The American Working Class in Historical Perspective

A critical review of Jeremy Brecher's "Strike!"

Strike! fills a substantial gap in the history of the American working class and brings to its material a point of view that helps considerably to counteract the almost universally bureaucratic attitudes of labor historians. It is extremely rare to find a historian who does not equate the working class with the organized labor movement, or, even worse, with the leadership of that movement. And when that rare exception is found, it is even rarer to find someone who thinks that the absence of organizational institutions is anything but a sign of weakness.

Brecher brings to his book deep democratic convictions, without which there can be no revolutionary convictions. He also brings a sense of the political and historical importance of working-class struggles that are more often dismissed with the adjective “economic”. The meaning of these struggles clearly derives from the activities of the workers themselves and the ways in which these activities threaten capitalist society. The absence of formal organizations with formal programs is not and cannot be the test of revolutionary significance.

Having said this, however, I want to deal with Brecher’s book critically, to indicate its limitations and weaknesses.

The problem that pervades the whole book is the problem of organization. Strike! is a documented critique of the role of labor organizations of all types and of labor leaders in restraining and limiting the militancy and revolutionary capacity of ordinary workers. That is fine as far as it goes. But it never deals with the question of organization in a fundamental way. Unless you accept a conspiratorial theory of history-that labor organizations are everywhere introduced to restrain and defeat workers-you have to deal with the question of why labor organizations of various types arise. “Arise” is too abstract a word. Labor organizations are created by workers, by ordinary rank-and-file workers. George Rawick noted a few years ago that “The unions did not organize the strikes; the working class in and through the strikes organized the unions.” 1 This was written about the formation of the CIO. The principle, ,however, is true of any stage of the American working class. Brecher documents the same phenomenon in relation to the 1877 strikes and the Knights of Labor. Whether it was the unions or political parties of the pre-Civil War period, the Knights of Labor, the AFL, or the IWW - and no matter what these organizations later became - they were created by ordinary workers.

There is a need to perceive the development of the American working class in terms of contradictions that are more subtle than a simple workers-versus-organizations dichotomy. Workers create organizations – out of needs and possibilities, not out of principles. In the pre-industrial period of the American working class, workers created unions which were essentially local in compass. National unions were not possible, given the level of technology and transportation (although the creation of local unions was a national phenomenon). These unions were organizations of self-defense. The idea of a new society appeared from the very beginning in embryo form. But it could only develop in activity, being shaped by continuing struggles, by victories, and by defeats. It could not develop as an ideology.

The working class is inherently revolutionary. This is not a matter of formal consciousness. “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” 2. It is a matter of developing in practice the capacity to create a new society. That development takes the form, of necessity, of exhausting the possibilities of bourgeois society. That is, workers create organizations of various kinds in order to struggle for whatever seems useful to them. These struggles, whether they take place within the framework of formal organizations or not, win for the working class whatever it is possible to win under capitalism. Whether these victories are wage increases, or free universal compulsory education, or child labor laws, or anything else, they are never granted without struggle. That is, they are never - in the first instance - tricks to deceive the working class.

However, the victories of the working class and their organizations all become transformed. There is a dialectical process at work. So long as the struggle ends short of the socialist revolution, every codification of victory, every kind of organization, becomes absorbed and institutionalized into capitalist society. In a sense the class struggle consists of overturning past victories. This is not simply a theoretical view of past history. It bears a current reality. Unions have exhausted their possibilities in American capitalist society. But that is a one-sided abstraction. What does one say to migrant farm workers, or to hospital workers, or to workers in chicken-processing plants, all of whom earn (or earned) income for full-time work that was well under the poverty level? Is anyone prepared to say that they should wait until the socialist revolution makes bureaucratic unions unnecessary? It seems evident that workers have to go through a certain experience, if only to give themselves a little breathing space, a little elbow room. Not absolutely, not every last worker and work place, but in general.

But there is more involved than an accumulation of experience, of victories and defeats. It is in these struggles that workers develop their capacity to transform society-and they begin by transforming capitalist society. The period that precedes the point at which Brecher begins has some interesting examples. Two of the major labor demands of the period before the Civil War, particularly about the time of Andrew Jackson, were free compulsory education and objective incorporation laws. Both of these demands were won, and won largely, though not entirely, through the efforts of the working class and working-class organizations. Both demands obviously served to strengthen and expand American capitalism, by providing an educational system that trained a working class suitable to capitalism and by breaking away from the earlier, monopolistic forms of incorporation by legislative fiat. What is the significance of these victories for us today, and for the working class? Is it that workers were stupid and tricked and did the work of the bourgeoisie and were co-opted into bourgeois society? Or is it rather that workers showed and developed the capacity to transform society-to whatever extent was objectively possible? To put it another way, did these victories show that socialism is impossible, or did they show that socialism is inevitable?

The problems raised here, or rather the failure to deal with them, leads to some awkward consequences in the last few chapters when Brecher is discussing current possibilities and future perspectives. These are, compounded by a tendency, which is not apparent in the historical sections, to view consciousness in narrowly intellectual terms. For example, Brecher says that “Workers, out of their own weakness, felt the need for strong leaders...” (p.285) That is an interesting phenomenon-that workers should produce their strongest leaders (John L. Lewis, for example) when they are themselves strongest (the period of the creation of the CIO). The strength of the leaders, in fact, derives from the strength of the workers, and has to be viewed both as a creation of the workers and as an antagonist to the workers.

