Democrats and Bureaucrats Lament Their Defeat
The Myth of a “White Working Class”
“Identity Politics” at a Dead End
As the Democratic Party licks its wounds in the aftermath of the elections, it has sought to pin responsibility for defeat on sinister forces from the FBI to Vladimir Putin and Russian hacking. Another of its pathetic attempts at self-justification is to blame the “white working class” for Trump’s victory. With smug condescension the liberal media dispatch reporters to Ohio and Iowa to find out why the “rubes” voted for the Donald. Union bureaucrats, meanwhile, who tried to force Hillary Clinton with her “free-trade” policies down the throats of their members, blame the Democrats for ignoring the “white working class.” Now the labor tops want to work with Trump pushing protectionist economic policies which set U.S. workers against their class sisters and brothers abroad.
But there is no specific “white working class.” There are not a multitude of working classes identifiable by race, gender and ethnicity. There is a single multiracial working class in the United States, defined by its economic and social relationship to the means of production rather than by racial or cultural identity. You can see this in nearly every worksite and particularly in the cauldron of class struggle – on the picket line and in labor action. Furthermore, the working class is inherently international, a unique and revolutionary social development in human history. The working class today is about 60% non-Latino white, but according to projections in a study by the Economic Policy Institute, it will be “majority minority” in a decade and a half.
What is behind the sudden concern for the “white working class”? Two words: Hillary lost. The Democrats’ vaunted electoral “blue wall” crumbled “bigly” in what were once Democratic strongholds of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio – the so-called “rust belt.” The response of the labor bureaucracy, which since the 1930s has chained workers to the Democratic Party, was summed up in the headline of The Chief (18 November), the New York City weekly for public employees: “Union Officials, Dreading Trump Presidency, Say Clinton Disregarded Discontent Among White Working-Class.” The sordid and reactionary conclusion of bureaucrats and Democrats is to woo white workers by adapting to Trump’s racism.
In the post-mortem blame game, as they seek to refurbish their party’s appeal, they are opposing struggles against racism, homophobia and xenophobia. The columnist Nicholas Kristof summed up the liberal faction fight: “One faction argues that the left became too focused on ‘identity politics,’ fighting for the rights of Muslims, gays, blacks and Latinos but neglecting themes of economic justice that would appeal to everyone, working-class whites in particular” (New York Times, 8 December). The same theme is echoed by Bernie Sanders.
Their common assumption is that most Trump-voting white workers are solidly racist. By projecting the working class as just another identity, the Democratic politicians imagine that they can compete for racist votes. The lesson they have drawn from defeat is that the Democratic Party has become too associated with its African American, Latino and gay/lesbian constituents. While criticizing “identity politics,” they hope to add white identity to their rainbow of constituencies. But white identity in the U.S. is always necessarily racist. Historically there was and is no white race. The myth of a “Caucasian” identity was a social construct, in contrast to black oppression under slavery and Jim Crow segregation.
On the other hand, some black liberals, such as MSNBC commentator Joy Reed, have reached the second stage of electoral grief – anger – and directed it at the “white working class.” Her article in the Daily Beast (December 9) is titled, “Hey, White Working Class, Donald Trump Is Already Screwing You Over.” With barely concealed Schadenfreude, she ticks off many of the ways the Trump regime will hurt working-class Trump voters while protecting her own more privileged economic position. Trump will gut your Medicare, she says, privatize your Social Security, pollute your air and water, lower your wages and bust your unions, outsource your jobs. Ha! Then you’ll be punished for not voting for Hillary.
This arrogant petty-bourgeois rant is positively delusional. Trump will be “screwing over” the entire working class, not only white Trump voters in Pennsylvania, and will also be coming after black journalists.
Opposition to identity politics can come from two radically different directions. When “color-blind” liberals and Democrats like Bernie Sanders attack it they are resisting raising any special demands against black oppression. This is also the case with some pseudo-socialist groups like the Socialist Equality Party (a/k/a the World Socialist Web Site) which vituperates against “Black Lives Matter” marches. In contrast, when revolutionary Marxists (Trotskyists) oppose identity politics we are opposing the bourgeois liberal notion that a person’s politics are directly derived from their individual identities rather than class, dividing different oppressed groups into competing sectoral “identities.” And as Leninists, our answer is to call for class struggle against racism, sexism and all forms of social oppression.
