Why don’t working class people come to our meetings?

Stuart Bramhall on why the left fails to attract the working class.

After posing this question to working class clients and friends for 30+ years, I have come up with the following answers:

Liberals and progressives rarely address the nitty gritty financial issues (i.e. paying the rent or mortgage and food and doctor bills) that would motivate blue or pink collar workers to become politically active. When you can’t afford a doctor or shoes for your kids, it’s hard to get excited about wars in the Middle East, banking reform or climate change.

Liberals and progressives tend to be insensitive to working class culture and are often perceived as moralizing about “political correctness” and “lifestyle changes.” This often includes a heavy emphasis on changing light bulbs and other “sacrifices” activists are expected to make to reduce global warming.

My blue collar friends complain about not being heard at political meetings because more educated activists tend to monopolize the discussions.

My working class friends tend to be mistrustful of progressives in general, owing to their tendency to stigmatize common working class issues, especially chronic illness and obesity (which increase in prevalence as income decreases), smoking and gun control.

Liberals and progressive organizers are generally urban, middle class and above, and too often patronizing to the working class whom they expect to quietly listen to and absorb the perceived wisdom from them, their enlightened betters. Marxists are just as guilty of this, if not more so, since they deliberately ignore the white working class in favor of people of color, who are supposedly more prole and thus more authentic. Plus Marxists really expect you to shut up while they tell you about their religion. Few liberal, progessive or Marxist organizers genuinely listen to what the working class says, much less encouraging them to have leadership roles in their organizations. Saul Alinsky did, and that’s precisely why he was so successful.

Challenges that third parties face: the non-electoral approach

(My latest from CAIVN, reprinted in its entirety)

Some third parties prefer to work outside the electoral system, focusing on organizing, direct action, and working towards fundamental changes in society. They would perhaps agree with Emma Goldman’s famous / notorious statement, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” This can include organizations focused on a particular cause, NGOs and nonprofits, special interest groups and others who see our problems as deeply-rooted, with structural changes being needed.

On the Left they would loosely be grouped together as being the hard left or radicals, and sometimes can have a profound, if indirect effect. Many of the anti-Iraq war protests were organized and controlled by micro-Marxist parties who used the mass organizations as front groups. There’s nothing wrong with front groups. Organizers across the political spectrum use them, sometimes quite effectively. But a major problem can arise. The micro-party or group behind the scenes can use the front group as a recruiting tool for the party. This puts it in direct collision with the avowed goal of the front group to build a mass organization.

You can’t have it both ways. Using the front group to recruit means moderates never have any real say and are generally pushed out. But without moderates and members from across the political spectrum, you can’t build a mass group and are doomed to irrelevance. (And before someone squawks about what I said about anti-war front groups, I have direct knowledge of this and was there when it happened.)

Front groups can be highly effective organizing tools, but you need to get your priorities straight and know exactly what your goals are. Even better, make the goals clear to members. Don’t have hidden agendas or hide that it’s a front group. Then you will be more effective and able to genuinely accomplish something.

The Green Party and The Peace and Freedom Party, both of which have ballot status in California, function as hybrids. Some members work within the electoral system while others organize and feel that elections are pointless. Sometimes this can lead to internal conflict. Indeed, this split has been in the Green Party since the 1980’s in Germany and has been dubbed the realos vs. the fundies, with the realos being pragmatists working to elect Greens, while the fundies tend to be further left and favor activism, getting in the streets, and organizing. I think any third party or group working towards change will have this kind of split. The best you can do is accept that it’s there and try to keep things friendly and focused.

One of the most effective means of organizing is the community organizing approach developed by Saul Alinsky. Any third party or group can use his principles. Indeed, anti-ACORN filmmaker James O’Keefe quoted from Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals as inspiration when he was posting those damning videos. Clearly, the Right has read and learned from Alinsky, and the Left might do well to re-read him again.

Alinsky was not socialist and in fact had little use for them and could not have achieved his objectives if he had been. He once said “Quotes from Mao, Castro, and Che Guevara… are as germane to our highly technological, computerized society as a stagecoach on a jet runway at Kennedy airport.” His first success was in organizing the desperately poor, mostly eastern European immigrant area called Back of the Yards in Chicago in the 1930’s. He did this teaming up with the Catholic Church, which was staunchly anti-Communist. He told them, if I organize and they get better pay, then contributions to your churches will go up. Plus, if we don’t work together, then the Communists probably will organize them. They teamed up and the workers eventually unionized from the meatpacking plants. From there, he started many groups, one of which recruited a young farm worker in 1952 named Cesar Chavez.

