the Way Forward
Even the Cliffites admit that there is a relatively small hardcore layer of white workers who make far more than Blacks, even in regions where Blacks are numerous. But they don’t understand how that affects the general white-Black aristocratic relationship.
When we discussed the role of ethnicity, we pointed out the impact of the arousal of hopes for social mobility among the more impoverished layers when others of their nationality secure gains. This was based on a reality for much of American history, namely that some workers could move upward. For white workers this has been the “American Dream.” White workers in general have been able to identify with the hardcore aristocratic layer, based on the fact that some of them could actually achieve that status (or even in other cases actually transcend it). That hope has been unreal and largely absent for Black workers. The aristocratic relationship between whites and Blacks has not depended on higher actual income alone; it is also based on the fact that there is a material basis for whites’ expectations of an even higher income than the one they have. Not by accident, the Southern Klan frequently was able to recruit a base among the “strainers,” those whites strenuously engaged in moving upward on the economic ladder. Mobility aspirations are a crucial cornerstone of the “psychological wage.”
A question often put to us is: You Marxists claim that the struggle of the working class will automatically lead to socialist revolution. Nine times out of ten, that has not been the case. You also talk about the working class being inherently internationalist and interracialist, yet most often the workers have lined up behind the capitalist nation-state to fight the workers of other nations. That’s clearly true for American workers, isn’t it? And don’t tell me that the majority of American white workers aren’t prejudiced against people of color. The depth of that hostility may vary, but interracialism hardly seems to describe the actions or the views of many white workers in the history of the U.S.
Our answer is that there is nothing “automatic” about socialist revolution. It is impossible without the working class consciously constructing its own revolutionary party. This party is the embodiment of the Marxist program which can be summed up in those two words: socialist revolution. Although final proof awaits the revolutionary achievements made by a workers’ state, the horrors of capitalism every day prove that the revolutionary program does in fact reflect the most fundamental, objective material interests of the entire international and interracial proletariat. The workers of the world have those interests in common; they have nothing like that in common with their ruling classes.
Capitalist exploitation drives proletarians toward consciousness of their real, revolutionary interests. Those workers who see their class interests, and the way to win them, are the advanced (vanguard) workers who actually build the class party. Workers arrive at revolutionary consciousness in layers, at different rates due to different social conditions (aside from personal factors). The vanguard workers are in a constant dialogue with the newly advancing layers, trying to show them the way. This crucial activity is the basis for the revolutionary vanguard party’s strategic and tactical approach, which in its entirety is designed to teach the necessity of proletarian socialist revolution.
Consciousness of the true position of the proletariat is never arrived at in an abstract intellectual way. It develops in the course of the class struggle, which itself is a response to the ups and downs of the social crisis endemic to capitalism, especially in this epoch. Combined with the guidance of the party, which tries always to “say what is,” this produces the advanced layers of the working class. The early Leninist Third International pointed out that the working class as a whole can’t achieve advanced socialist consciousness except as a consequence of the gains made by the revolutionary workers’ state. The revolution itself comes when, as a result of growing experience with capitalism, the less advanced workers come to recognize the need to follow the vanguard and help overthrow the ruling class.
The theory of permanent revolution states that capitalism in this epoch is terrified of any threat to any property, because of the maturation of the proletariat and its socialist mission. As the nineteenth century was drawing to a close, the capitalist class stopped supporting revolutions against pre-capitalist property forms – if all property was not treated as sacrosanct, theirs’ would be endangered as well. Memories of the Paris Commune and the later growth of Marxist parties, especially in Europe, haunted the bourgeoisie with the threat of socialist revolution.
As profits from imperialism rolled into the capitalists’ coffers, they were able to dribble out sops to buy off sectors of the working class who began to feel that they had a material stake in preserving capitalism and their nation-states. Marx and Engels had described the harbingers of these aristocratic layers of workers as they appeared in England and North America. Lenin analyzed the labor aristocracy (and the closely associated new middle-class stratum) as it grew in tandem with the developing imperialist epoch leading up to the First World War.
