How Class Should Be Central

A strategic focus on uniting the working class doesn’t mean marginalizing the struggle against racism and sexism.

An Arizona teacher holds up a sign in front of the State Capitol during a #REDforED rally on April 26, 2018 in Phoenix, AZ. Ralph Freso / Getty

Socialists don’t really care about racism and sexism — at least, that’s what establishment Democrats and liberal pundits would have us believe.

For daring to highlight class inequality, Bernie Sanders and his supporters since 2016 have been widely accused of ignoring women, people of color, and other marginalized groups. As journalist Michael Arceneaux declared in the Guardian, “if Sanders’ insistence on moving past ‘identity politics’ is the next step in his revolution, may it suffer even more defeat than it did in the primary.”

This line of attack is hard to square with Sanders’s decades-long track record as a legislator and activist. But it also raises a broader question: does a strategic focus on class really require sidelining the fight against racial and gender oppression? If not, what exactly should a class-centered strategy mean today for the kind of demands socialists should emphasize? And where should we focus our organizing efforts?

Focusing on class doesn’t require shunting aside race or gender. Rather, it means that we put the fight to unite workers as a class at the heart of our strategy for ending oppression and achieving democratic socialism.

Class Centrality

The first thing to mention here is what we mean by “working class.” Far from being limited to white guys in hard hats, the working class makes up the majority of the United States — well over 60 percent, according to most estimates. The working class consists of everyone whose survival depends on wage labor, including people of all races, genders, sexual orientations, and immigration statuses.

Capitalists are able to dominate society because they exploit these wage workers, who produce profits. Employers are dependent on working people. This is key, because it means we have the potential power to stop production — the thing that bosses care most about, because it’s how they get profits — and even overturn the system. Lise Vogel put it this way in her 1983 book Marxism and the Oppression of Women: “class struggle over conditions of production represents the central dynamic of social development in societies characterized by exploitation.”

Though workers experience a wide range of social oppressions, the structural position of workers is different from other subordinate social groups. Wage exploitation means that the interests of the whole working class and the capitalist class are diametrically opposed. The more money you make as a worker, the less your boss does — and vice versa. In contrast, other subordinate groups — women, people of color, queer people — include people both within the capitalist class and the working class, meaning that they can have different class interests.

At the same time, the dynamics of capitalist accumulation and competition pit individual workers against each other in the struggle to find a job, secure housing, and keep their families afloat. This leads to unjust stratifications among working people — by race, nationality, and other divisions — that make it easier for bosses to turn a profit and more difficult for workers to collectively fight for their common interests. These social divisions, in turn, lay the basis for reactionary ideologies.

From this understanding of social class, it follows that, to be politically effective in challenging capitalism, we need to unify working people against their exploiters. But this can’t be done if we ignore race and gender.

A Strategic Approach

It’s necessary to fight both class exploitation and social oppression. But how can this be done successfully? For decades, the Left’s prevailing approach has been a “movement of movements” which rejects “privileging” any type of struggle over another. Since organized labor has been in retreat for so long, it’s understandable why activists adopted this orientation. But it elides the key question of how we can most effectively fight class, racial, and gender domination.

If every struggle and demand were an equally compelling place for activists to focus our energies, there would be no need for political prioritization and therefore no need for strategy. But time and resources are finite. Fortunately, the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign and the first strike wave in forty years have prompted many radicals to start reconsidering how and where we can concentrate our energy and forces.

To generate power, we need to mobilize and organize the widest layer of workers possible. And, as every organizer quickly learns, it’s much easier to mobilize people around those issues that they already feel strongly about — and that they feel directly affect them. These two insights should serve as our starting point when we consider what demands to focus on at a given time and place.

In general, socialists can be most effective by emphasizing struggles around class-wide demands, policies that directly benefit all or most of the working class (in a given area or industry) at the expense of the capitalist class. That’s why Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez talk about broad issues like Medicare for All so much, and why the recent teachers’ strikes focused on better pay (which would benefit all education workers) and school funding (which would benefit their state’s working-class majority).

Class-wide demands best reveal the conflict inherent in capitalism between the exploited majority (workers) and the exploiting minority (capitalists), while bringing together the diverse layers of working people into common class organizations. A fancier way of saying this is that such struggles help to advance the working class as an independent political subject — basically, these fights bring workers together to fight for themselves and other workers like them, against the bosses.

Fighting around broad class-wide issues doesn’t mean ignoring the interests of women, people of color, or other oppressed people. Civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr and A. Phillip Randolph insisted that the movement should fight for redistributive reforms to undermine the “fearful competition for scarce resources” between workers, eliminate “one of the material bases of racism,” and strengthen a “sense of interracial solidarity.”

In fact, winning these demands would disproportionately benefit marginalized groups. Better schools and free universal health care, for example, particularly benefit women, since such gains lighten their household labor in raising children and caring for family members.

