Solidarity Forever: National Liberation, Identity Politics, and Worker’s Power

Often, proponents of social justice and the liberation of oppressed people claim that Marxism is not relevant in their struggles. According to these critics, Marxism focuses too heavily on the working class and the economic sphere, to the exclusion of identity-based oppressions like race, sexuality, gender, or ability. Marxism, assert the critics, is class reductionist. This claim has led many well-intentioned activists to abandon Marxism in favor of atomized movements that struggle around one specific site of identity-based oppression. The introduction of intersectionality theory has alleviated this problem somewhat, but those of us who seriously seek to end oppression still have a ways to go. I will argue in this essay that Marxism is not incapable of addressing ‘non-economic’ identity-based oppressions. On the contrary, Marxism’s assertion that the working class is the true revolutionary agent makes it the ideal political strategy for countering all forms of oppression.

The charge of class reductionism is not a new one. Friedrich Engels, Marx’s close collaborator, had to deal with it himself. In a letter to J. Bloch in 1890, Engels shows that Marxism is not economically reductionist or deterministic. He writes,

“According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.” [1].

Marxism merely holds that the economic base of society is the first factor in determining what cultural, political, and social institutions that society will have. It does not pretend that these other institutions are irrelevant or ‘less real’ than economics.

It is important to note that neither Marx nor Engels were infallible. Their rejection of the free love movement and their very low opinion of workers in India serve as examples of their own bigotry, which must be recognized and combated. The basic point that their philosophy allows for an analysis of oppression remains true even in light of their personal failings. It is also worth noting that the Marxist method has been used to critique the racism of Marx and Engels, most notably by Robert Biel in his book Eurocentrism and the Communist Movement (see especially the section “Was Engels a Racist?”).

In fact, an analysis of these other (‘non-economic’) institutions is key in understanding the nature of the working class as a whole. Proponents of identity politics often see the working class as exclusively white and male, but this is far from the case. Some forty percent of entry-level service jobs are occupied by Black and Latino workers, according to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics [2]. The unpaid labor of homemakers, who are mostly women, is a key part of  the continuation of capitalism, and something that Marxists have devoted considerable time to analyze. Engels makes a similar argument in his book The Origin of Family, Private Property, and the State. Socialists have always held that the working class is typically made up of the most oppressed people. Issues of identity-based oppression are not separate from issues of worker’s power. On the contrary, they are integral to it. Racism is obviously more damaging for a minimum-wage black worker than it is for a CEO. Only the latter can afford a yacht to take their mind off of being jeered at by racists. The former, on the other hand, is subject to discriminatory housing policies and hiring practices from which they cannot possibly escape. Many workers of color are forced to deal with racism in the workplace, but they cannot alleviate this by finding another job.

This is not to diminish the effects of racism on members of the capitalist class. Racism must be combated wherever it arises. My point here is that race and class interact with one another. Class is not separate from race, gender, or the like. In racist, sexist, or otherwise oppressive societies, these things will play a role in determining class and will also exacerbate its effects. As J. Moufawad-Paul argues in his book Continuity and Rupture: Philosophy in the Maoist Terrain, “class is always clothed in the garments of oppression.” [3].

This is why socialists have a long history of fighting oppression. After the direct intervention of Lenin (who wrote extensively on anti colonialism and the right of nations to self-determination, and whom we will return to later), the US Communist Party initiated a campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys, nine young black men who were falsely convicted of gang rape in an Alabama court and sentenced to death in 1931. Many black organizations shunned the case due to its sensitive subject matter. The NAACP did not provide a lawyer to the young men until after they had already been convicted. The CP, however, undertook an international campaign that gained wide support among African-Americans because of its principled defense of the Scottsboro Boys. Ahmed Shawki writes, “A May 16, 1931 protest that began with a March of several hundred Communists…ended with a mass rally involving more than three thousand black Harlemites. At the rally, the throng heard from one of the Scottsboro mothers and from Communist speakers….The Scottsboro Campaign carried on for years with events like this one, which succeeded in stopping the Scottsboro executions and ultimately freeing the men.” [4]. The CP’s black membership had grown from 200 in 1930 to 7,000 in 1938. This was at a time when segregation was still legal in the South (and legal in all but name in the North), and there were virtually no other integrated organizations in the United States.

In 1928, the CP had fewer than 50 black members in the entire country. By 1930, just two years later, the membership had quadrupled to 200. Eight years later, in 1938, it had seven thousand black members. Nationally, the black membership rose to nine percent (9%) of the total party membership, This was at a time when black people were only eleven percent (11%) of the total population. In Chicago, in 1921, black people made up twenty-five percent (25%) of the city’s 2000 members. In this city, almost all the Communists were black. This includes the rank-and-file  and the leadership. To reiterate, this was before the integration of the US Military. The Communist Party was, at this point, the most integrated organization in the country. For more on this, I recommend Hammer and Hoe by Robin DG Kelley and and Communists in Harlem During the Depression by Mark Naison.

The Communist Party had many problems, but the campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys shows that Marxism is not only capable of addressing identity-based oppressions, but that it can be successful in doing so.

The history of socialists fighting racial oppression goes back even further than this. Marx himself had an impressive history of doing so. Not only did he advocate for abolition, he was also the head of an organization that prevented the English from entering the Civil War on the side of the South [5]. Many German socialist organizations literally took up arms against the South in the Civil War [6]. Historically, Socialists have never shied away from fighting identity-based oppressions. Socialists of today should not and have not abandoned this.

Now that we have established that Marxism is not antithetical to the fight against identity-based oppressions, I would like to argue that Marxism represents the only coherent political strategy for ending oppression. This is not in spite of its focus on the working class. Far from it. It is only the working class that possesses both the interest and the ability to eradicate oppression. To prove this, I will focus primarily on the question of racism. This is not because I view other forms of oppression as less important than racism. It is simply that there seems to be a good deal more scholarly work on the origins of American racism than other oppressions.

It is certainly true that Marxists understand racism as a product of capitalism. This outlook does not translate, as the critics claim, to the position that class is more important than race. If this were the case, why would the most prolific black liberation movement in United States history adopt Marxism as an ideology and strategy? The Black Panther Party, the Black Liberation Army, and other Marxists understood that locating the source of racial oppression is the first step in mapping out a political strategy to eradicate it [7]. In separating identity from class, liberals accept several fundamentally reactionary views about the nature of oppression. They implicitly assert that racism is a natural part of the human condition. They hold that racism has existed from time immemorial, or even that it is hardwired into us. This would, of course, mean that it is impossible to do away with racism. In refusing to examine the ways in which racism is bound up with capitalism, liberals bar themselves from taking any significant anti-racist action. Racism and other forms of oppression, on this view, cannot be eliminated, only mitigated or blunted. The oppressed can never be fully liberated within a liberal framework.

Before we can get into how racism perpetuates capitalism, and vice versa, we must have a basic understanding of what capitalism actually is. Capitalism does not mean markets, it is not based on an equal exchange between bosses and workers. Capitalism is a system based on exploitation. It is a system in which a small minority expropriates and controls the wealth produced by a laboring majority. These workers must sell their labor on the market in order to survive. The profit of capitalists is directly proportional to the amount of surplus value from the workers. The foundational relationship of capitalism is that between the owners and the workers, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. This relationship is essentially the same, whether the boss owns a factory or a restaurant, whether the worker produces car parts or flips burgers. At the end of the day, capitalists get more out of the exchange than workers do. That is why we have constant struggle over wages and why capitalists have become so adept at crushing organized labor.

This is also the reason that high levels of unemployment are to the advantage of the capitalists. It forces workers into competition with one another, allowing the capitalists to further exploit labor. It is worth noting that unemployment is particularly high for African-Americans, at 8.8% compared to 4.3% for whites [8]. Thus, capitalism forces workers to compete with one another over artificially scarce resources, not just jobs but housing and education as well. These last two examples are also disproportionately laid at the feet of workers of color. According to data published in Black Demographics, “The percentage of Black homeowners decreased between 2005 and 2012 from 46% to 42.5%. Much of these losses can be attributed to the housing crisis where so many Americans lost their houses to foreclosure. This also means more than half of all African Americans rent.” [9]. Education does not look much better. To quote US News,

More than 2 million black students attend schools where 90 percent of the student body is made up of minority students. Dozens of school districts have current desegregation orders. Minority students represent 57 percent of the population in “dropout factories” — schools where the senior class has 60 percent or fewer students who entered as freshmen — but only 30 percent of the population in all schools.

On average, schools serving more minority populations have less-experienced, lower-paid teachers who are less likely to be certified. A report from the Center for American Progress found that a 10 percentage point increase in students of color at a school is associated with a decrease in per-pupil spending of $75. Disparities in course offerings mean students of color have fewer opportunities to challenge themselves with more difficult courses — the type of courses needed to prepare for a four-year college degree or for a high-paying career in STEM. [10].

Capitalism, as a system that is based on competition, systematically leaves African-Americans behind. The precise reasons for this will hopefully become clear as we go on. It is this competition that lays the basis for divisions among workers. Capitalists as a class have a material interest in promoting bigoted ideas, which prevent the workers from seeing that their real enemy is not the other worker, who is also forced to sell their labor in order to survive, but the boss who exploits them both. A united working class, conscious of its collective power as the producers of wealth in society and held together by the conviction that an injury to one is an injury to all, that is the last thing that the bosses want to see. They will fight, and have fought, tooth and nail to prevent this from happening. This includes the use of not only physical force but also strict ideological indoctrination. This is what Marx meant when he said that “the ruling ideas are in every epoch the ideas of the ruling class” [11].

Given the particular history of the US as a settler-colonial state, the ruling class has learned that racism is the most important of these ideas. That history tells us that racism arose in the context of the African slave trade, without which capitalism could not have emerged. Marx wrote, “Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as…machinery. Without slavery you have no cotton. Without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that has given the colonies their value” [12]. It is impossible for me to go through the entire four hundred year history of slavery here, but I will try to outline in very broad detail what I think is important for our purposes here.

It is estimated that as many as 12 million Africans were brought by force to South America, the Caribbean, and North America [13]. Somewhere in the vicinity of fifteen percent (15%) of these people died during the middle passage [14]. This amounts to a death toll of approximately 1.8 million from transport alone. These unwilling passengers were chained like stacks of firewood for fear of mutiny, unable to so much as change position for months at a time [15]. The conditions that awaited them in the colonies were not much better. The Atlantic Slave Trade is, to this day, the largest forced population transfer in history [16].

Looking back on slavery today, it is hard to imagine how such barbarity could have ever taken place. Because we live in a world so seeped in racist ideology, it is very tempting to say that what led to slavery in the first place was racism. But, as Trinidadian historian of slavery Eric Williams writes, “slavery was not borne of racism, rather racism is the consequence of slavery” [17]. The concept of race has not always existed. It had to be invented to justify how it was that in a land which proclaimed to be a bastion of freedom and equality, human beings were subjected to treatment far worse than animals. It is important to say here that race as a category has absolutely no bearing on biology. Alan R. Templeton, professor of biology in Arts and Sciences at Washington University, has analyzed DNA from global human populations that reveal the patterns of human evolution over the past one million years. He shows that while there is plenty of genetic variation in humans, most of the variation is individual variation. While between-population variation exists, it is either too small, which is a quantitative variation, or it is not the right qualitative type of variation. It does not mark historical sub lineages of humanity [18]. Race is just as made up, as Dr. Barbara-Jeanne Fields says, as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny [19].

Of course, Santa and the Easter Bunny are stories that children eventually grow out of. This is not so for ideologies. These are not simply handed down from generation to generation. They are perpetuated by material conditions in society. Racism emerged from, and continues to be reproduced by, political structures that were erected to satisfy a particular set of economic interests. Fields writes,

Probably a majority of American historians think of slavery in the United States as primarily a system of race relations, as though the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy, rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice, and tobacco. One historian has gone so far as to call slavery the ‘ultimate segregator.’ He does not ask why Europeans seeking the ultimate method of segregating Africans would go to the trouble and expense of transporting them across the ocean for that purpose when they could have achieved the same ends so much more simply by leaving the Africans in Africa….No one dreams of analyzing serfdom in Russia as a problem of race relations, even though the Russian nobility invented fictions of their innate…superiority over the serfs as preposterous as any devised by American racists”   [20].

Fields is going after a circular argument that is present everywhere from racial justice movements to academia, which essentially says that racism is both the cause and product of slavery. In actuality, slavery was an economic institution that racism was created to serve. Racism serves a similar role in capitalism today.

The black abolitionist Frederick Douglass made a similar point centuries ago. He wrote:

The hostility between the poor whites and blacks of the South is easily explained. It has its roots and sap in the relation of slavery, and it was enacted on both sides by the cunning of the slavemasters. Those masters secured their ascendency over both the poor whites and the blacks by putting enmity between them. They divided both to conquer each” [21].

Douglass recognized the obvious fact that poor whites in the South enjoyed many benefits relative to the black slaves. This quotation comes from a letter in which Douglass was arguing that black people should have the right to vote: a right that even the poorest white person already enjoyed. Douglass believed, though, that poor white people would be better off without white supremacy. That is, the white workers would be better off without the system of practices thanks to which they enjoyed these privileges relative to their black counterparts. It was precisely that system of white supremacy that prevented both poor whites and poor black people from standing shoulder to shoulder against their common enemy who was plundering them both. Douglass recognized, then, that racism had a particular benefit for the owning classes of society.

We ought to consider Douglass’s remarks about racism in the context of Marx and Engels’ The German Ideology, in which they argued, as I showed above, “the ruling ideas are, in every epoch, the ideas of the ruling class” [22]. The system of racist ideas in terms of which the “hostility” between poor people of different races played out belonged to the class of slave-owners. It belonged to them not just in the sense that they themselves believed it, but also in the sense that the circulation of those racist ideas served an important function in sustaining the power that the owning classes exercised over the workers. They were “ruling ideas” in the sense that they were the ideas that enabled the rulers to rule.

We should also compare Douglass’ thoughts on this division to what Marx said about the division between English and Irish workers. He writes,

All English industrial centers now possess a working class split into two camps: English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker because he sees in him a competitor who lowers his standard of life. Compared with the Irish worker, he feels himself a member of the ruling nation, and for this very reason, he makes himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, and thus strengthens their domination over himself.

. . .

The Irish worker sees in [the English worker] both an accomplice and the stupid tool of English rule in Ireland. This antagonism is artificially sustained…by…all the means at the disposal of the ruling class. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization….” [23].

We see that Marx did not ignore the oppression faced by workers and non-workers alike. He simply sought to explain their underlying causes. He recognized that understanding the material origins of oppression was key to ending it.

Marx applied exactly the same analysis to the United States. Expressing his support for the North in the Civil War, he wrote,

In the United States of America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black skin it is still branded” [24].

Even today, labor in the black skin is still branded. It is branded in a way that is useful to, and precisely because it is useful to, a tiny class of people who control the vast wealth of society, and therefore control all the things we need to live a decent life. It is useful to this minority class for exactly the reason that Douglass and Marx identified: because it pits labor in the white skin against labor in the black skin.

The point here is not say that racism is ‘not real,’ or that is less important than economics. Obviously Douglass was very aware of the material effects of anti-black racism, being a black man himself. The point is also not to say that racism is merely an ideological issue, and that all we need to do to break racism is wage ideological struggle. On the contrary, racism has a strong material basis. In order to make one group feel superior to another group, you must give the first group more benefits than the second. In the time of slavery, this bribery took the form of land. Today, it manifests as housing, education, employment, and unionization [25].

Marx himself understood that the granting of land and other privileges to poor whites was integral to the bourgeoisie in the fight against socialism. He wrote, “it is possible to square the interests of ‘poor whites’ with those of the slaveholders…to tame them with the prospect of one day becoming slaveholders themselves.” This was a view recognized by the bourgeoisie themselves. When the Paris Commune was formed in June 1868, Ernest Renan criticized the French capitalists for neglecting “colonization,” which was a safeguard against “war between rich and poor.” In a sense, racism demolishes class differences, materially binding some workers to the cause of the capitalists. It is the responsibility of revolutionaries to destroy these privileges. We must struggle against racism and the privileges that come with it if we are ever to win socialism. Marxists would not be arguing that workers must be united if we did not think there was anything dividing them in the first place.

