A recent Jacobin piece by Chris Maisano argues that building “a Left that matters” requires focusing on Democratic Party electoral work, but we must be clear about the consequence of such an orientation: a middle-class Left that remains disconnected from the proletariat and abandons the fundamentals of Marxism. By Jacque Erie.
While the majority of Biden Our Time, Jacobin’s 40th issue, is dedicated to a devastating critique of the Democratic Party, it is nonetheless headlined by an article in which Chris Maisano argues that electoral work within the party is the only pragmatic avenue for the emerging American socialist movement.1 While most of the issue focuses on the ever worsening, decades-long process in which the Democrats have alienated working-class voters and shifted their base to the middle classes, Maisano nonetheless argues that a focus on electoral efforts within this ever-more middle-class Party remains the only realistic path to achieving “class formation” in the United States. A rhetorical style which has long characterized Jacobin‘s increasingly desperate pleas that the socialist movement remain focused on winning Democratic Party primaries.2
However, Maisano never clarifies why electoral interventions amongst the Democratic Party’s middle-class base will help us build a proletarian socialist movement. In fact, it has only become increasingly obvious that the Jacobin editorial staff’s preferred strategy has not contributed to proletarian class formation, but rather is producing a Left with a diffuse class character. Instead of reckoning with the strategic questions this should raise, Maisano has taken a different tact: papering over class divisions and redefining the traditional base of Marxist politics so as to include the middle strata.
Maisano begins his piece by outlining a goal for the young American Left: “class formation,” a process whereby socialists can facilitate the emergence of a “collective [class] identity among a mass of individual people.”3 Maisano makes two contentions about an effective strategy to achieve class formation in the contemporary context. First, that it should focus on electoral work, something he contrasts to strategies which prioritize base-building or trying to transform the labor movement, and second, that this electoral work should take place on the Democratic Party ballot line for the foreseeable future.
He contends we need to focus on electoral work because “the decline of organized labor, coupled with the widespread disintegration of working-class community life, means that only a relatively small minority of workers are currently situated to take part in effective forms of collective action on the job or in their communities.”4 Consequently, there are “few channels outside of election campaigns to engage and politicize a mass audience on a regular basis.”5 While he motions to the idea that socialists must “continue working to transform the existing labor movement,” he views such efforts as a secondary priority under current conditions, arguing that such efforts will “generally impact a smaller number of workers [than electoral campaigns] and will ultimately flourish in conjunction with continued class formation at the level of electoral politics.”6 Further, he argues that these class cohering electoral campaigns need to take place on the Democratic party ballot line by pointing to “the political developments of the last few years,” by which he means the campaigns of Sanders, AOC, et al. and the ostensibly positive effects these have had on class formation.7
In summary, the basic structure of Maisano’s argument proceeds thusly: a) Socialists need to achieve class formation, i.e. cohere a base which has adopted a collective [class] identity b) the disintegration of working-class community and workplace institutions means that a focus on electoral politics is the best way to achieve this c) contemporary political developments show that Democratic Party primary campaigns are the most immediately fruitful avenue for facilitating class formation.
Each step in Maisano’s argument is built on unsound premises. We will first address the shortcomings of his understanding of class formation and how his faulty recommendation that we focus on electoral politics relates to these misconceptions. Second, we will explain the shortcomings of the electoral system as a means for achieving class formation. Third, we will critically examine Maisano’s claim that his approach has been proven correct in practice by recent political events. Fourth, it will be shown that Maisano’s orientation has led him in the direction of abandoning the fundamental postulate of Marxism—i.e. that an organized proletarian movement is the only agent which can bring about socialism—through an examination of how his strategic proposals relate to those of the post-Marxist Göran Therborn. Finally, an alternative strategy to achieving class formation, that of creating class-independent, proletarian workplace and community organizations, will be defended from Maisano’s objections.
In his 2019 Socialist Call piece, Maisano approvingly quotes Vivek Chibber to the effect that “class consciousness is the consequence of class organization.”8 This is indeed the case, but to understand the shortcomings of Maisano’s proposed route to class formation it will be useful to understand why.
To begin, “the proletariat is the working-class peculiar to the capitalist relations of production … It consists of workers whose livelihood depends on a wage relationship with employers of labor power, and who therefore produce surplus value in the process of commodity production.”9 The proletariat’s need to self-organize stems from its separation from the means of production and the consequent need to sell its labor power and purchase the necessities of life on the market.
The inherent claim of private-property relations is that the area of economic life in which proletarians earn their living and reproduce themselves be placed under the unilateral authority of capital. This arrangement fails to satisfy proletarians’ economic and social needs, so the inherent claim of an organized proletariat is to aim at various forms of collective social control over (re)production. While proletarian organizations aim to win ever-greater degrees of collective control over economic life, it is in the nature of capital to continuously seek to destroy even the most partial and distorted forms of popular control in its quest to extract maximal surplus value. The basic opposition between an organized proletariat’s demand for collective social responsibility and capital’s demand for private control and appropriation represents an explosive social contradiction which gives rise to class conflict. This social conflict reflects capitalism’s primary contradiction i.e. that between increasingly social production and continued private appropriation.10
Unsurprisingly then, the proletariat’s outstanding capacity for organization is a by-product of its role in social production. The first people to teach the workers organization are not communists, nor union militants, but rather the capitalists themselves. Capitalist production expounds the need for discipline, it enforces centralized effort, it glorifies the benefits of combined labor and the subordination of individual self-interest to the needs of the enterprise; meanwhile it subjects the same group being trained to think and act collectively to simultaneous and shared resentments.11 As Marx wrote in the Holy Family:
Not in vain does [the proletariat] go through the stern but steeling school of labor. It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do.12
It is only natural for proletarians who have passed through the ‘school of labor’ to say to the capitalists: “We will take the lessons you taught us but use them to achieve our aspirations not yours.”
Thus, proletarians aim to replace capitalist bureaucratic discipline with proletarian democratic centralism, centralized efforts commanded by managers with joint struggles directed by the collective, mandatory subordination of the individual to the enterprise with voluntary acquiescence to the group needs of the class. In a word, they organize.
The lessons of organized collective discipline are not taught equally to all layers of the class. The more highly developed the division of labor, the more individual labor is devalued and combined labor glorified; the more closely work is monitored and directed by management, the more discipline is learned; the more homogenous the workforce and the greater the distance separating them from the owners of the enterprise, the more developed and apparent the antagonism between them; the larger the number of workers in a workplace and the more central they are to production, the greater their social power and the more they feel this power. The layer of the proletariat whose labor most meets these criteria, and who thus have the greatest capacity for organization, are those in large capital-intensive workplaces. Thus, for Marx, “the proletarians created by big industry assume leadership of [the] movement and carry the whole mass along with them.”13
Concretely, those engaged in relatively poorly paid and ‘low-skilled’ manual work will predominate amongst this layer: manufacturing, meatpacking, or telecommunications operatives, resource extraction, transportation, and logistics workers, employees of large retail stores, grocery chains, hotels, casinos, etc.