That so-called “race-blind” demands would especially help people of color has been eloquently argued by Briahna Gray. As she notes, “health care is not a peripheral issue, but an existential one for black Americans. The reason it’s not perceived as a ‘person of color issue’ is a matter of marketing, not substance.”

Finally, fighting for such class-wide demands must be an essential component of any effective strategy to defeat the racist far right. In his piece on the lessons of Charlottesville, Robert Green II explains that,

We cannot simply react to Trump or the “alt-right.” Being proactive, advancing a clear program that can mobilize and galvanize a huge swath of the public — this must be the hallmark of the American left . . . [which] offers people a politics not of scapegoating or austerity but universal health care and democratic agency. Historically, it’s been the most potent antidote to the far right.

Fighting Oppression

Class-wide demands are necessary. But they’re also insufficient. Even when they are inclusionary of all — which hasn’t always been the case in US history — they can’t on their own end the inequalities that exist within the working class and society at large.

That’s why we also have to fight for demands that only directly benefit smaller sections of the working class, such as trans rights and an end to deportations. And we should distinguish between these two types of demands even if winning policies for minority groups would indirectly benefit the whole working class, for example by undercutting conservative ideas that tie working people to the Right.

On an electoral level, the popular campaigns of socialist candidates like Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, and Jovanka Beckles have shown how a focus on broad working-class issues like health care, education, and jobs can be effectively combined with more specific demands like abolishing ICE or ending cash bail.

And at given moments or even extended periods like the Civil Rights movement, struggles against the oppression of minorities can become central to political life. Recently, protests for immigrant rights, women’s rights, and against police murders of black people have radicalized millions of people, many of whom can be won to socialist politics. For both strategic and moral reasons, socialists have to participate in these struggles and help push them in the direction of independent mass action.

Of course, it’s not always easy in practice to find the most effective way to center class-wide demands while also supporting fights against more particular instances of oppression. Every individual and every organization, no matter their political persuasion, has to choose where to focus; nobody can fight for every progressive demand or participate in every social struggle at every moment. The art of socialist politics consists of developing a concrete analysis of a concrete situation in order to wager how and where we can mostly effectively push the class struggle forward.

Unfortunately, most Left discussions on identity and class take place at a high level of abstraction. They don’t address the nitty-gritty of how to organize in specific cities, industries, or movements at a particular moment in time.

Effective tactics, however, are always context-specific. There’s no simple formula for success. Often, socialists bend the stick too far in one direction or the other. But without a strategy based on class centrality, the Left will keep bending to the prevailing political winds.

Class remains the great taboo in mainstream US political life. Liberal nonprofits promote all sorts of positive demands that do little to cohere workers as a united and independent force or to challenge capitalists’ political and economic interests. Likewise, the Democratic Party talks a lot about fighting racism, sexism, and environmental degradation, but it remains conspicuously silent when it comes to fighting class exploitation.

As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor notes, the

major difference between life in cities like Baltimore today and fifty years ago is not only the existence of a black political stratum that governs and manages much of black America, but also the ways this powerful black political class helps to deflect a serious interrogation of structural inequality and institutional racism.

And though it’s true that racism and sexism have the worst impact on working-class people, it’s also the case that most non-workplace struggles against oppression are cross-class in nature. So to build a movement that can tackle these oppressions at their root, socialists have to help polarize society along class lines by demonstrating the shared interests of the whole working class and work toward building independent class organizations.

A Workplace Focus

An effective socialist strategy requires that we not only mobilize and organize the widest layer of workers possible, but that we do so in structural locations that can best leverage our social power. In other words, where we focus our efforts is no less strategically important than what demands we focus on winning.

The workplace is the primary, but certainly not exclusive, strategic site of class struggle, because it’s where working people have the most potential power. As Rosa Luxemburg put it: “Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there must the chains be broken.”

For the first century of its existence, the international left focused on cohering the working class as an independent and united force against capitalism. But with the bureaucratization of the labor movement and the rise of new social movements, this approach fell out of favor. Unfortunately, most radical activists today treat the labor movement as, at best, just one good movement among a dozen others.

Struggles since the 1960s have scored many important victories for the rights of women, people of color, queer people, and other marginalized groups. But none have come close to the social weight of organized labor at its height, when it was able to win the modern welfare state and a significant degree of workplace democracy through mass organizing and militant strikes.

Without a strong labor movement that can challenge capital and the state, organized radicals have remained relatively marginal — and movements against oppression and environmental devastation have been unable to generate the social strength necessary to reverse the neoliberal tide. That’s why we need to prioritize building power at the workplace, the site in society where workers can potentially exert their greatest leverage.

Labor strategist Jane McAlevey put it well in a discussion about the strike wave of (predominantly female) teachers across the US:

the reason they won these gains is that they focused on the workplace, they withdrew their labor, and they created a crisis. There’s just no better way to create a crisis than a 100 percent withdrawal of labor. Capitalists have been creating crises for working people for decades — what strikes do is that they reverse who is creating a crisis for who.

