At moments of rapid and fundamental change, it is critical to assess what is new and emerging, and to discard old ways of thinking. Only then can revolutionaries think and act strategically.
Politics today is becoming real politics – the struggle of classes for the political power to reorganize society. The first step on that path is to demand that the government act in the interests of the public, not the corporations.
Because revolutionaries understand the present and can envision the future, we can also clear out ideological frameworks that lag behind profound and rapid changes in the real world. Categories of thinking and activity – such as identity politics of the 1960’s – that seemed to solve old problems will not solve the new ones.
Expanding capitalism offered opportunities
Movement or identity politics arose in the 1960’s when capitalism was in midst of an extended upswing with increasing production and employment opportunities bringing optimism that the growth would continue indefinitely. People who had long suffered discrimination and oppression on the basis of color, ethnicity, or gender identified with others like themselves and organized in their own “movement” and organizations to demand a piece of the expanding pie.
The principle polarity that shaped world politics then was between the imperialist countries and the colonies and neo-colonies. The Civil Rights Movement was the main domestic expression of that polarity. Our country was battling its way out of a century of Jim Crow laws, segregation, and lynch mobs, which enforced the inequality that followed the Civil War and the defeat of Reconstruction. The Civil Rights Movement was the critical battle on history’s agenda and the central cause in the movement.
The Civil Rights Movement set the tone and pace for all struggles. Color has always been at the cutting edge of American history, not just for African-Americans, but also for other minorities, for women, and other disadvantaged social groups.
Trade union politics also expressed the identity politics of the past period. “Class identity” was too often approached or interpreted as “trade union identity.” As long as the capitalist system was expanding, the trade union movement and its wheel-and-deal politics could deliver the social bribe separate from – and sometimes even at the expense of – domestic social struggles for equality and international struggles for national liberation.
Under those conditions, it’s no wonder that, when approached as trade union identity, class identity drew contempt from the broader social movement still struggling for basic equality.
Equating “class identity” with “trade union identity” was wrong, but understandable at that time. In reality the working class is much broader than the trade union movement, and the social movements for equality were integral to the working class struggle. Class and color in this country are as intertwined as slavery and capitalism.
Old routes closed
The manipulation of divisions, particularly along color or racial lines, within the class has kept the world’s potentially most powerful working class impotent and subservient. Class and color are two different, but interconnected motions. The complex interrelation of these contradictory motions demands that revolutionaries pay strict attention to both aspects, understanding that the ways of thinking that resolved old problems will not solve the problems of today.
Thus, the identity politics that led to the legal and social reforms of the 1960’s and 1970’s has emerged as the leading edge of ruling class ideological and political strategy. It provides a means to corral the social movement, to pit worker against worker, and to block the emergence of the kind of politics necessary to achieve the historically evolved demands of all of society.
The reality is that the broad masses of people did not significantly benefit from the social and legal reforms. However, the elite within each disadvantaged social group benefited and became decisively integrated into the ruling class. This freshly integrated ruling class politically exploits identity politics along color or ethnic or gender lines, turning differences within the working class into divisions.
The ruling class is integrated, but inequality persists. The current economic climate intensifies inequality while dragging down the whole population. The unemployment rate is 50% for African-American males between the ages of 24 and 65 compared to 30% for all males.
But the old routes of struggle for equality and opportunity are closed off. In 1960 a poor Black man was denied the use of a restroom because he was Black. Today, the same Black man is denied the use of a restroom because he is poor and homeless. In the 1960s, unemployed Black women could fight for jobs by demanding that General Motors end its discriminatory hiring practices. Today, it is the federal government that mandated GM’s extensive job cuts.
New polarity emerges
The Government’s bankruptcy restructuring of two corporations at the heart of the American auto industry leaves no doubt about the conclusion of a long chapter in the development of the U.S. working class and the ability of the system to concede benefits to the broad masses of the population. Facing government-brokered lay-offs, no-strike clauses, pay cuts, and elimination of health benefits, autoworkers face not simply their employers but the government itself as the block to getting what they need.
As the government takes huge steps into managing the economy, a new polarity is shifting into predominance. On the one side, the state enforces the regime of the corporations over society. On the other, broader sections of people have to fight for the necessaries of life.
This polarity is beginning to shape the politics of the country. It is awakening people to the need to fight politically. The problems facing the American people are, without a doubt, rooted in capitalism. But what blocks the solution is not the capitalist system in general. Ever more specifically and directly, the block is the political action of the government to protect and serve the laws of private property.
Objective conditions are emerging for the opposing classes in society to confront one another in the political struggle over control of the state. Not since the defeat of Reconstruction after the Civil War has there been the objective basis for class struggle in the U.S.
Today, as then, reality asserts itself. The way forward is not reform of the system or for equal access to non-existent opportunities in a system that is destroying itself. What’s needed is to politicize and prepare the growing class of unemployed, under-employed, and under-paid to fight for the political power to meet their demands and liberate all of society from the regime of the corporations and the laws that protect their private property.
Understanding fundamental change is not an abstract or academic exercise. It is a matter of politics and the political direction our country will take. The ruling class is preparing for its political tasks and the struggle to impose its will on society. To do so, they will have to agitate and prepare a mass base to support the political program of the ruling class.
However such fascist agitation ultimately coalesces, it is bound to appeal to a sense of loss and corral a sense of identity. Fascist agitation can exploit the differences – at one time so celebrated by identity politics – and foment them into divisions, turning worker against worker. Whether it agitates “white identity” against Blacks, or “American identity” against immigrants, or takes some other track, it will appeal to the sense of identity of those who now feel dispossessed of what they once had and channel it to serve the ruling class interests.
Workers cut loose from their economic security can go either way politically. Just as some can be agitated into a mass base for a fascist program, others can be politicized to fight for their own class interests. United across color lines in its economic and class interests, this sector can be the driving force in determining the political direction in which the class fights.
The now unemployed, semi-employed, and underpaid workers – of all nationalities – once personified the American Dream of home ownership, medical and pension benefits, wages that support a family and its vacations and college educations. Almost overnight, these workers now find themselves dispossessed of their financial and social security – at the behest of the government, no less. With the skills, connections, elementary awareness of class interests, and the sense that they are entitled to a decent life, these workers are in the position to pull the whole process forward.
This presents a very real challenge to revolutionaries today. The struggle over how to stabilize the economy opens up the battlefield where class interests can be realized and fought out. Revolutionaries can rely on the actual objective needs of the class and society. We will have to focus on talking with people about their actual interests and how to fight for them politically.
Tasks of revolutionaries
Old ideas linger on past their time. History eventually evens up the consciousness and ideas with the new reality. This process is not even, direct, or automatic. The ruling class perpetuates the old ideas. Revolutionaries have the responsibility to introduce new ideas to reflect the new reality.
Our starting point is not one ideology or another but the demands and actual interests of the class thrown out of work and into battle. Our aim is to coalesce the movement intellectually to prepare it to fight politically for those needs and unleash the struggle to go to its actual conclusion.
Revolutionaries are those who see further and feel deeper. We dread the prospect of our country being terrorized by fascist thugs and our people being subjected to the naked rule of private corporations and private property. We welcome the opportunity to politicize the beginning steps and impulses along the path of a class fighting consciously for its actual interests. These are the first steps of the revolution.
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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