When these proletarians are organized in genuinely class-independent institutions they aim to protect and enhance their conditions of life through struggles for higher wages, better working conditions, shorter working hours, and more control over the production process. Whether or not such struggles are articulated as such, at their core is a demand that collective social responsibility take precedent over private profits and property rights. However, in aiming to defend and enhance their conditions of life proletarians come into conflict with capital, or more precisely with its personifications in the bourgeoisie, their agents, and their state, all of whom are unwilling to tolerate these demands. This provides them with powerful experiences which illuminate their social position in capitalist society.
Thus, when proletarians are organized and engaged in struggle, their class interest in collective social responsibility comes to the fore and the obstacles to their economic and social aspirations come into focus. The recognition of collective class interests and collective class enemies begins to take precedence over individual reactions and ways of thinking, and a growing collective understanding begins to reshape individual consciousness. This is how organization and struggle operate to develop consciousness which reflects class characteristics, i.e., class consciousness.
Any meaningful account of class formation must begin here, with the proletariat organizing itself into a social entity and becoming conscious of itself, and its interests through the struggles which arise from this organization. This organized proletarian movement—including not just its economic, but also political and ideological formations—then provides leadership to unorganized proletarians, as well as other class strata who face a similar life situation: not just other wage workers, but also the working petty-bourgeoisie, and other employed elements of the middle strata, including lower-level professionals, managers, and civil servants.14
In Maisano’s understanding of class formation, the agent under construction cannot be established according to any objective criteria, “the left populist emphasis on the need to actively construct political subjects through conflict, and to not simply reflect pre-existing economic or sociological categories, is basically sound.”15 Thus, class formation “is an effect of struggles which are not structured or determined solely by the relations of economic production, but ideological practices and political regimes as well.”16
On this point, Maisano cites Adam Prezowski who is a bit clearer on the consequences of understanding class in this way: “Classes are not prior to political and ideological practice … The ideological struggle is a struggle about class before it is a struggle among classes.”17 Thus the revolutionary agent under formation cannot be defined a priori and is instead constituted according to the “ideological and political practices of the movement engaged in the process of class formation.”18 Thus, socialists should simply aim at the formation of a ‘working class’ movement which essentially includes anyone we are able to convince to identify with the label, and hence can be made up of different coalitions between the lumpen, the proletariat, other wageworkers, the petty bourgeoisie, and the employed middle strata.19
While, there is nothing objectionable about socialists aiming to construct a broader movement of those who subsist off labor power—i.e. a ‘movement of the working class/classes’—using ideological and political practices (which in fact reflects Marx’s conception), the problem is that there is no priority given to proletarian organization in facilitating the emergence of such a movement.20 This is opposed to the understanding of Marx, Kautsky, Lenin and other socialists who always understood the socially constructed penumbra of “the movement of the working class/classes” as emerging around a scientifically defined proletarian core which must hegemonize all other classes and class strata which participate in the broader crusade against private property and class society.21
Maisano’s flawed conception of class formation is based on an erasure of the concept of a scientifically defined proletariat, as well as the centrality of proletarian organization in the Marxist account of class formation. Rather, he considers class formation to be merely a matter of discursively cultivating a “collective [class] identity among a mass of individual people,” with little thought given to the social position of this milieu. He does not see class consciousness as stemming from the collective interests and capacities of proletarians, but rather as an identity that can be cultivated in a scattershot manner anywhere amongst an amorphous, cross-class mass.
This understanding of class consciousness as discursively constructed allows Maisano to flexibly define the Left’s desired base in an ad-hoc manner, something closely connected to his advocacy for an electoral focus. He can propose that we build a base for socialist politics electorally, because he thinks this can be done by propagating certain “ideological practices and political regimes” (i.e. ‘class struggle’ electoral rhetoric and social-democratic policy) and recruiting those who ‘identify’ with these into the political organizations promulgating them.
The problem is proletarians do not have some automatic propensity to be attracted to certain brands of political rhetoric—whether ‘democratic socialist,’ ‘communist,’ or anything else—with the consequence that Maisano’s strategy cannot result in an organizational focus on members of the class. What makes the proletariat a revolutionary class is not how individual, atomized proletarians respond to particular electoral pitches, but rather that their collective social position creates tendencies for class organization and class struggle, which can transform their consciousness.
As anyone engaged in labor organizing is aware, those initially hostile or indifferent to xyz brand of political discourse or policy, are still often willing to fight the boss and build collective power in their workplaces. To be attracted to ‘class struggle’ electoral messaging, proletarians must conceptually ‘believe in’ class struggle. By contrast, when they are organized in class-independent institutions, capitalist social dynamics impel them to engage in class struggle, whether or not they believe in it, just as it is unnecessary that someone falling off a cliff believes in the laws of gravity.
Here, the importance of having a ‘flexible’ understanding of our base for Maisano’s argument becomes apparent. Where the central role of the proletariat in socialist politics is erased, the fundamental role of workplace and community-based organization in cultivating class consciousness can also be obfuscated. Such organizing can thus be deprioritized and substituted for by electoral interventions.
Maisano’s first failure is his unwillingness to understand why organizing the proletariat has a fundamental and primary role in any meaningful conception of class formation. This not only results from his rejection of the primary source of genuine class consciousness – proletarian organization, but his related failure to reckon with the difficulties of producing class consciousness through electoral politics.
While the social struggles of an organized proletarian movement inherently require workers’ active participation, harnessing their collective power as a class, electoral work creates the danger of treating them as classless, atomized, and passive citizens.
In his appeal for socialists to remain focused on electoral efforts, Maisano places a great deal of importance on the fact that “election campaigns — and presidential elections above all — are the form of political activity that ordinary Americans engage with most.”22 However, he refrains from interrogating why this is. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that powerful opinion shaping institutions within capitalist society, from NPR to the NBA, appeal to the necessity of voting as U.S. citizen’s principal political right and duty?
Considering the overwhelming messaging about voting as the peak of civic participation and responsibility, is it unsurprising that elections are the form of political activity that ‘ordinary Americans’ engage with most. But this does not prove socialists should automatically prioritize electoral work. It should instead encourage us to ask tough questions about why influential bourgeois institutions propagate messages which aim to reduce “political activity” to “election campaigns — and presidential elections above all.”23 It should be clear that this messaging is no accident but is rather a reflection of the fact that such elections play a central role in legitimating the social order in the U.S. and other ‘advanced’ capitalist countries. This stems from the fact that the material rituals involved in the election cycle obfuscate class disparities and how these manifest politically, both for voters and politicians competing for their votes.
For voters, the electoral process begins with a number of candidates being presented through the news media, campaign advertising, debates, etc. These candidates offer different platforms, lists of policies that voters depend on them to implement if they are elected. On election day, voters make an individual choice about which candidate and platform they prefer, who they trust to be their ‘representative’ until the next election. From the perspective of politicians, they are presented with the simple task of winning over more voters. There is no particular reason for them to be interested in interrogating who these voters are or why they are offering their support. Voters are merely abstract data points, each equivalent to any other.
