalism? It’s a system based on the perpetual expansion of wealth, predicated on extracting as much surplus as possible from workers. Oppression is absolutely central to this process, constructed to preserve and strengthen this exploitative relationship in a range of direct and indirect ways.

Capitalists rely on workers to generate their profits, which means the working class has enormous power to disrupt the status quo. And by virtue of the collective nature of the work process, workers also have the unique capacity to construct a new society based on solidarity, democracy and equality.

But when the working class is talked about in popular culture or the mainstream media, it is commonly depicted as being made up of straight white men with backward attitudes. Homer Simpson comes to mind, as does the flood of articles in 2016 wrongly blaming white working class voters for Trump’s unexpected victory.

Some on the reformist left accept this stereotype, treating working class politics as purely a matter of wages and accommodating to social conservatism. But at a global level, women make up roughly 40 percent of the workforce today, while in Australia the figure is 47 percent. Similarly, globally the majority of workers are non-white, concentrated in countries such as India, China and Brazil. Even in predominantly white, Western countries like Australia, the working class is the most diverse of all the social classes. As well, working class voters are not simply more diverse, but also more progressive than average, being much less likely to vote for right wing parties than those in the middle and upper classes.

So while wages and conditions are certainly crucial working class concerns, so also are access to parental leave without discrimination, defending and extending public housing, winning union representation for migrants and those whose immigration status is precarious, gaining access to free child care, health care and education, and so much more.

The idea that socialists think the oppressed should just wait for a revolution to bring improvements in their lives could not be further from the truth. Seeing oppression as central to capitalism means understanding the importance of every struggle against it as an opportunity to weaken ruling class power. And understanding that questions of oppression will arise organically in the course of working class struggle, and vice versa.

Many of the fiercest and most inspiring industrial actions throughout history have organically incorporated issues of oppression. A good example is the 1981 strike at the Kortex textile factory in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick. Documented by socialist historian Sandra Bloodworth, the strike involved 300 mainly migrant women who picketed their factory for 10 days and defeated attempts by their bosses to intimidate them with armed thugs. When their union officials organised a rigged vote to end the strike, women as young as 16 found ingenious ways to thwart them.

On the pickets and in the union meetings their partners took up supportive roles, handing out leaflets and organising food. “In the homes, the men took over child care and house duties to free the women to attend the pickets for long hours”, Bloodworth explains. “Here was an example of how women’s issues and those of class exploitation are bound together; how a struggle can change attitudes and break down divisive stereotypes.”

Another example is the radical Black workers who played a crucial role in leading class struggle across the US in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many of the activists were inspired by Malcolm X and identified with the postcolonial movements in the developing world, and for a time were able to fuse the energy and radicalism of those politics with the power of organised labour. In doing so, they won the support of militant white workers, who increasingly saw their Black colleagues as comrades in the struggle against the system that exploited them both.

In Britain in 1976, Jayaben Desai led a brilliant strike at Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories in London. The two-year battle inspired enormous support and solidarity from the whole union movement, and is still remembered as one of the most significant disputes in British history. In a short documentary commemorating the strike, a worker is moved to tears recounting the experience: “It was an amazing moment; what we’d heard about the dockers was that they were racist ... my abiding memory was that these white men had come to show solidarity with a group of Asian women, to protect the idea of solidarity itself”.

As well as particularly oppressed workers leading the broader movement with their explosive radicalism, solidarity can also express itself in other ways. Throughout the 1970s, for example, mostly male construction workers in Sydney lent their support to campaigns for women’s rights, LGBT rights and climate justice. This social justice industrial action, known as “Green Bans”, was also crucial to establishing one of the first Indigenous housing co-ops in Australia. The union’s rationale was as simple as it was radical: workers should control their own labour, and it should be used to improve society, not to enrich greedy developers.

Relatively well-paid and secure workers taking action in support of the more oppressed and precarious in this way is part of the best traditions of the labour movement. It has secured important victories that protesting alone could not have.

