The “White Working Class” and the Road Forward


Sam Gindin, a Canadian academic and former researcher for the Canadian Auto Workers, published an article in Jacobin called “Toward a Mass Socialist Party”. The topic is the burning question on the left, doubly so after the spectacular self-immolation of the Democratic Party in a loss to Donald J. Trump, so Gindin’s article deserves a response.

The article reads oddly, because it is halfway written from a Canadian perspective, and Gindin constantly tries to equate processes in the United States with those in Canada. This is a frankly bad way to analyze two separate (though interconnected) countries, each of which faces a situation that has meaningful differences from the other. Gindin’s myopia in discussing Canada winds up being one of the factors in why his article fails to diagnose the situation in the United States.

His analysis also misses the mark on the economic basis of the crisis. When Gindin writes, “The rising unemployment that accompanied the crisis weakened labor and with labor having no independent alternative of its own, the capitalist options readily won the day, weakening labor further,” he avoids the role of the labor bureaucracy. As neoliberal solutions were imposed, labor was in need of a fightback that could mobilize the still-organized ranks of its membership. Instead, the bureaucrats consistently subordinated the needs of the working class to their “friends” in the Democratic Party, who were a part of the neoliberal project.

In Gindin’s favor, the article does clearly delineate the task of building a mass socialist party from previous attempts at left social-democracy, such as the New Democratic Party in Canada or the 1990s attempt at a Labor Party in the United States. It sees their horizon as having been narrowly social-democratic rather than taking a visionary socialist approach. However, it is a weakness that Gindin fails to clearly recognize that the programmatic demands of the Bernie Sanders campaign had similar limitations.

Sanders opened up the idea that “socialism” is a political choice for the first time in generations, but his platform was much more modest and never touched on the core of socialism, which Gindin agrees is a much deeper change of the economic and social system. But Gindin is too lenient on Sanders’s choice to run as a Democrat. We must be realistic: the Democrats are a prop to the capitalist system and a party that is ultimately owned by Wall Street. Despite its popular facade, the Democrats, as Gindin rightly points out, are one of two parties of neoliberal austerity.

Gindin’s argument is strongest is when he says that one of the tasks ahead is “to develop the capacities to build a new world.” This means, in concrete ways, developing the ability of the working class to confront capitalism and work toward an alternative society built on working class democracy. He traces this through its logical conclusions in what he calls a “stress test”. This points out, correctly, many of the basic tasks: forming democratic groupings, organizing an infrastructure, acting like a party. If Gindin had stopped here, there would be some objection but the general article would have been useful.

Unfortunately, when he tries to draw some programmatic points, Gindin’s analysis falls on its face. He fails in a deep way to make the case that socialism takes anti-racism seriously.

First, Gindin attempts – through practicality – to agree with the media’s conception of the frustrations that gave rise to Donald Trump’s political star.

Any attempt to fight the expected direction of the Trump presidency can’t start by blaming the white working class for Trump’s victory but must take the frustrations of the white working class seriously and win them to its side.

This concession is seriously flawed. Gindin is wrong to conceive of a “white working class.” There is only one working class, and it is multi-racial. The media has used this idea as a sort of cultural signifier: the blue-collar, horny-handed white proletarians versus the multi-cultural inner-city masses. The dichotomy is false, and it is worrying to see people identifying themselves as socialists accepting it. White workers are not a class, and they are in no way a monolithic bloc. Moreover, whites have the same class interests as other workers. Taking this stratification as a given, Gindin proceeds to make dangerous swerves away from a socialist platform.

In this context, class politics is not a stand-in for setting aside the injustices of racism but rather a reminder that categories abstracted from class — like “white,” “black,” and “Latino” — obscure the imbalances in power internal to each group; that only a class orientation can unify an otherwise fragmented working class; and insisting on class unity implies the committed, active support for full equality within the class. Fighting racism inside the class and in society as a whole is fundamental to building class power.

This is a formulation that, as Richard S. Fraser pointed out in Dialectics of Black Liberation, is precisely backward. Fraser showed that “Independent class action can be accomplished only through class consciousness, which, in turn, can only be realized through the destruction of race-conscious white supremacy.” This turns Gindin’s notion on its head, and shows that far from being “abstracted,” the broad fight for racial equality is a form of class struggle.

This is not a minor point of emphasis. Gindin’s politics push the struggles for racial equality back within “class” concepts: fighting for equal wages, rights to union access, and so on. Fraser’s contribution was to say that this is not enough – that the class demands cannot be met without also, at the same time, meeting the “pure” anti-racist demands. The Black Lives Matter movement has painted this in stark terms: Black Americans cannot fight for a living wage and decent education if they are being shot in the street. Latinx people cannot join in union struggles if their first worry is about being deported. Fraser showed that only a class program that unified the fight for Black liberation and the struggle for socialism offers a way forward.

Yet this is not the low point of the article. It continues to the nadir:

A third controversy relates to immigration and solidarity. To simply assert the righteousness of fully open borders in the present context of economic insecurity cannot help but elicit a backlash and will ultimately do little for refugees and future immigrants. Workers who have seen their own standards undermined over time without their unions or the government responding to this may have charitable sentiments but they are not going to prioritize open borders.

Here Gindin fully capitulates to nativism, the logical conclusion of his conception of a “white working class.” By focusing only on the grievances of this section of the class, Gindin winds up advocating the literal abandonment of millions of workers who are already exploited and openly terrorized within the US’s broken immigration system.

Internationalism is not simply a question of “righteousness.” In modern capitalist society, it is the logic of the working class – which, as Marx and Engels fiercely advocated even in 1848, has no country. A white worker in a factory in Indiana and a Mexican worker in the fields of Florida have basically the same class interests. Huge capitalist firms, loyal to no country, operate their workplaces either directly or as subcontractors. The assault on the Mexican worker also undermines the position of the white worker, making all workers less safe and their livelihoods less secure. It is a reactionary fantasy to think that closing borders does anything but chain workers to employers who themselves are free to leave.

Even what Gindin goes on to call “a more liberal but regulated border policy” remains a deportation regime. It cannot be anything else. Calling for any workers to be deported is tantamount to suicide for a working class movement. Even the word “liberal” in Gindin’s formula shows how craven this position truly is, conceding the underlying class point to a feel-good “liberal” regime where only “bad” workers are deported.

This is a particularly dangerous policy to take up in the age of Trumpism, when it is precisely immigrants who are under the greatest danger of attacks from the right. Many of the methods of struggle closely associated with open borders – direct action against raids, sanctuary cities, and a general amnesty movement – are survival mechanisms for many workers. They cannot be treated as a luxury to be given up in favor of a “liberal” policy as Gindin encourages, and can hardly be built using rhetoric of a “liberal” deportation regime.

The underlying danger is that a socialist party acting as Gindin describes will become a party of white workers. The lesson that socialist movements must be consciously anti-racist is one that was hard won by the US communist movement in the 1920s, and it proved to be the only way to put forward a socialist platform and win over large numbers of Black workers. By prioritizing the needs and grievances of white workers, the party Gindin envisions would undo that progress.

A mass socialist party is desperately needed to move beyond the crisis-ridden and oppressive capitalist system. But it must be a party that takes up and combines the struggles of workers and the most oppressed, and unifies them, rather than catering to the prejudices of a backward section of the working class. Failure to do this will mean a failure to put to rest, finally, the pervasive racial issues that have harrowed the United States since before it existed.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

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