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Race versus class? More on the rainbow and class politics.


Collins' reply to my review of her book, The Rainbow Challenge, published in the June issue of Monthly Review, grants that "class is everywhere' (including in the U.S.) and that "class conflicts determine how racism and sexism appear and are reinforced in the U.S.' I am pleased that we have broadened our areas of agreement, and that we both agree that the Rainbow Coalition should not be a mere aggregate of multiclass social movements. I am also pleased that this exchange has given Collins an opportunity to further expand on the many critical points raised in her book, points that are of enormous importance for the current and future practices of the U.S. left.

We have, however, still some significant areas of disagreement. Collins puts forward in her reply, in a very articulate way, a position that is widely held among large sectors of our progressive forces, both within and outside the Rainbow Coalition, that I believe needs to be questioned. Collins, while granting that class is everywhere, disagrees that class struggle was the main engine of insurgencies in the 1960s. Class struggle, she argues, while the main motor of history prior to that period, somewhat lost its political currency during the 1960s. She adds that the engine for change did not come from industrial working class mobilization; the civil rights and other movements rebelled not solely or even primarily in class terms but in terms of status. This understanding of what happened in the 1960s leads Collins to stress the peculiarities of the U.S. scene, i.e. its exceptionalism. While class and class struggle define the overriding shifts of labor and capital around the world, in the U.S. the black/white axis defines the parameters of popular response to these power relations. She sees U.S. exceptionalism as rooted in the racial division within the working class and believes that workers in our country are more race than class conscious. Collins considers that the racism of the white workers is an important reason why the United States does not have a class based party. She therefore expresses some skepticism about my calls for a class based strategy for the National Rainbow Coalition. Black workers will not respond to these calls from white workers and vice versa, whites will not respond to black calls for class unity. Racism is considered to be the key problem in that lack of response. I hope I have summarized fairly Collins' arguments. On occasion I have paraphrased them quoting them almost verbatim.

Let me answer this analysis by stating right away that yes, racism is a plague that needs to be fought by all means. As a member of the second largest minority in this country, the Hispanic minority, I am fully aware of the nature of racism. Racism does weaken the working class in its daily struggle for a better world. But, if the United States does not have a socialist party, it is not because of racism among the U.S. working class. Whether the Rainbow succeeds or not will not depend primarily on the racism of the U.S. working class. In order to explain my position, let me go back to the arguments put forward by Collins and briefly outline, step by step, where we are disagreeing.

First, I don't believe that once there was a class struggle between the capitalist class on one side and the industrial working class on the other, a class struggle that got weaker in the 1960s due to the appearance of race struggles. Class struggle (and the class exploitation that explains it) is always there. It is an objective reality based on the nature of class societies. What varies are the focus and forms that class struggle takes. It may focus on work related issues or on community issues or on interpersonal relations, or many other issues. And the forms of its expression may vary from armed police repression to discrimination and other forms of domination by the dominating class and from armed struggle to sabotage or to plain passive resistance, and other forms of rebellion by the dominated class. The instruments used by the latter classes may be political parties and/or unions, and/or social movements and/or individual responses. Moreover, class conflicts appear not only between whole classes but between and among fractions of classes. (Of course, there are other classes beside the working class and the capitalist class that struggle in the pursuit of their interests as well.) Also, the working class is not limited to the industrial working class. There are other types of workers; the sanitation workers supported by Martin Luther King when he was killed were members of the U.S. working class.

Because of our different understanding of class struggle and the working class, Collins and I read the 1960s differently. In my view, the civil rights movement was part of the class struggle of the United States. Shortly before his assassination Martin Luther King indicated that, "We are engaged in the class struggle, the critical struggle in the U.S.' This realization did not make Dr. King a class reductionist. Political practice--always the best teacher--led him to fully comprehend that class struggle continues to be (not only in the world but also in the United States) the engine of history. The United States is not an exception.

Nor is racism unique to the U.S. working class. Racism exists in the working classes of the western world. Race, ethnic and gender divisions exist in other working classes outside the U.S. And countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and Canada have also been "immigrant' countries with their working classes divided into many ethnic and racial groups. All of them, however, have mass class based parties, i.e. social democratic, socialist, or communist parties.

I have lived and struggled in this and many other countries and I believe that too much is being written about the exceptionalism of the U.S. working class and its culture as the reason for the exceptionalism of U.S. society, i.e. the absence of a socialist party. I don't think we can understand the weakness of our working class by referring primarily to its racism, its ethnic variety, its immigrant status, or other factors. This focus of analysis, rooting the working class weakness in working class culture, behavior, or history, seems to replicate the "victim blaming' type of analysis. Since it is wrong to explain the situation of the poor by referring to the culture of poverty, it is also wrong to explain the lack of working class strength and the non-existence of a U.S. socialist party by referring to the racism or any other attribute of working class culture. In the same way that we reject an explanation of the oppression of blacks and women based on the characteristics of those social groups, we should also reject this type of explanation of working class weakness.

