Can we meet the challenges facing the working class including identity politics?

Larry Holmes

An important issue under discussion inside Workers World Party, which resulted in members of the WWP Detroit branch resigning on July 14, is over the issue of identity politics.  The former Detroit members held the position that the issue of identity politics is harming the working class. The majority in the Party disagree with their position. The internal party document below, prepared for a recent leadership meeting, and now being made public, was written by WWP First Secretary Larry Holmes on May 14, 2018, to contextualize some of these differences, particularly the section entitled “We must push aside all barriers to organizing our class.”

In the view of Workers World Party, the term identity politics, used both affirmatively and derisively by differing forces in the broad working-class movement and on the left, essentially poses this question: Is acknowledging and supporting the legitimate struggles of oppressed sections of our class and all of society against racism, sexism and LGBTQ oppression, antithetical to or integral to the class struggle against capitalism? We believe it to be integral. More will be said later in this document.

The party must begin to orient itself to the next stage of the class struggle. Obviously, we cannot predict the course of future events. But that fact alone is no reason for the party not to prepare politically and organizationally for a new level of global class struggle, however quickly or slowly or unevenly this might develop.  The new level of struggle is predicated on the extreme character of the global capitalist crisis, what our class must prepare for, and what the party must do if we truly want to inhabit the vacuum that is waiting for a real revolutionary workers party to step up.

The working class, including the organized, and especially the far larger unorganized, section of it has reached a kind of precipice.

Either something changes or the setbacks that we have witnessed over three or more decades will accelerate.

The Janus case before the Supreme Court, a threat to the labor movement that I assume comrades are familiar with, is only symptomatic of the crisis that our class must confront and transcend.

Not so long ago, there was a school of thought among bourgeois academics that predicted that the working class was withering away. Just the opposite is true. The working class is growing as more of society is pushed into it by the vicissitudes of capitalist change and decay. The composition and parameters of our class are constantly changing and expanding.

Yet, the conventional thinking of most of the trade union leadership remains the same. That thinking maintains that if a group of workers regardless of where they work is unable to win union recognition or negotiate a contract or engage in collective bargaining and pay union dues, then these workers cannot gain entrance to the labor movement. This thinking excludes the overwhelming majority of workers from the labor movement. Both in thinking and in practice this norm must change.

The term that many, ourselves included, call this thinking is “business unionism.” Business unionism has long since exhausted its ability to defend the working class.

Business unionism defines a narrow, limited and conservative approach to organizing workers that is fundamentally based on a nonstruggle, class-collaborationist orientation. One of the big problems with this kind of unionism is that it tends to prioritize defending the gains of unionized workers over the need to organize more workers. Both needs should have equal priority. Until that is the case, it will be easier for the ruling class to pit sections of the working class against each other.

The problem of business unionism is not new. Militant and progressive trade unionists have been combating it for a very long time.

However, a tipping point has been reached. The struggle against conservative conceptions of unionism must be intensified, ideologically, politically and through concrete action — not only on the part of the rank and file of the labor movement, but on the part of revolutionary and radical forces both in and outside of the organized labor movement. And most importantly, this fight must be joined by more and more workers no matter what their circumstances are.

The party, and all who are truly interested in the struggle of the working class, must analyze this problem and plan action on the basis of a fresh perspective.

The fact that our party is small in comparison to the scope of this crisis is no excuse to sit on the sidelines.

In a way, the rebellion of education workers that is still spreading across the country (a struggle that is being joined on college campuses by janitors, cafeteria workers and graduate students) is probably the biggest sign that workers know that they must embrace a militant, rank-and-file, community-involved orientation as against the trade union bureaucracy.

Let’s open this discussion at our meeting at the end of May

I am strongly recommending to the party that one of the major points on the agenda for the upcoming leadership meeting should be the beginning of a thorough review of the party’s approach to the working class, including a critical assessment of questions such as:

  • What is our view of the trade union movement?
  • What must be done to maximize the organization of the working class?
  • Who or what is the working class?
  • What is a real and contemporary Marxist view of the working class?
  • What will it take to truly strengthen solidarity and internationalism in our class?
  • What practical steps can the party take?

These are just a few of the questions that need to be taken up. Even if we were able to devote the entire meeting to these questions, which we can’t do, it would still only be the beginning of the discussion.