Lenin showed the connection between the growth of the labor aristocracy and its role in turning the Social Democratic parties away from revolutionary internationalism. Led by the party and union bureaucracies, the social chauvinist aristocracies each championed their own nations in the imperialist war. Not only did the aristocrats defend their imperialist nations against each other in Europe, they came to defend racist imperialism in general. The Marxist and Leninist conception of the aristocracy of labor explains how racist and nationalist prejudices within the working class were hardened and deepened by differentiated material rewards.
As we have shown, materially based anti-Black racism and anti-immigrant nationalism took root among the early artisans and proletarians of North America. Marxist sociology is a study in relationships far more than is the social stratification approach of the academic social scientists. For us, for example, the working class can only be understood in relation to the capitalist class, a relationship mediated by property in the means of production. For academic sociologists, income levels and market position determine class itself.
With the Marxist understanding of the class, we can point to particular layers of aristocratic workers with relatively fixed, relatively high incomes. There are also relative degrees of aristocracy which are even more transient and which feature even smaller gradations of income and conditions. For example, the white Anglo-Saxon craft worker in New England in the first part of the nineteenth century might have looked down on the Irish laborer. At the same time, the miserably paid Irish laborer could lord it over the even more abysmally paid Black worker. The relationships were clearly aristocratic in degrees.
With this in mind, we can trace the reasons why chauvinism has had such a grip on large sections of the working class, especially as the U.S. became more stable and prosperous with its growth as an imperialist power. We can also point out that the stake in the system felt by the comparatively large and relatively well-off layers of the American working class has been the basic source of liberal reformism as well as chauvinism inside our class. The presence of well-off workers activated the American Dream and narrowed the numbers of advanced conscious workers.
As a general proposition, the Social Democratic parties in Europe continued to mouth revolutionary internationalism at the turn of the century. Advanced consciousness was thereby contained and transformed to its opposite. This rhetoric covered an increasingly reformist practice which solidified with the outbreak of World War I. In other words, the development of aristocratic layers was responsible not only for chauvinism but the growth of centrist and reformist degeneration within the working class.
The return of economic crisis to the surface of events has been destroying the material braces imperialism has so carefully erected to protect and preserve itself around the world. Stalinism has crumbled. Traditional Social Democracy now peddles “free market” austerity, having been stripped of its ability to serve as a conduit for welfare state concessions. With a few important hold outs, the privileged labor aristocracy and the pumped up middle classes are disintegrating abroad and at home.
The material bases for the corruption of the working class are passing, and we are fast approaching the dawn of new struggles which give every evidence of being titanic. Such struggles are the seed-bed for the massive redevelopment of vanguard party consciousness and the basis for the recreation of a powerful internationalist and interracialist working class. It is vital that all oppressed people look to the proletariat and its party once again.
In addition to their other misconceptions concerning the Bolshevik analysis of the labor aristocracy, the Cliffites think Lenin meant that the sops gained by that stratum were gifts of the bourgeoisie – and they point to the lack of evidence for such charity. However, any fair reading of Lenin shows that he well understood that the purpose of the ruling class in conceding sops was to buy off anti-capitalist struggles and to secure a layer of agents to contain the rest of the working class. There is no question that if the class were united, all would receive more income (and the class would be able to make the socialist revolution!); therefore, even the hardcore labor aristocracy loses from division in that sense. However, in the absence of such unity, the benefits of the aristocrats do not disappear. This logic doesn’t diminish the reality that the labor aristocrats recognize the benefits they receive in comparison to the superexploited today.
The Cliffites ascribe to Lenin still another idea he never had: the permanent existence of the labor aristocracy as a bought-off layer. They point to massive struggles of aristocrats at given times in history. Of course, Lenin often pointed out the transient character of the buying-off process; he knew that workers who lose their advantages can explode.
That kind of eruption is in the offing today, as the capitalist crisis deepens around the world. Capitalism’s buffer zone, its border patrol, the middle class, is disintegrating. A layer at the top is consummating its fusion into the bourgeoisie; the much more numerous strata below are disappearing into the working class and some even below it. So too, the labor aristocracy is being steadily eroded.