This dynamic was recognized by Marx in On the Jewish Question, which, amongst other things, provides a devastating critique of the shortcomings of liberal-democratic political rights.24 At the core of Marx’s critique is the artificial separation between the state and civil society maintained under liberal-democracy, whereby societal concerns are arbitrarily split into those which are political, public, and collective (the terrain of the state) and those which are non-political, private, and individual (the terrain of civil society). Chief among those concerns arbitrarily designated as private and individual are the capitalist relations of production and the exploitation and domination they give rise to. Under liberal-democracy, official political life thus tends towards indifference to the most important of human concerns, and hence takes place in a sphere beyond our real human individuality.
As a result, the liberal subject develops a dual-character, the individual is split into “man as a member of civil society … egoistic man … man in his sensuous, individual, immediate existence” and “political man … man as an allegorical, juridical person … recognized only in the shape of the abstract citizen.”25 From this, we can begin to understand that individuals engaging in the material rituals of the liberal-democratic state, including the electoral process, are imbued with an ideology in which they recognize themselves and are recognized by others “only in the shape of the abstract citizen.” People who occupy different positions within the system of production appear in electoral politics as undifferentiated ‘citizens,’ a process Marx refers to as the “sophistry of the political state.”26 It is thus unsurprising that the politician’s competition for votes manifests as an effort to maximize numerical support amongst an undifferentiated citizenry.
For those who aspire towards a class-based political praxis, this creates the danger of understanding our constituency in ways that are simultaneously too narrow and too broad. What we understand as our base becomes too narrow because we adopt a single-minded focus on winning the support of those with the right to vote while ignoring disenfranchised proletarians. Electoral competition also provides no motive to root ourselves in a particular class, so that the base of supporters we aim at also becomes too broad. A vote is a vote, so winning elections depends on gaining support amongst a homogenous mass of citizens, the class position of our supporters is irrelevant to the electoral logic.
The electoral form of political participation also encourages atomization and passivity. Before the vote, individuals are beseeched to avoid talking too much about politics and certainly not in an ‘extreme’ way, which is considered rude and abrasive. They enter the voting booth alone, the personalized nature of the ritual underscored by the stalls around them. The citizen votes as an individual, abstracted and alienated from their social existence and certainly from their role in production or membership in a class. As Marx writes, “everyman, ranks as sovereign, as the highest being, but it is man in his uncivilized, unsocial form, man in his fortuitous existence, man just as he is, man as he has been corrupted by the whole organization of our society.”27 The atomized, individual voting decisions of U.S. citizens are transformed by archaic, anti-democratic electoral alchemy into the collective ‘will of the American people.’ The will of the nation is formed by the simple addition of the votes of homologous citizens, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes.
Even this limited, individualized form of participation exists only briefly. Citizens make their electoral choice after which they can go back to being passive spectators relying on their ‘representatives’ to champion their interests in the halls of power. Liberal-democratic institutions seat individuals, not masses. The latter, barred from acting directly in their interests, are forced to delegate this responsibility to a distant saviour. Ironically, the masses designation of an individual as their ‘representative’ inevitably elevates the aspiring politician to a class position above the constituents whom they ostensibly represent.28 Further, after this delegation workers are discouraged from bringing ‘political activity’ back with them into their lives and workplaces. Not in the least, because it is unclear whether labor actions carried out for ‘political’ reasons are even permitted under U.S. labor law.29
None of this is meant as an argument against electoral participation tout court. Using elections for agitational and organizational purposes is a tactic endorsed by everyone from Luxemburg to Lenin and rejected in principle only by a fringe ultra-left, both historically and today. Rather, it is a reminder that the liberal-democratic electoral process is loaded with ideological assumptions that can have dangerous political ramifications. Chief among these, it can lead to us formulating our politics with a classless citizenry in mind and assuming their passive electoral support is, in itself, sufficient to build working-class power.
There are ways to counter these tendencies. For instance, it is interesting to understand some of the more useful slogans of the Sanders campaign as countering the liberal-democratic ideology embedded in the electoral process (e.g. encouragement of passivity vs. “Not Me, Us”; government representing “the will of the American people” vs. the “system rigged by billionaires”; Americans as abstract citizens vs. “working people against a handful of millionaires and billionaires” etc.), though the class conflict frame suggested by the campaign remained almost entirely rhetorical.
I assume Maisano would rush to assure us that he and his compatriots will run electoral campaigns in a manner that aims to counteract liberal-democratic ideology. It is certainly possible to do this, but it is interesting to note that Maisano himself seems to have adopted two types of liberal-democratic assumptions. Firstly, he aims at the ‘both too narrow and too broad’ social base discussed above. He discusses the necessity of participating in the electoral process to engage “ordinary Americans,” a deeply ideologically and normatively loaded term that has nothing to do with class or class politics. Unsurprisingly then, there is zero consideration given to what his strategic orientation means for organizing the tens of millions of non-citizen or otherwise disenfranchised proletarians residing within U.S. borders.30 As discussed in Part II, his conception of class formation also involves an erasure of the proletariat and a related commitment to building a purely discursive ‘working class’ out of what is, in reality, a diffuse cross-class milieu.
Second, Maisano’s outlook recommends an increased reliance on citizens’ passive electoral support and a reduced emphasis on harnessing the active power of the proletariat in the spheres of production and reproduction. The proposition that we focus on working through the institutions of the liberal democratic state requires transforming workers into passive citizens, because that is exactly the political and ideological by-products these institutions are designed to produce. Maisano justifies this concession on the basis that workers’ objective social power has waned but, as will be explained below, this is unconvincing.
So, what is an alternative strategy to a focus on working through the institutions of the capitalist state and related concessions to bourgeois ideology? Perhaps we should return to On the Jewish Question, and consider the alternative offered by Marx:
Only when the real, individual man re-absorbs in himself the abstract citizen … in his particular work, and in his particular situation, only when man has recognized and organized his “own powers” as social powers, and, consequently, no longer separates social power from himself in the shape of political power, only then will human emancipation have been accomplished.31
Thus, what we need is a politicization of everyday life, a politicization of labor in the workplace, a politicization of proletarian communities, a harnessing of the collective, social power of workers in civil society. This sounds like precisely what base-builders and labor organizers are trying to achieve. Maisano claims that base-building “faces the same limits as most nonideological expressions of trade unionism and community organizing,” but the very notions which underlie class-based organizations — i.e. organizations which are inherently hospitable to members of only one class, intrinsically weakened until they achieve the organization of the entire class as such, and necessarily operate within civil society — create unique opportunities to challenge the “sophistry of the political state” and other aspects of bourgeois ideology.32 By contrast, liberal-democratic institutions encourage individuals to seek change as atomized and passive “abstract citizens,” erasing class distinctions and obfuscating the collective power which proletarians could harness through organization, instead encouraging them “to separate social power from [themselves] in the shape of political power.”