A brief background to problems facing the working class  

Karl Marx did not call for reforming capitalism; he called for overthrowing it. Marx explained why capitalism could not be reformed. Marx also explained that the capitalist system was inherently unstable and subject to greater and even greater catastrophic crisis.  He warned that any improvement in the conditions for workers won in the class struggle with capital was subject to being reversed so long as the capitalist class held power.

What’s more, in documents he prepared for the convening of the First International almost 150 years ago, Marx explained that the labor movement, as it evolved to higher and higher stages, needed to abandon all narrow or limited conceptions so that its initial aim, the improvement of the conditions for workers, changed/evolved to become the overthrow of the capitalist system.

The influence of these central principles of revolutionary Marxism in the broad working-class movement has diminished over a protracted period. This is especially true for the working class in the centers of world imperialism, like the U.S. It is less true for the national liberation movements, the workers and oppressed in what is sometimes referred to as the Global South, which includes most of the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

How did this come to be? The short answer is that historical developments over the past three-quarters of a century gave capitalism and imperialism a new lease on life. Consequently, much of the working-class movement bought into the illusion that capitalism was more or less permanent, as well as more or less stable. It is this illusion, with the help of the capitalist ruling class, that gave rise to the bourgeois, social-democratic political parties, i.e., the Democrats in the U.S.

Capitalism has now entered another epoch, the epoch of advanced permanent crisis and decay. Capitalism can no longer afford the price of social democracy. Moreover, the capitalist class no longer needs social democracy as an anti-communist bulwark against the former Soviet Union and the other former socialist countries.

The collapse of social democracy: a major dilemma for the working class

The collapse of social democracy has left the working class temporarily disarmed. The next period of the political development of the working class is how, through action, organizing, struggle, experience, political development and solidarity, it rearms itself.

The magnitude of the crisis remains, for a time, far beyond the political level of the working class and its organizations.  That will and must change. Simply wishing that the workers were somehow able to catch up overnight to what the crisis demands of them won’t make it so.

Nonetheless, communists must understand that however long it might take, at a certain point significant sections of the working class will understand the necessity that the struggle must be for more than gaining or defending concessions, that it must be for complete emancipation.

As some comrades have pointed out over the years, we have at our disposal transitional demands and other strategies to challenge the rule of capital and generate confidence and consciousness among the workers that will help them cross the bridge from the struggle for reform to the struggle for power.

The party has a tremendous amount of experience in the working-class struggle in virtually every industry and in every region of the country. The comrades in the labor fraction have been doing a great job, especially with the limited time and resources they have. Going forward, the party must begin to transform itself in preparation for this challenge.

We must push aside all barriers to organizing our class

The inability or unwillingness of the business unionism model to embrace and lift up immigrant workers and the abandonment of the campaign to organize fast food workers, which many considered never serious to begin with, are examples of the crisis in the labor movement. In spite of this, hundreds of thousands of workers are either being organized or self-organized — a tremendous sign that workers are waking up and taking matters into their own hands.

There have been more workers’ strikes this year than at any time since the late 1970s.

I wholeheartedly agree with Marx and Sam Marcy that the political movements of the oppressed, be it Black Lives Matter or migrant workers or women or LGBTQ people, are not separate from the class struggle, but rather part of it and integral to it. The same is true for the unemployed, street vendors, cultural workers, people with disabilities, sex workers, prisoners and retirees.

As important as the economic-based struggles of our class are, the political struggles against war or in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle or the people of Puerto Rico and against the capitalist system itself are no less important than the economic ones. Ultimately, the political struggles are far more important.

The youth, who are drawn to the fight against white supremacy, racism and fascism, in my view, are very much part of the class struggle. In the first decade of our party’s existence, most of the cadre we recruited came off the campuses.  In most instances, the first experience of comrades back then was in the anti-war and anti-racist movements. Fifty years ago, the chances of someone with a college degree, a master’s degree or a doctorate degree having a fairly comfortable life were pretty good.

Today, young people with college degrees are trapped in the precarious “gig” economy, constantly moving from job to job, apartment to apartment, and saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.

The point being: The young radicals that the party is recruiting today are more likely to be in the working class than was the case a half century ago.  There are some comrades who believe that identity politics is anti-working class. I disagree.