In the United States, the political manifestation of this erosion has been the so-called Reagan Democrats – blue-collar aristocrats who, together with beleaguered petty-bourgeois elements, have polarized to the right. This trend toward conservatism, inspired by economic dislocation and racial hostilities, represents in its own way a radical break from the legacy of the New Deal. But there is no necessary logic that makes such a transformation erupt to the right. The Hormel strike of a few years ago, the more recent class confrontations in Decatur and Detroit show an alternative propensity to the left on the part of the same sociological layer. The decisive elements in the equation are the role of the labor bureaucracy and the middle-class leadership of the Black caste. If their grip over their following remains strong, then the crisis-ridden labor aristocrats can be expected to deepen their polarization to the right.
However, there are relatively new factors on the scene that must be taken into consideration. As we have pointed out, even though the modern Black caste has been overwhelmingly proletarian in composition throughout its history, there has always been a petty-bourgeois or middle-class leadership stratum. We have also noted the substantial enhancement of the middle layer and its role – together with a greatly augmented Black labor aristocracy – as a result of the gains made in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. Although subjected to the recent capitalist assault, these strata still remain strong as compared to the past.
In the past, there was a Black labor aristocracy, but it was very small in relation to the Black working class and minuscule and weak compared to the white working class and its aristocracy. Writers even described government postal workers as part of the “Black bourgeoisie” because of their job security and pay scale – not high for whites, very high for Blacks. Today, Black middle-class elements and aristocrats are to be found in the private sector as well as in government employment. The appearance of Black faces in lower management positions, on the one hand, and in the labor aristocracy (and therefore after a while in the union bureaucracy), on the other, was necessitated by the events of the 1970’s.
We have already pointed out that in the early ‘70’s, white workers followed the lead of fighting Black workers in the burgeoning strikes that broke out as part of the world working-class upheaval. As well, Black workers played a militant and fighting role in the wildcat strikes rampaging through major U.S. industries.
That potential still remains. (There is a similar likely role for the greatly expanded Latino presence within the proletariat as well.) Once mass struggle occurs, there is every reason to believe that the presently deepening chasm between white and Black workers will be bridged. The fate of Black workers is no longer dependent on white workers taking the lead in the class struggle, as it was historically. Trotsky’s prophecy that Black workers will be a decisive leading force in the American socialist revolution will come to pass.
Let us remember how careful American capitalism was to build up its buffering middle-class layers within the Black population as a consequence of the upheavals of the ‘70’s. With the need to sell the ghetto masses on austerity and to undermine and take back gains from that era, it still has needed those restraining layers.
Capitalism, has had to attack the economic gains of the labor aristocracy in general, in addition to its devastating assault on the more impoverished sectors. It is accelerating the attack on poor white workers and unemployed as well as on poor workers of color. As the turn by the big bourgeoisie to Clinton after the Los Angeles rebellion proves, they wish to proceed very carefully before alienating and attacking the Black middle strata. Clinton stood as much for a strong military build-up of forces capable of smashing riots in the future as did Bush, but as a Democrat he was able to shed a few crocodile tears for the Black plight. A naked assault on the ghettos, especially given the glaring racism involved in the brutal police beating of Rodney King, would have been a declaration of race war that the Black labor aristocratic and middle strata could not have ignored.
As the direct attack on welfare has proved, the ruling class must deepen its attack on the poorer layers of the class. Whites as well as Blacks are thus hit, but “welfare” equals “Blacks” as far as racially motivated white labor aristocrats are concerned. At the same time, the bourgeoisie has avoided a full-fledged confrontation with Black employed workers; its attack is still cloaked to a degree. Forcing welfare recipients to become slave-wage workers serves the capitalists’ need to extend exploitation and further divide the class. It is also a careful way to undercut all other wage levels, including that of the Black and white aristocrats; its careful character is revealed by its indirectness. Enacting the workfare bill also opened the way to launching assaults on Social Security and Medicare which will hit aristocrats, Black and white, as well as the poor.
