Class and the Left

Andy at Socialist Unity has a long, thoughtful post about why The Labour Party may well get crushed in the next general election. Much of the reason is due to Labour ignoring their traditional constituency as well as changing attitudes about class.

The proportion of society that is self-consciously working class is diminished, and there have been huge changes in social attitudes, and cultural diversification that have led to the traditionalist left being increasingly marginalised.

The common retort to which is that many of those who don’t see themselves as working class objectively still are, and if there was a higher level of class struggle then their political attitudes would change, but this puts the cart before the horse.

Traditional leftist analysis always comes back to this. If the masses knew how badly they were being shafted, then they’d do something. Well, maybe they do know but aren’t interested in your solution as presented. This ties in with Marxist dogma (which seeps in everywhere) that social change can only come from the working class,so, by God, if you aren’t what we define as working class then you must be worthless boojies. By that bizarre reckoning, Marx, Lenin, Castro, and Che would have been excluded because they came from well-off non-working class backgrounds.

In Marx’s day, class distinctions were distinct and obvious. But today, they are blurry and mashed-up. The Left unintentionally marginalizes itself by trying to force events of today to fit political theory from 150 years ago. Is class important? Absolutely. But since the Left is demonstrably not making inroads into organizing the working class (however it might be defined) then clearly new ideas and tactics are needed.

Mass change happens when the masses act together. Thus, to organize them you need to appeal (and listen) to all of them. Not just to those you deem most oppressed. More to the point, you need to light the fuse, provide initial help and guidance, then step out of the way and let them organize themselves. Because how else can a massive cross-class coalition happen except if it is organized by members of those very same classes? And not by hardcore Lefties trying to steer it.

Because too often such mass work is done by a little sectarian faction as a way to recruit for their organization. Sorry, can’t have it both ways. Either it’s really for the people or it’s for a Leftist corpuscle. The whole concept of a vanguard party somehow steering the masses in our current era of instant communications and feedback is archaic and no longer works – if it ever did. (Lenin didn’t do it the way Leninists often think he did. Instead, he had genuine mass support and encouraged internal disagreement.)

Socialist Unity ends with quoting Zoe Gannon

It is, and will always be, the challenge of the centre left to construct a cross class coalition – based on the hopes and fears of all; and understanding who the middle classes are and what they really care about is essential. How we do this is a challenge which will always be at the heart of the progressive left.


  1. Yes and no, Bob. Yes and no. While it is true that ‘the left’ traditionally tries to create a fightback I think it is a caricature to argue that it a rule of politics that it has to consciously class based. Some folk think that way but the general practice has been otherwise.

    The anti-war, womens, & environment movement for instance are , if you like or want to worry about the content, ‘multi class’. And no one — or at least very few — pass on organising in those movements.

    However I happen to disagree with Andy on his formulation. I think his argument has developed out of the British far left context which has been somewhat workerist in its orientation buoyed up by sectarianism.

    In effect he is arguing for a sort of Green Party approach. but with a broader platform. This would be the perspective of folk like Peter Camejo too. I think its valid up to a point because it doesn’t tick all the boxes in regard to what needs doing. And thats’ the conundrum because ‘what needs doing’ presumes that you also have in mind the means to do it.

    I can say I’m all for a ‘multiclass party’ but that doesn’t mean I can then create one and even if I did — such as Camejo was part of in the GP — I’d need to be aware of some of the complications and problems I’d have to deal with en route. Because having a formation means diddlysquat unless you can also do something with it.

    The German Greens did very well at the ballot box. So?

    I’m not making light work of that achievement but perhaps you can see some of the problems that kicked in with the Greens in Germany? Today the Green Party there is being displaced on the left by Die Linke. And thats’ one very exciting template. But, as this piece suggests — Germany: Die Linke, one year on — the success of Die Linke creates its own set of political problems…and opportunities.

    Elsewhere you have an example like the Dutch Socialist Party which has garnered significant success while still being loyal to a public class allegiance.

    And there are many other examples especially across Europe of new party formationw many oif which could be described as ‘multi class’.. So what do we make of them?

    My view — and I know its one shared by others here in Australia in the Socialist Alliance is that you do what you can given the options and opportunities and any one time. Any formation is going to be a product of many processes and different formats over time. But where the left stumbles is that it so often cannot address that question in the here and no. Instead there’s much talk of future parties and such but without the sense or substance to get there.

    That’s the real problem: getting from ‘a’ to ‘b’ and then consciously navigating that journey. The history of New Zealand politics, for instance, over the past 15 years is littered with new party experiments with Residents Action Movement being the latest exciting development. I think RAM warrants study from a US POV. (See interview I did here:Tipping point in New Zealand politics at the grassroots: The Residents Action Movement) The Kiwis haver a sharp feel for the class ‘debate’ you raised.

    The reality is that Andy’s Respect Renewal is ahead of what’s on offer in the US and in its traction it has been more succesful than our project here in Australia. There aint no quick panacea as any consideration of recent Scottish Socialist Party history suggests. But there’s one absolute rule I can vouch for: there’s no way forward except your own way and your own mistakes in your own indigenous political conditions.

    As Jerry Rubin was want to say(before he joined the stock market!):”Do it!”

  2. I don’t have the answers here and greatly respect Andy, his blog, and what Respect Renewal is doing.

    As a past member of a Left grouplet where people said and believed that only organizing among the most oppressed is worthwhile because only they can lead a revolution, I did then and still find such inanities self-defeating. (But when they say, as some did, that Mugabe must be supported because he stands against imperialism, then it becomes toxic, not merely inane.)

    The problem with the US Green Party as I’ve blogged about here, is mostly structural. A consensus-style can not and does not lead to quick action. And quick action is often needed in politics. So, yeah, group dynamics (and lack of being dynamic) get in the way.

    Something Saul Alinsky once said might be applicable. Someone asked him, hey, Back of the Yards, that organization you started in the 30’s (and which was the first example of community organizing), their leaders can be reactionary now.

    Alinsky said his goal was always to start the organization, help it along, then let them run it. So, if decades later the organization gets reactionary, then organize it again. But after he started it and turned over the reins, those people were standing tall for the first time in their lives and that was good enough for him.

    Two things about this. 1) he was aiming for concrete change at a local level, not big pie-in-the-sky theory. 2) He let the people run their organization and didn’t try to continually steer and influence it.

  3. Bob, you brush past an important point: political “awakening,” if you will, has little to do with political parties. It is the process of helping others to awaken to their own power, and it need not have anything to do with electoral politics. From what I know of Alinsky, he understood this quite well– but the traditional Left, like American politics as a whole, is stuck in the party-politics mindset.

    I’m familiar with several examples of this. Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka applies engaged Buddhism to the goal of community awakening with the political taget of gramswaraj– village sovereignty. DISAC in Thailand uses what is essentially Catholic liberation theology to help the poor find new economic advantages as well as awakening to their political potential. And Sarvodaya in India is a loose coalition of Gandhian (non-religious) organizations that share a common goal but have no single approach to it. All three of these have been quite successful, and all have avoided party politics.

    Here’s an interesting question, noting that two of these examples are rooted in some form of religion: why is it that in much of the world, politicized religion leans left, but in this country it most often leans right? There are plenty of left-leaning religious people out there. The Unitarian victims of the TN church shooting are just one of many examples, and so are the Christian Peacemakers (Mennonites) who got kidnapped in Iraq last year. But they gain little political traction. Is it because the traditional Marxist Left considers religion anathema? Or is it that Americans as a whole, as the richest people in the world, have little use for leftist politics? Or is it something else?

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