Another example was in 1961, when a group of white and Indigenous activists formed the South Coast Aboriginal Advancement League. Their first target was to smash the system of segregation that existed in Wollongong at the time, where Indigenous people were de facto banned from most public venues. They contacted the left-dominated South Coast Trades and Labour Council, which was happy to assist. Racist pub owners and restaurateurs were singled out by the unions and threatened with bans on shipments of beer and other supplies unless they agreed to serve Indigenous people. Faced with this power, it didn’t take long before the bigots surrendered.

The history of revolutions – the highest form of class struggle – is yet more evidence of the working class’s potential to liberate all of humanity when it takes power. Revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin described revolutions as “festivals of the oppressed” for this reason. The 1917 Russian Revolution itself was begun by women workers, and its leaders were disproportionately drawn from oppressed minorities.

After winning power, the revolution immediately granted more than a dozen oppressed nations the right to secede from the Russian empire, gave women the vote, the right to divorce and access to free and legal abortion, and imposed strict punishments for anti-Semitism. Stalin’s counter-revolution undid all of this, but his monstrous regime could not totally eradicate the memory of workers’ power.

The revolutionary overthrow of capitalist society in every country of the world remains today the only way in which the oppressed can be liberated. In the struggles that precede that, it is the responsibility of socialists to bring working class perspectives to the movements of the oppressed, and to fight all forms of oppression within the workers’ movement.

This is important because sometimes the particular demands of oppressed groups are dismissed as “divisive” by moderates in the union movement and the broader left, and an argument is made to downplay them in favour of slogans that promote broader unity. But it is a hollow sort of unity that requires workers with particular needs or grievances to put these aside in favour of slogans that are palatable to the most backward. Such an approach is defended on the basis that improving conditions for the class as a whole will inevitably lead to the oppressed being better off.

This is both unprincipled, because it shirks challenging conservative ideas in a situation in which they matter and therefore helps the cause of the ruling class, and ineffective, because it means the explosive potential of the oppressed is lost to the struggle, as is the opportunity to strengthen the workers’ movement by integrating social as well as economic grievances. Shying away from potentially contentious social questions might be an effective electoral strategy, but it only weakens working class power on the ground. It is counterposed to winning a socialist society that can liberate all the oppressed.

Equally mistaken are those who dismiss workers and the possibility of systemic transformation altogether. Arising out of the decline and fragmentation of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, identity politics has become dominant, enshrining an approach to politics that prioritises symbolic gestures over structural change. Its most cynical adherents celebrate contingents of queer police officers at gay pride parades, and call for more Black CEOs.

Underlying this approach is the belief that the source of oppression is the lack of diversity in the halls of power. Of course, it’s indisputable that the ruling class of Western countries is disproportionately white, male and straight. But this is a symptom of oppression, not its cause.

Changing the gender, sexuality or race of those in power does not change the system; it simply changes the colour of the boot that is stamping on our collective faces. The experience in the US, where thousands of officials across state and federal institutions are Black and there has even been a Black president, confirms this. One of the officers involved in the killing of George Floyd is Black, as is the police commissioner in Minneapolis.

We don’t need to diversify the ruling class, we need to destroy it and replace it with socialism, the collective power of organised labour. As a step towards that, we need to build more connections between the working class and social movements against oppression.

This goal might seem a long way from where we are today, but there are reasons to be hopeful. The decision by US longshore workers to strike in memory of George Floyd on Juneteenth (the day commemorating the end of slavery in the US) indicates the potential for such solidarity. The current weakness of the union movement – and especially the left within it – meant that the Juneteenth action was largely symbolic. But it is not hard to imagine these sorts of actions moving beyond the symbolic in the current climate.

With confidence in capitalism among the mass of people at historic lows, and further depressed by the criminal mishandling of the pandemic, the possibility of such action seems much more than a dream. When working class struggle does re-emerge as a force, the ideas that guide it will be all important. Without a vision of a socialist alternative to capitalism, the possibility of real equality and freedom will again prove elusive.

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