Comments on Class and the Left (cont.)

Readers comment on our post, Class and the Left.

Dave Riley on organizing

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 now. 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.

Part of this may be because most Left groups are small and don’t have sufficient numbers, money, or power to effect mass change. So it all ends up kind of theoretical, from the outside looking in. One possible reason why (aside from the endless sectarian squabbling) is that the Left can use old phraseology and terms that are so loaded that they produce the opposite of the desired effect. Let me explain. Here in the States, where most people don’t know what socialism is, mentioning it too soon can drive away those you want to attract. Someone said that as soon as John Edwards mentioned the word “class” in his recent presidential primary campaign, he was dead meat. That’s just the way it is here. So, unless you want to launch a ten year campaign to educate the US public about the concept of class, then maybe new terms and ways of phrasing things are called for.

In the UK, things appear different. People know about class and what socialism is. I once read an interview with Reg Smythe, the comic strip artist who did Andy Capp. He mentioned in passing that in the UK you can tell a person’s class by the shoes they wear. I found that weird, as would many Americans, and asked two friends, one English, one from Wales, if it were true. Well of course, they answered, as if it was totally obvious. (Can you tell a person’s class in the US from their clothes? Sometimes. Sort of. But Symthe was very specific, to the point of delineating between the lower lower, lower middle, and upper lower classes. Such distinctions are not nearly as obvious here.)

So, the experience of class varies hugely from country to country, something organizers need to realize. Thus, tactics that work in one country may not in another. Most people in the US oppose the war and are also finding it harder to make ends meet. This would seem fertile recruiting grounds for the Left, but instead, the Left seems isolated, unable to connect on a mass level.

Vanguard parties don’t help. Those same tireless organizers in mass groups often are in little Left grouplets. There is an inherent conflict between doing mass work like antiwar organizing and recruiting for their little corpuscule. A very real danger is they will deliberately exclude people in the mass group who don’t follow their party line. This drives away the centrists and the curious, preventing the group from becoming a genuinely broad-based organization.

So how do we get from “a” to “b”? Ideas?


  1. Part of the complication is that most Americans consider themselves middle class, from the minimum wage workers to the $200K & up professionals. Though clearly there are differences, we like to BELIEVE we are (1) all the same and (2) upwardly mobile– it’s part of the American psyche. That’s why talking about class doesn’t work.

    In answer to your question, here’s a counter-question: If you wanted to prevent people from organizing, what would you do? Gut the educational system, pipe in 1,000 TV channels with a multitude of sports, emphasize patriotism with constant war, and make sure people are just comfortable enough but never quite without fear of losing their comfort. Glorify greed and selfishness. The neocons have been geniuses at this, starting with Reagan in 1980.

    To get people interested in organizing: educate and immerse them in the lives and problems of others. The latter, by the way, is something left-leaning Catholics do quite well. Those who seek change would do well to do as trhe Japanese did in the early 20th century: get out more, see what’s working, and see how it might apply here at home. The Sri Lankan model is quite successful there, but would need significant modification and combination with other methods to do well here.

    Bring together the Sarvodaya principles with Catholic Action consciousness raising and Alinsky-style organizing, for example, and you might have a winner. But read Sharif Abdullah on inclusivity– the us & them mentality dooms an approach to failure.

  2. I keep coming back to Alinsky. He would start an organization, then step out of the way and let those involved run it. He didn’t have a predetermined agenda and didn’t try to steer the group. Sometimes the Left can be preachy and dogmatic. He apparently wasn’t that way.

    He was a committed radical who thought Marxism was irrelevant. Part of that could have been because he originally organized in the poor, working class, eastern European immigrant Back of the Yards area of Chicago in the 30’s and needed (and got) support from the Catholic Church which would have been impossible if he was socialist.

    BTW, one of his organizations in Los Angeles recruited a young farm worker in 1952 by the name of Cesar Chavez.

  3. Don’t go slitting your wrists over all this. Every political moment has its problems and prospects.

    In Germany in 1933 the working class was the most conscious and best organised in all of Europe 5 minutes before Hitler came to power.

    In Chile in 1973 the movement was on a roll before the coup against Allende…

    So it goes…

    But that doesn’t mean you cannot stop asking the question: what is to be done? And then going out and doing it. The problem with much of the far left is that they don’t.…do it — because they are warped by schemata.

