[Marxism] Working class consciousness

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jun 10 07:45:57 MDT 2004

Workers are always radicalizing, more so during a period of general 
political ferment like during the 1960s. The question is what type of 
organization can fully utilize their talents. My own organization, the 
SWP, had an uncanny knack for driving them off.

When I was in Boston in 1971, a young guy with a pony tail named John 
McNamara with a brogue wider than the Grand Canyon had joined the Young 
Socialist Alliance, our youth group. John was a longshoreman who must 
have felt ill-at-ease in YSA meetings, which were consumed with 
discussions about how to deal with SDS at Harvard, etc. At our national 
gathering at Oberlin that year, I ran into him in the lobby of the 
Student Union sitting with two large books, one opened up in his 
hands--the other face down on his knees. What's that, I asked him. "Oh, 
I'm reading Capital, volume one (the open book). The other is a 
dictionary because I'm having trouble with a lot of the words." John was 
a high-school drop out.

Within 3 months, John had left the movement. When his name first came up 
for "promotion" into the SWP (the YSA was a kind of testing ground for 
separating out the wheat from the chaff), the local executive committee 
decided that he wasn't suitable material. He didn't seem "hard" enough 
politically and wouldn't take assignments. In other words, he didn't fit 
into sect life. I imagine that there were literally tens of thousands of 
John McNamaras all around the USA in those days. They were squandered, 
just as people like myself were squandered as we were "hardened" 
politically and all too eager to take assignments, such as transferring 
to a new city every two years or so until advancing years caught up with us.

Last weekend I put my mother into a nursing home. Over the past four 
years, her health and her ability to make judgments about money, etc. 
has been fading. For the past year, she was fortunate to have Ralph 
living in the house with her. Ralph is a 45 year old plumber, who was 
seriously injured in an industrial accident a few years ago. He is 
trying to get his feet on the ground as well, so the move into my 
mother's house was beneficial to him as well. Ralph is a member of the 
Green Party and ran for some obscure local office a while back. He 
regards my mother's vast store of Zionist pamphlets and books as little 
better than "hate literature". Last weekend we were discussing the 
prospects of getting a TV into her room at the nursing home. He said 
that he would bring one down from Brooklyn, where he originally came 
from. It had a VCR built in. He bought it, it turned out, to make it 
easy to show videos about the Gulf War, depleted uranium shells, etc.

Coming back on the train from Connecticut over the May Day weekend and 
Mike Alewitz's fundraiser, I sat next to 3 young guys who appeared to be 
UPS workers. Their conversation began with mundane matters about work 
schedules, pay, promotion possibilities, etc. Then they started talking 
about the Red Sox. In other words, they seemed to be regular working 
folks. But somewhere along the line after they began discussing movies, 
Michael Moore's "Bowling for Colombine" came up, which one of the 
workers strongly recommended to the others. That led into a discussion 
about US foreign policy, Iraq, the Middle East and imperialism (without 
actually using the term specifically.) These were people far to the left 
of Howard Dean, not to speak of the wretched John Kerry. The question 
again is what kind of *movement* might appeal to them. I think it is far 
more likely that they would get involved with the Green Party than any sect.

Such people face an entirely different situation than during the classic 
period of working class radicalization, when the workplace, the trade 
unions and working class housing in the inner city formed a kind of 
political/geographical nexus that fed into each other. If you read Sol 
Dollinger's "Not Automatic", a study of the Flint sit-down strikes in 
the late 1930s, you get a sense of what that life was like:

"A considerable amount of preparatory work was done before the strike by 
radical parties. We had several very active organizations in Flint and 
Detroit: the Communist Party, the Proletarian Party, the Socialist 
Party, the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World. with 
the exception of the Communist Party, we all had our headquarters in the 
Pengelly Building, a very old building that became the strike 
headquarters of the whole United Automobile Workers Union Flint. Even as 
the strike was going on, we still had our rooms on the second floor, 
while the main activities in the auditorium were on third floor. Two 
years before the strike broke out, the Socialist Party in Flint 
organized the League for Industrial Democracy (LID). We held meetings in 
garages and in basements, secret meetings, so the people wouldn’t get 
caught and beaten up.

"As we got bigger, the Socialist Party started sending us their speakers 
from New York. Many of them were from the Brookwood Labor College. We 
put out leaflets and sold tickets for these meetings, which were held in 
the basement of the biggest Methodist church and in the Masonic Temple. 
We held lectures in socialism mainly, plus labor history and current 
events, focusing on what was happening politically Those were very 
popular meetings. We would get three and four hundred people at some of 
our meetings."

full: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/labor/not_automatic.htm

Sooner or later, objective conditions in the USA will impel the average 
working person to catch up politically to Ralph or the UPS workers on 
the train. It will take a lot of thinking outside the box to develop 
organizational and political forms that are appropriate to their 
consciousness and to the conditions of life (especially the geographical 
dispersion of suburbia). This may or may not include the AFL-CIO trade 
unions, which have become utterly corrupt and class-collaborationist. I 
would hope that Marxmail can serve as a forum for the development of 
such forms rather than being an outlet for the recitation of stale formulae.


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