Racism, to put it another way, is not just a byproduct of capitalism. Marxists who claim that it is mean to say that capitalism and racism go hand in hand. The one necessitates the other. This is a correct reading, but it does not follow from this that racism is a “necessary byproduct” of capitalism. To call something a byproduct is to say that it has no function, that it does no work in the process of which it is a byproduct. If am I sawing a piece of wood with which to build a house, I will inevitably make some sawdust. In this scenario, however, the product of my labor is the house, not the sawdust. To call sawdust a byproduct is to say that is an incidental occurrence whose production serves no purpose in house-building.

Racism is not the sawdust of American capitalism. It is the saw. It is a tool in the hands of the ruling class. Like a tool, it has a definite, material function. Its function is to divide the working class. It is vital that we stop this tool from being used against us. Understood this way, the politics of solidarity is based not on some naive idea that we can all just get along, that there are no real racial divisions in the United States. It based on a sober analysis of the situation and a shrewd calculation about what it would take to change it.

Slavery, which as we now know preceded racism, was invaluable to the planter class. Their very existence as a class depended on it. Slavers and slave traders profited immensely from the slave trade. This is a lesson in the limitless barbarity that spawned capitalism. It can also help explain why modern capitalists know no bounds when it comes to securing their ability to make profits.

An important point is that racism has not always existed. It is an ideology that emerged out of a particular set of circumstances for a particular set of reasons. To see racism in this way is to assert that it can be done away with. If the circumstances that give rise to and perpetuate racism (competition among workers, exploitation, and economic inequality) are combated, so too will racism begin to fade.

What we have to do is examine the material conditions from which it did emerge, as well as those that enable its continuation. Only Marxism is capable of examining these institutions, precisely because of its critique of capitalism. Liberalism, focused on a narrow identity politics that separates identity from economics, can only mitigate racism. Because it does not explain how racism arose, it cannot concoct a political strategy to vanquish it. To pretend that racism is built into us is not only wrong, it actually disarms the activists who are trying to fight it. Only the materialist approach of Marxism can effectively liberate the oppressed.

The above analysis shows that to claim Marxism as class reductionist is to misconstrue the Marxist understanding of ideology. The victory of working class revolution hinges entirely on the ability of the working class as a whole to rid itself of all backwards ideas that prevent it from uniting against its common enemy, the capitalist class. Because of the aforementioned material base of racism in the United States, this necessitates a conscious struggle against white supremacy as well as capitalism. The two are intertwined, but distinct from one another. Marxism is not reductionist, but materialist.

The problem of racism, as we have seen, is more than “skin deep”. As I have argued, there is a long history starting from the slave trade that accounts for the divisions. Over the course of this history, the divisions became real not only in terms of their material basis in privileges or relationship to the means of production, but also in terms of territory, language, levels of bourgeois exploitation. In short, African-Americans have the political, cultural, historical, and economic building blocks of a nation. It is not merely that racism is ideologically strong, but that in the US context, the racialized division is strong enough to have actually passed-in accordance with dialectical materialism-over from quantity into quality. It has become something else entirely: national oppression, wherein more or less the entire African-American nation, including much of the black bourgeoisie, is oppressed and exploited by the imperialist white bourgeoisie [26]. There is division among the working class on the basis of race, but there is also unity between classes on this basis. It is in this unity that we find one source of revolutionary potential.

One of the most important aspects of Marxism-Leninism is the concept of the national question. That is, how to make a revolution in a state comprised of multiple nations. This question-and the national liberation theory that results from it-are key in understanding racism and capitalism.
In order to understand why, we must define what exactly a nation is. A nation, writes Stalin in Marxism and the National Question, is a historically-constituted people. They share a common language, a common territory, and a common economic life. These components come together to form a common culture. It is necessary for a particular group to have all these characteristics in order to be considered a nation.

There are two important characteristics to note about Stalin’s definition. First, while territory and geography is a defining feature of a nation, it is not its sole determining characteristic, meaning that within the existential boundaries of a country–itself a recent social development–many nations may exist. Second, while a common economic life is also a defining characteristic, nations are not formed on the basis of class unity. In other words, there is no proletarian nation or bourgeois nation, but rather these two classes are both part and parcel of their respective nations.
When Lenin was writing, little attention was paid to the existence of nations in revolutionary circles. The majority of Russian Marxists held that distinctions between nationalities served only to divide the working class. In their view, Russia was already a unified whole, so discussions of national oppression were trivial. The unity of the working class, said most revolutionaries, is the only thing that matters when making revolution.
Lenin took a firm stance against this view. He understood Russia not as a unified body which was divided only along class lines, but as a “prison house of nations.” He understood that there was no such thing as a Russian. Rather, there were a variety of nations. These included Muslims, Jews, Georgians, Turks, Azerbaijanis, and others. Under the Tsar, these groups faced an incredible restriction of rights. Many had their languages banned, their religions outlawed, and were forbidden from holding public office. Jews in particular were subjected to brutal massacres known as pogroms. These oppressed nations all faced underdevelopment and feudal conditions.
Thus, Lenin understood that the revolution could not be made merely on the basis of formalistic working class unity. To really win over and unify the people, special attention had to be paid to the violence faced by the workers of oppressed nations. He was clear that the Party had to oppose Great Russian racism and “national chauvinism” at every turn. The Party was to lead the fight for equal education, cultural rights, and religious expression. Only when oppressed nations rallied behind the Party and its movement could true working class unity be attained. This is consistent with the ideas of Karl Marx, who we now know wrote that “Labor in the white skin will never be free so long as labor in the black skin is still branded.”
Lenin’s ideas about the national question can be summed up by the term “self-determination”. This meant that the workers of oppressed nations had the final say in what happened to them. They had full autonomy, including the right to break away and form their own countries should they choose to do so. This did not mean that socialists would advocate for a separate state in every case. Sometimes, succession would be inadvisable. The concrete results of the struggle for national liberation depended, as all struggles do, on the material conditions of society. Still, the core principle of solidarity with and support for oppressed nations remained a constant.
Lenin stressed that national liberation was a struggle that worked in service to and in tandem with the struggle for the liberation of the working class. He rejected imperialist bourgeois conceptions of nationalism, which preached unity between the bourgeoisie of oppressed nations and the workers of oppressed nations. Lenin said that the national liberation struggle’s primary purpose was to unite the working class of the entire world, so that they could eventually overthrow global capitalism.
Lenin also held that the national question was important because of its relevance to the tactics of revolutionaries. By this, he meant that oppressed nations had the greatest interest in revolution, so it was important to win them over to the Party. Working class members of the dominant nation (Settlers) were often handed things like higher wages or better working conditions, while the working class of oppressed nations was left to suffer. This meant that settler workers’ interest in revolution was greatly diminished. As a result, revolutionaries had to go deeper into “the real masses” of oppressed nations.
It is important to recognize that the Marxist-Leninist position on the national question is indeed tactical. Nationalism is a tool that Communists can use to liberate the oppressed masses of society. In determining our support for nationalist movements, we should always evaluate whether or not they serve this goal.
It might at first appear that devoting time to discussing the national question is a pointless exercise. Why are we talking about something so distant in the past? What use could we possibly have for it now? Asking these questions is an important and necessary task, so I will do my best to answer them. I have already explained the continuing relevance of anti-imperialist, bourgeois nationalism, but Lenin’s thought on the matter remains important for other reasons.
As we have seen, Lenin said that Russia was a “prison house of nations.” It was composed of multiple oppressed nationalities, and as such was not divided solely along class lines. I hold that this is also the case for the United States of America. It, too, is a prison house of nations. My aim is to substantiate this claim through historical analysis.
Originally, what would become the United States was made up of several different Native American groups, such as the Sioux, the Cree, and so on. Then, white European colonists landed on the continent. These colonists were primarily English, meaning that they shared a common language, culture, and identity. However, they did not share a common history or territory at the time.
Soon, the colonists began pushing westward. There were two main features to this westward expansion. The first was the genocide of the Native Americans, and the second was slavery. These two main principles allowed the United States to build its economy and eventually become politically dominant.
Throughout this process, Native American nations were continually marginalized. Some were simply destroyed, while others were forced into reservations. They were ripped from their land, slaughtered, and subjected to incredibly harsh conditions. White Christian missionaries stole the children of the natives and forced them to learn English. This meant that Native culture was also destroyed.
A common myth, especially among conservatives, is that since this process took place hundreds of years ago, it has no bearing on our current situation. This is false. There are still reservations, and there are still natives living on them. Natives are a historically constituted people. Today, there are Native American nations within the United States. These nations are still oppressed, still subjected to poverty and isolation.

A 2008 report from American Indian Census Facts showed that the percentage of Natives living below the poverty line is 28.2 percent. Compare this to 14.5 percent of the general population, according to the Census Bureau. A 2010 study determined that the life expectancy for Natives living on reservations trails that of the general population by almost five years. This is primarily due to underfunded health services. A Gallup independent study said that some reservations are “comparable to the third world,” in terms of living conditions. It is plainly obvious that Natives ought to be considered an oppressed nation. I should note that there is not merely one Native nation, but many. Since there are multiple Native tribes, there are multiple Native nations. Their struggles are all very different, but the above issues are ones that every Native nation faces.
As I said above, the second feature of colonial westward expansion was mass slavery. Millions of Africans from the west coast of their home continent were abducted by slavers and brought into the new United States. These Africans stolen into servitude were constituted in a very particular area: the South. In some areas, the concentration of slaves was so great that they outnumbered white slave owners by as much as ninety percent (90%). The effect of this was that, while the slaves came from different African countries, they all began to share a common culture. This culture was created by the economic conditions of slavery, as well as by their struggle against these conditions. Part of this struggle was the creation of a language that was distinct from that of the slave owners. Think of codes that were used to advocate for freedom, as well as the pidgin English slaves came to speak.

This concentration still persists in some form today. There is a belt, stretching roughly from Atlanta to the Mississippi Delta, in which black Africans still form the majority of the population. One of the areas encompassed by this belt is Missouri. This belt is known as the Kush in Pan-Africanist theory. This area includes Ferguson. Roughly seventy out of one hundred of the residents in Ferguson are black. However, less than one out of a hundred members of the police force in the city is black. You will find similar statistics in the rest of this belt. Almost none of the people with actual power in these communities are black, despite the majority of the population itself being black. African Americans in the United States do not even have surface-level control of their own communities, much less control in a substantive sense.
A report from the National Bureau of Economic Research authored by Kevin Lang shows that black workers receive extra scrutiny from employers, leading to worse performance reviews, lower wages, and even job loss. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that, on average, the black unemployment rate is 2.2 times greater than that of whites. Finally, a report from the Economic Policy Institute showed that the wage gap between white workers and black workers is the worst it has been in nearly four decades. Not only do African Americans share a common Economic life, it is a life fraught with difficulties and oppression.
I would be remiss not to mention the epidemic levels of police violence faced by African Americans. A report from the Center for Equitable Policing determined that the use of force in police interactions is more than three times greater for African Americans than it is for whites. A study by the University of California found “evidence of significant bias in the killing of unarmed black Americans relative to unarmed white Americans.” Finally, a 2015 analysis by Campaign Zero found no correlation between police killings and violent crime rates.
The above facts prove that African Americans, like Natives, are an oppressed nation within the United States. While African and Native Americans are by no means the only oppressed nations in the United States, I feel that these examples are sufficient to prove my point. The situation of the United States parallels the situation of Revolutionary Russia regarding the national question. There is not simply a working class and an owning class. There are several oppressed nations who are waging their own liberation struggles. To make a successful revolution in the United States, we must support these struggles unconditionally and work to develop socialist consciousness within them. Above all, we must assert that oppressed nations have a right to self-determination.

Racism, in this context, is not incidental to the main business of capitalism-the exploitation of labor in pursuit of profit-it is the main business. This has a very important lesson for us: fighting racism is fighting capitalism. Every blow against white supremacy is a blow against the most potent weapon the American ruling class has ever had. Therefore, it is a blow against this class itself.

Marxism must, therefore, fight racism and all other kinds of oppression on their own terms. This is what Lenin meant when he said that the working class must become “the tribune of the oppressed” [27]. He wrote, “working class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected” [28]. Marxists are not against the independent struggles of oppressed identities. They merely seek to unite these struggles into a socialist movement that can create a better world for all of us.

This unity cannot come at the expense of the oppressed. Working class unity does not mean that black workers should put aside their differences and organize with racists. Rather, it means that both black and non-black workers should smash white supremacy in order to create a material basis for unity. This must be done on two levels. The first is by attacking the material basis of white supremacy, the privileges that white workers have over black workers. Without this material basis, the ideology of white supremacy becomes must harder to justify. However, the ideology will not disappear immediately after the material basis for it is smashed. It will linger, much in the same way that capitalist ideology remains under socialism-as a kind of “cultural stain.” Oppressed workers must attack oppression on both levels to ensure the victory of the revolution. In short, “working class unity” as a practical aim is not about forcing unity where none exists, it is about creating a material basis for unity. We can only do this by struggling against all forms of oppression. Only when the working class struggles against bigotry as a force in its own right can it hope to be united.

Anti-racism and national liberation, then, are not “distractions from class struggle.” As Marx put it, those who “cannot understand how one nation can grow rich at the expense of another” are unable to understand “how…one class can enrich itself at the expense of another.” Because national oppression is an economic arrangement predicated on exploitation, it is part and parcel of class struggle. The proletariat finds an ally in its struggle against the bourgeoisie in all members of oppressed nations. The class struggle around national oppression has the potential to form progressive cross-class unity.

Oppressed nations face a “particularly revolting division of labor,” one of the hallmarks of class. In the United States, African-Americans are often intentionally given worse jobs than whites, and working conditions in the Third World are universally more degrading and exploitative than those in the first world. Movements against national oppression (a more accurate name for “anti-racist struggle) seek to challenge this division of labor. These movements, despite being lead by the bourgeoisie, challenge the existing class order. In this sense, they are allies of the proletariat.

The working class of each country, as The Communist Manifesto argues, has to overthrow the bourgeoisie in its nation. In some nations, though, the main oppressor is an imperialist ruling class, which has to be kicked out as a precondition for real workers’ power.

Forcing imperialism and national oppression out of a country typically requires mass struggle, which raises among workers expectations of further advances that will always be frustrated as long as the capitalists–even native ones–are in power. But in an independent nation, workers and oppressed groups have the “air, the light, and the elbow room,” as Engels put it, to wage a struggle to take power into their own hands.

Today, demands for “democracy” and control of a nation’s own resources are inextricably tied up with class demands. The fight for the former is bound to spill into a fight for the latter to at least some extent.

Any defeat suffered by U.S. imperialism today is a blow to the power of its rulers, and by extension a victory for the working class of this country. Therefore, socialists should take sides in wars for national liberation, even if we would like the leadership of the struggle of the oppressed to be different politically or along class lines.

Historically, national liberation has been a linchpin in the struggle for communism. Communists in China, Vietnam, and Cuba gained support by leading national liberation movements. National Liberation is an interest the masses come to on their own. Therefore, it is one that communists can use to link with the masses and draw them into the struggle against capitalism, imperialism, and oppression. National Liberation work, while being important in its own right, also reflects a deep understanding of the mass line. At its core, national Liberation is communist and anti-imperialist. National Liberation must be a cornerstone of all socialist work. The proletariat and the Communist Party that represents it must struggle for leadership within national liberation struggles, even if it means allying with native or nationalist bourgeoisie.

This can be seen in the nature of the Russian Revolution, itself partly a national liberation struggle. The counter-revolution of the White Army was defeated because the Bolsheviks urged for “a national struggle of liberation against foreign invasion,” that was intent on turning Russia into a colony of the West. By appealing to the nationalist bourgeoisie, the Bolsheviks were able to repel the invaders and strengthen socialism in the country. The Party was successful in “soldering communist doctrine to the collective…Russian people.” National liberation is in the interests of the proletariat, in the interests of socialism.

In short, Marxists have always understood that racism is more than just an ideological tool to divide workers. It is a material force that must be confronted and smashed on its own terms. Marxism, with its conception of national liberation, provides the only sound theoretical foundation for understanding and ending oppression once and for all.

Although Marxists argue that we should ally with national bourgeoisie in the struggle against national oppression, this does not translate to ignoring the proletariat in these struggles. It is precisely the power of the working class-the power to withhold their labor at the point of production-that allows these movements to become united. The working class is the only social force that can become the tribune of the oppressed, it is the only social force that can end oppression once and for all. The remainder of this essay will be spent examining why this is the case.