Identity politics have become the default position in the U.S. in the absence of sharp class struggle. Choose your group: are you a worker or African American? A woman or an immigrant? Etc. Of course, for a black woman immigrant worker, for instance, this makes no sense. So in an effort to preserve identity-driven politics in the face of such absurdities, academics have invented “intersectionality,” adding up the identities. Instead, it is necessary to overcome the poisonous divisions that make it easier for the ruling class to prevail by setting one group against another in their unrelenting class war.
Identity certainly matters in life and political struggle. In a society as racist as the U.S., those who are designated as outsiders are singled out to face endless oppressions in the routines of daily life, as well as existential terror. An African American, Native American, Latino or immigrant may be unable to hail a taxi, or be stopped, frisked and arrested on trumped-up charges, and sometimes shot by killer cops. The question is how to fight back. A black subway worker in New York City has real power when she acts as part of the union and in concert with other workers to fight against racist cop killings.
For Revolutionary Class Struggle
… And the Democrats
For all the talk of an upset in an election like no other, the aftermath has followed a familiar script. A fake populist promises to shake things up and bust up the Washington establishment. Once in office, the new regime implements the program of the Chamber of Commerce, the Fraternal Order of Police, Wall Street, imperialist militarists, and anti-immigration racists. Americans always vote for change, and always get the same class domination and oppression. Neither capitalist party has anything to offer the working class but continued exploitation and misery. Trump, who promised to “drain the swamp” of special interests, has dredged up the most hideous creatures from the white lagoon for his military-billionaire complex – the most right-wing cabinet in U.S. history.
The idea that the Democratic Party has abandoned the “white working class” has long been the preoccupation of liberals (like filmmaker Michael Moore) who yearn nostalgically for a return to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1930s New Deal. The Democrats didn’t abandon working-class interests . Like the Republicans, Democrats have always represented the interests of the capitalist exploiters of workers. Since FDR’s New Deal coalition, workers mainly have been bound to their class oppressors through the treachery of the Democratic Party-loyal labor bureaucracy. But with deindustrialization and the dramatic loss of union jobs through sellouts and defeats, that bond has weakened.
In the 1950’s one in three workers was in a private-sector union. Today it is one in twenty. Even with the decline in union membership overall, public-sector unionism gained and now has about half of the 11% of union workers in the U.S. workforce. Blue-collar black and white male workers have disproportionately lost their jobs as American industry has been gutted as a result of “free-trade” policies and the global capitalist economic depression following the 2008 crash. Today, it is mainly through the unionized public sector that black people, after the civil rights movement, have managed to gain and hold on to some bargaining power and improve their lives.
How to fight back against Donald Trump: Striking NYC postal workers, 18 March 1970. The postal strike, in the middle of the Vietnam War, was led by black workers in defiance of a federal no-strike law and their own sellout union bureaucrats. Despite President Nixon's mobilization of Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine and National Guard troops, the strikers held firm in the biggest wildcat strike in U.S. history, winning the right to collective bargaining.
Now public workers nationwide stand to lose the right to collective bargaining, whether through a Supreme Court decision or a national “right-to-work” law. Yet it is possible to defeat anti-union legislation, as was demonstrated in the powerful and successful 1970 postal strike led by black workers which defied federal state power. The walkout was illegal from the outset, as postal workers were banned by law from collective bargaining and from striking. Beset by low wages and benefits and subjected to unhealthy and unsafe working conditions, workers in New York City struck in defiance of their union leaders. It was the largest wildcat strike in U.S. history.
After two days, Republican president Richard Nixon, just as reactionary as Donald Trump, ordered strikers back to work. Instead, angry postal workers in hundreds of locations around the country joined the strike. After six days, Nixon declared a national emergency and threatened to have troops distribute the mail. Over 18,000 Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine and National Guard active-duty and reserve personnel were dispatched to NYC post offices. But Nixon hesitated to arrest strike leaders because the strike was so popular. After eight days the strikers went back, without a single firing, and winning the right to collective bargaining. They didn’t win the legal right to strike, but that hadn’t stopped them from waging a successful “illegal” strike.
Defeat is pretty much assured if the capitalist oppressors wage class war while workers are divided by identity-driven politics. Victory is possible when those divisions are overcome on the basis of a revolutionary program and leadership that champions and organizes all the oppressed. The power of the working class must be the driving force of the fight against racism and sexism and all social oppression in capitalist society. To mobilize the power of the multiracial working class requires a multiracial revolutionary workers party to lead the struggle for socialist revolution so we can achieve liberation for all the oppressed. ■