In reality the U.S. working class is weak because the U.S. capitalist class is enormously strong. It is the dominant class in the western world. Its power is exercised with all its brutality against the U.S. working class and in particular against the minorities within that class. It is important to understand that historically, socialist revolutions have occurred not where the working class was stronger (as in Germany) but rather where the capitalist class was weaker (as in Russia). The U.S. capitalist class is the strongest capitalist class in the world today. The U.S. working class is aware of this enormous strength of the U.S. capitalist class. In no other developed capitalist country are class struggle and labor relations as bloody as here. The U.S. working class is also aware of the overwhelming class dominance of the U.S. political institutions. This is why the majority of workers do not participate in the electoral process or in the political life of the nation. They do not feel that they can make any difference.

Collins refers to the problems in Chicago and Philadelphia where working class voters voted primarily according to race rather than class. Collins mentions these cases as evidence that racism is one of the most important handicaps to class behavior. Again, without minimizing the enormous importance of eradicating racism in all its forms, let's not forget that the major obstacle to class action in the U.S. is that the overwhelming majority of the working class in Chicago, in Philadelphia, and in the rest of U.S. cities does not participate in political life and does not vote. Less than 10% of the working class votes in city elections. And less than 35% vote in nationwide elections. Workers, who in other societies would vote for class based parties, here do not vote at all. They do not vote because they do not see the choices offered by Republicans or Democrats as responding to their interests, including class interests.

This is the greatest challenge for a progressive force such as the Rainbow Coalition: to mobilize the working class--the voting and nonvoting working class--and offer it a real choice, responding to its class interests. The working class will mobilize despite racism; other working classes, no less racist than ours, have been mobilized around class based instruments. To assume that there are no class based parties because the working class does not vote for them is to idealize the U.S. political system. Whatever happens or does not happen in the political system is not primarily the outcome of what the working class or popular masses want. The U.S. working class does not vote or mobilize around class based parties because they have very rarely been exposed to them. The dominance of the capitalist class is overwhelming. It is almost impossible for the class based parties to have mass access to our people. No other country in the western world so strongly represses socialist views.

The capitalist classes, however, (even the U.S. capitalist class) are not omnipotent. Today the U.S. capitalist class's dominance in the western world has been weakened most dramatically. Because of this weakening there is a possibility for the progressive forces to mobilize the working class. The enormous class mobilization of the 1930s, which crossed ethnic and racial lines, occurred at a time of weakness of the U.S. capitalist class, due to the crash of the economy. The lack of similar class mobilization afterwards was not because the U.S. working class became more racist or more divided. It was because the capitalist class was able to regain its power and become the dominant force in the western world.

The weakening of the capitalist class and the growing difficulties that this class faces open a rare opportunity, as in the 1930's, for popular class mobilizations. Collins is skeptical that workers will respond to class appeals. She feels that U.S. workers (unlike the workers in other capitalist countries) are more race than class conscious. Let's look at this critical point for a moment. I grant that the whole area of how to define class consciousness is a rather complex one. But we all may agree that part of that consciousness is class awareness, i.e. the ability of workers to identify themselves in class terms, understanding class as a relation of power (given by their position in the world of production) rather than as status (reflected in prestige, income, or positional level in a continuum within a social scale divided by rank). Vanneman and Cannon have recently shown that the majority of workers are aware that there are classes in the United States and that they belong to the dominated class, the U.S. working class. Black workers are even more likely to define themselves as members of the working class than white workers. But a majority of both black and white workers define themselves as members of the working class. (Actually there is a higher percentage of workers who define themselves as members of the working class in the United States than in Italy, France, Norway or Germany.) Class awareness is a first step in class consciousness.

Collins is skeptical that black workers will respond to class appeals by whites. But this is precisely what the sector of the black working class that votes has been doing for decades. Blacks have voted for white Democrats who have appealed to their class (beside race) interests by their populist calls which Democrats are known for making prior to the election, frequently to be forgotten afterwards. As to white workers responding to black appeals, one has to remember that the history of class struggle in the U.S. shows that there have been class mobilizations where workers of all races have sided against the bosses, with blacks taking the lead in those struggles. Even in the Chicago election to which Collins refers, the Chicago Federation of Labor, led by white workers, and most of the white-led unions, supported Harold Washington. Racism is indeed a problem, but it can be transcended by class interests and class mobilization. This explains why there is no other approach that the dominant class represses more than the stimulation of class consciousness within the dominated class.

For that to occur, the progressive forces must call upon the class interests of the majority of the U.S. population. In the struggle for those class interests, the white working class will discover that racism is an obstacle to the full development of their class interests. Whether the Rainbow Coalition will succeed or not will depend on whether we can address and mobilize the class interests of all workers; blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and all ethnic white groups; women and men; young and old. I believe it can be done.
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Author:Navarro, Vicente
Publication:Monthly Review
Date:Nov 1, 1987
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