Alinsky and his organizations didn’t have preconceived agendas. When organizing in a new area, they started by listening to what people said, to what their concerns were. Then they helped them begin a group. Today, in a crucial difference with other organizing styles, community organizers quite deliberately let the people run their own group when they’re ready to and when the group is considered to be strong enough. The group then becomes the very essence of community organizing, locally based and locally operated, with no hidden agendas.

Alinsky was a non-socialist left-wing radical. However, his ideas and tactics can be used by any group across the political spectrum that is working towards change. This country is probably on the verge of an upsurge in third and independent parties as well as non-electoral organizing. Me, I favor both approaches, electoral and in the streets. Let’s all do what we can to break the two-party duopoly and get real reform.

What’s the difference between a radical and a good organizer?

Radicals at Work, “activists building a stronger labor movement”, detail six points about what a good organizer does and how being a doctrinaire radical can get in the way of organizing effectively.

What they’re saying is very much in the Saul Alinsky mode. He was a genuine radical who had little use for Marxism. His tactics were to go into a community, find out what the people there needed, start an organization, and let them run it. That’s the crucial difference between Marxist ideologues and community organizing. One tells the people what they want and runs the organization. The other listens, helps them get started, then gets out of the way.

Had to laugh at how they closed the article

“Have you bought the latest issue of Revolutionary Proletarian Vanguard (M-L)?”

Hold up, you’re probably by saying by now: what about all those annoying radicals who are terrible organizers?

I call that MAWMWSN (Middle-aged White Males With Socialist Newspapers), something which often makes people run in the other direction.

The point is obvious: being a radical doesn’t automatically make you a good organizer.

In fact, it seems that for many people, being a radical is the reason they’re a bad organizer. There are too many radicals who put building their own socialist group, or selling their newspaper, or winning an argument before building up workers’ capacity to fight.

I’m not saying socialist organization is bad. I’m in one.

As I’ve said here many times, either you build a genuine mass organization and thus allow moderates a major role or you use the front group as a way to recruit for the party and thus remain ineffective and tiny. But you can’t have it both ways.

But here’s the problem: there’s not a mass base for socialist or radical ideas in the working class today [see the first article in this series]. Good arguments and socialist newspapers aren’t going to change that.

What will? Struggle. Taking on the boss. Finding out that we can win when we come together. When workers are fighting—and winning—they’re more likely to pay attention to socialist ideas.

Absolutely. However, the important thing is their lives might be better. Alinsky was once asked about Back of the Yards, the organization he founded in Chicago in the 1930’s, creating community organizing in the process. These desperately poor, exploited meatpacking plant employees fought back and eventually won major concessions from the plant owners. Decades later, Back of the Yards became right-wing. He said, well then, go back and organize it again. But when I left them in the 30’s, they were standing straight for the first time in their lives, and that was good enough for me.

Saul Alinsky. Organizing in the Depression. And you thought things were turbulent now


From the Playboy interview with Saul Alinsky in 1972.

PLAYBOY: How close was the country to revolution during the Depression?

ALINSKY: A lot closer than some people think. It was really Roosevelt’s reforms that saved the system from itself and averted total catastrophe. You’ve got to remember, it wasn’t only people’s money that went down the drain in 1929; it was also their whole traditional system of values. Americans had learned to celebrate their society as an earthly way station to paradise, with all the cherished virtues of hard work and thrift as their tickets to security, success and happiness. Then suddenly, in just a few days, those tickets were canceled and apparently unredeemable, and the bottom fell out of everything.

But then people began to come together, to join forces, to help each other.

Now, in America, new voices and new values began to be heard, people began citing John Donne’s “No man is an island,” and as they started banding together to improve their lives, they found how much in common they had with their fellow man. It was the first time since the abolitionist movement, for example, that there was any significant black-white unity, as elements of both races began to move together to confront the common enemies of unemployment and starvation wages. This was one of the most important aspects of the Thirties: not just the political struggles and reforms but the sudden discovery of a common destiny and a common bond of humanity among millions of people. It was a very moving experience to witness and be part of it.

