Back to Class

Back to Class

Sit-down strikers in the Fisher plant, Flint, Michigan, 1937 (Library of Congress)

Given the radical diversity of American society today, is it still possible to imagine large-scale popular insurgencies—like, say, the labor movement of the 1930s? In recent years, the politically significant and effective insurgencies in the United States have all been particularist in character, reflecting the politics of difference: the key examples are the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and the movement for gay rights. Each of these has been victorious—or, better, each of them has been a partial success, like all our successes. They leave a lot of work still to be done (as the militants of Black Lives Matter can tell us), but, still, we have won important battles on behalf of women and black and gay Americans. And the United States has become, with regard to each of these groups, a more egalitarian society than it once was. At the same time, however, with regard to the overall population of the country, we have become less egalitarian, more radically hierarchical. Inequality has grown in the very years in which we were winning greater equality for particular groups of Americans—and despite the fact that these are very large groups. Significant numbers of women and black and gay Americans have moved up the social hierarchy, but the hierarchy has gotten steeper.

The same kind of particularist politics is visible in many other places: the defense of indigenous rights in Latin America, the defense of the Roma in Europe, the defense of women and girls in states where traditional religions are dominant (and in other states too), the defense of national minorities and new immigrants. All these political struggles are important and even urgent, but I think it is fair to say that all of them can be won (again, in the incomplete way in which all leftist victories are won) without overcoming the existing social and economic hierarchies. Some of us imagined that the sum of all the particular victories would be a society of equals, but that no longer looks likely. Nor is there any sign of these different movements coming together as Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal, and Hilary Wainwright argued that they would (or could) in Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism.

In fact, these fragmentary and particularist victories may actually serve to legitimate the growing inequality. As Nelson Lichtenstein wrote in the last issue of Dissent, “corporations and even some elements of the GOP” court these new social movements, realizing, I think, that accommodating them, and opening opportunities for (some of) the people they serve, makes the established order look better; economic inequality seems more acceptable insofar as it is disconnected, even only a little bit, from race, gender, and sexuality. And some of these movements, as Lichtenstein also says, “shift to the center” as they are accommodated. Their members benefit in ways that we all have to welcome, but there is no halt and no real challenge to the inegalitarian drift of our society.

It is this disturbing fact that has led to a revival of Marxism among young leftists (and a few not-so-young leftists) in recent years. Marxists were wrong, long ago, when they argued against the particularist struggles—against feminist agitation, for example. They told the feminists, they told all of us, that we should focus our energies on the working class revolution, because that revolution would take care of everyone’s problems all at once. Women, black and gay Americans, indigenous peoples, immigrants, religious and ethnic minorities, and all the rest of us, would be liberated together. But none of these groups wanted to wait. Waiting for the revolution seemed like waiting for the messiah—fewer and fewer people really believed in the Coming. Each of the particular movements was founded by people who felt the urgency of their own oppression—and demanded change in their own name, for themselves. And they were right. The particularist movements were and still are necessary and important. So each of the movements described in the last issue of Dissent deserves our support; their victories will make life better for people who need, right now, a better life. But, again, their victories will not produce an egalitarian society.

It is time to think about class. The insurgencies we most need today are the insurgencies of large numbers—people without money, or without enough money; people without jobs or with jobs that barely support them; people who are frighteningly vulnerable to the smallest economic downturn, who live on the edge of destitution; people whose children are taught in overcrowded and understaffed schools, who are served or, more likely, not served by defunded welfare agencies, who live in decaying cities or in rural isolation, who die before their time. And these people are not distinguished by their gender, or their nationality, or their religion, not even by their race. They are, so to speak, naturally diverse.

They are so diverse that they don’t, right now, constitute a social class in the Marxist sense; they have nothing like the cohesion produced by nineteenth-century factories and slums. That’s why the militants of Occupy didn’t talk the language of class. The idea of the one percent and the 99 percent is not an example of Marxist analysis. It is a populist appeal, and it may be politically useful, but we should always be wary of populism, for it isn’t a sustainable politics, it doesn’t change the world, and it is available to the right as much as to the left. The work of building a movement has got to be more focused. It has to be the work of people who are beginning to recognize that the economic threats they live under and their everyday economic difficulties are not theirs alone but are widely shared. If that recognition doesn’t develop, if there is no class in formation, we won’t get the insurgencies we need.

Right now, it doesn’t look as if we are going to get the insurgencies we need. It ought to be the labor movement, the existing unions, that reach out to the kinds of people I have just described, and more and more union leaders and members recognize that task as their own. They have moved to the left, as Lichtenstein argued. But it’s not clear that the people who need to be organized—unemployed men and women, part-time workers, highly vulnerable workers with no protection against the arbitrary power of the companies they work for—can be organized in the same way that, say, auto workers were organized years ago. “Organizing in the traditional sense has become nearly impossible” (Lichtenstein again). Campaigns at the margins, like Justice for Janitors, are heartening, but they don’t mobilize a lot of people. Raising the minimum wage is a good thing to do, and the series of city-wide campaigns are, again, heartening, but what happens once the raise is won? What kind of organizations will be left behind that can bring workers together and hold them together for other, more difficult, campaigns?

If there is to be a new worker insurgency, there has to be first, I think, a new New Deal, a new Wagner Act, a radically reformed National Labor Relations Board. I once thought that action from below necessarily precedes state action—that’s what Marxism taught. But the men and women “below” these days are more radically disorganized and more radically deprived of political power than anytime in my lifetime—and the union movement is at its lowest ebb. The same corporations and politicians who are prepared to accommodate, say, gay rights, are determined to destroy unions, and they have been given the legal power to do that by right-wing political victories, especially at the state level, and by the decisions of right-wing judges appointed by triumphant right-wing politicians.

Until those political victories are reversed, I don’t see how there can be an insurgency from below—at least nothing of a sufficiently large-scale to make a difference. The required jolt has to come from somewhere else, from political campaigns and legislative enactments. Some Democratic politician has to catch on to the fact (I think it is a fact) that there is a new majority waiting to be born. It won’t be the 99 percent but it could be well over 50 percent: Americans in trouble or too close to trouble for comfort. Elections can be won if these people are drawn into the electorate. And the way to draw them in is to establish a legal framework that makes their mobilization possible.

But how does this imaginary Democrat win an election before the legal framework is established and the majority mobilized? I don’t think that there is a Marxist answer to that question. But in America today, it is probably easier to organize for political power than for economic power, easier to win a national election than a union election. So that’s the victory we have to figure out some way to win. There are many politicians today who are more than willing to represent the ruling class; we need a few politicians brave enough to represent Americans in trouble—the working class in itself, but not yet for itself.


Michael Walzer is editor emeritus at Dissent. Parts of this article previously appeared in the Italian magazine Reset.

This article is part of  Dissent’s special issue of Arguments on the Left. To read more arguments in the issue, click here.

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