Those in the movement who have minimized or disparaged identity politics have not helped our class gain a deeper understanding of what is required to forge greater solidarity with the most oppressed. We need to struggle over whatever differences there may exist in our own ranks so that we can more effectively struggle for this view in the wider movement.

There are aspects of the gender nonconforming, nonbinary struggle that have revolutionary implications. Backward ideas tend to thrive where people’s knowledge of the world they live in is limited by the level of the productive forces.

The material basis for the new confidence that women and LGBTQ people have in asserting their rights is in part because of the incredible development of the productive forces due to technology. This is true, even though the productive forces remain under the ownership of the capitalist ruling class. Like every struggle, the gender nonconforming struggle has a potential to be co-opted by the ruling class and, at the other extreme, a potential to be revolutionary. The significance of the revolutionary potential is a full-scale rebellion against patriarchy, which is a key pillar of class society.

The time has come for our class to take another look at the struggles of prisoners and sex workers and all other sectors of our class who have been told that they are not part of the working class. Class solidarity is about multiplication, not subtraction and division.

The communications technology that is derived from the incredible growth of the productive forces makes real working-class internationalism, which not so long ago was mostly symbolic, now practical and available.

Third worldism, a continuing discussion related to our class

The discussion of third worldism might seem separate from a discussion of the problems facing our class. It is not. A few months ago, I promised some comrades that I would enlist their ideas in helping the party deepen its understanding of third worldism. I apologize for not being able to do so yet, but I intend to follow through on this as soon as possible.

The term Third World, which was very popular in the progressive and revolutionary movements, as well as in the national liberation struggles during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, was used to describe underdeveloped countries, colonies or neocolonies. It was also used to describe a block of countries that wanted to be independent from both the big imperialist countries as well as the socialist countries.

Today the term third worldism is used by several overlapping yet distinct ideologies. The ideology that most of the comrades of my generation associate the term with is essentially the nationalism of the oppressed in the struggle for liberation and self-determination. The term is also used by a section of the Maoist left. The grouping that uses this term to describe themselves that I am the least familiar with are those who consider white workers to be settler colonialists and therefore reactionary and undeserving of any support.

The reason this came up in the party was that during the education workers’ strike in West Virginia back in March, a few former comrades in West Virginia unfortunately did not support the strike, at least initially, and even disparaged it on social media, basing their position on the white-settler variant of the term. Some of us had hoped to hold on to and educate these comrades, but they chose to leave the party.

Mond from Detroit and Mahtowin from Boston wrote interesting pieces on this question, which I believe have drawn attention both inside and outside of the party.

Of course, we understand and support the movements of oppressed peoples, especially Indigenous peoples, who justifiably consider themselves the survivors of white settler colonialism.

The charges against imperialism, colonialism and before it slavery, the genocidal displacement of Indigenous peoples, along with the occupation and theft of the entire southwest from Mexico, are undeniable historical facts. It is also true that imperialism has used some of the wealth (a mere fraction of it) that it has stolen from the land and labor of oppressed peoples to, in a sense, buy off sections of the working class.

Has this been an obstacle to the political development of the working class as an independent anti-capitalist social force? Yes, it’s been a problem. Has this affected the whole of the working class in the imperialist countries? No. It’s mostly affected the higher-paid workers. Has it stopped the day-to-day class struggle? No, as any comrade and millions upon millions of workers can attest to. Has it made the working class or sections of it irreversibly reactionary? No.

As a matter of fact, central to the political crisis of capitalism is the fact that the systemic crises of the capitalist system are depriving it of the extra crumbs it has relied on to pacify sections of the working class.

The economic crisis is leveling the degree of inequality in the working class. However, inequality obviously exists, and that will continue to be the case for some time to come. This inequality will be used to divide workers, especially if it is ignored instead of being addressed by progressive and revolutionary workers.

This discussion is relevant to an understanding of the attraction of the many variants of anarchism, particularly those that are the most anti-working class, which is the category that I place the ideas that influenced a few of our former comrades in West Virginia.

As long as the working-class movement, including the organized labor movement, is more or less tied to business unionism, the Democratic Party and class collaboration — which endangers every unionized worker and puts the rest of the working class in even greater peril — some radicals will write off the working class as well as Marxism and gravitate to dead-end, pseudo-radical ideologies. I believe that this has exacerbated the general tension in the working-class movement on a world scale.

