The working class

Tom Condit tomcondit at igc.apc.org
Fri Sep 15 05:47:42 MDT 1995


I think that Rakesh has (as usual) cut to some of the real issues
involved in the MIM positions.  The basic problem is that MIM
uses a methodology on the question of class which is totally
inadequate.

Rakesh has pointed out that classes are defined by their relation
to the mode of production, which is to say, their relation to
other classes.  One commands the process of production, another
obeys. Still others may have a peripheral relationship to the
major class antagonisms.

In his preface to _The Making of the English Working Class_, E.
P. Thompson says:

"By class I understand a historical phenomenon, unifying a number
of disparate and seeming unconnected events, both in the raw
material of experience and in consciousness. I emphasise that is
an *historical* phenomenon. I do not see class as a 'structure',
nor even as a 'category', but as something which in fact happens
(and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships.

"More than this, the notion of class entails the notion of
historical relationship. Like any other relationship, it is a
fluency which evades analysis if we attempt to stop it dead at
any given moment and anatomize its structure. The finest-meshed
sociological net cannot give us a pure specimen of class, any
more than it can give us one of deference or of love. The
relationship must always be embodied in real people and in a real
context. Moreover, we cannot have two distinct classes, each with
an independent being, and bring them *into* relationship with
each other. We cannot have love without lovers, nor deference
without squires and labourers. And class happens when some men,
as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel,
and articulate the identity of their interests as between
themselves, and as against other men whose interests are
different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.  The class
experience is largely determined by the productive relations into
which men are born--or enter involuntarily. Class-consciousness
is the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural
terms: embodied in the traditions, value-systems, ideas and
institutional forms.  If the experience appears as determined,
class-consciousness does not.  We can see a *logic* in the
responses of similar occupational groups undergoing similar
experiences, but we cannot predicate any *law*.  Consciousness of
classes arises in the same way in different times and places, but
never in *just* the same way.

"There is today an ever-present temptation to suppose that class
is a thing.  This was not Marx's meaning, in his own historical
writing, yet the error vitiates much latter-day 'Marxist'
writing.  'It', the working class, is assumed to have a real
existence, which can be defined almost mathematically--so many
men who stand in a certain relationship to the means of
production.  Once this is assumed it becomes possible to deduce
the class-consciousness which 'it' ought to have (but seldom does
have) if 'it' was properly aware of its own position and real
interests.  There is a cultural superstructure, through which
this recognition dawns in inefficient ways.  These cultural
'lags' and distortions are a nuisance, so that it is easy pass
from this to some theory of substitution: the party, sect, or
theorist, who disclose class-consciousness, not as it is, but as
it ought to be."

(There follows a paragraph on bourgeois attempts to deny the
existence of class or to conclude that class exists, but the
problem is how to condition "'it' to accept its social role, and
how its grievances may best be 'handled and channelled'.")

"If we remember that class is a relationship, and not a thing, we
can not think in this way.  'It' does not exist, either to have
an ideal interest or consciousness, or to lie as a patient on the
Adjustor's table. ...

"... If we stop history at a given point, then there are no
classes but simply a multitude of individuals with a multitude of
experiences. But if we watch these men over an adequate period of
social change, we observe patterns in their relationships, their
ideas, and their institutions.  Class is defined by men as they
live their own history, and, in the end, this is its only
definition."

Now there are some problems with this definition (its archaic use
of "men" to denote all humans, for instance), but I think it's
an excellent starting point.  We can, and must attempt to "stop
history at a given point" to see what the state of the working
class is at that point, and the notion that we can't see any
objectively-existing "it" at that point is a little idealist.
Nevertheless, the whole notion of class as some sort of little
box into which you can shove people, or some giant mythological
figure, is fundamentally in error, and we have to realize that
just as a physicist can't tell us exactly where a particle is,
any class in modern society is constantly in motion.

Here's an example:  Snapshots of the textile industry at five,
ten or twenty-year intervals over the past three centuries show
"the textile workers" of every land as an ever-changing body of
men and women, in both geography and "national" composition.  The
United Electrical Workers just negotiated a new contract with a
firm in New Hampshire which has been making textile machinery in
the same building since 1827, but it's not the same textile
machinery, it's not being shipped to the same places from that
plant, and those who make it aren't necessarily linear
descendants of the workers of 1827 in a genealogical sense.  They
are, however, part of the same historic class and its traditions
are part of the strength which let them win the contract.

