Whenever revolutionary activists from the United States travel abroad, among the first questions they are asked by their peers is the state of the U.S. working class. What is the mood of the workers? When will they fight back?
Why is this?
Because people’s movements around the world — regardless of location or differences in political line — understand that the power to halt U.S. imperialist aggression, and ultimately to overthrow it, rests in the power of the U.S. working class.
This potential exists through the workers’ power over the forces of production when they are organized and infused with revolutionary political consciousness.
For more than a century, U.S. workers — and especially white, male workers — enjoyed a relatively high standard of living compared to workers in other countries, based first on the colonialist robbery of Indigenous lands and the enslavement of African peoples, and later on imperialist superexploitation of people and natural resources globally.
It’s no secret that, compared to workers in many other countries, the U.S. working class, especially white workers, has a low level of political consciousness. Racism; national chauvinism; sexism; and anti-lesbian, anti-gay, anti-bisexual and anti-trans bigotry are widespread. The leadership of the labor movement is tied by a million strings to the imperialist Democratic Party.
So it is understandable that some young revolutionaries are asking the question: Is the U.S. working class worth fighting for?
Should young activists, who identify with the fight for communism and socialism, and who support the struggles of oppressed peoples worldwide, also support the struggles of U.S. workers to defend their jobs and benefits, demand better wages and job security?
Or is the U.S. working class — at least the white working class — a counterrevolutionary labor aristocracy? Do their struggles, as some assert, merely serve to prop up racism and imperialism?
Does the U.S. working class still have a revolutionary role to play?
Needed: Scientific socialism, not subjectivity
The view that the U.S. working class has exhausted its historic potential isn’t new. It has existed in one form or another for decades, since the great labor battles of the 1930s were subsumed by imperialist World War II.
Historically, this view is linked to tendencies that have promulgated privileged, subjective ideas of what is “revolutionary” over those rooted in a materialist, historical understanding of class struggle — for example, those who viewed the Soviet Union and other workers’ states as “bureaucratic collectivist” or “state capitalist.” Others have alleged that capitalism was restored in the USSR previous to its collapse (or in China today) due to a change of leaders or policies.
In critically assessing the U.S. working class, common arguments have to do with high wages relative to workers in other countries, especially the oppressed, developing nations; loyalty to and economic dependence on the U.S. war machine; and intractable racism and chauvinism against immigrants.
It is understandable, perhaps inevitable, that young fighters go through a period of scorn for the perceived complacency and backwardness of large swaths of the U.S. working class. Even seasoned activists experience frustration and sometimes drop out of the movement over these problems.
But for those who wish to be serious revolutionaries, and not just solidarity activists, the role of the working class and the uphill struggle of communists to organize them must be taken up using the tools of scientific socialism, not subjective feelings.
We do no favors to our class sisters and brothers around the world by writing off such a potentially powerful ally as the U.S. working class — which literally has the muscle to strike at the vital organs of the imperialist system.
What is the labor aristocracy?
First, it’s important to review what Marxists mean by a labor aristocracy.
The Russian revolutionary leader, V. I. Lenin, wrote about that after the outbreak of World War I and the split in the European socialist movement between those who backed “their own” imperialist governments and those who held fast to proletarian internationalism. Lenin explained that “monopoly yields super-profits — a surplus of profits over and above the capitalist profits that are normal and customary all over the world.
“The capitalists can devote a part (and not a small one, at that!) of these super-profits to bribe their own workers, to create something like an alliance … between the workers of the given nation and their capitalists against the other countries.” (“Imperialism and the Split in Socialism,” 1916)
Lenin traced this development through the writings of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels about the British working class in the late 19th century, when Britain held a near-monopoly on colonial power and the economic preconditions for full-blown imperialism were developing.
Yet by the early 20th century, said Lenin: “The monopoly of modern finance capital is being frantically challenged; the era of imperialist wars has begun. It was possible in those days to bribe and corrupt the working class of one country for decades. This is now improbable, if not impossible. But on the other hand, every imperialist ‘Great’ Power can and does bribe smaller strata (than in England in 1848-68) of the ‘labor aristocracy.’”
Lenin explained: “On the one hand, there is the tendency of the bourgeoisie and the opportunists to convert a handful of very rich and privileged nations into ‘eternal’ parasites on the body of the rest of humanity, to ‘rest on the laurels’ of the exploitation of Black people, Indians, etc., keeping them in subjection with the aid of the excellent weapons of extermination provided by modern militarism.
“On the other hand, there is the tendency of the masses, who are more oppressed than before and who bear the whole brunt of imperialist wars, to cast off this yoke and to overthrow the bourgeoisie. It is in the struggle between these two tendencies that the history of the labor movement will now inevitably develop.”
This dialectical conflict at the very heart of imperialism is what those who write off the potential of the U.S. working class are missing.
“Neither we nor anyone else can calculate precisely what portion of the proletariat is following and will follow the social chauvinists and opportunists,” wrote Lenin. “But we know for certain that the ‘defenders of the fatherland’ in the imperialist war represent only a minority. And it is therefore our duty, if we wish to remain socialists, to go down lower and deeper, to the real masses; this is the whole meaning and the whole purport of the struggle against opportunism.”
Cold War & decline of U.S. imperialism
Following World War II, the U.S. occupied a position of overwhelming military and economic power compared to the other imperialist countries of Europe and Japan, which had been ravaged by the war while the U.S. mainland remained untouched.
This was the period when the white, male, highly skilled, politically conservative labor aristocracy of the U.S. reached its height.
Yet it was a very different world than the one in which the labor aristocracy first emerged in Britain a century earlier.
Most importantly, U.S. imperialism at the time faced a great foe — the Soviet Union in alliance with the socialist camp and growing movements for national liberation worldwide.