    But context will vary. Here in Australia and the UK we tend to reference the historical strength of the trade unions and look forward to a quickening there while we do our other movement work (more broadly I think in Australia than in the UK).

    Whereas in the States you do have this strong thread & history of community organising Thats’ not the case here. Thats’ because, I expect, a lot of political work can and is carried out outside the context of the US Democrats.I mean hardly any one there votes so wheres’ the draw of being party political? Similarly there is no way in Hades that even the Green Party are going to break the duopoly of the electoral system.

    Thats’ why, I think,Bernie Sanders has got so far — he wasn’t party political.

    That doesn’t make you’re worse off than other radicals overseas — only different with different tasks. Although I think political culture there seems to pander to a libertarian preference as the whole US ideological ethos is chronic individualism.

    Thats’ why you are always going to get dialogues about class because ‘class’ is the great leveler whether people are aware of its potency or not.

    I’m reading Deer Hunting with Jesus at the moment and the Redneck conservative is speaking loud and proud from its pages. Here that sort of ideology isn’t consolidated. We get our own form of it — the little Aussie Battler — but it’s a touchy beast and not house trained. So here the duopoly is being worn down sometimes with a rightward surge around issues of race and sometimes left towards the Greens.

    The problem in the US it seems to me is how can the Dems contain the frustrations of the population — even if they swing behind them more in 2009? And I think thats’ a more general issue and that’s why the collateral advantage of the War on Terror is the way modern government has become much more oppressive and much less democratic. Theres’ no room today for a New Deal. Governments don’t reform with welfare in mind — only to restructure and pander to God Market. (EG: In the US any reforming the health system it seems to me is more about throwing a life line to business who are complaining about the health care costs for their employees.)

    The other part of the story is that any thing that needs doing has to be done now. I think this is so very important. Because any movement that is worth its salt has to go through the hard yards of struggle, to share the experience of the rest of the population, if it can ever hope to help harness its collective strength. Its’ not about finding a panacea whereby you can bypass the hard slog. History isn’t that kind.

    If it seems that we face a political cul de sac then you have no choice but to make the best of it. Better to do that than to drop out of the struggle altogether. (although that’s more than likely the case for most activists over time.)

  4. > The problem in the US it seems to me is how can the Dems contain the frustrations of the population — even if they swing behind them more in 2009?

    I don’t think they can. A Obama presidency will raise all sorts of hopes and desires for real change. I doubt them will be able to plug and channel it. So this could be an opening for the Left.

    > There’s no room today for a New Deal. Governments don’t reform with welfare in mind — only to restructure and pander to God Market.

    But there may well be an economic Marshall Plan to repair the infrastructure and go cleantech. This could create lots of new jobs and stave off the worst of the recession.

    As for my activism, I’m looking for new outlets here in SF. We did a lot of traveling after moving here. However Sue just started her Master’s program now. I’m paying the rent by trading options and now that we’re settled, looking for activism to get involved with.

  5. Dave makes some good points. I consider myself a pragmatist, with little tolerance for labels like Right and Left. Though I consider myself a traditional conservative, people Left and Right think I have more in common with the Left. Go figure.

    That said, it’s not about what I believe, it’s about getting things done. When the team I worked on helped move Sri Lanka into the 2002Cease-Fire Agreement, voters had little to do with it. That country, too, is trapped in the grip of politcal party stranglehold. Rather, after literally years of planning and experimentation, we were able to catalyze massive grassroots support for peace that forced the two combatants into changing their agendas… for a while. (Don’t get me wrong, the Norwegians were instrumental in the negotiating process. But I wonder if they realize how much the grassroots movement helped them.)

    “Deer Hunting with Jesus” should be a real eye-opener. This is a vast segment of America that the Left is just now noticing, but the Right has been slowly cultivating for over thirty years. Y’all got some catching up to do. But, just as you said different things work in different places, trying to boil it down to class won’t work here for several reasons. One, as Bob eloquently describes, class is so blurred in the U.S. that it has no meaning in the traditional Leftist sense. Two, to get anything done requires the cooperation of all (or at least most) classes. Three, the American people don’t want to hear about class– we need to believe that the kid from the ghetto has as much chance to be President as the Bushes and Clintons. (And why not? Isn’t Obama the grandson of a Kenyan goatherder?)

    I agree with you that what needs to be done, needs to be done “now.” But prepare for a laong haul– the greedmongers have a three-decade head start. Meaningful results are going to take a while. And there are no shortcuts.

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