Ben Solidaridad argues for the centrality of the manufacturing proletariat to the modern socialist project, claiming that this section of the population carries not only strategic leverage but also potential for class consciousness.
I am writing to express my approval of Jacque Erie’s hard-hitting, theoretically-rich polemic, “Is This the Left that Jacobin Wants?,” published back in November 2021. While I am more than a year late in responding, the article was recently shared with me by a comrade, and I found the piece significant enough that I wanted to reply.
To begin with, I wholeheartedly agree with Jacque’s critique of the deeply problematic theoretical and political points articulated by DSA member Chris Maisano in his article from the Winter 2021 print edition of Jacobin. By connection, I also share Jacque’s critique of the broader strategy and practice of the DSA — of which Maisano’s article is but one political expression.
There is, as Jacque implies, a dialectical connection between the DSA’s focus on electoral work within the class enemy Democratic Party and the group’s social base, which is overwhelmingly comprised of white-collar professionals and middle-class people. As Maisano himself has put it, DSA’s membership comes disproportionately from “self-selecting individuals with weak or non-existent links to a broader working-class or popular constituency” that often hail from “academic and professional milieus.” To put this a different way, the DSA’s focus on working within the atomizing terrain of electoral politics — and its devotion to the Democratic Party, whose activist base is dominated by students and professionals — has served to reinforce the decidedly non-proletarian social character of the group. On a theoretical level, this has increasingly led members of the DSA, including Maisano, to develop all sorts of confused, non-Marxist ideas about class and “class formation.”
Beyond this, to my mind, the most pertinent aspect of Jacque’s article is his call for the socialist movement to root itself in the proletariat — particularly the most strategic, mass sectors of the proletariat. In the article, Jacque draws upon the writings of the great Hal Draper to argue that these most advanced proletarian sectors include those comprised of workers engaged in large-scale productive industry that toil en masse under conditions of strict workplace discipline. He quotes from Marx: “the proletarians created by big industry assume leadership of [the] movement and carry the whole mass along with them.” Jacque goes on to summarize as follows:
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.
To a great extent, I agree that this is the layer of the working class to which the revolutionary socialist movement must orient itself. In other words, the proletariat is the core constituency of the socialist project.
I would further argue that it is useful to emphasize the strategic importance of the industrial proletariat. As summarized in my 2020 article from Left Voice, “Building power at the point of production,” the industrial proletariat “has traditionally been understood to encompass workers employed in core processes of production — in particular workers in the manufacturing industry, as well as workers in construction, agribusiness, mining, and other extractive sectors. In addition, the industrial proletariat also comprises workers employed in the transportation and distribution of commodities, including those in trucking, logistics, longshore, railroading, transportation, etc.”
The centrality of the industrial proletariat to the socialist project stems, first and foremost, from the objective power of this sector of the class vis-a-vis capital. In addition, the advanced consciousness of this sector — an inherent byproduct of the organization of labor at the point of production and the nature of the class struggle by industrial workers — is an essential building block of any revolutionary socialist movement worthy of the name. As noted in the article,
The strategic importance of the industrial proletariat relates to the fact that it is this segment of the working class that produces the vast majority of the surplus labor value that is appropriated by the capitalist system. In this way, organized industrial workers have a crucial source of leverage in the class struggle as a result of their ability to bring commodity production (and distribution) to a halt – and thus to throttle the capitalist accumulation process. In addition to this, another critical factor relates to the mass, collective nature of the labor performed by industrial workers — particularly in such critical manufacturing sectors as auto, steel, meatpacking, etc. This tends to endow industrial workers with a mass, collective proletarian consciousness that aligns with the socialist project. Finally, and particularly important for revolutionary socialists, industrial workers must, by necessity, play a central role in the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism since they alone have the ability to lead the way in the seizure of the means of production and the conversion of industry to socialist production.
For the labor movement as a whole, the strategic power of the industrial proletariat means that this sector of the broader working class has the power to play a vanguard role in the class struggle and lead other groups of workers in the fight against capital. Probably the most obvious recent example of this in the United States is the case of the freight railroad workers — who were, at the end of November, on the cusp of waging one of the most important, impactful strikes to take place in the United States in many years. The railroad workers were, of course, blocked from taking this action by the Biden Administration and both capitalist parties, who joined hands in the House and Senate at the behest of the rail companies and the broader capitalist class to pass legislation that rendered a railroad strike illegal and imposed a collective bargaining agreement that had been voted down by unions that represent more than half of the freight railroad workers. Biden signed the strikebreaking bill into law on December 2, much to the approval of the rapacious railroad barons.
Notably, while capitalists were terrified of the potential economic impact of a rail strike, they were also afraid of the example that a strike by such a powerful group of workers would set for the working class as a whole. As a recent article by two comrades from Workers’ Voice/La Voz de los Trabajadores summarizes,
What would a strike in the rail sector do, besides cost the wealthy $2 billion a day? The rail unions would set a dangerous example, one that the capitalists would prefer to avoid. The rail workers would get the solidarity of the struggling workers of this country, and show, whatever the outcome, what it actually looks like to struggle for our right to a good life!
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Unfortunately, formulations like this one and the one presented by Jacque that place the proletariat at the heart of the socialist project have become all too rare in the contemporary U.S. socialist movement. This is linked, of course, to the overwhelmingly non-proletarian composition of the present Left and its disproportionate base in academia and among white-collar professionals.
Outside of the United States, however, it’s worth pointing out that it is commonplace for revolutionary socialist groups to emphasize the strategic centrality of the proletariat and the industrial proletariat specifically. For one excellent example of such a perspective within the Latin American socialist movement, I’d recommend the fascinating 2018 theoretical document, “Notes on the Evolution of the Industrial Proletariat,” penned by a group of eight members from chapters of the International Workers’ League (Fourth International), most of whom come from Brazil and Colombia.