This holds true in the public sector, even though its employees don’t directly produce profits. By shutting down essential services necessary for conducting everyday life like schools and transportation, public employees can win their demands while garnering broad public support.

Acknowledging that strikes are our most powerful weapon doesn’t require that socialists ignore oppression. As seen in the recent walkouts against discrimination and harassment at McDonald’s and Google, dominated groups have a particular power at work to effectively fight around these burning issues. Racial and gender domination are reproduced in the workplace through wage differentials, the exclusion of people of color and women from certain jobs, sexual and racial harassment at work, and the absence of sufficient employer-provided childcare and eldercare (reproductive activities that working-class women are often expected to undertake without compensation). Without challenging and overcoming these internal divisions, it will not be possible to build a truly unified working-class movement.

That said, building unity is easier said than done. Since workers are constantly stratified and pitted against each other by capitalism and its apologists, socialists must make it very clear that we support the interests and demands of all working people, not just its relatively advantaged layers.

Labor organizing can also serve as the social base for demands outside the workplace. Hip-hop artist, activist, and Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley, in a recent interview on Democracy Now, argued that “campaigns against police brutality may become more effective once other parts of our movement also grow and where . . . we have some leverage.” Noting that the Left and social movements are “not putting out a clear analysis of how power works,” Riley specifically pointed to the potential for labor strikes to force the state to indict killer cops.

Indeed, there are many precedents for mass strikes on behalf of particularly oppressed sectors of the population. In 2006, for example, millions of undocumented workers and their supporters took off work in a de facto general strike that effectively forced the Republicans to drop their reactionary anti-immigrant bill.

Of course, the workplace isn’t the only site of class struggle. While strong workplace organization is necessary for building an effective socialist movement, it definitely isn’t sufficient. Often, the level of trade union organization is too weak, or the policy of the union leadership too timid, for working people and oppressed groups to see the labor movement as a viable vehicle to express their demands.

So while we should prioritize rebuilding a militant workers’ movement that fights for all the oppressed, it would be deeply misguided to abstain from social movement struggles outside the workplace — for example, mass demonstrations for immigrant rights, rent control, reproductive justice, or against police brutality.

A Strategy to Win

Past experience bears out how shop-floor militancy can become the central political lever of a much broader social upsurge. For instance, bread riots, mostly led by women, played a central role in catalyzing the French and Russian Revolutions. The same was true in the recent Arab Spring uprisings. But, like Russia in February 1917, these riots erupted in a context marked by rising labor militancy. And it was only once the movements in Egypt and, particularly, Tunisia culminated in mass strikes that working people were able to topple the hated regimes.

While the Left’s prevailing approach takes the current focus on non-workplace organizing as a positive development, we should aim to shift the struggle toward the arena and organizations where working people have the most potential power. A “movement of movements” stance, in other words, entails a strategic adaptation to the disunity and weakness of the working-class movement, rather than a perspective capable of overcoming these limitations.

A final point: in capitalist democracies like the US, electoral battles will likely continue to be the single most important site of class struggle outside the workplace. Whether we like it or not, most people’s only source of engagement with politics is the electoral arena. To build a working-class movement of millions, we can’t afford to underestimate the political importance of election campaigns, which often are the first step for people to get involved in organizing and mass struggles.

Neal Meyer and Ben Beckett put it well in their recent article “The Case for Bernie 2020”:

The best electoral hope we have right now to raise the class consciousness of millions of people is once more through a Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. His platform of ending austerity, passing Medicare for All, raising the minimum wage, expanding Social Security, and making public colleges tuition free will speak to the needs of working-class people. His plans to tackle mass incarceration, end cash bail, protect immigrants regardless of their status, and combat climate change speak to and help frame the growing movements to end state repression and the trashing of the environment . . .

What matters in a period like ours, when we can’t reasonably expect the socialist movement to take state power, is moving people from resignation into action around the issues they care about right now. In the process, we need to raise awareness that even winning immediate demands like Medicare for All will take a confrontation with the capitalist class. When millions share that common understanding, then opportunities for deeper and more radical challenges to the system will become possible — particularly if there is a strong socialist left contesting elections and organizing in unions and mass movements.

When it comes to political strategy, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel: the best path forward for socialists is to put class at the center of our strategy. Properly understood, this approach includes raising demands and supporting concrete struggles that address the specific oppression of people of color, women, and all groups dominated by capitalism. This remains the most effective way to rebuild a powerful working-class movement and to win a democratic socialist society free of exploitation and oppression.

End Mark

About the Author

Eric Blanc writes on labor movements past and present. Formerly a high school teacher in the Bay Area, he is a doctoral student in the sociology department at New York University.

Jeremy Gong is on the National Political Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America. He lives in Berkeley, California.

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