[Marxism] Looking at the White Working Class Historically

James Daly james.irldaly at ntlworld.com
Mon Jul 3 05:34:00 MDT 2006


Looking at the White Working Class Historically
by David Gilbert

One of the supreme issues for our movement is summed-up in the 
contradictions of the term “white working class”. On one hand there is 
the class designation that should imply, along with all other workers 
of the world, a fundamental role in the overthrow of capitalism. On 
the other hand, there is the identification of being part of a 
 (“white”) oppressor nation.

Historically, we must admit that the identity with the oppressor 
nation has been primary. There have been times of fierce struggle 
around economic issues but precious little in the way of a 
revolutionary challenge to the system itself. There have been moments 
of uniting with Black and other Third World workers in union 
struggles, but more often than not an opposition to full equality and 
a disrespect for the self-determination of other oppressed peoples. 
These negative trends have been particularly pronounced within the 
current era of history (since WW2). White labor has been either a 
legal opposition within or an active component of the U.S. imperial 

There have been two basic responses to this reality by the white left. 
1) The main position by far has been opportunism. This has entailed an 
unwillingness to recognize the leading role within the U.S. of 
national liberation struggles, a failure to make the fight against 
white supremacy a conscious and prime element of all organizing, and, 
related to the above, a general lack of revolutionary combativeness 
against the imperial state. More specifically, opportunism either 
justifies the generally racist history of the white working class and 
our left or romanticizes that history by presenting it as much more 
anti-racist than reality merits. 2) Our own tendency, at its best 
moments, has recognized the leading role of national liberation and 
the essential position of solidarity to building any revolutionary 
consciousness among whites. We have often, however, fallen into an 
elitist or perhaps defeatist view that dismisses the possibility of 
organizing significant numbers of white people particularly working 
class whites.

There is very little analysis, and even less practice, that is both 
real about the nature and consciousness of the white working class and 
yet holds out the prospect of organizing a large number on a 
revolutionary basis. This fissure will not be joined by some magical 
leap of abstract thought – either by evoking classical theories of 
class or by lapsing into cultural or biological determinism. We must 
use our tools of analysis (materialism) to understand concretely how 
this contradiction developed (historically). But an historical view 
can not be static. In seeing how certain forces developed, we must 
also look (dialectically) at under what conditions and through what 
means the contradiction can be transformed.

In this review, I want to look at three historical studies that 
contribute to the needed discussion: 1) Ted Allen’s two essays in 
White Supremacy (a collection printed by Sojourner Truth 
Organization); 2) W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction (New York: 1933) 
3); J. Sakai, Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat 
(Chicago: 1983)


J. Daly 

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