Firstly, we have already determined that the working class is always made up of oppressed identities. They will obviously have an interest in ending oppression. Their status as workers gives them the ability to do this. By striking to demand a restitution of affirmative action, or an end to police brutality, workers are hitting the capitalists where it hurts most: their wallets. Whether or not strike demands are purely economic, workers still hold power over the entire system. They can use this power to strike blows at oppressive systems beyond exploitation. The very fact that solidarity strikes (the practice of striking for political rather than economic gains) are illegal in the US is enough evidence of this point [25]. Capitalists care only about their bottom line. The power of workers to affect that bottom line grants them immense influence over society, if only they can be made aware of it.

The ability of the working class to resist oppression extends to more than just its members who themselves belong to oppressed identities. Because of the concentrated and social character of capitalist production, workers of all identities are forced to struggle against their bosses together. In the course of this struggle, it becomes more and more difficult to accept the bigoted ideas workers have been fed their entire lives. It is precisely their position at the point of production, and their need to struggle collectively, that enables the working class to combat oppression. The very structure of work under capitalism, in which workers must compete for jobs, results in workers being pitted against one another. Yet, in order to win gains against the bosses, workers must organize together and struggle collectively. Workers, then, are taught in the crucible of struggle to resist oppression, to unify.

As an example of this, we should look at the 1972 GM strikes in Flint and Cleveland. At first, black people were given work only when employers were trying to break a strike. This is further evidence that unemployment and competition among workers are integral parts of the capitalist system. Employers forced white workers and black workers to compete for the same job. This was during the Great Depression, when unemployment was already high and there was no union at the GM factory. In the 1950s, the company figured out that it could make more profit by letting black workers into the plant. They were initially given the worst jobs available, forced to slave for hours over sweltering foundries. A key reason for this was that it physically separated white and black workers, preventing them from developing a sense of unity. Even the capitalists are aware that the concentrated character of production gives workers a tremendous degree of power.

Yet the problems began even before black workers were admitted.  Most whites went on strike to protest the addition of black workers to the plant.  They had come to see black workers as having fundamentally different interests to them, because of the competition over jobs they had been forced into [29]. During the strikes, a contingent of black workers picketed outside the plant. The only black worker known to participate inside was Roscoe Vanzant. Nearly all of the workers he associated with were openly, vehemently racist. By the end of the six week strike, however, these same workers voted that Vanzant would be the one to lead the strikers on their victory march. This symbolic gesture is a testament to the bridges that working class struggle can build. It was through the struggle that many workers cast aside their prejudices. They understood that it was only in unifying that they could win. This led to an incredible transformation. Workers carried themselves with more confidence, they spoke up to people who had once been considered their superiors. Through struggle, they unlearned bigoted ideas. The worker became, as one socialist organizer put it, “an entirely different human being” [30].

This ability to unlearn is a key piece of Marxism. It is one of the reasons why we place such importance on the working class. As workers struggle side-by-side for the same thing, against the same enemy, it becomes more and more difficult to accept the bigoted lessons taught to them so persistently. Marx explains that, for the victory of socialism, “the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement” [31].

In short, the working class is unique because it is the one class that actually has the material interest and ability to challenge all forms of oppression. Fighting racism, for a worker, is not a moral question. It is a question of what is best for them in the long term. It is in the working class’ position at the point of production that makes it the universal class: the one class capable of putting an end to oppression and restructuring society in the interests of the immense majority. All those who seek to create this kind of society should embrace Marxism.

It should be noted that socialist organizers played an important role in bringing out this tendency in workers during the Flint strikes. The story of Vanzant was not a chance situation. At the same time that he was being voted in as leader of the victory march, black picketers on the outside faced harassment from white strikers. How do we push one result and not the other? As I said above, we need to wage an all-out war against white supremacy, breaking the privilege of white workers and elevating black workers to their level wherever possible. Ideas and organization on the ground are critical in this regard. Socialists were active during the strike. Kermit Dahlinger, a socialist organizer, made sure that white workers received “a decent anti-racist education” [32]. This ‘education’ often involved violence against the racist strikers. Socialist organizers have historically understood the need to take drastic measures to create unity among the working class, as I mentioned above.

This experience shows that the development of an advanced section of the working class, a vanguard, is necessary. The workers with advanced consciousness can help bring out the innate desire of all workers to end oppression. Because of the pervasiveness of bourgeois ideology, this tendency is often suppressed. It is critical that revolutionaries do their part to bring it out into the open again. It is our job to ensure that the workers make use of their ability to end oppression.

The working class is the only group that has this ability, and Marxism is the only ideology that recognizes the centrality of this group. Marxism also understands oppression in a materialist way, meaning that Marxism is the only ideology which believes that oppression can and should be eradicated. It is for these reasons that all those who are interested in the well-being of oppressed people should embrace Marxism and organize for a socialist revolution.

  1. Historical Materialism (Marx, Engels, Lenin), p. 294 – 296; Progress Publishers, 1972
  2. “Employed persons by detailed occupation, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
  3. J Moufawad-Paul, Continuity and Rupture: Philosophy in the Maoist Terrain John Hunt Publishing, 2016.
  4.  Ahmed Shawki, Black Liberation and Socialism p. 119 2006.
  5. Andrew Zimmern, The Civil War Was a Victory for Marx and Working Class Radicals New York Times. July 2013.
  6. Donny Schraffenberger, Karl Marx and the American Civil War. International Socialist Review No. 8
  7. Maoist International Movement, The Black Panther. p.  14, April 27, 1969
  8. “Current Population Survey (CPS).” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
  9. “HOUSING.” BlackDemographics.com.
  10. Lindsey Cook, “US Housing: Still Separate and Unequal” US News Jan. 28, 2015
  11. Karl Marx. “B. The Illusion of the Epoch.” The German Ideology. Karl Marx 1845.
  12. Karl Marx. “The Poverty of Philosophy – Chapter 2.1. Marxists Internet Archive
  13. “Facts about the Slave Trade and Slavery.” Facts about the Slave Trade and Slavery | The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid
  16. Ibid
  17. Eric Williams, “Slavery and Racism” Stratford.org
  18. Alan R. Templeton, Washington University, October 1998.
  19.  Barbara-Jeanne Fields, Slavery, Racism, and Ideology in the United States. New Left Review, May-June 1990
  20. Ibid
  21. The German Ideology, Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 5.
  22. here
  23. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1971. p. 136-9.
  24. J. Sakai, Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat, PM Press 2014.
  25. Lenin, V.I. “Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?: Trade-Unionist Politics And Social-Democratic Politics.”
  26. Ibid
  27. Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin, Detroit:  I do Mind Dying, Haymarket Books 1999
  28. Ibid
  29. Ibid
  30. Karl Marx. “B. The Illusion of the Epoch.” The German Ideology. Karl Marx 1845. Op. Cit.
  31. Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin, Detroit:  I do Mind Dying, Haymarket Books 1999. Op. Cit.
  32. Ibid.

 

Precariat Vs Proletariat: The Rise of a New Class?

We all know from our own experience that the nature of work and the structure of the working class has changed over the years, particularly in the global North. These changes, according to thinkers on both the left and the right, explain the precipitous decline of radical struggles in the developed capitalist societies. According to most of these arguments, the working class has changed so radically under neoliberalism that it is no longer even a potential agent of radical social change. As such, workplace organization in the form of unions is no longer a priority for radicals. What I want to do in this essay is evaluate some of the changes in the structure of the working class in the global North. I will focus primarily on the US, as it is the context with which I am most familiar. I will first argue that the phenomenon of the precariat has been overstated, and secondly assert that the precariat, where it does exist, is but another section of the working class rather than a completely new social force.

Perhaps the most popular argument on the contemporary left for this decline of working class resistance is the claim that full-time, long-term work has been displaced by part-time temporary employment. This marks the emergence of what economist Guy Standing calls the precariat. According to Standing, the emergence of this new section of the working class has undermined worker’s attachment to any particular workplace or sphere of employment, making them less interested in organizing collectively into unions and other traditional forms of workplace organization. Put another way, the argument is that the development of casualized employment as the dominant form of work in the global North has objectively reduced the power of workers at the point of production. The conclusion Standing and others draw is that the working class is no longer the primary agent of social change in society, rendering Marxism irrelevant [1]. My intention is to argue against this.

There is some degree of reality to these claims about precarity in the global North. The restructuring of production under neoliberalism, the spread of what Kim Moody and others have called lean production, has resulted in the growth of temporary agency work, short term contracts, on-call work, independent contracting, involuntary part time work and the like.

However, US government data, mostly from the Bureau of  Labor Statistics, raises serious questions about the growth in precarity of employment. Many advocates of the precariat thesis, most recently Aaron Benanav writing for Viewpoint Magazine, claim that almost forty percent of workers in the US fall into this new social grouping. He cites a rigorous study by Harry Farber from the National Bureau of Economic Research in support of this statistic [2]. Unfortunately for Benanav, this forty percent figure includes workers usually excluded by the Bureau of Labor Statistics from what they call “contingent and alternative employment arrangements” [3]. In other words, the data excludes workers who are regularly employed part time, often for years on end. These workers are concentrated in industries like hospitality, clerical administration, waste services, and healthcare. These are industries in which most workers, for the past five or so decades, have labored for about twenty-five or thirty hours a week. When we exclude these workers, whose employment is generally stable, the size and social power of the precariat is much smaller.

According to BLS data, the number of truly precarious workers, temporary agency workers, people on short-term contracts, on-call workers and the like gew from 18.7 million in 1995 to about 21.6 million ten years later [4]. Despite growing by about a million workers, the percentage of the precariat as a total of the labor force increased negligibly, from about 15.2 percent of the workforce in 1995 to 15.5 percent in 2005 [5]. Using data on employment and personnel supply services (temp agencies and so on) Moody estimates that the size of the so-called precariat grew most quickly from 1980 to 1995, as lean production and the casualization of labor spread rapidly [6]. Moody also found evidence that the size of this layer of the working class has stayed about the same since 2005. It may have even shrunk slightly in that period. In other words, the economic crisis of 2008 has actually reduced the size of the workforce in irregular employment [7]. Moody notes that employment at temp agencies fell from 2.6 million in 2006 to a mere 1.8 million in 2008 [8]. The 2006 figure represented an all-time high out of a workforce of nearly one hundred million people [9]. Similarly, the number of independent contractors fell by 1.5 million from 2008 to 2015 [10]. Clearly, the numbers of involuntary part time workers jumped from 1.6 million to 2.3 million following the growth of unemployment in the wake of the crisis [11]. Overall, however, there has not been a substantial amount of growth in the precariat. It seems odd, in light of this, to claim that it is now the motive force for radical change in society.

This is especially strange given that we have not seen a significant change in the length of job tenure, or the length of time workers stay with an employer. In fact, BLS data shows that the median years of job tenure has increased for almost all workers. Average job tenure for all workers over the age of sixteen, for instance, adjusted for business cycles, has grown from 3.5 years in 1993 to 4.6 years in 2015 [12]. Kevin Dugan, in his book The New Capitalism?, has found similar statistics for workers across the European Union [13]. In other words, workers are staying with the same employer longer, rather than becoming more precarious. This means that workers remain connected to one another. There is still a material basis for them to organize and fight for their interests as a class. To quote Moody, “The large majority of workers, about 84%, are still in traditional employment arrangements. Though these, like the precarious workers, have seen their conditions change significantly for the worse” [14] Not only are workers able to wage long-term struggles at the point of production, they have a material reason to do so. As such, we should not be so quick to abandon Marxist ideas about the importance of class struggle.

Doogan spends a great deal of time in the book presenting statistical evidence showing that casualization and the growth of part-time employment has not been the norm over the past forty years. He notes that part-time employment has never surpassed roughly 5 percent of the US workforce [15]. For OECD countries as a whole, the rate of temporary employment is approximately 12 percent, a modest increase from just over 10 percent in 1985 [16]. Doogan notes that most of the available figures precede the onset of the latest global crisis. We can assume that rates have increased in recent years, but he argues that there is little statistical evidence that there has been a quantifiable transformation of the labor market towards casualization in the past forty years [17].

Guy Standing is the writer most identified within the English-speaking world with popularizing the concept of the precariat. In his book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, he lays out a popular overview of his more academic research into the impact of neoliberalism on labor relations and the emergence of what he sees as a new rising class.

Standing begins with the far-reaching changes to the global system of capitalist production that are the hallmarks of neoliberalism. Driven by the desire to open up the international circuits of production, trade, and investment, these neoliberals “disliked the state, which they equated with centralized government, with its planning and regulatory apparatus. They saw the world as an increasingly open place, where investment, employment and income would flow to where conditions were most welcoming” [18].

As production became “de-territorialized,” Standing argues, so too did notions of stable, long-term employment. Stable jobs were replaced with offshoring, temporary contracts, casual labor, and peripheral and informal economies. What remains is not the traditional standoff between capital and class-conscious industrial workers that Marx described, but a fluid, free-floating group whose relationship to production is tenuous at best and who lack a sense of clear class identification [19].

This fluidity makes it difficult to get a handle on exactly who is being described as the precariat. It is not, Standing admits, a homogenous group. It cannot be defined by its particular relationship to work, by a particular political outlook or aims:

The teenager who flits in and out of the internet café while surviving on fleeting jobs is not the same as the migrant who uses his wits to survive, networking feverishly while worrying about the police. Neither is similar to the single mother fretting where the money for next week’s food bills is coming from or the man in his 60s who takes casual jobs to help pay medical bills [20].

Standing thus defines the precariat broadly as those who face a number of related and often overlapping insecurities: “labour market security, employment security, job security, work security, skill reproduction security, income security, and representation security” [21].

But even so, it is sometimes hard to understand the limitations of this definition. In his section on defining the precariat, Standing examines the student labor force, temporary and contract workers, interns, elderly workers, migrants and immigrant workforces, women, incarcerated prisoners and those released from prison who continue to live under the shadow of past convictions, and even the millions of Chinese migrant workers, Standing admits, “who might fit the image of an industrial proletariat, but . . . are treated as a disposable itinerant labour force” [22].

This difficulty in defining a common condition or outlook for the precariat means that for much of the book, the precariat is defined much more by what it is not, than by what it is—repeatedly counterposing it to Standing’s image of an industrial proletariat defined by stability and security:

The precariat was not part of the “working class” or the “proletariat.” The latter terms suggest a society consisting mostly of workers in long-term, stable, fixed-hour jobs with established routes of advancement, subject to unionization and collective agreements, with job titles their fathers and mothers would have understood, facing local employers whose names and features they were familiar with [23].

Whether or not we regard the precariat as a distinct class depends on how we define the “proletariat.” The image above represents a very narrow picture of the working class. To the extent that it depicts the reality of working-class life, it is certainly limited to a particular strata of workers in the industrialized economies in the last generation, who as the result of the labor struggles of previous generations were able to attain a degree of security and advancement during the postwar boom [24]. Prior to the 1940s, few of the attributes listed above would apply to workers even in the industrialized world [25]. And even today, in much of the Global South, few would apply to even the most stereotypical image of the proletariat as industrial, blue-collar workers [26].

If our understanding of the working class is determined not by social status and class identification or the stability of employment, but rather by its relation to capital and the capitalist production process, we can view a working class that is constantly evolving, that includes large sections of the so-called white-collar workforce, sections of the urban poor, and informal sectors. The increase in precariousness then is perhaps better understood not as the replacement of one class by another, but as a concerted assault on the part of capital to roll back the gains that a particular generation of workers was able to attain to reestablish a more unequal balance of class forces that favors capital over labor.

Contrary to what Standing and others assert, the supposed increasing precarity of work is not a new phenomenon. Historically, precarity has been the norm for the bulk of workers in the industrialized capitalist world. Most workers in Japan, the US, Canada, and capitalist Europe have suffered from insecure employment, fluctuating hours, and so on. There is basis for this in Marxist theory. As Marx himself argued in Capital over 150 years ago, “Capitalist accumulation, with its relentless mechanization of production, concentration and centralization of capital, constantly produces a reserve army of labor, of unemployed, underemployed, and precariously employed workers” [27] The idea of the precariat does not necessitate a break from Marxism. Marx’s analysis of capitalism remains relevant, and discarding it can only hinder the socialist movement.