Thus, it becomes clear that Maisano’s entire strategic outlook represents a backwards adaptation to the bourgeois ideology embedded in liberal-democratic institutions. This ideology, like Maisano, recommends those seeking change rely on the passive electoral ‘power’ of classless citizens, rather than the social power of workers, and keep politics in their ‘proper’ sphere: on the terrain of the liberal-democratic state.
Despite his contention that “the political developments of the last few years have effectively settled the Democratic Party question,” what these developments really reveal is the extent to which those who recommend we ‘get serious’ and trudge into the ‘swamp’ of capitalist electoral politics are also sinking into the morass of bourgeois ideology.33 Maisano and the other partisans of an electorally focused strategy would do well to consider whether in setting out to transform the American electoral system through a ‘political revolution,’ it isn’t in fact the electoral system which is transforming them.
On this point, our whole argument thus far has remained theoretical, and as Goethe reminds us, “all theory, dear friend, is gray, but the golden tree of life springs ever green.”34 At the core of Maisano’s argument is not theory, but an empirical claim: his strategy is working. The campaigns of Sanders, AOC, et al. are showing this by abetting class formation. Whatever the claims of those with dogmatic, sectarian attitudes towards the Democratic Party, its primaries have been shown in practice to be the most fruitful avenues for “working-class organizers.”35
Maisano sees three major beneficial effects to these campaigns: The first is essentially discursive: “Bernie used the platform of the presidential contest to speak to the entire country about class politics … spread[ing] the idea of political revolution to a mass audience.”36 Similarly, “electoral tribunes” like AOC, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Talib are self-evidently valuable because they are “vocal, leftist figure[s].”37 The second are the supposedly beneficial effects the Sanders campaign has had on organized labor, particularly the “key role [it played] in creating the political conditions for the teacher strike wave.”38 The third is on the level of Left political organization i.e. the “membership explosion” that DSA experienced in the aftermath of Bernie’s campaign and the way the election of AOC et al. have “helped DSA and the broader left build our forces and reduce our debilitating isolation.39
The discursive effects of the Sanders campaign and DSA-backed progressive Democrats is a favorite topic of Jacobin’s writers, with the willingness of these candidates to identify themselves with ‘democratic socialism,’ use ‘class struggle’ electoral rhetoric, and advocate for various social-democratic programs seen as earth-shatteringly significant.40 But, as explained above, none of this can really be regarded as representing class formation, which must be understood as emerging from proletarian organization, the struggles it gives rise to, and the raised consciousness these produce.
Regarding the ostensible class formation represented by the teacher’s strikes, it should be noted, in the first place, that the influence, or lack thereof, of the Bernie campaign on producing the teacher’s strike wave has been a point of contention amongst labor reporters.41 Leaving this to one side, understanding militancy amongst teachers as an example of class formation is complicated by the fact that teachers are not part of the proletariat, nor non-proletarian wageworkers, but rather salaried professionals. This is not to say they should be excluded from playing a role within the labor or socialist movements, nor to deny that the teachers strike wave has been a beacon in an otherwise declining labor movement, but simply to point out the concrete misreading which results from Maisano’s confused understanding of class formation.
Remember that a major part of Maisano’s argument for an electoral focus is that a “small minority of workers are currently situated to take part in effective forms of collective action on the job or in their communities.”42 This represents an implicit admission that the U.S. Left’s focus on electoral politics has not catalyzed proletarian self-activity, nor facilitated the class’ community or workplace organization. While this should raise questions about whether a half-decade focused on electoral politics has been an effective method for achieving class formation, Maisano’s confused understanding of class categories obscures this, enabling him to present the organizational activity of non-proletarian strata as proof that his strategy is working.
This is equally true of the connection Maisano’s draws between the campaign of Sanders et al. and the class formation ostensibly represented by the growth of DSA. Curiously, Maisano first tenders the growth of DSA as an example of class formation, then, paragraphs later, notes that this organization is based upon highly educated “connected outsiders” i.e. “self-selecting individuals with weak or non-existent links to a broader working-class or popular constituency,” who often come from “academic and professional milieus.”43
Maisano draws the category of the ‘connected outsider’ from Paolo Gerbaudo who characterizes organizations based on this strata as “inter-classist” with electoral support which is “neither middle class nor working class.”44 While such parties draw votes from the unemployed and layers of the working-class, they are also substantially based on the urban middle classes—youth and education are more effective predictors of support for these parties than class.45 Further, amongst this ‘inter-classist’ base, there is a delineation between a narrow layer of “supervolunteers” and a mass of passive “lurking supporters.”46 The former, who comprise such organizations’ activist base, self-select according to “a certain ‘aristocratic’ tendency, favouring those with the privilege of time.”47
Thus, Maisano characterizes the DSA’s passive support as inter-classist with an activist layer disproportionately drawn from the middle strata, but nonetheless tenders its growth as further evidence that Democratic Party primary campaigns are facilitating class formation. Again, Maisano’s confused understanding of class categories is apparent. Those drawn from “academic and professional milieus” are re-cast as “college-educated, white-collar workers” who are “one of the main constituencies for socialist politics today.”48
Once more, this is not to say that this layer should be excluded from playing a role within a socialist movement, but simply to point out the way Maisano’s analysis papers over class divisions. It should be obvious that his proposed category of “college-educated, white-collar workers” includes those with a wide variety of class positions. In the first place, while a portion of this strata is part of the upper layer of the proletariat, their labor conditions typically involve relative privilege, and do not provide much social power or teach collective discipline, all of which interferes with the emergence of robust organization. Further, white-collar leftists’ jobs are not only disproportionally unproductive, and thus non-proletarian, but their work often involves imposing alien class ideas and managerial-bureaucratic organizational forms onto the proletariat (e.g. NGO staff, academics, teachers, social workers, and labor bureaucrats). Finally, there is a smaller portion who are either self-employed, petty-bourgeois, or, more commonly, high-status professional employees such as lawyers, psychologists, or doctors who occupy a social position similar to the petty-bourgeoisie.49
While Maisano may be technically correct to note that the Left’s focus on Democratic Party primary campaigns has achieved a process of class formation, it turns out it is not the proletariat whose organization they are facilitating, but these middle strata!50 This is unsurprising, giving the DSA’s focus on electoral politics, and a concomitant dedication to winning support amongst a ‘too narrow/too broad’ base, but the problem of the Left’s class character can be swept under the rug thanks to Maisano’s erasure of the proletariat and confused conception of class formation. His strategy first recommended entering the capitalist electoral circus, and now that this has produced a socialist movement based amongst the middle strata, he justifies staying-the-course through a theoretical erasure of class distinctions; an uncritical engagement with liberal-democratic institutions ends with concessions to bourgeois ideology.
These dynamics have been even more pronounced because Maisano’s electoral efforts have been oriented towards the Democratic Party. The Democrats have an inter-classist electoral base skewed towards the middle classes and this is even more true of the party’s activist base: 2018 Democratic Party primary voters had significantly higher levels of education and income than most US citizens51 and the 8% of the population who can be loosely said to represent the ‘progressive activist’ base of the party have higher levels of education and socio-economic status than any other ‘tribe’ in American politics.52 A Left which centers electoral work in the Democratic Party will build its forces out of its cross-class base and, in particular, its middle-class activist layer.