The intent to move against the Black middle strata is revealed by the attacks on affirmative action. The dominant sectors of the bourgeoisie still hide the knife by claiming to favor the program – while gutting what little remains of its content. Significant elements of the bourgeoisie are openly hostile. The handwriting is on the wall. Affirmative action regulations and laws are not themselves of decisive importance. Such programs were a liberal counterthrust to a possible struggle for full employment at the time they were passed. But they did benefit some minorities and some women. However, since their teeth in the form of quotas were removed long ago, they helped even fewer people. Nevertheless, their elimination would be a major symbolic victory for the right wing. It would be another important step in the campaign to eradicate the gains of middle-strata Blacks, Latinos and women.
The bourgeoisie is acting carefully because it recognizes the explosive potential not only of the besieged labor aristocrats but that of the Black masses they help restrain. The relentless-but-cautious assault has been going well from a capitalist view. Of course, the capitalists have had to restrain the Gingrich “revolution” from going too far too fast. The danger was too great that it would nakedly reveal to the white aristocrats and petty-bourgeois elements its favoritism for capitalist interest. There was also the danger that the right wing’s racism would break open into a pitched battle that would force the Black leaders to fight back. Either the devastation of the Black middle strata, or the exposure of the leaders’ compromising attitude as a complete failure, could weaken capitalism’s social, economic and political defenses against the legions of the poor Black working class. Then, as they know from the past, all hell can break loose.
That much the “moderate” political representatives, as well as the more socially-aware “establishment” spokesmen of the ruling class, can see. Some even grasp that Los Angeles was a class revolt that involved Latinos and whites as well as Blacks, in addition to its being a response to a race attack.
The ruling class has proceeded carefully since the early ‘70’s not to provoke the combination of a long and bloody foreign war, a deteriorating economy, an angry working class and rebellious minorities. Such is the depth of the crisis, however, that the coming economic devastation of the working class must far eclipse that of the 1930’s. Thus it is no accident that the wraps are beginning to come off and the inevitable class confrontation is drawing closer. The seeming calm of the moment hides the enormous pressure of the stored-up frustration, fear and angry hostility of the working class that can erupt with a vengeance tomorrow.
The political, social and economic base for American imperialist expansion rests on the racist caste division. As we have pointed out, capitalism’s ability to divide the plebeian movement in the South, deny Blacks the vote while keeping them in debt-ridden peonage and attach the white populist forces to the defense of a conservative Democratic “Old South” stabilized the power of the national ruling class.
Even in the 1930’s, the New Deal rested on this arrangement of power. The white agrarian populistic elements in the South as well as the reactionaries voted Democrat and helped install FDR in the White House. Dixie was a vital element in maintaining a Congress formally organized by that party but actually dominated by a conservative and racist Republican-Southern Democratic axis.
The Democratic Party itself was dominated by Wall Street’s liberal minority during the 1930’s and afterward. Its voting base was heavily working class but was organized by urban machines on the basis of ethnic rewards, in counterposition to class-conscious organization and demands. Ruling-class finance, the urban Catholic machine and the Old South maintained a rocky alliance based on the defense of property relations and quid-pro-quo payoffs. It worked.
The danger to political stability came from the industrial working-class upheavals of the depression years. That movement succeeded in organizing unskilled production workers outside of the South into powerful industrial CIO unions, as opposed to the old aristocratic craft-divided AFL unions. As we have indicated, only the restraints imposed by the Communist Party and its popular frontist misleaders in the CIO prevented the militant workers from breaking out of the Democratic Party and launching their own party.
The CIO unions welcomed Black workers, but in the 1930’s Blacks were not yet a decisive factor in Northern industry except in a few cities. During and after World War II, large numbers of Blacks streamed northwards into the major industries. This migration became the basis for a major shift in the balance of racial forces in the United States. Black workers had become a primary threat to the system, even if at first it didn’t look that way. Blacks began to switch to the Democrats after having been non-voting Republicans in the South – in the late 1920’s, even before the New Deal. The Democratic machines were the urban party designed to trap immigrant and migrant workers.