Frederick Engels introduced the idea of precariousness in his treatment of the industrial reserve army in The Condition of the Working Class in England [28].  Marx and Engels employed it in this same context in The Communist Manifesto, [29] and it later became a key element in Marx’s analysis of the industrial reserve army in volume I of Capital. Early Marxist theorists, notably William Morris, extended this analysis, explicitly rooting much of their critique of capital in the concept of “precariousness” [30]. The notion of precariousness has always been prominent in, and integral to, the Marxist critique of capitalism.

Contrary to the theories of a distinct precariat class, with interests opposed to the stably-employed working class, the so-called privileges of the stably-employed workers do not come at the expense of the precarious. Instead, the growth of a growing layer of part-time workers with little job security sharpens competition among workers. This drives down wages and conditions for all workers.

The reason the notion of the precariat as a new class has risen to such prominence today is because the successful capitalist defensive against global labor that began in the late 1970s, what we now call neoliberalism, has made all workers more precarious. The weakening of unions and the dismantling of state regulation of the labor market has made employment more insecure for everyone. The consequences of unemployment are now more severe across the capitalist world, owing to the neoliberal assault on welfare benefits and other aspects of the social safety net. Put simply, neoliberalism has returned the working class to its natural position under capitalism: precarity. The concept of the precariat as a class misses this, ignoring the fact that people who fall under this umbrella relate to the means of production in the same way that proletarians do. They work in manufacturing, transportation, and service. In fact, many workers in transportation and parts manufacturing appear in the numbers of the precariously employed [31]. Many workers who drive trucks to ports are considered self-employed, and many of those who perform labor-intensive parts manufacturing occupy long-term part time jobs. These people could be considered members of the precariat. However, they are not fundamentally different from the rest of the working class. They are vital to the process of production and thus the survival of capital. They are facing an assault on their wages and conditions just like stable workers. This is why the notion of the precariat as a separate class is spurious.

It is important to situate the concept of the precariat in the present context. Standing argues that changes in the relations of production have given rise to the precariat. One of the major changes is the advent of automation and mechanization. Marx himself argued that the development of machinery would make workers more precarious. This is a consequence of capitalist production, rather than a break from it. Marx writes that the development of machinery “make the wages of the workers ever fluctuating, and cause their livelihood to become “more precarious” [32]. Marx identified the tendency for job insecurity and casualization, denoting them as intrinsic to proletarian existence. In a way, Standing’s concept of the precariat is not a repudiation of Marxism, but a reaffirmation of it.

Both precarious workers and those who are organized are compelled to struggle for better conditions and pay. Both groups become conscious of their hardships in struggle. This is the foundation that Lenin argued we should build on as revolutionaries. Because this foundation remains, the precariat should not be considered separate from the working class, but rather a part of it. My argument here, like it was in the three previous posts, is that we should assert the unity of the entire proletariat. Only when we do this can we hope to win the fight for a better world.

  1. Standing, Guy. The precariat: The new dangerous class. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016.
  2. “Job Loss and the Decline in Job Security in the United States,” in Labor in the New Economy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), eds. Katharine G. Abraham, James R. Spletzer, and Michael Harper, 223-62
  3. Ibid.
  4. See Anwar Shaikh and E. Ahmet Tonak (1996) Measuring the Wealth of Nations: The Political Economy of National Accounts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 29-32.
  5. Sonia McKay, Steve Jefferys, Anna Paraksevopoulou, and Janoj Keles (2011) Study on Precarious Work and Social Rights (London: London Metropolitan University), 17-18.
  6. Fox, “Self-Employed,” 8; US Census Bureau (1982-83) Statistical Abstract of the United States (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office), 384.
  7. Steven F. Hipple (2010) “Self-employment in the United States” Monthly Labor Review, September, 2010, 17, 19; BLS (2016) All industries Self-employed, unincorporated.
  8. 6 Jonathan V. Hall and Alen B. Krueger (2015) “An Analysis of the Labor Market for Uber’s Driver-Partners in the United States “(Uber Technologies).
  9. Lawrence Mishel, Jared Bernstein and Heidi Sheirholz (2009) The State of Working America, 2008/2009 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), 210, 257.
  10. BLS (1997) ‘Employee Tenure in the Mid-1990s’ USDL 97-25, January 30, 1997, Table 1; BLS (2010) ‘Employee Tenure in 2010’ USDL-10-1278, September 14, 2010, Table 1; BLS (2014) ‘Employee Tenure 2014’ USDL-14-1714, September 18, 2014, Table 1.
  11. 9 US Census Bureau (1982/83) Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2012 (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office),21, 388-390; US Census Bureau, 2011: 14, 393-396.
  12. 1LCLAA (2015) Latino Workers and Unions: A Strategic Perspective for America’s Progress (Washington DC: Labor Council for Latin American Advancement), 10; Nicole Woo, Cherrie Bucknor, and John Schmitt (2015) Asian American and Pacific Islander Workers’ Union Membership (Washington DC: Cetner for Economic and Policy Research), 1.2
  13. UNCTAD (2013) World Investment Report 2103 (Geneva: United Nations Conference on Trade and Development), 130-131.
  14. BEA (2015) Interactive tables for “Gross Output by Industry” and “Intermediate Input by Industry,” November 5, 2015; Council of Economic Advisers (2011) Economic Report of the President (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office), 250-252.
  15. Council of Economic Advisers (2011) Economic Report of the President (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office), 188; Council of Economic Advisers (2016) Economic Report of the President (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office), 402.
  16. Janelle Jones, John Schmitt, and Nicole Woo (2014) Women,Working Families, and Unions (Washington DC: Center for Economic and Policy Research), 3; US Census Bureau (2011), Statistical Abstract, 410-411.
  17. Standing, Op. Cit.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Breman, J. C. “A Bogus Concept?[Review of: G. Standing (2011) The precariat: the new dangerous class].” New left review 84 (2013).
  25. Ibid.
  26. Marx, Karl, et al. Capital, volume one: A critique of political economy. Courier Corporation, 2012.
  27. Engels, Freidrich. “The condition of the working class in England.” The Sociology and Politics of Health (1969): 8.
  28. Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The communist manifesto. Penguin, 2002.
  29. Richard Seymour, “We Are All Precarious—On the Concept of the ‘Precariat’ and Its Misuses,” New Left Project, February 10, 2012, http://www.newleftproject.org.
  30. Transport Topics (2014) “Top 100” (Transport Topics Publishing Group), 4-22; USA Census (2011), 409.
  31. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol 6, pp. 491-2.

Below the Surface: Workers and "the New Capitalism"

In 2010, eighteen workers in the Foxconn factory in China, who worked producing products that would eventually be sold to Apple, attempted suicide. Fourteen of them were successful. Global outrage ensued, not just on the part of socialists but also in the mainstream media [1]. I bring this up because, even in this mainstream media, this issue was discussed as part of the relationship between labor and capital. This is evidence that an antagonistic relationship still exists between these two things Here, I want to argue this point further. The working class still exists, and has not been replaced, as some would argue, by a vague “multitude.” Recent events such as the aforementioned suicides underscore the need for a Marxist approach to class, even in an era of “new” neoliberal capitalism.

These days, technological determinism and techno-Utopianism are present almost everywhere, both on the mainstream and on the Left. Even venture capitalists, such as Marc Andreessen, are jumping on the bandwagon of what Aaron Bastani called “fully automated luxury communism” [2]. Andreessen writes, “posit a world in which all material needs are provided free by robots and material synthesizers. Imagine six or ten billion people doing nothing but arts and sciences. What a world that would be.”

Of course, this refrain is much more common on the Left. Bastani, as I said, has popularized the notion of “fully automated luxury communism” which should be self-explanatory. Paul Mason argued in the Guardian that socialists should focus on the sharing economy of Airbnb and Uber in their efforts to bring about communism [3].

Michael Hart and Antonio Negri, who consider themselves Marxists, proclaim a new relationship between capital and labor in the digital age. They posit a new stage of capitalism, producing the theory of “immaterial labor,” arguing that the service economy is not connected to production. Further, they argue that cyberspace has created a “new human condition.” This is a very fundamental argument they’re making about the relationship between capital and labor in the digital age. The idea is that we are not all working class people who work for capitalists for a wage, but rather a precarious “multitude” performing new labor under new conditions [4].

The adoption of this way of thinking by members of the capitalist class (such as Andreessen) suggests that it is not revolutionary, despite what Paul Mason, Hart and Negri, or Bastani would have us believe.

In addition to not having a revolutionary character, this concept of labor is not based on material reality. Hart and Negri argue that the traditional notion of factory production has disappeared from the United States. I have already written about why this is false, but there is a further flaw in the argument that I want to address here.

Hart and Negri claim that factory production-and with it the proletariat-has left the United States. But they never talk about where it went. It would be nonsense to argue that production has disappeared altogether. Capitalism-and indeed any other system-could not survive if this were the case. No, it must be that the factories have gone to other places. If we look around, they are still there. The Foxconn suicides made that very clear.  Hart and Negri, however, are blind to this. This ignorance of the way that capital has globalized (shifted production to other places) is astounding. There are very clearly antagonistic, “classical” relationships between labor and capital in these places, and this is lost on the techno-utopians.

I want to argue that technology has not reshaped everything about life under capitalism. Labor in the digital age resembles what socialists since Marx have fought against. Very fundamental things about the exploitative relationship between labor and capital remain. I want to apply the Marxist analysis of this relationship to labor in the digital age, with emphasis on non-US locales.

It is worth noting that the working class is growing globally, not declining. Globally, there were 2.2 billion people at work and producing value back in 1991.  Now there are 3.2 billion.  The global workforce has risen by 1bn in the last 20 years.  But there has been no de-industrialisation globally.  De-industrialisation is a phenomenon of the mature capitalist economies.  It is not one of the ‘emerging’ less developed capitalist economies.

Using the figures provided by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) we can see what is happening globally, with the caveat that there is a serious underestimate of industrial workers in these figures and such transport, communication and many hi-tech workers are put in the services sector.

Globally, the industrial workforce has risen by 46% since 1991 from 490 million to 715 million in 2012 and will reach well over 800 million before the end of the decade.  Indeed, the industrial workforce has grown by 1.8% a year since 1991 and since 2004 by 2.7% a year (up to 2012), which is now a faster rate of growth than the services sector (2.6% a year). Globally, the share of industrial workers in the total workforce has risen slightly from 22% to 23%.

The big fall has not been in industrial workers globally, but in agricultural workers.  The process of capitalism sucking up peasants and agricultural laborers from the rural areas and turning them into industrial workers in the cities (what Marx called primitive accumulation) is not over.  The share of agricultural labour force in the total global workforce has fallen from 44% to 32%. Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation (what we might refer to as de-ruralization) is the great global phenomenon of the last 150 years.

There is no denying that the digital economy is huge, a very fast-growing sector of capitalism today. The global value of ICTs (information and communications technology industries) has grown from $800,000 in 1990 to $2.8 trillion today [5]. Since the late 1990s, over one third of all private investment has been into ICTs [6]. Along with the investment, the digital technologies that are produced are increasingly used as infrastructure, as “sub-commodities” in all sorts of places. Cars, machine tools, cell phones, and so on are involved with this digital labor process in some way. In a sense, the traditional means of production found in factories is being used to produce new means of production, which are then sold to the wider population. Certainly this is not something Marx factored into his analysis of capitalism in the 1800s.

This enables larger restructuring of the labor process. The introduction of automation and the ability of bosses to use ICTs in communication across the world instantaneously allows new things to happen for both capital and labor. The question for us then is what this restructuring looks like and whether it invalidates the Marxist analysis of the capital-labor relationship. Obviously, my answer to this question is a resounding no. My aim is to bring the labor-capital relationship back into the discussion amid a techno-utopian monopolization of discourse.

Many techno-utopians will tell you that workers are no longer workers because they carry the means of production in their hands. If you have a cell phone, you can write code and produce things without selling your labor to a boss. This is true, but I would argue that this does not fundamentally change the relationship between labor and capital. Many tech workers are still forced to sell their labor to survive. The fact that almost anyone with Internet access can become become a small entrepreneur means that the market is oversaturated. Many tech workers are crowded out by this, and thus forced to work for a corporation like Apple. This is in line with what Marx called proletarianization. This process can be seen occurring today, even across sectors of the economy that did not exist when Marx formulated his analysis.

Many tech workers are an asset that capital tries to use for its own end. This necessitates a certain amount of ideological control. One example of this can be found in the orientation card that Apple employees receive on their first day. It reads, “there’s work, and there’s your life’s work. The kind of work that has your fingerprints all over it. The kind of work you’d never compromise on, that you’d sacrifice a weekend for. You can do that kind of work at Apple.” The fact that the corporation dedicates this effort to indoctrinating the tech workers into believing that selling their labor is a noble action is evidence that capital is still reliant on labor. Apple puts so much effort into hooking their software engineers because the company could not survive without them. In this sense, tech workers have the same relationship to capital as productive workers, or the traditional proletariat.

There is much more to go into about US digital labor, which I attempted to do in my previous post, linked above. The thing to keep in mind is the increasing globalization of production under capitalism. Once we leave the United States, we have to adjust our conversation about the living standards of all workers, and thus their relationship to capital. This includes software engineers. In India, the pay ratio of a software engineer compared to the United States is somewhere around 1:10. Depending on where you are and who you are talking to, it could be 1:100 [7]. Thus, Global South workers, even those in non-producing fields, feel the antagonisms of capital much more deeply than first world workers of any kind.

There is a lot of propaganda about India as a shining IT center. Call center workers there are vilified in the United States, but many Indians consider this job a worthy aspiration. Despite this, the working conditions are often deplorable. Many workers work for ten to twelve hours through the night. Further, call centers train their workers in a very specific set of skills which are only useful in call centers. This means that the longer a worker spends there, the harder it is to get out. The style of work is very repetitive, and the bosses exercise extensive control over not only what workers say while on the job, but oftentimes how they simply move their arms. Further, there is a very small chance of promotion, and shift patterns make it much more difficult to unionize since workers are not often in contact with one another [8]. These characteristics were very common in the old Fordist factories that Marx focused his attention on. Hart and Negri posit the idea of “immaterial labor” without realizing that it bares a striking resemblance to the kind of labor Marxists seek to combat.

In this case also, there are many perks given to call center workers, though they usually amount to little more than meager scraps. There is a real attempt to make workers feel as though they are fulfilled, as though their job matters. There is a continuity here between call center workers in India and tech workers in America, in the sense that capital relies on the labor of both.

It is worth keeping in mind that the economic restructuring which gave birth to this dynamic of working for twelve hours through the night is responsible for many problems that are treated in Western media as being simply social in character. The victim of the infamous 2012 gang rape in New Delhi actually worked in a call center [9]. She had a life that involved staying out through the night, working, that contributed to her being put in this position. The Marxist idea that economics help determine all other aspects of life seems to hold true in this case as well as others. We live in a climate in which many activists have rightly chosen to focus on sexual assault and the oppression of women. As Marxists, we should embrace these struggles and connect them to the labor process.

Many would argue that doing so is useless because automation will simply replace the labor process entirely. Automation is often treated as a thing that just happens. Workers go on strike and so the bosses bring in machines, whether to dissuade them from striking or replacing them after the fact. There are certainly elements of truth to this, in that bosses do often use the threat of automation to declaw workers’ militancy. But this is not the whole picture. Machines have to be built. They come from somewhere. There are workers who do the job of creating those machines. These are often the tech workers mentioned above, but they are also workers in Foxconn and other factories. Rather than thinking of automation as a tool that the bosses can effortlessly insert into a politically contentious situation,  we have to see this as an extension of capital exploiting labor in order to achieve its political and economic ends. Automation is produced and it is something that labor is integral to. Automation is not the savior of humanity. It does not free us from the labor process, it merely obscures it. This has some serious implications, especially when we examine the changing class formation of places like India and China. There have been multiple strikes by software engineers in India over the questions of working conditions, payment, and so on. Bosses have often relented, signaling that software engineers do in fact have power over capital [10]. These workers who build machines to automate production cannot yet be automated themselves. If this were possible, the bosses would have already done it. We should not jump the gun and claim that the labor process is irrelevant.

I want to spend the rest of this essay discussing the other side of labor in the digital age. That is, the production of digital labor instruments. Why did eighteen workers attempt to kill themselves in 2010, and why has this continued? I will argue that this has everything to do with the exploitative relationship between labor and capital. Despite what Hart, Negri, and others believe, someone who works at a factory producing iPhones is performing labor in the digital age. This fact alone means that analysis of the labor process continues to be relevant. It is the Marxist analysis which is most applicable.