With this said, I wanted to offer a minor but significant critique of Jacque’s otherwise stellar analysis. This relates to Jacque’s assessment of the class structure of the United States during the present period and what he refers to as the “strategic sectors” of the working class. Drawing in part upon the writings of Kim Moody, Jacque makes the following point,
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. 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.
In response to this, it needs to be stated that, while the manufacturing workforce in the United States is smaller in absolute and relative terms than was the case in previous periods, the U.S. factory proletariat is still absolutely massive. Contrary to Kim Moody’s overarching insinuation in On New Terrain and other writings, manufacturing workers have not been displaced by a new, more “strategic” industrial proletariat in the form of logistics workers. Rather, manufacturing workers still occupy a position at the heart of the entire economy — and still have a central role to play in the class struggle.
A few details will suffice to prove this point. As of 2018, there were roughly 14 million workers employed in the U.S. manufacturing industry. (This includes factory temp workers, who comprise a significant portion of the workforce but are not included in statistics for manufacturing workers maintained by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.) Moreover, measured in terms of output, the United States has the world’s second-largest manufacturing industry. Only China’s is larger.
Beyond this, the U.S. manufacturing industry and workforce have been in a continual (if modest) state of expansion since 2010. The industry has also experienced particularly pronounced growth in the period since the initial outbreak of the pandemic. As detailed in an article from September in the New York Times, fittingly titled “Factory Jobs Are Booming Like It’s the 1970s,” not only has the U.S. manufacturing industry recovered all of the jobs lost during the onset of the pandemic — but it is in the process of adding tens of thousands of additional jobs. Indeed, across the country, despite increased economic turbulence, manufacturing employers are desperately seeking to hire new workers. Meanwhile, the Biden Administration has embarked on a program of industrial policy aimed at massively expanding domestic production in a series of critical industries for the explicit purpose of bolstering U.S. imperialist competition with China. This policy is embodied in three major spending bills passed over the course of the past year that provide hundreds of billions of dollars in direct subsidies to capital to encourage investment in various critical manufacturing sectors, including EV auto and battery production, solar panel manufacturing, other sectors of “green” production, semiconductor manufacturing, and numerous other sectors. Already, construction is underway to build scores of new, multi-billion-dollar plants in these segments of the manufacturing industry.
While it’s hard to say what the future will bring, it seems likely that, within this context, the U.S. manufacturing workforce will continue on a trajectory of growth in the coming period — although this may well be interrupted by a recession.
Notably, in 2021, the favorable economic circumstances in U.S. manufacturing helped set the stage for an upsurge in strikes and struggle by factory workers. This was the much-heralded “Striketober” and “Strikesgiving” phenomenon. As documented in my article “The struggle at the point of production in 2021,” this strike movement was “heavily concentrated at the point of production and led by industrial workers.” The article points out that, according to statistics maintained by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the twelve major strikes involving 1,000 or more workers that took place in 2021,
A full eight of these strikes have been led by industrial workers and taken place in value-producing industrial sectors at the core of the economy. This includes five such strikes in manufacturing: 1.) the recently-concluded BCTGM strike at Kellogg’s factories in four states; 2.) the multistate Nabisco strike, also led by the BCTGM; 3.) the USW strike at steel plants in multiple states owned by the company Allegheny Technologies Incorporated; 4.) the UAW strike at the Volvo trucks plant in Dublin, Virginia; and 5.) the UAW strike at John Deere plants in multiple states. In addition, one strike each took place in the construction, mineral extraction, and logistics sectors. These are, respectively, the strike by members of the Northwest Carpenters Union at construction sites in the Seattle area; the ongoing UMWA strike at Warrior Met Coal in Alabama; and the Teamsters strike at the Hunts Point Produce Market in New York City.
Altogether, of the 12 strikes counted by the BLS, the eight industrial strikes involved a total of 21,000 workers and led to 732,800 days idle from work. In contrast, the non-industrial strikes involved just 9,200 workers and led to 154,000 days idle.
It’s important to note that current trends of development in the U.S. manufacturing industry — and, most significantly, the bipartisan passage of industrial and protectionist policy under the Biden and Trump Administrations — also herald an intensification of imperialist competition on an international level. U.S. imperialist capital and its counterparts in China and elsewhere are clearly setting the stage for growing world conflict — war and rumors of war. The Russian war on Ukraine is a clear sign of the intensified imperialist conflict that characterizes the current period. As is always the case, working people will be the main victims of this trend. All this necessitates expanding our efforts to build international working-class solidarity across borders.
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While there was a relative downturn in manufacturing strikes this year, a number of major potential factory strikes appear to be on the horizon. Most prominently, there’s a possibility that tens of thousands of auto workers will walk off the job this year at auto plants across the South and the industrial Midwest when the United Auto Workers’ contracts with the Detroit Three auto manufacturers expire in September. Also worth paying attention to is the 2024 expiration of the UAW’s contracts at major Daimler Truck North America (DTNA) plants throughout North Carolina, which cover thousands of workers employed in the assembly of trucks and buses.
All and all, the notion that the United States is “deindustrialized” — or “post-industrial” in the cringeworthy words of post-Marxist Göran Therborn, an intellectual influence on DSA theorists like Maisano — is a falsehood. Factory workers still occupy a central position in the U.S. economy. With this in mind, I would emphasize that, in addition to the other vital proletarian sectors cited by Jacque, the manufacturing industry must be seen by revolutionary socialists as a key “strategic sector.”
Above all else, the type of Left that we need to build is a blue-collar socialist movement.
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