PLAYBOY: You sound a little nostalgic.

ALINSKY: Yeah, those were exciting days to be alive in. And goddamn violent days, too. Whenever people wail to me about all the violence and disorder in American life today, I tell them to take a hard look back at the Thirties. At one time, you had thousands of American veterans encamped along the Anacostia petitioning the Government for a subsistence bonus until they were driven out at bayonet point by the Army, led by “I shall return” MacArthur. Negroes were being lynched regularly in the South as the first stirrings of black opposition began to be felt, and many of the white civil rights organizers and labor agitators who had started to work with them were tarred, feathered, castrated — or killed. Most Southern politicians were members of the Ku Klux Klan and had no compunction about boasting of it.

The giant corporations were unbelievably arrogant and oppressive and would go to any lengths to protect their freedom — the freedom to exploit and the freedom to crush any obstacle blocking the golden road to mammon. Not one American corporation — oil, steel, auto, rubber, meat packing — would allow its workers to organize; labor unions were branded subversive and communistic and any worker who didn’t toe the line was summarily fired and then blacklisted throughout the industry. When they defied their bosses, they were beaten up or murdered by company strikebreakers or gunned down by the police of corrupt big-city bosses allied with the corporations, like in the infamous Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago when dozens of peaceful pickets were shot in the back.

Those who kept their jobs were hired and fired with complete indifference, and they worked as dehumanized servomechanisms of the assembly line. There were no pensions, no unemployment insurance, no Social Security, no Medicare, nothing to provide even minimal security for the worker. When radicals fought back against these conditions by word or deed, they were hounded and persecuted by city police and by the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, who back in those days was already paranoid, while in Washington the House Un-American Activities Committee hysterically sounded the alarm against the gathering Bolshevik hordes. As bloody strikes and civic disorder swept the nation, the big cry was for law and order. Nobody talked about pollution then; yet the workers in coal and steel towns were shrouded in a perpetual pall of soot and black dust, while in cities like Chicago, people in the meatpacking areas grew up amid a stench so overpowering that if they ever ventured out into the country, the fresh air made them sick. Yeah, those were the good old days, all right. Shit, the country was far more polarized and bitter then than it is today.

This is crucial. The 30’s (and the 60’s) were far more violent and turbulent than anything going on now. Not only did the country survive those eras, much needed social change came out of them too; union and community organizing in the 30’s and the civil rights, environmental, feminist, and antiwar movements of the 60’s. And they all went mainstream.

We can do the same now.

Saul Alinsky. Rules for Radicals. Means vs. ends

(Part 5 of a 5-part series this week about Alinsky)

From Rules for Radicals.

He says the eternal question of does the end justify the means is meaningless and the real and only question is, “Does this particular end justify this particular means?”

He has little use for those who sit on the sidelines and moralize.

They are passionately committed to a mystical objectivity where passions are suspect… They can be recognized by one of two verbals brands. “We agree with the ends but not the means” or “This is not the time.” The means-and-end moralists or non-doers always end up on their ends without any means.

Also, by constantly urging no action, they are actually siding with the Haves, not the Have-Nots. Plus, sometimes doing nothing is the height of immorality and shows a total lack of ethics. And cowardice as well.

Alinsky’s rules about the ethics of ends and means. (9 is my favorite.)

1. One’s concern with the ethics of means and ends varies inversely with one’s personal interest in the issue.

2. The judgment of the ethics of means is dependent upon the political position of those sitting in judgment.

3. In war the end justifies almost any means.

4. Judgment must be made in the context of the times in which the action occurred and not from any other chronological vantage point.

5. Concern with ethics increases with the number of means available and vice versa.

6. The less important the end to be desired, the more one can afford to engage in ethical evaluations of means.

7. Generally, success or failure is a mighty determinant of ethics.

8. The morality of a means depends upon whether the means is being employed at a time of imminent defeat or imminent victory.

9. Any effective means is automatically judged by the opposition as being unethical.

10. You do what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral garments.

11. Goals must be phrased in general terms like “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” “Of the Common Welfare,” “Pursuit of Happiness,” or “Bread and Peace.”

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