Following the Foxconn factory suicides, NPR did a series in which they interviewed workers about their reaction to them. One 30-year-old migrant described what his plans were for continuing work. He says, “Karl Marx was right. We should struggle like he said in 19th century Europe. Chinese factories now are just like factories in 19th century Europe. And just like Karl Marx said, only through struggle with the capitalists can we gain our rights” [11]. There is certainly a subjective awareness of the exploitative labor-capital relationship and the relevance of Marxism among the working class in China and elsewhere.

Let’s examine this more deeply. How does this perception of labor-capital antagonism stack up to reality? In the course of the global supply chain of digital labor, there are many different stages we can examine. There is the final stage of software engineering and programing I talked about above, but there is also the middle stage of assembly and manufacturing. This is the stage I would like to focus on now. We are all aware of the basic health issues associated with long hours and repetitive motion, but many are not aware of precisely how bad it is.  According to an article in China Labor Watch, “Right now, in Shanghai, China, a factory owned by the Taiwanese Pegatron Group is pushing out millions of units of the iPhone 6s for Apple. There, its young production workers toil six days a week in 12-hour shifts. Each day they are paid for 10 and half hours of work, not counting 15 minutes of unpaid meetings. The mandatory overtime shift runs from 5:30 pm until 8:00 pm. Most workers will not eat dinner before doing overtime because the 30-break given for a meal is not enough time. Before overtime pay, workers making the iPhone earn only the local minimum wage of $318 per month, or about $1.85 per hour. This is not a living wage. Even if the factory did not mandate overtime as it does, workers would still depend on their 60-hour workweeks to get by” [12]. This is an incredibly naked form of exploitation, a central part of the Marxist critique of capitalism.

These hellish working conditions have routinely given rise to intense class struggle. Strikes and protests increased almost twenty percent (20%) in 2016 [13]. This is a process that Marx and Engels wrote about extensively, in texts like The Condition of the Working Class In England [14]. The parallels here are striking, attesting to the continuing relevance of the Marxist analysis. According to the ILO report, in 16 developed economies, labour took a 75% share of national income in the mid-1970s, but this dropped to 65% in the years just before the economic crisis. It rose in 2008 and 2009 – but only because national income itself shrank in those years – before resuming its downward course. Even in China, where wages have tripled over the past decade, workers’ share of the national income has gone down. Indeed, this is exactly what Marx meant by the ‘immiseration of the working class.’

What is more important to understand is the way precarity functions here. In the US, precarity is often used to disarm workers, through methods like just-in-time production and short-term contracts. Similar, though much more severe, relations are at work here. In China, Foxconn built a campus of eight factory buildings in just seventy-six days in order to meet expected demand from Apple [15]. At various points, factories have closed, putting hundreds of thousands of workers out of a job in the span of a week. As an example, during the dot-com crisis, 12,000 Malaysian contract manufacturing workers were out of work within a month [16]. Entire cities are built as part of creating this section of the supply chain. In 2012, a FoxConn worker was quoted as saying, “the demand from Apple determines our lives” [17]. This notion of work overtaking life is a central part of the Marxist theory of alienation, meaning that this aspect of the analysis is also relevant.

In addition to manufacturing, there are the outer stages of the supply chain. One is mining, which tends to occur in conflict-ridden areas and is carried out by companies that the general public, especially in the West, has little or no knowledge of. Minerals like Coltan, gold, and platinum are mined for use in cell phones in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Here, child labor is used, often taking the form of slavery [18]. These are two of the most base forms of exploitation that Marx talked about. Despite the horrifying conditions these workers face, they still have economic power. In 2000, Sony’s Playstation 2 gaming console came out late. A press investigation found that this was due to a strike in the DRC by Coltan miners that Sony was using. This delay caused the company to lose millions of dollars in profits [19]. In South Africa in 2012, 34 strikers in the Marikana mine were shot dead by police [20]. That mine produced platinum. One third of the world’s platinum is used for hard disk drives [21]. The fact that the police were called to break the strike is evidence enough to prove that the capitalists were afraid of the worker’s exercising their power. These workers were connected to the production of digital commodities. As such, it is false to claim that the digital age has made the labor process, and with it the working class, irrelevant.

On the other end of the supply chain, we get to disposal. When iPhones go out of style, they are thrown away. They often end up being converted into what is called e-waste, which is the fastest-growing stream of pollution in the world [22]. On average, the United States produces thirty kilograms of e-waste annually, per head. That is a staggering statistic. The amount of e-waste varies from place to place, but it remains a problem. As one journalist describes it in Ghana, “everything is stained with hues of mucky brown and sooty black. Huge plumes of foul-smelling smoke rise from large fires where the dismantled items are burned to remove traces of plastic, leaving the metal behind” [23]. This is the final stage of the production process. Disposal is a vital part of reproducing the working class, as it is very difficult to live in filth and still engage in labor. Those who rely on scavenging for e-waste can attest to that.

It is clear that none of this labor is immaterial in any sense. Hart and Negri’s idea of “immaterial labor” crumbles when confronted with this. We even see an increase in the huge “factory cities” that they claim have disappeared. Despite the efforts of many so-called “radicals” to convince us otherwise, the labor process remains an area worthy of focus. Revolutionaries must stress the continuity between proletarians of all nations and treat the working class as the true agent of change in society.

 

  1. Guo, Lei, et al. “A case study of the Foxconn suicides: An international perspective to framing the sweatshop issue.” International Communication Gazette 74.5 (2012): 484-503.
  2. Merchant, Brian, . “Fully automated luxury communism.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 18 Mar. 2015,
  3. Mason, Paul. “Airbnb and Uber’s sharing economy is one route to dotcommunism.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 21 June 2015
  4. Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Multitude: war and democracy in the age of Empire. New York, The Penguin Press, 2004.
  5. Shapiro, Robert J., and Aparna Mathur. “The Contributions of Information and Communication Technologies To American Growth, Productivity, Jobs and Prosperity.” Sonecon, September (2011).
  6. Ibid.
  7. “Software Engineer Salary,” Payscale.com
  8. Walker, Morgan Hartley and Chris. “The Culture Shock of India’s Call Centers.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 20 Dec. 2012,
  9. “Delhi call centre worker gang rape: Five convicted.” BBC News, BBC, 14 Oct. 2014,
  10. “Inshoring is our New Outsourcing” In These Times, 7 June 2016
  11. Gifford, Rob. “Momentum Builds Behind Chinese Workers’ Protests.” NPR. NPR, 24 Sept. 2010.
  12. Watch, China Labor. “Something’s not right here: Poor working conditions persist at Apple Supplier Pegatron.” (2015).
  13. Ibid.
  14. Engels, Freidrich. “The condition of the working class in England.” The Sociology and Politics of Health (1969): 8.
  15. Duhigg, Charles, and David Barboza. “In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 25 Jan. 2012.
  16. Eric Loomis, In the Global Apparel Industry, Abusive and Deadly Working Conditions Are Still the Norm – Working In These Times.
  17. Chan, Jenny, Ngai Pun, and Mark Selden. “The politics of global production: Apple, Foxconn and China’s new working class.” New Technology, Work and Employment 28.2 (2013): 100-115.
  18. Stan Cox / AlterNet. “War, Murder, Rape… All for Your Cell Phone.” Alternet.
  19. “The PlayStation War As the West’s insatiable appetite for personal electronics continues, so do Africa’s resource wars.” The Columbus Free Press
  20. Clark, Nancy L., and William H. Worger. South Africa: The rise and fall of apartheid. Routledge, 2016.
  21. Spiegel, Ronald J. “Platinum and fuel cells.” Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment 9.5 (2004): 357-371.
  22. Widmer, Rolf, et al. “Global perspectives on e-waste.” Environmental impact assessment review 25.5 (2005): 436-458.
  23. Hirsch, Afua. “‘This is not a good place to live’: inside Ghana’s dump for electronic waste.” The Observer. Guardian News and Media, 14 Dec. 2013.

The Neoliberal Metamorphosis: Worker’s Power Today

For the major part of the last four decades, the common narrative on the Left has been that worker’s power, particularly in the United States, has become a thing of the past: swept away by the neoliberal project of the ruling class. The idea is that, preceding the economic recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the US government abandoned the ideology of Keynesianism (regulation to ensure jobs, a robust social services sector, etc) for one of unfettered free market capitalism. Flowing from this ideological shift came deindustrialization, deregulation, free trade, and the like. The consequences of this were twofold. First, it led to the outsourcing of production to the global south in search of cheap labor. This resulted in the second consequence, which was the loss of five million jobs in the United States, many of them good-paying union jobs. This resulted in a decline of organization and militancy within the working class, meaning that there could be no hope for radical politics which put them at the center. Finally, the argument goes that an interconnected and dispersed service economy made of low-paying precariously-secured work emerged, which disincentivized struggle. For most in this era of barely getting by, struggling against the bosses is a good way to get replaced by the next person in line for the job. This is especially true given that a large chunk of the labor force is made up of immigrants, who risk being deported if they attempt to unionize. This lack of organization and loss of direct relations to the means of production, some argue, means that the majority of workers in the US cannot be considered part of the traditional proletariat as Marx conceived of it.

On the other hand, higher paid workers (teachers, nurses, tech workers, and so on) are considered “bought-off,” their class consciousness nullified by their privilege of decent wages and dignified working conditions. Some would argue that because of the sharp distinctions between these two kinds of workers, they can no longer be considered part of the same class.  From this line of thinking, the idea idea of the “precariat” class has emerged: a class whose existence is characterized by insecurity, a lack of collective bargaining power, and distance from traditional forms of working-class organization.

We have also entered a period in which there has been a resurgence of socialist ideas: a rejection of the exploitative relations of capitalism and a belief that a new society must be built. A major question that the left must grapple with is: who will build this new society: the working class, the precariat, or some other social force entirely?

My hope in this essay is to convince you that, despite all the changes in the economy brought about by neoliberalism, the working class, in the traditional Marxist sense, is still the key to transforming society. To do this, I must unpack the ideas described above, figuring out what is useful, what is harmful, and what needs to be improved upon. I will begin with an explanation of these neoliberal changes, and end with an analysis of what this means for working class power today.

First, I would like to argue that the United States was never deindustrialized. It is true that between the early eighties and the two thousands, geographic shifts in production increased. But insourcing to the US through foreign direct investment actually exceeded outsourcing during this period overall. Manufacturing employment in the US is, admittedly, at an all-time low of nine percent (9%) [1]. However, this has been a long-range trend since its height in 1900. No reasonable radical would claim that the working class did not have revolutionary potential in 1917, despite the fact that manufacturing employment was declining during this period as well. On the same note, manufacturing was only twenty-seven percent (27%) in 1980 [2]. Decline in manufacturing as a percentage of the total employment is a general trend, not at all indicative of the need to move away from the working class as the primary agent of change in society.

This next point is key: While manufacturing jobs are far fewer in number than they were in the past, US manufacturing workers are producing far more than ever. From 1982-2007, manufacturing output in the US actually grew one hundred thirty-one percent (131%) [3]. This escalation of productivity has been accomplished not by the bosses finding a way around the need for workers at the point of production, but by working them harder for less. Today, manufacturing is by far the most profitable sector of the US economy. According to the Economic Policy Institute, manufacturing in 2013 directly contributed over two trillion dollars to the US economy. Taken alone, this would make US manufacturing the third-largest economy in the world [4].

Despite this incredible amount of increasing productivity, wages have stagnated. Compared to an overall 64.9 percent growth of economy-wide productivity between 1999 and 2012, wages have only increased 8.2 percent for non-supervisory workers [5]. Workers are being paid far less than the amount the produce, even within an unfair wages system. This leads, as Marx predicted, to an immiserated working class. One third of full-time factory workers are on some form of public assistance, [6] and sixty-two percent (62%) of Americans would have difficulty covering an emergency expense of one thousand dollars or more [7]. Marx’s idea that society is based on the power of the producers remains true today. There is still a strong base of factory proletarians in the United States, and these proletarians are still exploited.

All socialists agree that worker’s power stems from the capitalist’s dependency on their labor. But their ability to flex that power is dependent on their consciousness of it, as well as the level of organization that is present in the class. Understanding the loss of this organization helps to clarify why this power lays mostly dormant today.

The recession of 1974-75 was, indeed, a U-turn moment for global capital. Due primarily to years of falling rate of profit and compounded by rising inflation, a very messy monetary system, and the OPEC crisis, the 24 richest countries saw their growth rate fall from five percent (5%) in 1973 to zero percent (0%) in 1975 [8]. The recovery and acceleration of productivity that was to follow would be achieved by an employer offensive through the crippling of labor unions in order to pave the way for the long-term compression of wages coupled with an intensification of work. Unlike the employer offensive of 1958-63, in which unions stood their ground, labor buckled under the new economic and political challenges of the late 1970s. While the 60s-70s was a period of labor victory, it was also a period of major internal union struggle between the leadership strategy of labor-management cooperation and the combative tactics of the rank and file. The recession weakened the rank-and-file even further, making them too economically insecure to simply stage a wildcat strike and get the bosses to bend. As a result, the mass of workers was increasingly dependent on a labor-aristocratic union leadership that had grown comfortable as lackeys of the bosses and was thus unwilling to fight against them. Union militancy, needless to say, was in sharp decline. This period saw the loss of 2.2 million union jobs in eight labor strongholds, a twenty-six percent (26%) loss of union density [9].

With unions weakened, the ruling class was able to undertake a restructuring of production that could not only restore profits to pre-recession levels, but elevate them to new heights. The project required geographic shifts in production, decentralization of production through the creation of regional supply chains, and mechanisms of labor rationalization such as lean production, which I will discuss in more detail later.

Outsourcing across the US border remains a significant feature of this restructuring, but we ought not ignore the shift in production from the North to the South. This is the case for two reasons. Firstly, about ninety percent (90%) of US manufacturing jobs are still located in the United States [10]. They did not disappear, they simply moved elsewhere inside the United States. In this case, the “elsewhere” is the Southern United States.

As Kim Moody argues in her book In Solidarity, the failure to unionize the South after World War Two opened the door for the creation of a competitive, low-wage region of American industry [11]. The wage differential between the growing Southern manufacturing states of Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee was fifteen percent (15%) lower than Northern manufacturing states like Michigan and Illinois [12]. The smell of profits wafting from the South was irresistible to the bosses.

As the North saw the destruction of billions of dollars of capital, smaller decentralized firms were opening in the South. By 1997, Tennessee was the fourth largest auto-producing state in the country [13]. The South’s share of production grew from twenty-one percent (21%) of the economy in 1980 to thirty percent (30%) of the economy in 2000 [14].

Increasingly, less production was being done in-house. Rather, production was being organized along regional and global supply chains. Japanese, European, and American auto firms located plants  in the South along interstate highways. Big companies were outsourcing many parts of the production process to smaller firms along these interstates and beyond to global destinations. Production along these regional supply chains required, and still requires, lock-step coordination of worker output. Evidence of this can be found in  US Census Bureau statistics, which show that from 1992-2012, the amount of workplaces with more than five hundred workers actually increased [15]. This number did drop in manufacturing, it only did so by one percentage point. This is hardly the paradigm shift that is usually implied. What this means is that, in addition to remaining exploitative, factory production in the US retains a concentrated, social character. Workers have not lost their connection to each other or to the system of production. This is a fundamental basis for communist revolution.

Equally as important as regional shifts into ever more concentrated areas was the actual restructuring of production on the shop floor: the development of new innovations to intensify work. The description of this reorganization is often reduced to automation. Automation has been key in disempowering workers, but its importance should not be overstated. Rather, we should see automation as part of the growing dominance of the lean production model mentioned above. Through management oversight of the labor process, lean production is about accounting for every second of a worker’s time, developing ‘teamwork strategies,’ and other methods used to constantly tighten the ship. Bosses came to control an increasingly large portion of the worker’s activity, even drafting manuals that show workers how to move their arms during the labor process. The 45-second-minute in auto (the standard of 45 seconds of work for 15 seconds of rest), was increased to a staggering 57-second minute [16]. Many workers in poultry processing plants have been forced to wear diapers so they can relieve themselves while on the assembly line [17]. Quite literally, bosses control the vast majority of a worker’s time. Given that workers are increasingly being robbed of their autonomy on the factory floor, we can safely conclude that production still maintains the alienating character that communists seek to build upon when organizing.

