By Larry Holmes
“In the absence of organization, working people do not constitute a class but rather an incoherent mass, scattered over the whole country and broken up by their mutual competition.” — Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto
To all who consider themselves to be communist, socialist or leftist, no matter what issue you’ve been organizing around, no doubt you’ve taken note of the new level of activity in the working class starting six months ago with “Striketober.” The organizing drives at Starbucks and Amazon are the most prominent reflection of what’s happening. But there are hundreds if not thousands of other examples of workers organizing nationally and locally.
This includes delivery workers, retail and food service workers, factory and warehouse workers, health care workers and workers in virtually every industry you can think of. Class struggle is not just in the workplace — it includes migrants fighting inhumane detention conditions; workers of color fighting racist cops; women, gender-oppressed and LGBTQ2S+ people fighting the patriarchy; and disabled people fighting for access. Young workers are leading the way.
The level of worker activism has not yet reached the level of an irreversible, massive worker uprising. Still many, including this writer, see analogies between today and the beginning of the workers’ upsurge that brought tens of millions of industrial workers into the class struggle and into labor unions in the 1930s.
Why the analogy? Something is happening, something that’s been long awaited and something that holds the potential of awakening the sleeping giant that is the U.S. working class — but also transforming its organizational and political character.
What drives class consciousness?
Karl Marx and other great theoreticians grappled with the question of how the working class could develop from a politically disunited and divided state, a state capitalists work hard to keep workers frozen in, to being “a class for itself.” Marx predicted that the material basis for the radicalization of the working class, as well as the capacity for workers to interact with each other and organize themselves on a higher level, would be dependent upon how the vast changes to the productive forces change the working class.
There have been profound changes in the productive forces beginning in the 1980s, with what Workers World Party founder and late chairperson Sam Marcy described in “High Tech, Low Pay.” The unionized industrial working class has been decimated by technology, while the service economy has exploded. This has changed the character of the working class to that of a low-wage, precarious, but multinational and multigendered class, now with greater numbers stuck in the “gig economy.” This creates conditions for broad class unity, but that unity won’t emerge on its own.
The conservatism of dead-end, narrow-minded, class-collaborationist business unionism poses an ever-present threat to the working class reaching its revolutionary potential. The new unity in the U.S. ruling class against Russia could have a negative impact on worker activism.
Nonetheless, all caution aside, now is the time for the left, especially the left that is not trapped in the Democratic Party, to turn toward the working class and help this latest development in the class struggle — which is the motor force of history — along. Nothing is more important.
Role of U.S. working class
What those of us who are politically conscious do in this country is especially important. This is not because the U.S. working class is better than workers elsewhere on the planet. Rather, our view is based on the worldwide revolutionary aspirations of great revolutionaries like Vladimir Lenin, who, more than a 100 years ago, prophesied that the awakening of the U.S. working class would be the crucial link in the global struggle for socialist revolution.
In Lenin’s time the U.S was the rising worldwide imperialist power. A lot has changed since then, but the U.S. remains the center of world imperialism, even while its ruling class is in a desperate struggle to hold on to that position. When significant sections of the working class in the U.S. break with U.S. imperialism, the historical tide turns toward world revolution.
The Ukraine war crisis illustrates the urgency of doing all that we can to foster the continued development of an independent U.S. working class. To complete the acquisition of the countries of the former Soviet Union, U.S. imperialism and its European allies are ready to flirt with and even risk a third world war between nuclear powers.
This is not in the class interest of U.S. workers and of the workers of the world. But the working class will not be able to effectively assert its independent class interest unless it undergoes the revolutionary transformation that recent developments make possible. This is possible if those who know best do our part.
For too long, revolutionaries have been marginal to the working-class movement in the U.S. This problem goes back to the anti-communist witch hunt of the 1940s and 1950s, when communists were banned from positions of leadership in the labor movement. Over the 70+ years since then, leftists, to a large degree, have tended to leave their politics at home in order to function inside the labor movement.
Pushing back “business unionism”
There are of course many splendid examples of revolutionary rank-and-file unionism. But those examples have not been enough to buck the tide and push back those whom revolutionaries have called the “labor lieutenants of capital.”
That is until now.
For reasons not of their own making, but rather a product of reactionary times and a labor movement that is moderate and tied to the Democratic Party, many young activists have no experience with working-class organization.
In part, the process that’s underway right now as workers are beginning to fight back, is one of many young activists, including veterans of the Occupy Wall St. struggle and more recently the Black Lives Matter uprising, starting to look at the workers’ struggle as the next logical step in their political evolution. This is a welcome and vitally necessary development, but it must be intensified.
Even the capitalist media has had to admit that the incentive to unionize among Starbucks workers has not been entirely due to working conditions, but also the radicalization of young workers who became politically aware during the Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns and the street protests against racism, sexism and anti-LGBTQ2S+ bigotry. What’s so important about this? To build a new kind of workers movement, it will take workers who are not only interested in fighting for their immediate needs but in wider political and ultimately revolutionary goals.
May Day a springboard
I propose that, as a movement, we look at May Day, International Workers Day 2022, as an occasion to take concrete steps on a wide basis to intervene in this incipient upsurge of workers.
As we do so, it must be clear that we are not merely interested in bringing back what some in the labor movement like to call the “good old days,” when there existed for a section of the working class a peace agreement with capitalism. The terms of that agreement were: as long as you stay loyal to U.S. imperialism and do not attempt to break away from the political control of the capitalist political parties, we will allow some of you to be in unions and enjoy a comfortable living standard.
About 50 years ago, the capitalists ripped up that peace agreement. President Ronald Reagan’s breaking of the air traffic controllers union in 1981 was a turning point but not the opening shot in a war against workers and organized labor that in the 1970s included Nixon’s wage freeze and the concessionary terms of the Chrysler bailout.
As we find ways to support the Starbucks and Amazon workers and millions of other workers, we must declare that there can be no going back to any class peace agreement.
We must see the upsurge of worker activism as an opportunity to build a new classwide movement. That is to say, a movement that is not dominated and limited by business unionism. That also means a movement that is inclusive, militant, more deeply class conscious and anti-capitalist. The transformation of the labor movement today to a revolutionary, classwide movement that knows no geographical or circumstantial boundaries will take a long and very hard political and organization struggle. But we only have a chance if we embrace this struggle fully.
This transformation will of necessity require new forms of workers organizations. We will need workers assemblies, workers councils and rank-and-file committees. There is no reason why a worker, who is ready to fight the class struggle, does not have a working-class organization to belong to.
Finally, realizing the potential of a revolutionary transformation of the working class in the direction of a truly inclusive class wide movement will be impossible without an expanded conception of working-class solidarity — locally, nationally and internationally. We cannot win without mass workers solidarity.
It is the steppingstone to world socialist revolution.
The writer is the First Secretary of Workers World Party.