Significant sectors of Black workers moved to the left during the Great Depression, but once again the development was contained within the Democratic Party largely as a result of the CP’s influence. The growing presence of a volatile urban Black working class in key wartime and post-war industries and government work, and an increasingly strong presence in the big cities spelled enormous danger for the system. The CP could only provide a stopgap answer for capitalism. During the Second World War, large Black movements demanding equal employment opportunities developed – despite the efforts of the CP, which opposed Black and working-class actions as disruptive of the “war effort.” Roosevelt and the Democrats, intent on winning the imperialist war, were able to make temporary concessions to Blacks to keep them largely within a party still propped up by Southern racism.
The major impact of the destruction of the Solid South as the bedrock of American stability in the post-war period was partly hidden by the prosperity and the Cold War. The effects are now becoming clearer every day. The stopgap force that played such a major role in containing the Northern working-class and Black struggles, the Communist Party, has also collapsed. When the coming working-class explosion occurs, we can expect various small centrist pseudo-revolutionary groups to expand and to try to play a similar constraining role. However, their vacillating nature makes them a much weaker force than was the CP, which in the 1930’s and ‘40’s was such an important prop maintaining the stability of the system.
The combination of the Cold War, McCarthyism, the prosperity and vastly increased governmental intervention into collective bargaining and into the unions, solidified the power of the labor bureaucracy. However, the deepening crisis and the rollback of working-class gains has considerably reduced the power not only of the unions but of the bureaucracy itself. It is still a potent force, but at least for now it lacks credibility among the workers it leads. Once again it will depend on the support of pseudo-revolutionaries when the crisis matures – just as the CIO chieftains depended on the aggressive organizing capacities of the CP during the ‘30’s.
The race-caste walls in the United States were never smashed but they were decidedly weakened. The major structural fact keeping the South in the hands of reaction was the race-caste division. The major fact keeping the national working class divided was the race-caste division. As the economic and social crisis deepens and the underlying vulnerability of American capitalism becomes more apparent, the only salvation for the system will lie in the attempt it inevitably must make to reinforce the weakened caste walls between the races.
Inexorably, profit-hungry capitalism must take back all of the gains ceded to the working class in general and people of color in particular. It must drive superexploitation of Blacks and Latinos to the limit while it reduces the white working class to poverty. To do this it must attempt to rebuild the racist fires into the old bloody conflagration. It must reinforce and re-legalize segregation and the caste line.
But there is still a huge concentration of Blacks in industry; and with the inevitable attempt of U.S. capitalists to reinvigorate manufacturing at home, this will likely expand. Thus the task of restoring segregation will be formidable and would have to approach genocidal proportions to come near success. If the capitalist system is allowed to continue, its now cautious ruling class will inevitably embrace the most vicious forms of barbaric fascism.
Marxists have the obligation to relentlessly expose the trade union bureaucrats and the middle-class misleaders of the oppressed peoples of color who restrain the most potent sectors of the working class. At present, the mildly activist pretensions of the Sweeneys are exposing themselves; nevertheless, without a revolutionary alternative the bureaucracy is far from dead. Likewise, the liberal ex-integrationist Black leadership headed by Jesse Jackson has been shown up as hopeless, at least for the moment. However, while Farrakhan and the religious and cultural nationalists are now politically impotent, they are far from being exposed as neo-segregationists. And in the case of these Black misleaders as well as the labor bureaucrats, there is the future danger represented by their left tails, the middle-class and labor aristocratic pseudo-Marxists.
Mass action in the form of the ghetto rebellions was instrumental in the achievement of past gains. It is just as vital today if the attack on the working class and people of color is to be halted. However, the limitations on what can be achieved by such community-based acts has been proven. The revolutionary communist strategy for the coming struggle favors the working class-based form of mass action which originates at the point of production.