We can conclude from all of this that manufacturing still exists in the United States, and retains all of the central characteristics that Marx identified in his critique of capitalism. Neoliberalism has brought about great changes in American Capitalism, but these changes are not so great as to invalidate the Marxist conception of the industrial working class. Clearly, this class remains a force that has the power to change society.

I would argue that the changes to capitalism brought about by neoliberalism actually increase the power of the industrial proletariat. One aspect of the restructuring discussed above has been that the production process has been broken up. Regional production lines do not produce complete goods, as they generally did in Marx’s time. Now, they produce various component parts that must be assembled at some other point. When parts production is taken into account, gross manufacturing output triples to 5.9 trillion dollars [18]. To put this in perspective, that number is more than one third of US GDP [19]. Manufacturing workers, while far few in number than they were in the past, directly produce far more profit for the ruling class than they did in the 1970s. Therefore, those workers have an astounding amount of economic power.

Further, because of the fragmentation of production, a strike by workers at one factory has the potential to decimate the profits of the capitalist class to a far greater extent than it did in the past. One example of this is the 2014 strike of seventy workers in Toledo, Ohio that produced brake systems for Jeep Cherokees. The fact that the bosses relented after just eight hours of strike action gives us a sense of how quickly strikes at a part supplier can disrupt regional and globalized production lines [20]. If workers in a factory from here to China refuse to stop producing any one of the individual parts of an iPhone, unfinished goods sit useless on the assembly line. This hits the bottom line of the capitalist hard. Workers are more connected, and more powerful economically than ever before. In this sense, the changing landscape of capitalism has reinforced the relevance of Marxism, rather than detracting from it.

Despite the neoliberalization of capitalism, Marx’s conception of the working class as the force upon which society rests remains relevant. Any revolutionary movement must recognize this. It must focus its organizing efforts primarily, though not exclusively, on this sector of the population. The method and analysis of Marxism has just as much, if not more, application today than it did more than one hundred years ago.

We have established that the Marxist conception of the industrial proletariat still has merit today. I would like to spend the rest of this essay arguing for an expansion of this conception. A key part of the Left’s shift away from the working class is predicated on the fact that the majority of jobs in the US are in the service industry. The argument is that these workers are not connected to production. Thus, the Marxist focus on the labor process is irrelevant. I would like to counter this idea here.

The loss of 5 million manufacturing jobs in the US was accompanied by the addition of 1.7 million service jobs over the same period [21].  As we have discussed, it is not the case that service has replaced production. It is also not the case that service and production are unconnected. It is more accurate-and indeed more helpful-to think of this service boom as an expansion of production. Services are used to get parts, to get final products to market, and services to sell those products. Most importantly, services are used to revive and refuel workers so that they can work another day under increasingly intensive conditions. These are inextricably linked to the production process, as neither could survive without the other. The boom in production has required an expansion of services. Capital needs service workers to work just as hard as the producing workers, in order to realize gains in productivity at the point of production. This link between manufacturing and service workers might explain why a high number of fast-food workers, like manufacturing workers, are on some form of public assistance [22].

Further, with the speeding-up of production, capital requires the rapid movement of parts between factories. The economy increasingly depends on the movement of goods from point A to point B. Just-in-time logistics has become critical. Just-in-time logistic firms like UPS use cutting edge communication technology to guide this movement. Through radio frequency identification (RFID) and GPS, inter-mobile transportation on air, sea, and land is all organized in a continuous flow.

Between 1970 and 2000, freight traffic increased 7.5 times, measured by dollars [23]. The transportation workforce grew by nearly one million workers over the same period [24], and is currently one of the the fastest-growing sectors of employment [25]. Think of the potential impact these transportation workers could have on the flow of capital. The ruling class already has. One report showed that that if the thirteen thousand dock workers who run the West Coast’s 29 ports went on strike, it would cost the US economy two billion dollars a day [26].  Transportation workers have a huge amount of economic power. Further, no one would be able to get to work to produce profits if transportation workers did not operate machinery. Transportation workers are vital for the continuation of capitalism, and therefore retain power. They should, for this reason, be considered part of the working class.

We must also think about the potential power of warehouse workers today. According to a 2015 article in The Internationalist, “Hundreds of immigrant warehouse workers in Brooklyn, New York, won a historic victory on November 4 when their year-long organizing campaign brought a landslide unionization vote at the nationally known B&H Photo Video professional supply firm. On October 11, 18 and November 1, they had held spirited demonstrations outside the store on 34th Street in Manhattan. Now the decisive day had arrived. Well before sunrise on the 4th, workers gathered near the company’s warehouses at the Navy Yards and Evergreen Avenue” [27].

Workers in fulfillment warehouses that store and send final goods for retail are a significant link in the production circle. Like service workers, they provide goods the proletariat needs to continue existing and, by extension, to continue making profits for the capitalists. As revolutionaries, we should consider them just as much a part of the working class as any factory employee.

The Amazon Fulfillment Center in Baltimore is over one million square feet long, and employs over one thousand workers. Pickers, warehouse workers who fill orders, are connected with RFID scanners telling them what goods to find, how to do so in a vast warehouse system, how much time it should take them, and what percentage of their picking goal they have reached so far that day. Workers speedwalk ten or twelve miles a day on hard concrete floors in an effort to meet these punishing picking quotas [28]. Not only are these workers linked with the production process, their working conditions mean that they will have an interest in uniting with the rest of the proletariat to overthrow capitalism.

Tech workers, contrary to popular belief, are not separate from production either. With the use of universal barcodes, the exact location of inventory during production can be tracked all the way from the factory floor to store shelves. The products are then tracked on store shelves, and tech workers send data back to the supply chain to ensure the optimal amount of units are manufactured. Thus, the process comes full circle.

This connection to production persists even among teachers, nurses, and hospital workers. The result of increased exploitation at the point of production is that there is a greater burden on the working class physically, mentally, and emotionally. This means that there has been a growing need for public hospital workers, social workers, teachers, and the like to care for a working class that is growing sicker and more stressed. Not only that, workers also have less time and resources to tend to their own needs. The ruling class also relies on the social reproduction of the non-producing sections of the working class. They require teachers so that the next generation of workers are sustained, trained, and disciplined. They require workers specialized to care for the elderly and disabled so that other workers are freed from the burden of their care while on the job. The very fact that capital could not survive without these groups means that we should consider them part of the working class.

The most vital aspect of worker’s power, the ability to stop the flow of profits, clearly has not disappeared in the age of neoliberalism. All these workers, from service to retail and beyond, are in some way connected to production. Therefore, they all have the power to change society. Neoliberalism has not transcended the need for a conception of class based around production, but instead made it all the more vital. As I have argued previously, we should return to traditional Marxist ideas about class and, in so doing, assert the unity of the proletariat.

References

  1. The State of Manufacturing in the United States”. International Trade Administration. July 2010. Retrieved March 10, 2013.”
  2. Ibid
  3. Nutting, Rex. “Think Nothing Is Made in America? Output Has Doubled in Three Decades.” MarketWatch, 28 Mar. 2016,
  4. Galdabini, Greg (February 12, 2012). “U.S. Manufacturing: The World’s Third Largest Economy”. United States Chamber of Commerce.
  5. “Raising America’s Pay: Why It’s Our Central Economic Policy Challenge.” Economic Policy Institute,
  6. “Study: One-Third Of Manufacturing Workers Use Welfare Assistance.” Manufacturing.net, 13 May 2016
  7. “Poll: Two-Thirds of US Would Struggle to Cover $1,000 Crisis.” APNORC.org
  8. “The Theory of Economic Growth.” Econometrica, vol. 39, no. 4, 1 July 1971, pp. 137–140.
  9. Greenhouse, Steven. “Most U.S. Union Members Are Working for the Government, New Data Shows.” The New York Times
  10. History shows that trade made easy. “U.S. Has Lost 5 Million Manufacturing Jobs since 2000.” CNNMoney, Cable News Network See also “2013 UN World Investment Report.”
  11. Moody, Kim. In Solidarity: Essays on Working-Class Organization in the United States. Chicago, IL, Haymarket Books, 2014.
  12. Ibid
  13. A Profile of the Automotive Sector in the Southeastern United States, Matthew N. Murray,  David T. Mayes, Kathleen Hoffman. August, 1999
  14. Ibid
  15. Staff, Iif. “CFOI Charts, 1992-2006.” CFOI Charts, 1992-2006.
  16. Moody, Kim. In Solidarity: Essays on Working-Class Organization in the United States. Chicago, IL, Haymarket Books, 2014. Op. Cit.
  17. Chuck, Elizabeth. “Poultry Workers, Denied Bathroom Breaks, Wear Diapers: Oxfam Report.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 12 May 2016
  18. Galdabini, Greg (February 12, 2012). “U.S. Manufacturing: The World’s Third Largest Economy”. United States Chamber of Commerce. Op. Cit.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Auto Parts Workers Strike for Recognition, Strategy Was to Shut Down Assembly Plant.” Auto Parts Workers Strike for Recognition, Strategy Was to Shut Down Assembly Plant | Labor Notes
  21. “Consumer Spending and U.S. Employment from the 2007–2009 Recession through 2022 : Monthly Labor Review.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
  22. Kathleen Maclay, May 10, 2016, “One in Three U.S. Manufacturing Workers Is on Public Aid, Study Shows.” Berkeley News, 10 May 2016
  23. “The US Interstate Highway System: 40 Year Report.” The US Interstate Highway System: 40 Year Report
  24. “Chapter 5: Transportation Economics | Bureau of Transportation Statistics.” Chapter 5: Transportation Economics | Bureau of Transportation Statistics
  25.  Mandy, Francis. “Issue Highlights – November 2016.” Cytometry Part B: Clinical Cytometry, vol. 90, no. 6, 2016, pp. 480–482. doi:10.1002/cyto.b.21489.
  26. “Doc Strikes and the Economy” More than Shipping.
  27. Group, Internationalist. “V-I-C-T-O-R-Y!B&H Workers in Big Win for Labor and Immigrant Rights.”
  28. McClelland, Mac et al. “I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave.” Mother Jones

Marxism and Climate Change

Introduction: Purpose for Writing

The biggest threat facing the world today is global warming. This is better called climate change since, according to the predictions, not all parts of the globe will become universally warmer. Nevertheless, there is an overwhelming consensus among scientists that climate change is happening. Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities. In addition, most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position. The first section of this essay is a partial list of these organizations, along with links to their published statements.

In part two, I would like to examine the variety of strategies articulated by activists as to how to deal with the threat of climate change. Many argue that capitalism can be “made green,” or that the damage being dealt to the environment is not the result of systemic issues with capitalism. I would first like to argue against this perception, as well as offer Marxism as a viable alternative to it.

Part One: Proving Climate Change

Here, I would like to provide quotations from the above-mentioned scientific journals. My reasoning for this ought to be obvious. We cannot formulate a strategy for dealing with climate change unless we understand that it exists.

American Association for the Advancement of Science

“Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver.” (2009) [1]

“The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society.” (2006) [2]

American Chemical Society

“Comprehensive scientific assessments of our current and potential future climates clearly indicate that climate change is real, largely attributable to emissions from human activities, and potentially a very serious problem.” (2004) [3]

American Geophysical Union

“Human‐induced climate change requires urgent action. Humanity is the major influence on the global climate change observed over the past 50 years. Rapid societal responses can significantly lessen negative outcomes.” (Adopted 2003, revised and reaffirmed 2007, 2012, 2013) [4]

American Medical Association

“Our AMA … supports the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fourth assessment report and concurs with the scientific consensus that the Earth is undergoing adverse global climate change and that anthropogenic contributions are significant.” (2013) [5]

American Meteorological Society

“It is clear from extensive scientific evidence that the dominant cause of the rapid change in climate of the past half century is human-induced increases in the amount of atmospheric greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide (CO2), chlorofluorocarbons, methane, and nitrous oxide.” (2012) [6]

American Physical Society

“The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring. If no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth’s physical and ecological systems, social systems, security and human health are likely to occur. We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now.” (2007) [7] 

The Geological Society of America

“The Geological Society of America (GSA) concurs with assessments by the National Academies of Science (2005), the National Research Council (2006), and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007) that global climate has warmed and that human activities (mainly greenhouse‐gas emissions) account for most of the warming since the middle 1900s.” (2006; revised 2010)” [8]

In summary, the warming of the earth is partly the result of human action. This fact is undeniable. It is true that the earth has always gone through hotter and colder periods (ice ages), but more and more greenhouse gases (the most important of which is CO2) are being pumped out into the upper atmosphere. These operate like greenhouses or blankets in that they let warmth from the sun in, but then trap it in the atmosphere. This contributes to the warming of the earth as a whole. Since the 1980s, the earth has been warming up at a faster rate than ever before. And emissions from us, in the form of burning fossil fuels that give off greenhouse gases, are to blame.

Over half of the increase in temperature has happened in the past thirty years and is in part attributable to human activity. Already it has led to droughts, extinctions of species and rising sea levels leading to localised flooding. It’s going to get worse. Climate change must be combatted, the only question is how we are going to do it.

References:

  1. Statement on climate change from 18 scientific associations (2009)
  2. AAAS Board Statement on Climate Change (2006)
  3. ACS Public Policy Statement: Climate Change (2010-2013)
  4. Human‐Induced Climate Change Requires Urgent Action (2013)
  5. Global Climate Change and Human Health (2013)
  6. Climate Change: An Information Statement of the American Meteorological Society (2012)
  7. APS National Policy 07.1 Climate Change (2007)
  8. GSA Position Statement on Climate Change (2010)

 

Part Two: Why Capitalism is Not the Answer-And Why Marxism Is

In large part, this is due to what economists call “externalities” [1]. Externalities are things that don’t affect the balance sheet and therefore firms don’t worry about. The firm produces iron and steel. It gets paid for these outputs. It also produces smoke. This smoke is a nuisance, but the firm is not charged, so it has no incentive to limit how much smoke it belches out. The firms do not have to pay for this: the working class does. It pays through lung and chest diseases. Capitalism is literally killing the working class-and the planet-just by functioning normally. That is why the idea that the market treats the environment ‘efficiently’ is ridiculous. Firms minimise costs because that is the best way to make money. But they don’t minimise costs that others have to pay – externalities. Why bother? But these are real costs, just like iron and coal. They are just costs that have to be born by the rest of us.

So much “profitable” economic activity-mountaintop and strip mining, clear-cutting of trees, overfishing, the production of chemicals and plastics, using fossil fuels to feed an ever-growing demand for energy, agribusiness monoculture, and much more-has damaged the environment and/or depleted the natural resources [2].  It is profitable for the capitalists but not the people as a whole. This is not the result of a corrupted “crony capitalism” or anything of the sort. It is simply capitalism working as intended.

We can see that capitalism is not the answer, but is Marxism? Many activists argue that Karl Marx had an overly positive view of industrialisation and saw nature as an unlimited source to be exploited [3]. Contrary to this claim, consciousness about and struggle for the environment is nothing new for Marxists. In fact, Marx was a pioneer in analysing and criticising the destructive effect of capitalist industrialisation on nature as well as on society. Both Marx and Friedrich Engels, authors of the Communist Manifesto in 1848, closely studied and followed science in all fields.

Frederick Engels outlined over one hundred years ago the contradictions between an exploitative, short-term relationship of humanity to nature and the long-term problems that would inevitably engender:

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centers and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, making possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy season… Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside of nature—but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage of all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly [4].

Today, we clearly have governments overtly committed to militarism to extend the economic reach of their own national group of capitalists. All mainstream predictions by the United Nations and the International Energy Agency point toward growing worldwide use of fossil fuel energy. Waiting for real and meaningful solutions to emerge from governments guarantees humanity a desperate future and many species a short one. The raison d’être of capitalism is profit based on continual economic expansion. Capitalism has, in theory and in practice, alienated humanity from nature by privatizing the land and making all things into commodities—even pollution itself. On this alienation from nature, Marx explains, “As for the farmer, the industrial capitalist and the agricultural worker, they are no more bound to the land they exploit than are the employer and the worker in the factories to the cotton and wool they manufacture; they feel an attachment only for the price of their production, the monetary product” [5].

The mentality expressed here results in the environmental catastrophe of climate change. The capitalists think of nature not as a vital part of life which must be protected, but as nothing more than a source of profit (the same way they view workers). This, in turn, leads them to inflict horrific damage upon the environment.