If the 2020 primaries are any indication, this problem will continually worsen. As documented by Matt Karp, “though Democratic turnout [in the 2020 primaries] rose everywhere in the wealthy suburbs, from Silicon Valley to metro Boston, a clear pattern was visible: the richer and more conservative the suburb, the more dramatic the increases.”53 The general election also indicated that the decades-long decline of working-class support for, and political engagement with, the Democratic Party has continued. As documented in Biden Our Time, the “presidential election represented a continued shift in the base of the Democratic Party from one rooted in working-class voters to a coalition that’s highly concentrated in high-income suburbs.”54
Significantly, this process reached a new apotheosis in 2020, so it is unclear whether the new DSA-aligned progressive Democrats have any special ability to reverse the decline of support and engagement amongst working-class voters. Also writing in Biden Our Time, Dustin Guastella indicates that the new progressive Democrats failure to appeal to workers results from their “tendency to drench [their] appeals in a cultural style born in universities that most people will never attend.”55
What he doesn’t consider, is that perhaps the reason that progressive Democrats are doing this is because they have a better understanding of their electorate than Jacobin‘s writers. While the latter recommend adopting class-struggle rhetoric to bring new working-class voters into Democratic Party primaries. The former have decided that instead of appealing to a hypothetical, and thus far phantasmic, new base of working-class Democrats, they are better off attuning their rhetoric to the actually existing cross-class electoral base of the party, and especially its middle-class activist base, which, frankly, significantly overlaps with ‘the Left.’56 As Guastella notes “for urban progressive insurgents — who are cash poor and enthusiasm rich — the incentives are clear: ‘woke’ messaging helps mobilize an activist volunteer base that allows these candidates to overcome their financial weaknesses vis-à-vis established incumbents.”57 In fact, it appears that these middle-class progressives are not only providing the volunteers, but also the votes, in the great victories of Maisano’s electoral insurgency.58
Faced with this incentive structure it is unsurprising that progressive Democrats are moving away from Sanders-style ‘class struggle’ electoral rhetoric and instead adopting appeals more palatable to the middle strata. These classless appeals can be formulated as appealing to the moral, progressive part of the population, identitarian categories, or even, to ‘classes’ understood in populist, rather than Marxist, terms (e.g. “the American people,” “the 99%,” or Maisano’s “ordinary Americans”), but their purpose is the same: keeping middle-class Democrats onside.
In fact, it is clear that progressive Democrats are tailoring their rhetorical appeals to highly educated progressives, in large part, because this tenor can also appeal to the activist base drawn from this layer. Thus far, a major by-product of Maisano’s strategic orientation has been precisely organizing and strengthening this activist base (“help[ing] DSA and the broader left build our forces”). His proposal that we focus on Democratic Party electoral work over organizing the masses, in practice, amounts to a Left which prioritizes class formation amongst the middle strata over the proletariat.
If Maisano’s strategic orientation requires an implicit acceptance of a Left with these priorities, he can rely on theoretical support from some heavy hitters. Göran Therborn — New Left guru, illustrious academic, and renegade from Marxism — has come to his aid in his new book Inequality and the Labyrinths of Democracy. In a subchapter with the anodyne title “Winning the middle class,” excerpted on Jacobin’s website without critical comment,59 Therborn calls for a new type of left politics:
Politics is never reducible to sociology, but the latter may give useful hints of the limitations and potentials of the former. The dialectic of industrial capitalism, which Marx analyzed and predicted with impressive accuracy, is no longer operating in the Global North and has been stymied in the South. Postindustrial capitalism is no longer producing a growing, ever more concentrated working class (…) which mak[es] any progress more dependent on political mobilization and leadership.
Even if the sectors of the working class lost to the Right could be won back, the labor movement is only a necessary component of egalitarian politics, no longer sufficient as its natural center[!]. Decisive to any successful egalitarian politics in the postindustrial era is a positive middle-class policy of the Left.60
To Professor Therborn, the path to winning over the middle class is clear. The Left must recognize that proletarian movements oriented towards socialist revolution are a historical relic and instead fight for the democratic values of “recognition, dignity and emancipatory social transformation,” after all, “this is [the] legacy which we as citizens should lay claim to [Emphasis mine].”61
Therborn sees the potential for a “progressive, egalitarian middle class” as being demonstrated by “the enthusiastic response by aspiring middle class students to the Sanders and Corbyn campaigns.”62 His emphasis on middle-class agency can also be seen in the two major social forces he identifies as providing “reasons for optimism” at the current conjecture. The (cross-class) youth climate movement and the “new egalitarian Enlightenment” being spearheaded by academic social scientists (i.e. people like himself).63 Here Therborn is simply beyond parody, the subject of history is not the tens of millions of proletarian youth who took to the streets against police violence worldwide,64 nor the newly revived tenant movement,65 nor the workers rediscovering the strike weapon66 and engaging in embryonic efforts at workplace self-organization,67 but rather tenured academics like himself who write books which purport to explain why this is all happening. De-centering the working class indeed!
In the first place, there is absolutely nothing original or interesting about Therborn’s argument, it is merely the latest rehash of the re-occurring panics the radical intelligentsia have been throwing since the mid-1980s, and have a tendency to throw every time the workers’ movement enters into a difficult period in its history. As the trajectory followed by Mouffe, Laclau, Screpanti etc. makes clear, once intellectuals lose faith in the power of the working-class to change society, their abandonment of Marxism soon follows.68 This typically involves a regression from the Marxist politics of class-independence to advocacy of a cross-class, citizens’ alliance. The historical record of this type of politics is clear, it results in a Left which betrays its base, resulting in the latter’s alienation and disorganization, (e.g. the transformation of the Social-Democracy, Comintern Popular Frontism, Euro-communist liquidationism etc.). It is in fact these contingent political decisions to abandon class-independence, i.e. precisely those of the kind Therborn recommends, which have led the workers’ movement and the Left into its current crisis, not inevitable changes in the relations of production.
On this latter point, the proletariat’s social weight is still more than sufficient for producing a powerful labor movement. As Kim Moody demonstrates statistically in On New Terrain, between 1986 and 2008, “levels of employment concentration have gone up in terms of numbers and remained about the same as proportions of the workforce.”69 Further, “not only are millions more American workers employed by bigger, mostly urban based concentration of capital, on average today’s workers also toil under increased capital-labor ratios on the job.”70 This isn’t to deny organized labor is facing a real crisis, but it doesn’t follow that this crisis is terminal or irreversible.