For all the demagogy of the so-called activist labor leaders clustered around Sweeney and all the fiery rhetoric of leaders like Jackson and Farrakhan, they flee from the idea of the mass action of the proletariat. The eternal quest for “stability and order” by the ruling class is based upon its overriding fear of the threat posed by a working class getting out of hand. The working class, white as well as Black, has demonstrated its fighting ability. Today, even though its feels itself to be weak, it actually has at its disposal a mighty weapon that could turn the whole balance of class power around in short order, the power to withhold its labor and to stop production. The working class could lay down its tools and launch a general strike. It could choke profits and bring the whole system to a halt just like that! It is no accident that the general strike has been a powerful weapon used recently by fighting workers in South Africa, South Korea, France, Bolivia and elsewhere around the world, as they begin to turn back the bourgeois offensive.
Lane Kirkland, the former leader of the AFL-CIO once said in response to a demand from the ranks, that he would only call a general strike in response to something really big. The destruction of the unions and the living standards of the workers was evidently not big in his mind. Ed Koch, the racist former mayor of New York City, called the general strike a “nuclear device.” And it is in fact a devastating weapon, one we have in our hands as a class. That is why all the misleaders are so afraid of it.
Black workers no longer have to wait upon whether or not white workers will lead a struggle or not. Black – and Latino – workers are now strategically placed in major industries and in the dominant cities. Their militancy and their actions can be a decisive pole in what the white workers do. Black workers taking the lead in shutting down industry and transportation, demanding real jobs for all, a decent standard of living and an end to racism could not only rally the entire workforce around them but attract the masses of oppressed and the multitudes of unemployed to their banner.
Authentic communists know that mass actions such as the general strike do not automatically mean socialist revolution. But we also know that when the proletariat does see its enormous power, it becomes aware of the fact that it doesn’t have to accept the existence of the racist capitalist state as an eternal fact of life. Revolutionaries fight for the general strike and the idea that the working class, conscious of its power, will take state power and create a new world.
As Karl Marx pointed out long ago, it is by virtue of such struggles that the proletariat “fits itself for power.” The working class, at its current level of understanding, is not able to create a better world. The class struggle is the great school in which the working class learns that its interests have nothing to do with bending the knee to exploiters. It is where workers learn that accepting capitalism’s logic, that we must claw each other – race against race – because capitalism demands scarcity is not only self-defeating, it is anti-human idiocy. The class struggle is the arena where we become truly human.
As Leon Trotsky pointed out in the 1930’s:
It is not the spirit of combination among parliamentarians and journalists, but the legitimate and creative hatred of the oppressed for the oppressors which is today the single most progressive factor in history. It is necessary to turn to the masses, toward their deepest layers. It is necessary to appeal to their passions and to their reason. (Whither France.)
He also asserted that “on the road of the international revolution,”
The program of the permanent revolution, based on the incontestable historic experience of a number of countries, can and must assume primary significance for the liberation movement of the Negro proletariat. (“Closer to the Proletarians of the ‘Colored’ Races!”, Writings 1932.)
The perspective of permanent revolution demonstrates that the only way to smash the race-caste barriers is through a successful socialist revolution. It emphasizes that socialism is not possible in one country; revolution must be placed on the agenda throughout the world. In our time, the history of Stalinism in the East and the colonial revolution in the global South bitterly confirms this necessity. To this end, authentic Marxists have to fight for revolutionary class consciousness and its embodiment, the vanguard parties of a re-created Fourth International.
The U.S. Black struggle of the 1960’s and ’70’s helped spark revolt throughout the world, among workers of all colors and conditions, especially the young. Today, the world is objectively even more united and interpenetrated. Today, authentic communists reject the cynicism of the fashionable “middle-class Marxist” left. We know that the next explosions will transcend even those of the past, once again declaring the power of the working class of the world. It is up to advanced American Black, Latino and white workers to do their part. This time a strong revolutionary alternative must exist so that the poisonous growths of race-caste division aren’t merely pruned but are killed once and for all time. Only the re-created vanguard party, united under the banner of proletarian interracialism and internationalism, can lead the struggle to finally destroy this hideous growth, root as well as branch.