This damage to the planet is not just because of population growth, as many proponents of capitalism would have you believe. The U.S., for example, has less than 1/20th of the world’s people, yet it is responsible for nearly half the world’s accumulated emissions of CO2 [6]. The U.S. has been the world’s largest capitalist economy since World War II.

U.S. corporations go around the world pumping out the oil, extracting the copper, cutting down the forests [7]. The Pentagon has directly harmed the environment (not to speak of killing people!) with its bombs, both atomic and conventional, its napalm and white phosphorus, its vast consumption of oil (the Navy is the world’s largest consumer), its energy-consuming bases in the deserts of the Middle East [8]. Despite this, the Navy is made up of a relatively small number of people when compared to the US population as whole. This fact proves that population growth is not the primary factor in exacerbating climate change. Capitalist production has that dubious honor.

It is clear that capitalism is an economic system profoundly and irrevocably at odds with a sustainable planet, as it requires ever-greater material and energy throughput to keep expanding. According to a 2000 study carried out by five major European and U.S. research centers:

Industrial economies are becoming more efficient in their use of materials, but waste generation continues to increase…Even as decoupling between economic growth and resource throughput occurred on a per capita and per unit of GDP basis, overall resource use and waste flows to the environment continued to grow.  We found no evidence of an absolute reduction in resource throughput.One half to three quarters of annual resource inputs to industrial economies are returned to the environment as wastes within a year [9]. (Emphasis mine)

Capitalism simultaneously and of necessity exploits the land and the people and sacrifices the interests of both on the altar of profit. Philosophically, the approach that capitalism takes to the environment, and the attitude it forces us to adopt, is one of separation and alienation. As a species we are forcibly cut off from the land, separated from nature, and alienated from coevolving with it. It’s an attitude amply summed up by Marx in volume 1 of Capital:

Capitalist production…disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e. prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil…. The social combination and organization of the labor processes is turned into an organized mode of crushing out the workmen’s individual vitality, freedom and independence.… Moreover, all progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology…only by sapping the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker [10].

Marx and Engels viewed humans not as something separate from the environment, as capitalist ideological orthodoxy does, but dialectically interconnected. Writes Marx on the relationship between nature and humanity:

Nature is man’s inorganic body, that is to say, nature in so far as it is not the human body. Man lives from nature, i.e. nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature [11].

The organism interacts with its environment while simultaneously the environment acts back on the organism. In the process, both are changed. The environment is no longer a passive object to be shaped at will by whatever life-form comes along, but plays a role in making the organism what it is. In this view, it is impossible to speak of any living thing, humans and their activity included, as anything but deeply enmeshed with each other, in a constant process of mutual interaction and transformation. Environmental niches don’t just pre-exist so that some happy organism that just happens to wander by at the right time can slot itself in. The very idea of an environment has no meaning unless we are talking about an organism’s relationship to it. For Marx and Engels, writing in The German Ideology, human activity had the potential to alienate all creatures from their environments:

The “essence” of the fish is its “being,” water… The “essence” of the freshwater fish is the water of a river. But the latter ceases to be the essence of the fish and so is no longer a suitable medium for existence as soon as the river is made to serve industry, as soon as it is polluted by dyes and other waste products and navigated by steamboats, or as soon as its water is diverted into canals where simple drainage can deprive fish of its medium of existence [12].

Capitalist industrial production and with it the working class, had only come into existence in the preceding decades, but were immediately understood by Marx as the key elements for the development of society. Stressing the importance of the working class did not mean ignoring the environment.

Interestingly, Marx viewed labor as “a process in which both man and nature participate” [13]. This is underlined in Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme – the programme adopted by the initial congress of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in 1875. Marx takes up the programme’s assertion that, “labor is the source of all wealth and all culture” [14]. “labor is not the source of all wealth”, Marx wrote. “Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power” [15]. The falsehood of labor as the sole source came from Ferdinand Lassalle, not from Marx. Marx understood labor and the environment as inherently interrelated. He did not focus on labor to the exclusion of environmental issues.

In fact, Marx devoted considerable effort to understanding the environment. He warned of the effects of the disruption in the relationship between humanity and nature. Therefore, he saw the alienation of workers in capitalist production as part of the same process as humanity’s alienation from nature. In his time, this was particularly obvious in the industrialisation of agriculture. The working class was and is at the forefront of the effects of capitalism on the environment. For example, energy companies – oil, coal, nuclear power – pose a direct threat to workers in those industries as well as to people and the natural environment in whole regions or countries. Workers in those industries are often the most conscious about those dangers. The struggle to improve the working environment is an important part of environmental struggles.

Further, the impacts of global warming fall disproportionately on the poor. The effects will manifest themselves in lots of ways: more expensive foods, a shortage of water, less fertile soil, and more extreme weather. Those who will suffer (and already are suffering) as a result are ordinary working and middle class people, peasant farmers – in short, everyone except the super-rich, who can always up sticks and move to a more pleasant climate. Although at the moment the effects are largely confined to the so-called third world, they are already starting to impact on the richer countries. This means that global warming is not just a scientific issue, but a class issue. Marxism, being the most developed theory of class, is clearly relevant here.

In addition, the Marxist philosophy of dialectical materialism offers the means to analyse and explain today’s climate crisis. Marx and Engels in the mid-19th century showed how both society and nature develop through the build-up of contradictions leading to qualitative leaps [16]. Today, climate researchers echo this method in warning of tipping points, the moment when the environment passes irreversibly from one stage to another [17]. In this sense, climate change is dialectical in nature. The dialectical nature of climate change is a striking confirmation of the philosophy of dialectical materialism developed by the founders of scientific socialism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In his unfinished book The Dialectics of Nature, Engels provides us with an explanation of dialectical materialism: “the transformation of quantity and quality – mutual penetration of polar opposites and transformation into each other when carried to extremes – development through contradiction or negation of the negation” [18]. This is confirmed to be just as correct for global warming, particularly through the discovery of ‘tipping points’, as in other aspects of science and nature. For example, computer models predict that an overall increase in global temperatures, Britain could experience a dramatic fall in temperature, much colder than at present [19]. The reason is simple – the Gulf stream, the current of warm water from the Caribbean that keeps the British Isles warm, could be diverted due to melt water from the Arctic. What better confirmation could there be of the dialectical “mutual penetration of polar opposites?” In order to successfully combat climate change, it is vital that we understand how it functions. Marxist theory, as I have just explained, best describes this process. Given this, it would be utterly incorrect to characterize Marxism as irrelevant to issues of environmental justice.

In the third volume of Capital, published in 1894 after Marx’s death in 1883, Marx describes capitalism as a break with the natural laws of life: “On the other hand, large landed property reduces the agricultural population to a constantly falling minimum, and confronts it with a constantly growing industrial population crowded together in large cities. It thereby creates conditions which cause an irreparable break in the coherence of social interchange prescribed by the natural laws of life” [20].

Based on a discussion about the long-term degradation of the soil following the use of chemical fertilisers in agriculture, Marx wrote that “all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the laborer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility” [21]. Contrary to popular belief, Marx was not only concerned with the horrors capitalism inflicts upon the working class. His analysis also dealt with the planet itself. As such, claims that Marx had nothing to say on the issue of environmental justice are unsound.

Marx warned that capitalism’s constant modernisation would increase “this process of destruction” [22]. Marx predicted the atrocities capitalism would inflict on the environment over one hundred years ago. How, then, can we call his thought irrelevant?

Marxism does not just diagnose problems with capitalism. It also provides solutions, new approaches moving forward. Engels summarized the dependence on, and need to learn from, nature: “Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside of nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage of all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly” [23]. This stands directly opposed to the capitalist method of dealing with nature, in which the planet is treated like a slave to be beaten and exhausted. Those who are interested in achieving justice for the environment must also dedicate themselves to the struggle against this attitude, and therefore capitalism as a whole. It all boils down to the class struggle that Marx and Engels saw as the lever for social change. The class with the least to lose under capitalism is the working class. The harsh conditions of capitalist decay are forcing our class to rethink everything, discard any prejudices they have been taught and embrace new forms of struggle.

Without a revolutionary perspective, the prospect seems too bleak to contemplate. Most of the “solutions” being offered are to go back to small-scale economies, co-ops, family farms, etc [24]. While well-intentioned, this strategy is nothing but a pipe dream. The forces of production have centralized to such a degree that decentralization is all but impossible on the scale needed to combat climate change. Small-scale farms may offer a way out for some people, but those who live in deteriorating cities near boarded-up factories will be left in the dust. Right now, we needed a strategy that is applicable to the whole working class, not just those in very specific and insular situations. Decentralization, a “scaling down,” simply cannot offer that. Marxism, with its emphasis on the unification of the proletariat, is far more fitting.

In short, Marxism  is the only viable way to deal with climate change. With capitalism threatening to destroy the entire planet, it is time for us to examine alternative approaches. Marxism, far from being applicable only to the 19th century working class, remains relevant for everyone concerned with the wellbeing of the human species.

 

References:

  1. Buchanan, James; Wm. Craig Stubblebine (November 1962). “Externality.” Economica. 29 (116): 371–84.
  2. Shah, Anup. “Corporations and the Environment.” Global Issues. 25 May. 2002.
  3. Lowy, Michael “For a Critical Marxism,” Against the Current, November-December 1997
  4. Frederick Engels, “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man,” in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (New York: International Publishers, 2007), 260–61
  5. Marx, Karl Grundrisse (New York: Penguin Books) 605-606
  6. Satterthwaite, David International Institute for Environment and Development. The Implications of Population Growth and Urbanization for Climate Change
  7. Don Fitz / AlterNet. “How Resource Extraction in Latin America Poses Serious Environmental, Economic and Health Questions.” Alternet
  8. “The U.S. Military and Oil.” Union of Concerned Scientists
  9. Shaughnessy, Mike. “London Green Left Blog.” August 2016
  10. Marx, Karl (1976) Capital, vol. I, New York: Vintage, pp. 637-638. (emphasis added) Alternate translation: Marx, Karl (1967) Capital, vol. I, New York: International Publishers Co., Inc., pp. 505-506
  11. Marx, Karl quoted in John C. Raines, Marx on Religion 2002. 122.
  12. Marx, Karl quoted in John Bellamy Foster, Immigrants. 2000, 112.
  13. Elster, John Karl Marx: A Reader 1986. 76.
  14. Marx. Karl Critique of the Gotha Program. UC Davis August 23, 2009. 7-9.
  15. Ibid
  16. IPCC AR5 WGII (2014). “Climate change 2014, Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability”
  17. Mandel, Ernest. “Dialectical Materialism.” Dialectical Materialism, www.marxist.com/science-old/dialecticalmaterialism.html
  18. Engels, Friedrich. “II. Dialectics.” 1883-Dialectics of Nature-ch2, www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1883/don/ch02.htm.
  19. “BBC – GCSE Bitesize: UK Climate.” BBC News, BBC, www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/geography/weather_climate/climate_rev4.shtml.
  20. Marx, Karl Capital Volume III, (New York: Penguin Books 1993) 609-610
  21. Marx, Karl, quoted in Eugene Walker Gogol, The Concept of the Other in Latin American Liberation 2002. 302.
  22. Marx, Karl; Engels, Friedrich (2002) [1848]. The Communist Manifesto. Moore, Samuel (trans. 1888). Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin. 226.
  23. Engels, Friedrich The Origin of Family, Private Property, and the State. Resistance Books, 2004, 12.
  24. See, for example, Dawn Killough, “Combating Climate Change With Small Farms” Planetsave.com, April 8th, 2015.

 

The Lessons of the Grenada Revolution

 

Introduction-Purpose for Writing

 

One of the most common arguments against  communism rests on the methods by which it must be achieved. Communists understand that the capitalist class will never allow us to vote away their property. Indeed, the entire legal system of the United States was founded in order to prevent this from occurring. James Madison admitted as much in a 1787 debate, when he said that the senate “ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” [1]  In other words, the parliamentary system of the United States was built with the explicit purpose of preventing the working class from seizing the property of, at that time, the landed interests. Today, this extends to industrial interests as well. This proves that the destruction of capitalism, and with it the empowerment of the working class, can never come about by electoral means. Communism requires a revolution.

This fact is undeniable, which leads many to oppose communism. These people argue that a revolution can only make things worse than they were before. Despite all the atrocities capitalism is responsible for, it will always be preferable to the bloodshed and uncertainty of revolution.

Because of the hold this argument has over the masses, it is vital that communists dedicate time and effort to refuting it. One way to do this is to analyze situations in which conditions improved immediately after the revolution. In this way, we can prove that revolutions do not mean chaos. A revolution is not about wanton violence, it is about struggle. The concrete results of this struggle show that the outcome of a revolution will in actuality be preferable to the pre-revolutionary society.

In this article, I would like to use the Grenada Revolution as a case study. I choose to do this for two reasons. The first is that Grenada is rarely discussed. When people think of socialism, they envision China, the Soviet Union, or Cuba. While all three of these societies are superlative examples of socialism, I feel that it is necessary to broaden our conception of socialism as much as possible. The Grenada model is similar to the Soviet one, but with (as we will see), a number of important differences. Most notably, these differences concern institutions of direct democracy and “people’s power.” While it is a myth that the Soviet Union and other socialist experiments were not democratic, Grenada is the most democratic of them all. Democracy is an important concept for the working masses, particularly in the United States. Highlighting this unique aspect helps to encourage working people to think of socialism in terms other than those forced down their throats by the capitalist class. This, in turn, may inspire people to take up the cause of socialism as their own. With capitalism increasingly putting the planet in existential danger, this is of the utmost importance.

The second reason is that Revolutionary Grenada lasted a mere four years, a far cry from the Soviet Union’s seventy. While this is often cited as a disadvantage by both communists and anti-communists alike, I feel that in this case it is actually beneficial. Because of the relatively short time span in  question, we can make the point that the gains of the revolution are essentially immediate. The working class does not have to wait decades for improvement. When they understand this, working people will be more willing to undertake the risks that come with revolution.

 

  1. Avalon Project – Notes of the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787, Taken by the Late Hon Robert Yates, Chief Justice of the State of New York, and One of the Delegates from That State to the Said Convention.” Avalon Project – Notes of the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787, Taken by the Late Hon Robert Yates, Chief Justice of the State of New York, and One of the Delegates from That State to the Said Convention.

 

Pre-Revolutionary Grenada

 

An analysis such as this can begin at no other place than Grenada prior to the revolution. This, of course, is for the purpose of comparison. One cannot claim that Grenada improved as a result of revolution unless one understands the conditions the revolution grew out of. By the early 1950’s the Grenadian colonial economy was a classic example of a small-scale plantation type economic system. The economy, based on small-sized plantations of cocoa, nutmegs and sugar, was owned by the very small, light-skinned elite group. [1] The peasantry eked out a living on their small plots of land or on seasonal employment offered by the export-oriented plantations. With a per capita income at about $250, unemployment and underemployment caused serious hardships for the Grenadian majority. [2]

This colonial economic system went hand in hand with a Crown Colony government in which power resided in the hands of the British Governor assisted by his civil servants. Until the granting of universal adult suffrage in 1951, the majority of the Grenadian population did not participate in the political process. [3] Eric Gairy came to power on the back of strikes organized by his trade union but quickly betrayed the working class. [4] Gairy’s title was Premier as Grenada became an Associated State in free association with Britain. In general, this new relationship meant that Grenada, led by Gairy, controlled its internal welfare, with Britain responsible for defense and external relations. [5] In this sense, Grenada was a client of the British State, a colony built for exploitation.