Its difficulties cannot be chalked up to some decline in ‘social weight,’ mechanistically derived from the ‘economic base,’ as if proletarian social power isn’t dependent on contingent processes of organization and struggle. As Moody explains:
The strength, durability, and outcomes of periodic labor upsurges depend to a large degree on the formation and development of the activist layer of the labor movement. It is this layer that not only supports the unions during good times and bad, but also plays a key role in the upsurge. To the degree that there is an activist core within the activist layer that is class conscious and politically aware, the activist layer is strengthened and the force of the upsurge and, hence, its outcomes stronger and more durable.71
A decline in manufacturing employment has weakened American unions, but changes in the relations of production have also created new concentrations of working-class social power in newly formed mega-store grocery or retail chains, increasingly consolidated telecommunications and meatpacking sectors, in larger and more capital intensive centers of health care employment, and, above all, in the ever-expanding logistics sector.72 The task of socialists is to enter these strategic sectors and become and build the activist core of the labor movement, not to decenter it when the going gets tough.
Thus far, Maisano has not openly indicated he agrees with Therborn’s project of decentering the role of the proletariat in Left politics, but he certainly appears to be playing footsie with this conclusion. In the most recent issue of Jacobin, Maisano favourably reviewed Therborn’s book, tendering it as theoretical support for his electoral strategy.73 In the process he approvingly quoted Therborn’s point that “politics is never reducible to sociology, but the latter may give useful hints of the limitations and potentials of the former.” While this quote is not objectionable per se, in context, it clearly posits that a Left politics centered on the proletariat has become a ‘sociological’ impossibility under contemporary conditions.74
Even leaving aside Maisano’s favorable review, it is hard to avoid recognizing the parallels between Therborn’s strategic orientation and his own. Both focus on the crisis in organized labor, seeing it not as something the Left must overcome, but rather as an inevitability resulting from changes in the relations of production. Further, both propose that this perceived reality requires a Left strategy focused on the classless sphere of electoral politics, which inherently implies building out of a ‘too narrow/too broad’ base, with concomitant implications for which class forces are understood to have historical agency at the current conjecture. The major difference is that Therborn is clearer on the logical endpoint of this orientation, concluding that the Left must theoretically decenter the proletariat and instead understand the middle class as the decisive component in Left politics. By contrast, Maisano holds out electoral politics as the key to the formation of a ‘working class’ subject, even though his favored strategy recommends electoral intervention within the ever more middle-class Democratic Party and is, in practice, facilitating organization amongst the middle strata rather than the proletariat. Therborn’s theoretical revision thus brings out what is immanent in the practice Maisano recommends.
So how does Maisano square the circle? How does he resolve the contradiction between his waning, but still present, loyalty to Marxist ideas (i.e. a theory based on the centrality of proletarian class formation) and the strategic orientation he recommends (i.e. a practice which prioritizes class formation amongst the middle strata)? Here the importance of the erasure of the category of proletariat in Maisano’s argument again becomes clear. The proletariat and the middle strata can all be part of an undifferentiated ‘working class,’ as long as the Left’s political and ideological practices can convince them they are. In the end, the only concrete difference between Therborn and Maisano is that the former wants to build an explicitly cross-class, citizen’s alliance, while the latter thinks it is important that everyone within such a movement identify as ‘working class.’
To Maisano’s credit, he has written in the past on the importance of building a strong labor movement, and having socialists become rooted in it.75 However, as he implies in his piece our small, underdeveloped Left has to make difficult decisions about where to allocate finite resources. Choosing to focus on electoral work in the Democratic Party is a path fraught with dangers. So far, this has led to a Left with a diffuse class character, and we need to aim to change this as quickly as possible. This is easier said than done, but a good start would be for socialists to prioritize becoming part of existing proletarian institutions, or taking the initiative to build new ones, and for socialist organizations to concentrate on supporting these efforts.
While Maisano is not necessarily opposed to this type of work, he sees class formation in the current period as something primarily dependent on electoral politics. In “A Left that Matters” he writes:
Base builders do not reject the need for a political party or electoral action, but they tend to postpone active contestation of elections to the indefinite future, until the time when the unorganized, in their millions, have been organized. The problem with this formulation is that, in the absence of electoral action, such a time may well never come. Posing an abstract sequence that these forms of activity should follow — build the base first, then enter the electoral arena — overlooks the crucial role that electoral politics and state policy play in the process of class formation, particularly in the current period.76
But this critique misses something fundamental. After all, Marx’s descriptions of the relationship between proletarian economic organization and independent political action in The Poverty of Philosophy77 and The Communist Manifesto78 follow precisely the progression Maisano objects to. In fact, Marx was quite explicit about the ‘sequence’ between economic and political/electoral action:
N.B. as to political movement: The political movement of the working class has as its object, of course, the conquest of political power for the working class, and for this it is naturally necessary that a previous organization of the working class, itself arising from their economic struggles, should have been developed up to a certain point.
On the other hand, however, every movement in which the working class comes out as a class against the ruling classes and attempts to force them by pressure from without is a political movement. For instance, the attempt in a particular factory or even a particular industry to force a shorter working day out of the capitalists by strikes, etc., is a purely economic movement. On the other hand the movement to force an eight-hour day, etc., by law is a political movement. And in this way, out of the separate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political movement, that is to say a movement of the class, with the object of achieving its interests in a general form, in a form possessing a general social force of compulsion. If these movements presuppose a certain degree of previous organization, they are themselves equally a means of the development of this organization.79
As Engels explained to Friedrich Sorge,80 the U.S. socialist movement needed a base of class-conscious proletarians, and such class consciousness would come “only through practical experience. Hence the trade unions, etc., [were] the thing to begin with if there [was] to be a mass movement.”81 What Maisano critiques as an ‘abstract sequence’ is in fact the ABC of Marxism as a political strategy.
What Marx and Engels grasped, and Maisano misses, is the paramount importance of class-based organization and its ability to reshape consciousness. When the proletariat is organized in genuinely class-independent institutions it aims to protect and enhance its own conditions of life through struggle, whether or not they are articulated as doing so, such struggles tend to push against the bounds of the capitalist social order both materially and ideologically. No bourgeois party will provide representation to the aspirations of workers in struggle, and a militant workers’ movement thus produces the base for an independent political formation. There is no short-cut to an independent class politics, whether through a ‘party surrogate’ or otherwise, it is something that finds its base in, and emerges out of, the class in motion.
The refusal of Maisano and many of Jacobin’s other writers to grasp this lies behind their rightward trajectory since 2016. Their infatuation with Sanders’ primary campaigns and Corbynism has fostered an enduring illusion that electoral campaigns and/or victories can provide a path to class formation which circumvents the necessity of a long-term effort at drab, everyday organizing.82 In tailing the campaigns of these figures, and adopting their electorally focused strategy, it is no coincidence that Maisano et al. are also increasingly embracing their economistic, social-democratic politics. Watering down our program is an inevitable part of making majoritarian electoral appeals to the currently existing ‘common sense’ of the same disorganized and atomized cross-class constituency that Sanders and Corbyn targeted.
By contrast, Marxists recognize that an authentically emancipatory political project must aim at the conquest of state power by the only truly revolutionary class existing in modern society—the proletariat, and to achieve this, it must base itself on the only possible revolutionary subject—an organized workers’ movement. A revolutionary program of proletarian rule only appears as a feasible horizon in the presence of a robust workers’ movement. It is participation in such a movement which provides workers with experiences that illustrate the need to take power, nurture the confidence to conquer it, and train the capabilities necessary to exercise it.