The fact that some radicals are influenced by anti-working class ideas is only symptomatic of much larger problems, which are the weaknesses of the working class and its organizations.

This is all the more reason for us to rise to the occasion.

Solidarity must come first!

The ideas, norms and the institutions that have been put in place by the ruling class to maintain its power are fraying and crumbling. Whatever else Trump’s rise signifies, the decay of the capitalist system is high on the list. Clearly, many young people are turning against capitalism and are attracted to socialism. On top of growing economic deprivation and insecurity, there is a sense that everything that the masses have come to expect or rely on is no longer certain. Underneath all of this, the next cataclysmic capitalist crisis is in the making.

The most astute among the capitalist economists expect the onset of a big economic crisis. They do not know exactly when it will hit.  They differ on which event or series of events will trigger the crisis. It could be a war against Iran or an escalation of U.S. imperialism’s trade war with China or Canada and Europe or the political crisis regarding Trump in the ruling class that could morph into something destabilizing. It could be the breakdown of long-lasting imperialist alliances. It might just be an increase in interest rates or the bursting of some of the many bubbles in the grotesquely inflated financial markets. It could be a combination of all the above.

Whatever the trigger is, the crisis is virtually searching for an excuse to explode. In fact, the capitalist economists mostly agree on two points: the scope of the crisis will be frightening, and there is very little that central banks and governments can do to prevent it.

All of this will propel our class forward. But before that, it may cause tremendous fear. Understanding this is to understand the importance of solidarity. Solidarity in our class and in our own ranks is likely to be more important than understanding all that is happening around us, at least for a while.

Class division or class solidarity?

The most active dialectical contradiction facing the working class is that capitalism throws workers into violent competition with each other for their very survival. This contradiction does not diminish as the crises deepen; it is intensified. This is part of the process that’s responsible for Trump. Perhaps the clearest mission of Trumpism is to smash our class into a thousand pieces.

Capitalism in its end stage presents a revolutionary opportunity to the working class to emancipate itself. But before that, it widens divisions in our class. As life for our class becomes more difficult and oppressive, insecure, alienating and ultimately unbearable, the seduction of division becomes more and more powerful.

This process will begin to rapidly reverse when the rising struggle of the workers becomes a counterforce with more gravity than division. The struggle between class solidarity and class division in a period of unprecedented capitalist crisis is not only applicable to the working class in the general sense. It is a contradictory force, whether visible or not, in every union, every progressive movement or organization — and in our own party.

Our Party’s culture and internal tensions

I’m not going to comment at any significant length here on the tensions in our party associated with the opening days of the Interim Central Committee (ICC). In my view, to say more would be premature.

It is my hope that the ICC will resume and that it will get over its rocky beginnings. In hindsight, everyone involved, regardless of differences, should have agreed that the very first priority of the ICC should be to win the confidence of the entire party and demonstrate that it will strengthen solidarity in the party instead of testing it. Going forward, I hope comrades will take heed.

I know that there are comrades who view the culture of the party as being too liberal or too petty bourgeois or not communist or Leninist enough.

There is much about our party that can be improved. Some areas of our work, our organization and our practices are in desperate need of improvement. But our essential culture is not one of them.  We need make no apologies for making solidarity central to our party’s culture.

Solidarity should be first in all things big and small. Even when comrades are angry and frustrated, we must treat each other with respect. I consider this to be a principle. Absent this principle, we will be weaker. Comrades have made a commitment to devote their lives to the party and to our class. Comrades must fight to get respect on their jobs and in all their interactions with people and institutions outside of the party. They should not have to fight for respect inside the party.

The best of our culture is an extrapolation of what has distinguished the party’s world view, its history and priorities. Our culture reflects the political essence of our very existence. It is a culture that has tried to assimilate into its thinking and its initiatives that almost every major historical mistake and innumerable smaller day-to-day mistakes made by the working-class movement have been associated with a failing or retreat on the question of forging solidarity between the workers and the oppressed.

In truth, our culture is about the lengths we are prepared to go to support the most oppressed sections of our class. More importantly, our culture is a major reason why our party has been able to survive for almost 60 years through periods where other communist and socialist organizations, which once held the loyalty of many brave and devoted cadre, sadly no longer exist.

I urge comrades to take this proposal seriously: to open a major review of our understanding and approach to our class, including to each other, and to prepare for it.

Larry Holmes


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