The impetus for Wall Street to “buy off” a section of the working class after World War II had much to do with the conditions in socialist countries that provided workers and the poor full employment, free education and health care, etc.
The ruling class had not forgotten that in the 1930s the industrial union movement had raised the specter of workers’ revolution on U.S. soil and the Communist Party had won the loyalty of many.
Other imperialist powers would re-emerge as U.S. competitors to a greater or lesser degree within a generation — their economies rebuilt, ironically, with assistance from the U.S., which needed them as a bulwark in the Cold War against socialism.
Wall Street’s undisputed economic power had definitely reached its end by the time of U.S. imperialism’s military defeat in Vietnam in 1975.
The protracted decline of U.S. economic and military dominance coincided with the beginning of the ientific-technological revolution in production. Combined with the massive social changes wrought by the Civil Rights, women’s and gay liberation movements, the high-tech revolution would bring about fundamental changes in the U.S. working class.
Less than a decade into the high-tech revolution, Workers World Party chairperson Sam Marcy wrote: “Today the working class is of a thoroughgoing multinational character. The significance of this profound change has yet to be fully assessed.”
Changed character of the working class
“Statistics appear almost daily in the bourgeois press which show how much the working class today is Black, Latin, Asian, Native as well as women,” Sam Marcy explained in his 1986 book, “High Tech, Low Pay.” “The most recent study shows that white males are no longer predominant in industry.
“The workforce is already composed of over 40 percent women. And notwithstanding the heavy Black and Latin unemployment, their percentage of the workforce continues to increase significantly. All of this is readily admitted in the bourgeois press.
“But what has not been pointedly brought to the attention of the public,” Marcy asserted, “is that the working class as a whole in the U.S. has changed dramatically in another sense. The predominance of the skilled over the unskilled, of the higher paid over the lower paid, has narrowed continually.”
With regard to the sector of the working class historically associated with the labor aristocracy — white men with high-skilled, high-paying jobs — Marcy observed: “What has happened, particularly in the last decade, is that the very speed of the introduction of high technology, the very sophisticated type, has undermined the privileged sectors of the working class (such as those in steel and auto) on a world scale and has begun a leveling process which has undermined the living standard of the working class as a whole.”
Henceforth, there would be a growing trend for big business to pit workers against each other for jobs across borders — since computers and other technological advancements meant work could now easily be moved to less developed countries with a lower-paid workforce.
Yet this leveling has a side effect, Marcy believed, one underestimated by the bosses, that would benefit all workers in the long run.
“It has shifted the objective basis for political leadership in the working class movement away from the more privileged sectors of the working class toward those very numerous working class elements which have had little political influence … over the years,” he explained.
“What high technology has effectuated … is a sharp shift from higher-paid jobs to lower ones. It is not to be wondered at that the phrase ‘high tech creates low paying jobs’ has now become vogue. And therein lies the essence of the transformation of the social composition of the working class.”
Through boom, bust and several wars, this process of transformation of the U.S. working class has continued unabated to the present day.
New opportunities for class solidarity
In 2008 — more than two decades after the Marxist analysis of Marcy’s “High Tech, Low Pay,” and early in the worldwide economic crisis we confront today — Workers World Party leader Fred Goldstein surveyed the terrain and argued that “the consciousness and mood of the U.S. working class at present cannot be the criterion from which to judge the future of the struggle.
“The present is the product of the past. The historical conditions that shaped the present consciousness of the workers and the current forms of the class struggle are rapidly coming to an end,” Goldstein wrote in his book, “Low-Wage Capitalism.”
“The scientific-technological revolution fueled a qualitative intensification of economic rivalry among the giant monopolies, carried out at the expense of the workers of the world,” Goldstein confirmed. “This corporate rivalry has confronted the workers with conditions not experienced since the 1930s.
“Drastic changes in conditions lead to drastic changes in mood and consciousness. To be sure, consciousness lags behind events. But eventually it must catch up.
“The potential for struggle within the working class must not be viewed in light of the previous period or the present, but in light of what the consciousness will be once it reflects the new conditions of crisis that are deepening every day.”
Since those words were written five years ago, there have been important manifestations of a changing working-class consciousness: The occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago; the labor/student takeover of the State Capitol in Madison, Wis.; the nationwide Occupy Wall Street movement; a general strike in Oakland, Calif.; and the Chicago teachers strike, to name a few of the best-known examples.
In many of these struggles, workers of color, women and immigrants, youth and the unemployed played leading roles.
Build political working-class consciousness
“In the age of the scientific-technological revolution … the export of capital is sharply countering this feature of imperialism that Lenin described [i.e., the labor aristocracy],” wrote Goldstein.
“It is pushing downward the standard of living of the vast majority of workers in the imperialist countries. The process of building up privileged layers of the working class as a loyal social and political base for the imperialist bourgeoisie is being steadily eroded.”
Another example of the lag between social realities and political consciousness is the spread of anti-working-class ideas within the radical movement precisely at a time when the basis for classwide solidarity at home and abroad is growing.
This is not the time to abandon the workers’ struggle to liberals, social-democrats and other opportunist forces that desperately want to keep the lid on the fightback mood bubbling just below the surface — and in some cases, beginning to erupt.
Now is the time for revolutionary youth to engage with the working class.
It’s time for young white revolutionaries to combat racism among white workers, for men to combat sexism, for straight workers to build solidarity with lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer workers, for U.S.-born workers to confront anti-immigrant bias head on.
In other words, it is time for communists to do their job of building political consciousness — along with solidarity and unity — within the working class, so that young activists and all workers can best utilize the growing potential for revolutionary class struggle.