Over the course of the 20th century, the American workers’ movement was shattered, so it is no surprise that the communist horizon has broken apart along with it. The question we face now is how to respond to this conjuncture: adapt ourselves to it or seek to transcend it? Any tendency which does not focus on concrete efforts at creating a workers’ movement, will trend towards opportunist adaptations to the reformist ‘common sense’ of an atomized mass, rather than basing itself on the revolutionary consciousness of an organized class. Concretely, their political horizons will be confined to a capitalist world without a vanishing point.
Not only does an electorally focused strategy involve adopting a program significantly more cautious than those tendered by prior generations of socialists, including the 20th-century social democracy, its electoral pitch has also been largely unsuccessful on its own terms. A real constituency, electoral or otherwise, isn’t summoned into existence when it hears a list of policies offered in an electoral campaign, no matter how conservatively tailored. As Ronan Burtenshaw wrote in reflecting on the reasons for Corbyn’s defeat:
But this list of policies, when combined, came across as a retail offer. (…) And people, fundamentally, didn’t believe us.
After decades of neoliberalism, it is not surprising that was the case. But given the scale of this defeat, we must ask serious questions about why we couldn’t change that.
The answers will be found in the fact we simply weren’t present in too many places, in too many working-class people’s lives — and also the fact Corbynism didn’t coincide with a heightening of class struggle which might have brought more of our people to our side.83
For socialists to find enduring national electoral success — whether through a party surrogate, a labor party, or something better — requires a base in the workers’ movement. As Marx explained, proletarian political action requires that “a previous organization of the working class, itself arising from their economic struggles, [has] developed up to a certain point,” because a proletarian political movement represents the real “movement of the class [aiming to] achiev[e] its interests in a general form.” A workers’ party is the political arm of decisive layers of the working class, thus an objective tendency towards class-independent political/electoral action only emerges when decisive layers of the class are organized into class-independent institutions. Whether socialists can intervene to produce an independent working-class political formation — one capable of not just winning elections, but also conquering political power — is dependent on whether this “certain degree of previous organization” has been achieved.
Writing in 1973, when organized labor was considerably stronger than it is now, Hal Draper recognized that socio-political conditions were not yet producing an objective tendency to independent class political action in the U.S.84 Even though decisive strata of the U.S. working class were organized into trade unions, Draper understood that the labor movements’ potential to produce an independent political formation was not just a matter of quantity (i.e. a reflection of the proportion of the class which was organized), but also quality (i.e. a reflection of the extent, or lack thereof, of alien class influences on working-class institutions). To Draper, the task of socialists in crystalizing an independent working-class politics in the U.S. was thus dependent on qualitatively transforming a pivotal layer of organized labor by building a broad, class-struggle wing within it. The consequences of this would be “the politicalization of the trade-union movement: its entry into independent political action, which depends in turn on breaking up its attachment to Democratic Party politics.”85
While Draper saw this as mostly requiring a qualitative transformation of the established unions, we should adapt this strategy to take into account their quantitative decline, i.e. the proliferation of unorganized strategic sectors in the economy, and the current salience of housing as an issue in urban working-class life. Thus, while aiming to win the established unions to a class struggle orientation, we should also aim to tap new reservoirs of working-class social power through independent organizing in strategic economic sectors and amongst tenants.
To avoid being unfair to Comrade Maisano and Jacobin‘s other writers, there is no reason to doubt they remain partisans of the working-class movement and committed Marxists, regardless of whether or not they are presently committing major theoretical and strategic errors. Jacobin is a project which has been at the core of the popularization of socialist ideas in the 21st century U.S., it has played as an important role in turning many young people towards the Left, myself included, and it has an unparalleled authority in determining the orientation of the U.S. socialist movement.
But this is precisely why its continued advocacy for a focus on Democratic Party electoral work needs to be vociferously challenged. This is not meant to be a call out or attack, but rather an invitation for Maisano and the other advocates of this orientation to ask themselves some difficult questions: What is the class character of the U.S. Left? How is this related to the fact that it has formed, in large part, as the by-product of a series of Democratic Party primary campaigns? Does a strategy focused on winning the support of the electoral and activist base of the Democratic Party constitute decentering the proletariat in practice? And are we watering down our politics to effectively compete for votes in these primaries?
Above all, however, this response is a friendly warning, to consider whether beneath the newly laid bricks of their ‘party surrogate’ road to socialism, there isn’t an older, more well-trodden path.86 One that begins with electoral appeals to a seemingly classless constituency of citizens, leads to reliance on a middle-class base, and ends with the abandonment of class politics and Marxism.
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A Left that Matters is quite brief and is based on an article published in Socialist Call, titled “Electoral Politics, Class Formation, and Socialist Strategy” (https://socialistforum.dsausa.org/issues/spring-summer-2019/electoral-politics-class-formation-and-socialist-strategy/), which advances the same argument in a more developed form. Maisano also published an “adapted/expanded version” of “A Left That Matters” in Socialist Call (https://socialistforum.dsausa.org/issues/winter-2021/a-left-that-matters/). I will also be drawing on these pieces to understand the reasoning behind the argument in the Jacobin version of “A Left That Matters.”
- E.g. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/04/bernie-sanders-democratic-socialism-mass-politics-left; https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/03/bernie-sanders-democratic-primary-results-joe-biden; http://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/04/karl-kautsky-democratic-socialism-elections-rupture.
- https://jacobinmag.com/2021/02/a-left-that-matters; https://socialistforum.dsausa.org/issues/spring-summer-2019/electoral-politics-class-formation-and-socialist-strategy/
- Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Volume II: The Politics of Social Classes. Monthly Review Press, 1977, pg. 34.
- Ibid, pg. 42-44.
- Ibid, pg. 41-42.
- Supra note 10, pg. 38.
- Adam Przeowrski, Capitalism and Social Democracy. Cambridge University Press, 1985, pg. 70.
- Ibid, pg. 90.
- Ibid pg. 91-92.
- Supra note 10, pg. 38.
- Supra note 10, pg, 35-40.; Lars Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: Reading What is to be Done in Context. Haymarket Books, 2008, pg. 96-101.
- In order to investigate this question, it’s helpful to understand Althusser’s concept of Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) (https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1970/ideology.htm). To give a brief explanation, Althuser understood ISAs, among which he included the electoral system, as institutions which function with relative autonomy from the capitalist state and operate to promote ruling-class ideology. For Althusser, ideology represents the “imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” Crucially, the way ISAs promote ideology is material, with certain bourgeois ideas materially embedded within an apparatus and its practices. Thus, the ISA imbues individuals with certain ideas about their relations to other persons and the broader society, but not through a process of didactic instruction, rather it encourages participation in various social practices and rituals which promote the ideas it is trying to propagate. In this section we are aiming to answer the question of how might we understand the American electoral system as an ISA, that is, how do the material rituals associated with electoral politics encourage individuals to view themselves in their relations to others and the broader society?