MIM say that they deny "the existence of a Euro-Amerikan
proletariat."  They are, of course, entirely right.   There is no
"Euro-Amerikan proletariat."  There is, however, a U.S. working
class.  Its members are Euro-Americans, Afro-Americans, Asian
Americans, Native Americans and people who are blends of two or
more of those categories.  Most of them speak English as their
primary language, but a very large number speak Spanish and
smaller groups speak French, Lakota, Dine', Chinese, Punjabi,
Arabic, Armenian, Korean, ....  If you look back one, two, three,
four, five generations, you'll see the same phenomenon, with the
details changing and the secondary languages being Polish, Serbo-
Croat, Greek, Jewish, Russian, Finnish, Japanese, ... .

Now this transformation of the working class is both externally
and internally driven.  The capitalists continually revamp,
change, transform, (pick your own word), the society they
control.  People around the world respond to this never-ending
wave of change by migration, changing jobs, learning new skills
and new languages.  Each time we build a center of strength, they
move to destroy it or to transform it for their own use, and we
must transform ourselves in response.  "There is a continual
movement of growth in productive forces, of destruction in social
relations, of formation in ideas; the only immutable thing is the
abstraction of movement--*mors immortalis*. (Karl Marx, _The
Poverty of Philosophy.)  (The Latin quote is from Lucretius:
"immortal death has taken away immortal life".)

I'm using U.S. examples, because that's what I know most about,
but similar things can be said about any "modern" nation (and not
a few "unmodern" ones).  MIM3 says, "it never ceases to amaze me
that people say 'Italian working class,' 'German working class,'
etc., but when it comes to saying 'Black working class' or
'Latino working class,' the multiracial integrationist/reformist
'Marxists' cry 'MIMerista revisionism'."  That is because when we
say "Italian working class" or "German working class," we don't
join the national chauvinists of those countries in denying that
the Greek, Yugoslav, Turkish, Portuguese or African workers in
those countries are also members of those working classes.  Does
MIM argue that there is a separate "Turkish working class" in
Germany?  What is its relation to the means of production as
distinct from, say, the "Vietnamese working class" in Germany? Do
we exclude its Irish members from the "English working class"?
Where is the process of division to end?

The MIM are hopelessly confusing "class" with "caste".  It is
quite true that stratification within the working class is in
many countries (and most notably in the U.S.) along the lines of
ethnicity, skin color, recentness of immigration, "previous
condition of servitude" and any number of historical anachronisms
or artifacts of modern capitalism.  This stratification and its
ideological justifications like racism and xenophobia have been
and continue to be one of the major problems facing working class
organizations of all types and viewpoints.  From the merely
technical (when the United Mine Workers struck the southern
Colorado coal fields circa 1914, they had to put out leaflet in
over a dozen languages--finding people to write the Korean one
was a particular problem) to the disastrous (lynchings, mass use
of scabs of one group against another, etc.).

So long as we fight purely defensive battles, there is a tendency
or pressure for each segment of the working class to cling to
"its" jobs, a la craft unionism.  This isn't just confined to
"native" national-chauvinists.  For a long time, you had to be
Italian or Jewish to work as a union house painter or a garment
cutter in New York or New Jersey, and Yiddish lasted long past
its time as a language of resistance to Anglo capitalists and at
the same time a language of exclusion against, for instance,
Puerto Ricans (who at the same time were criticized by some for
their poor English).

In the early 1960s, a British Conservative member of parliament
named Enoch Powell organized an anti-immigrant march in London
which included in its ranks many dockworkers, who has been long
noted as the most militant of London workers.  Mick Jagger (yes,
of the Rolling Stones) made a very perceptive comment about this
phenomenon.  The dock communities, he pointed out, had been
forged in struggle against outside forces--the employers and the
state--and this struggle had spanned generations.  That total
community resistance to "outsiders" had been their greatest
strength, but it could also be turned against "outsiders" from
other countries.  (Powell later tired of playing the race card in
England, and moved to Northern Ireland to play the religion card
instead.)

All of these problems are intensified in the late 20th century.
As capitalism becomes more and more global in all its aspects, we
see our enemy become increasingly unified as a single world class
which speaks only one language: profit.  Workers of every nation
are bound together in an increasingly unified process of
production.  So long as we remain within our borders of nation,
language, religion, skin color, etc., in organizing our movements
of resistance, that binding together will take the form of one
great global chain gang. We are all "outsiders" in the new post-
human society, unless we band together to create our own
"inside".

Tom Condit


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