By 1967, Eric Gairy had emerged as an extremely controversial figure who generated strong feelings both for and against his leadership. His appeal was based on a curious admixture of a charismatic-type personality; a skillful manipulation of religious symbols including his involvement in voodoo-type worship; and ultimately, the emergence of the “Mongoose gang.” This latter group comprised largely of thugs, roughly akin to the Tonton Macoute of Haiti, emerged during the 1967 elections and were not disbanded until the NJM coup twelve years later. [6]  Gairy’s cavalier attitude toward leadership and administration of state affairs contributed during this period to his ultimate downfall. This administration was characterized by personal corruption, financial mismanagement, fiscal inefficiency, and the emergence of arrogant and somewhat dictatorial leadership. [7] There was little discernible government planning. While the land reform program permitted the government to acquire twenty-six estates, very little of this was redistributed to the poor and landless. [8]

Moreover, the ever present threat provided by Gairy’s Mongoose gang did not contribute to open participation in the democratic process. Between 1974 and December 1976, Gairy’s party controlled 14 of the 15 seats in parliament. The lone opposition member was rarely in attendance. [9] During the second phase from December 1976 until the coup in March 1979, there was a strong opposition party since the government now controlled 9 of the 15 seats. [10] However, during both periods, the Parliament was a mere “rubber stamp for the government decisions that had already been made elsewhere.” [11]  And moreover, because of Gairy’s decision-making style, “questions in Cabinet were not always resolved by debate and majority resolutions (since) Cabinet members merely echoed the views of the Prime Minister.” [12]

It is also interesting to note that during the entire duration of the second independence parliament, a period of twenty-seven months, the Parliament met for a total of eighteen days even though the constitution demanded more frequent meetings. [13] While the formal structure of democratic institutions and processes existed, decision-making over the five year period became increasingly concentrated in the hands of Prime Minister Gairy. This concentration persisted to such a degree that Gairy’s own personal idiosyncrasies became serious issues of policy. At the United Nations, Gairy’s Grenada made significant issues of UFOs, psychic research, and the mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle. [14]  

It was this climate of fear and intimidation of the increasingly economically depressed masses that provided the setting for the New Jewel Movement. In short, the Grenada revolution occurred because of the complete immiseration of the masses. [15] [16]

 

  1. H. Gill, The Grenada Revolution. Mimeo. July, 1983. p. 3.
  2. EPICA Task Force, “Grenada: The Peaceful Revolution.” Washington, 1982, p. 45.
  3. D. Webster, “The Role of ‘Leader Personality’ in The Foreign Policy of Grenada.” M.A. Thesis, University of the West Indies, Trinidad. October, 1983, pl. 19.
  4. Ibid., p. 18
  5. Radio broadcast was quoted in EPICA op. cit.
  6. “To Construct from Morning: Making the People’s Budget of Grenada.” St. George’s, Fedon publishers, 1982,
  7. As recorded in H. Gill op. – – cit., p. 12.
  8. Current Economic Position and Prospects of Grenada. Documents of the World Bank. April, 1989,
  9. Speeches of Maurice Bishop. pathfinders Press, New York, 1983, p. 294.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., p. 295
  12.  Ibid.
  13. Ibid., p. 302
  14. For a detailed discussion see D. Webster, op cit, summarized from H. Gill, op. Cit
  15. “Grenada : The Birth and Death of a Revolution (Dialogue #34)” Ken I. Boodhoo. Florida International University, Department of International Relations, 1984
  16. Grenade, Wendy C. The Grenada Revolution: reflections and lessons. Jackson: U Press of Mississippi, 2015.

 

The Revolution Itself

 

A revolutionary movement was bound to arise from the conditions described above. In this case, this was a movement called the New Jewel Movement (NJM). What eventually became known as the NJM actually had its beginnings with the return of Unison Whiteman, a young economist, to Grenada in 1964. Whiteman was disturbed by the conditions in Grenada’s working class. He organized a small discussion group confined largely to the strongly agricultural parish of St. David. [1] In 1972, this group was formalized as the Joint Endeavor for Welfare, Education and Liberation – “Jewel.” After legal training and involvement in the West Indian minority politics in England, Maurice Bishop–the son of a middle-class St. George’s businessman–returned to Grenada in 1969. He immediately became involved in domestic politics, protesting with and later successfully defending a group of nurses. The nurses took to the streets to dramatize the deplorable conditions at the government hospitals. [2] In 1972, at Bishop’s initiative, the Movement for the Assemblies of the People (MAP) was formed. The MAP opposed the existing Westminster model of government as non-functional to the needs of the society. The MAP instead suggested a radical alternative:the establishment of People’s Assemblies. The latter was viewed as a practical method for permitting the broader mass of the society to have more meaningful input into the state’s decision-making process. The NJM explicitly wished to expand democracy. It also wanted to improve education, schooling, healthcare, and women’s rights. [3]

Confrontation between the NJM and Gairy’s government was swift and, in most cases, violent. In late 1973, when the NJM was engaged in a brief alliance with the GNP while both organized a series of strikes, Gairy responded with state force. Gairy invoked physical abuse of the opposition, the jailing of its leadership, and eventually, the killing of several NJM sympathizers. [4] The events of “Bloody Sunday” became a foremost example of state violence against the opposition; and eventually, they became the turning point of opposition against Gairy. The revolution gained mass popular support, even among the middle class who had formerly allied themselves with Gairy. This was the climate in which the revolution succeeded. [5]

It should be noted that, although there were violent confrontations in the lead-up to the revolution, the coup in which the NJM took power was bloodless. [6]. This deals a decisive blow to the idea that revolutions are inherently violent. Although there must always be some bloodshed, the idea that a revolution involves indiscriminate murder and war is false. The Grenada Revolution proves this to be the case.

 

  1. Meeks, Brian. Caribbean revolutions and revolutionary theory: an assessment of Cuba, Nicaragua and Grenada. London: MacMillan, 1993. P. 142
  2. “Grenada revolution: history of Maurice Bishop.” Grenada Carriacou and the Grenadines.
  3. As recorded in H. Gill op. – – cit., p. 12.
  4. S. Dabreo, The Grenada Revolution. Castries: M.A.P.S. Publications. 1979, p. 304.
  5. “BLOODY SUNDAY, 18 November 1973.” Bloody Sunday NOW Grenada
  6. Prof. Gus John The Grenada Massacre: Lest We Forget

 

The Achievements of the Revolution

 

Now that this foundation is laid, we can begin to examine the gains of the Grenada revolution. The New Jewel Movement quickly got down to the serious work of improving the lives of Grenada’s long-suffering people. As Bishop said in his first broadcast on Radio Free Grenada after the capture of power on 13 March 1979, “This revolution is for work, for food, for decent housing and health services, and for a bright future for our children.” [1]

Pre-revolutionary Grenada suffered with unemployment levels upward of 50%. Through the development of cooperatives, the expansion of the industrial base, the diversification of agriculture, the expansion of the tourist industry, and the creation of massive public works programmes, unemployment dropped to 14% and the percentage of food imports dropped from over 40% to 28% “at a time when market prices for agricultural products were collapsing worldwide.” [2]

Paulo Freire was invited to design and lead the implementation of a literacy program, which all but eliminated illiteracy (the literacy rate increased from 85% to 98%). [3] The leaders of the revolution realised that an educational system must be established that broke away from the British colonial tradition and the inferiority complex that it sought to instil in its ‘subjects’. As Bishop elaborated, The colonial masters recognised very early on that if you get a subject people to think like they, to forget their own history and their own culture, to develop a system of education that is going to have relevance to our outward needs and be almost entirely irrelevant to our internal needs, then they have already won the job of keeping us in perpetual domination and exploitation. Our educational process, therefore, was used mainly as a tool of the ruling elite.” [4]

Chris Searle observed an intense, widespread desire and demand for learning:

“One of the first overwhelming truths and discoveries of the Revolution was that education was everywhere, it was irrepressible! It came at once from every side and at every moment. The dammed-up flood of four centuries of the people’s urge to know, to understand, to learn, to connect, to criticise, to express themselves, was unstoppable. At meetings, at rallies, at panel discussions, through songs, poems, plays and calypso, the message poured down upon the revolutionary leaders: Teach us, we want to know! Young and old, farmer and urban worker, fisherman and the woman cracking nutmegs, seamstresses and road-workers, all clamoured for more education, giving the cue for the slogan: Education is a must – from the cradle to the grave.” [5]

By 1983, 37% of the national budget went to education and health. School fees were abolished; schools were repaired. “Free books, school uniforms and hot lunches were provided for the first time for the poor. Health care was made free and the number of doctors and dentists doubled.”  [6]

For the first time, Grenadians had a very real say as to how public funds were allocated. They chose via a People’s Budget that preempted the celebrated Porto Alegre participatory budget by more than a decade. [7] Meanwhile, the economic growth rate averaged 10% during the years of the revolution. A World Bank memorandum on the Grenadian economy in 1982 stated: “The government which came to power in March 1979 inherited a deteriorating economy, and is now addressing the task of rehabilitation and of laying better foundations… Government objectives are centred on the critical development issues and touch on the country’s most promising development areas.”  [8] The World Bank is an institution whose sole goal is to perpetuate capitalism, so it is unlikely that it would admit such a thing unless it was accurate.

Regarding agriculture, Searle writes that “there was increased enthusiasm to work on the land. The old pattern of the plantocratic estate, the hierarchical control of the expatriate landlord or the man in the ‘great house’ and the living death of laborious daily-paid work on land which was not theirs – all this was changing. The growth in cooperatives on the land and the collective stake in production and profit had brought many young people back to the land, and three farm training schools had been established to give these young farmers some basic expertise in agriculture and cooperative management techniques.” [9]

The revolution was strongly focused on women’s empowerment and participation. The first decree of the revolution was to outlaw sexual victimization, and women’s unions constituted a large part of the grassroots democracy discussed below. [10]

The changes in society were reflected by a massively invigorated national culture, expressed through calypso, poetry, dance and drama. “The shyness and reticence that characterised many of the Grenadian people before the Revolution, the self-consciousness of being a ‘small island’, second-rate or unnoticed was replaced by an explosion of national self-assertion through the revolutionary culture… More Grenadians were writing poetry and performing calypso than ever before, and receiving publication and air-play.” [11]

One of the most remarkable accomplishments of the revolution was the construction of an international airport – the first airport to be built by a post-colonial Caribbean state, built by the Grenadian people themselves. In an impressive show of international solidarity, Cuba, Angola, and Bolivia provided money and labor for the construction of what would come to be known as the Bishop International Airport. [12]

Revolutionary Grenada came under criticism from many angles for not holding parliamentary elections – particularly since Bishop’s first broadcast after the seizure of power had promised the restoration of “all democratic freedoms, including freedom of elections.” [13] This lack of elections was constantly used by the US and its regional proxies to besmirch the New Jewel government, and there are plenty of people – even those broadly sympathetic to the revolution – who feel that the whole experience was tainted through lack of democracy.

Why weren’t elections held? After all, there was never any doubt that the NJM would comfortably win at the polls. Given that Bishop promised elections in the first broadcast, there is no reason to assume that he refused to hold elections because they would have threatened his power. On the contrary, he initially argued in favor of them. This should lead us to conclude that specific material conditions prevented the NJM from holding elections after the revolution.

Bishop discussed this issue in an interview with New Internationalist in 1980:

“We don’t believe that a parliamentary system is the most relevant in our situation. After all, we took power outside the ballot-box and we are trying to build our Revolution on the basis of a new form of democracy: grass­roots and democratic, creating mechanisms and institutions which really have relevance to the people, If we succeed it will bring in question this whole parliamentary approach to democracy which we regard as having failed in the region. We believe that elections could be important, but for us the question is one of timing. We don’t regard it now as a priority. We would much rather see elections come when the economy is more stable, when the Revolution is more consolidated. When more people have in fact had benefits brought to them. When more people are literate and able to understand what the meaning of a vote really is and what role they should have in building a genuine participatory democracy.” [12]

Speaking at an event to mark the first anniversary of the revolution – an event at which the guests included Daniel Ortega and Michael Manley – Bishop highlighted some of the obvious flaws of the Westminster system:

“There are those (some of them our friends) who believe that you cannot have a democracy unless there is a situation where every five years, and for five seconds in those five years, a people are allowed to put an ‘X’ next to some candidate’s name, and for those five seconds in those five years they become democrats, and for the remainder of the time, four years and 364 days, they return to being non-people without the right to say anything to their government, without any right to be involved in running their country.” [13]

In place of a such a pseudo-democracy, there was instead a system of grassroots democracy that, by any reasonable standard, must be considered far more democratic than the pretend democracy in place in Britain and the US. [14] Organs of power sprung up everywhere, and nearly everyone was involved in some level of organisation and decision-making: the Zonal Councils, the Workers’ Parish Councils, the Farmer Councils, the Youth Movement or the Women’s Movement, and many more which met at least once a month. Free facilities were made available for all such meetings, and they were often attended by senior government figures. These government figures would have to answer directly to the people [15].

In 1981, the People’s Revolutionary Government established a Ministry of National Mobilisation, headed up by senior NJM leader Selwyn Strachan. This was a whole government ministry dedicated to devising means of continually spreading and improving popular participation in the running of the country and ensuring maximum levels of accountability for those in positions of power. [16]

Searle points out that the army was expected to be at the service of the people, and was deeply involved in helping to carry out decisions made by the organs of popular power. He states: “The army was involved and was extremely popular. if repairs [were] needed or houses [had to be] built, soldiers would be there.” [17]  In Grenada, the Army was built to serve the people. This is quite different from the army in a typical bourgeois pseudo-democracy, which lords above the people rather than moving among them.

I would like to mention here that the democratic institutions analyzed above constitute an excellent translation of the mass line from theory to practice. I have written about this theory in depth here, but it is enough to say here that the mass line is about strengthening the ties between the state and the people. This tie between the people and the state shows that socialist states, while repressive in some limited senses, are substantially more democratic than capitalist ones. Socialism (as well as democracy) gives the masses power. Revolutionary Grenada is a brilliant example of that power.

 

  1. “A Bright New Dawn (13 March 1979).” Grenada Revolution Online
  2. Zunes, Stephenie “Global Policy Forum.” The US Invasion of Grenada
  3. Ibid
  4. Bishop, Maurice Education in New Grenada. July 1979. Grenada Revolution Online
  5. Searle, Chris, and Tony Benn. Grenada morning: a memoir of the ‘revo’ London: Karia Press,
  6. Mills, Stephanie “Welcome to Bishop International Airport” Workers.org
  7. To Construct from Morning: Making the People’s Budget of Grenada. St. George’s, Fedon publishers, 1982,
  8. Current Economic Position and Prospects of Grenada. Documents of the World Bank. April, 19/9,
  9. Searle, Chris, and Tony Benn. Grenada morning: a memoir of the ‘revo’ London: Karia Press Op. Cit.
  10. Bishop, Maurice. “Maurice Bishop Speaks to US Working People” Grenada Revolution Online
  11. Searle, Chris, and Tony Benn. Grenada morning: a memoir of the ‘revo’ London: Karia Press Op. Cit.
  12. “Interview with Maurice Bishop.” New Internationalist. 1980
  13. Bishop, Maurice. “Forward Ever.” March 13, 1980 Grenada Revolution Online
  14. Hart, Richard. “Grenada: An Assessment of the Revolution”
  15. Ibid
  16. Ibid
  17. Searle, Chris The Struggle Against Destabilization. 1983.

 

Conclusion-Learning from Grenada

I wrote this essay with the explicit intent to prove a point regarding revolution. I make no attempt to hide my ideological persuasion. I am a Marxist-Leninist, and I advocate a proletarian revolution to overthrow capitalism. This view places me far outside mainstream political discourse, due in large part to its aforementioned revolutionary content. In the popular consciousness, revolutions are portrayed as violent, bloody affairs that result only in the misery of the masses. The Grenada Revolution solidly proves this portrayal to be a myth, intended to pacify the working classes and frighten them from revolution. In just four short years, the people of Grenada liberated themselves from a brutal, repressive autocracy. With this came the dramatic expansion of social, political, and economic rights, in addition to a sharp rise in standard of living.

Revolution, far from being a hellish nightmare, is a deeply liberating process that improves the lives of those who undertake it. Therefore, the fact that socialism requires a revolution is not a  factor in determining whether it is desirable.

Revolutionary Grenada also has lessons to teach us regarding the relationship between the state and the community. Many proponents of decentralization argue that centralism necessarily involves taking power away from communities and concentrating it in the hands of the state. Revolutionary Grenada shows us that this is not the case. As I said above, lawmaking during the revolution was carried out on a democratic basis. Community councils and interest groups came together to decide what they needed, and then proposed their plans to the state. The state did its best to unify these goals into a plan that everyone could agree on. The councils could then review the plans and recommend any needed changes. The process would then continue from there as needed. In this sense, law-making remained central, while also empowering communities. The Grenada Revolution shows us that the two are not mutually exclusive and, in so doing, helps to win the masses over to Marxism-Leninism. Returning to the point I made in the introduction, the experience of Revolutionary Grenada helps the masses to think of socialism as a participatory cause which gives them a voice. This will likely inspire them to adopt it for themselves, and therefore hasten its arrival.