- That is, if electoral representatives are not subordinated to and held accountable by an organization following democratic centralist principles.
- At the end of his masterful work on American labor history, Prisoners of the American Dream, Mike Davis identified this layer of the working-class as an important base for socialists. In various interviews Davis has repeatedly indicated that the American millennial left faces major dangers of falling into their “own version of ‘America Firstism,’ ” (e.g. https://soundcloud.com/trueanonpod/everything-is-bad; https://www.thedigradio.com/podcast/mike-davis-on-prisoners-of-the-american-dream/) and the prevalence of strategic orientations like Maisano’s makes it hard not to share this foreboding.
- E.g. https://jacobinmag.com/2020/04/bernie-sanders-presidential-campaign-socialism-organizing; https://jacobinmag.com/2020/06/bernie-sanders-campaign-2020-presidential-election-biden-trump; https://jacobinmag.com/2020/04/bernie-sanders-campaign-strategy-democratic-party-biden-trump
- This isn’t necessarily the place to relitigate the whole argument, but we’ll make note of one thing. Maisano cites Eric Blanc for his statement that the Sanders campaign played “key role” in the development of the teachers strike wave, but Blanc significantly qualified his claims under criticism from other labor reporters. He now indicates “he reject[s] the idea the Bernie campaign was a significant [part of the decision to strike for] a majority of educators” and recognizes that “Bernie’s 2016 campaign was certainly not the only, or main, factor explaining the emergence and development of the strikes.” (https://jacobinmag.com/2019/11/bernie-sanders-teachers-strike-wave-chicago-union-red-state-revolt)
- Paolo Gerbaudo, The Digital Party: Political Organization and Online Democracy. Pluto Press, 2018, pg. 53.
- Ibid, pg. 53-54.
- Ibid, pg. 171-176.
- Ibid, pg. 173.
- Robert Weil, Contradictory Class Definitions: Petty Bourgeoisie and the ‘Classes’ of Eric Olan Wright. Critical Sociology 21(3), 1995, pg. 16-25.
- https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5a70a7c3010027736a22740f/t/5bbcea6b7817f7bf7342b718/1539107467397/hidden_tribes_report-2.pdf, pg. 30
- Supra note 52.
- Göran Therborn, Inequality and the Labyrinths of Democracy. Verso Books, 2020, pg. 60-61.
- Ibid, pg. 53.
- Ibid, pg. 62.
- Ibid, pg. 4.
- For example, in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, considered by many as the founding text of Post-Marxism, Laclau and Mouffe argued the Socialists should ‘decenter’ the working class in their political praxis because “the class of industrial workers [was] declin[ing] in numbers and importance.” See Ernesto Laclau & Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Toward a Radical Democratic Politics. Verso Books, 2001, pg. 81.
- Kim Moody, On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War. Haymarket Books, 2017, pg. 57.
- Ibid, pg. 54.
- Ibid, pg. 76.
- Ibid, pg. 52-57.
- The context: “Politics is never reducible to sociology, but the latter may give useful hints of the limitations and potentials of the former. The dialectic of industrial capitalism, which Marx analyzed and predicted with impressive accuracy, is no longer operating in the Global North and has been stymied in the South. Post-industrial capitalism is no longer producing a growing, ever more concentrated working class. That process ended in the North in the period of 1965–80, when working-class social weight peaked. Advanced industrial capitalism with a strong labor movement was the social basis of the post-WWII equalization. The latter was also facilitated by industrial technology: the high productivity of the assembly line, for example, could sustain decent wages to non-specialized workers, if there were strong unions and a non-hostile political environment. Postindustrial capitalism, on the other hand, means constant inegalitarian headwind, making any progress more dependent on political mobilization and leadership.
Even if the sectors of the working class lost to the right could be won back, the labor movement is only a necessary component of egalitarian politics, no longer sufficient as its natural centre. Decisive to any successful egalitarian politics in the post-industrial era is a positive middle class policy of the left.”
- E.g. https://jacobinmag.com/2015/01/labor-movement-future; https://jacobinmag.com/2015/01/bringing-labor-back; https://jacobinmag.com/2012/01/the-state-of-our-unions
“The first attempt of workers to associate among themselves always takes place in the form of combinations.
Large-scale industry concentrates in one place a crowd of people unknown to one another. Competition divides their interests. But the maintenance of wages, this common interest which they have against their boss, unites them in a common thought of resistance – combination. Thus combination always has a double aim, that of stopping competition among the workers, so that they can carry on general competition with the capitalist. If the first aim of resistance was merely the maintenance of wages, combinations, at first isolated, constitute themselves into groups as the capitalists in their turn unite for the purpose of repression, and in the face of always united capital, the maintenance of the association becomes more necessary to them than that of wages. This is so true that English economists are amazed to see the workers sacrifice a good part of their wages in favor of associations, which, in the eyes of these economists, are established solely in favor of wages. In this struggle – a veritable civil war – all the elements necessary for a coming battle unite and develop. Once it has reached this point, association takes on a political character.
Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers. The combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests. This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle, of which we have noted only a few phases, this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests. But the struggle of class against class is a political struggle.”
“But with the development of industry, the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more. The various interests and conditions of life within the ranks of the proletariat are more and more equalised, in proportion as machinery obliterates all distinctions of labor, and nearly everywhere reduces wages to the same low level. The growing competition among the bourgeois, and the resulting commercial crises, make the wages of the workers ever more fluctuating. The increasing improvement of machinery, ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious; the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeois take more and more the character of collisions between two classes. Thereupon, the workers begin to form combinations (Trades’ Unions) against the bourgeois; they club together in order to keep up the rate of wages; they found permanent associations in order to make provision beforehand for these occasional revolts. Here and there, the contest breaks out into riots.
Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers. This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry, and that place the workers of different localities in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralise the numerous local struggles, all of the same character, into one national struggle between classes. But every class struggle is a political struggle. And that union, to attain which the burghers of the Middle Ages, with their miserable highways, required centuries, the modern proletarian, thanks to railways, achieve in a few years.
This organisation of the proletarians into a class, and, consequently into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves. But it ever rises up again, stronger, firmer, mightier. It compels legislative recognition of particular interests of the workers, by taking advantage of the divisions among the bourgeoisie itself. Thus, the ten-hours’ bill in England was carried.”
- Friedrich Sorge was a leading figure within the U.S. Section of the International Working Men’s Association (aka The First International) and an intimate friend of Marx and Engels. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedrich_Sorge)
- Si licet parva componere magnis, this is in some sense the “path” travelled by the SPD. This first became apparent when the party voted for war credits and otherwise supported “their” bourgeoisie’s imperialist aims during the First World War. The decision to support the war, was in in part the consequence of the fact that party leaders saw this as part and parcel of appealing to the portion of their electoral base which was made up of petit-bourgeois German “citizens.”(https://www.marxists.org/archive/zinoviev/works/1916/war/opp-index.htm). The party officially abandoned the policy of class-independence with the 1959 Godesberg Program (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godesberg_Program).