Brecher’s failure to see the duality, the contradiction, within the working class and to see consciousness as activity leads him to reintroduce the idea of working-class backwardness. “From 1969 to 1971,” says Brecher (p.290), “workers, like the rest of the population, developed an overwhelming opposition to the Vietnam war.” But that is only part of the picture, the part that deals with verbalized consciousness. The fact is that well before 1969, ordinary American workers, in the pursuit of their “narrow” class objectives, interfered with and prevented more war production than all of the anti-war demonstrations put together. In strikes at North American Aviation in Missouri, at Olin-Matheisen in Illinois, on the Southern Railway System, and on the Missouri Pacific, workers refused to succumb to patriotic pressure ‘from politicians, union leaders, and business executives and went their own way-not because they were anti-war, but because they put the class struggle first. (It was Lenin who said, along time ago, that “We cannot equate the patriotism of the working class with the patriotism of the bourgeoisie.”)

“All historical writing,” says Brecher (p.ix), “is a matter of selecting a limited number of significant facts from an infinity of others.” It is curious that in discussing the current scene he should use different standards of judgment from those he uses in discussing past history. In describing the past he seeks out the events and the statements that indicate the revolutionary character of the struggles. That obviously does not mean that that was all there was. It does not take into Account the millions of individual incidents of racism, of sexism, of patriotism, of plain ordinary stupidity that workers (like everyone else) are guilty of. Does that result in a distorted picture? Not at all. It is not especially significant that in their day-to-day lives workers are weighted down by what Marx called “all the old crap”. It would be miraculous if it were otherwise. What is significant is the evidence that in periods of struggle workers can break out of that and overcome the limitations that bourgeois society imposes on them.

Why, then, does he revert to the methodology of academic labor historians when he discusses the present? “It is often suggested that today’s renewed labor militance differs from ,that of the past in that today’s strikers are ‘only out for themselves’, rather than seeing their actions as part of a broader struggle. This is often expressed in the phrase that today’s strikers are not ‘socially conscious’. There is considerable truth in this view. (p.281)

I don’t want to exaggerate. Brecher indicates reservations that modify this view. But basically he accepts the charges of racial and sexual division, lack of class consciousness, and so on. It leads him into the trap of economism. To reply to the charge of affluence as a conservative influence, Brecher turns to the Old Left dependence on the inevitable depression. (What depression led to the Hungarian revolution of 1956 or the French revolution of 1968?) What is more serious, he turns to a redefinition of the working class, some of it justified, most of it not justified.

He seems to accept the charge of affluence as a source of conservatism by indicating that only a small part of the working class is affluent-the unionized white male workers. The majority of the working class, he says, is black, female, or young, and is not affluent. That argument simply will not do. First, if you exclude the skilled trades, construction, and the like, the best paid and most-thoroughly-unionized’ areas are the basic and heavy industries. They are so crucial to society, and particularly to revolutionary potential, that they cannot be brushed aside and their place taken by service workers, migrant farm workers, clerical workers, and so on.

But the point is that this is not needed. There are substantial numbers black workers in auto, steel, transportation, and the like. No one believes today that high auto or steel wages water down their militancy (although that was a widespread belief before the 1967 Detroit rebellion).

Why should black workers be immune to the evils of affluence while white workers inevitably succumb? Obviously there is a difference rooted in racial discrimination and oppression. But how deep is that difference? Does the black auto worker with 10 or 20 years’ seniority, making over $5 an hour and working considerable overtime, have an absolute empathy with the unemployed ghetto youngster? Or an absolute antipathy to his white fellow auto worker?

Black workers are likely to be more militant than their white fellow workers. Young workers are likely to be more militant than their older fellow workers (white or black). But these differences are only relative, and simply indicate where the initial sparks tend to come from. Struggles tend to be initiated by the young and the black. That was probably just as true a hundred years ago as today (if you substitute immigrants for blacks). But the rest of the working class tends to follow these more aggressive elements.

Trying to shift the discussion to the so-called new working class, Brecher falls into further distortions. First of all, he equates salaried workers with the working class. Simply because some traditional middle-class occupations have shifted from self-employed to salaried does not make them working-class. The form of payment is an insecure test of class. Objective function in relation to production or the society as a whole would seem to be a better test. It would seem to me that professionally-trained people (such as teachers or social workers) whose basic role is to manipulate others in order to secure the smooth functioning of society are best defined as middle-class. The fact that they are also exploited and alienated and that opposition to bourgeois society appears within their ranks is evidence of the decline of bourgeois society and the ability of revolutionary impulses to appear anywhere. Their objective role remains (even when it is unwilling) social control.

Secondly, Brecher accepts too readily government statistics that seem to indicate the relative decline of blue-collar work. The Government’s own figures, when properly broken down, indicate that the majority of the working class are still blue collar and are likely to remain that way for at least another 10 years.

The problem is that Brecher is not aware of the roots of the revolutionary capacity of the proletariat, and tends, in the last chapters of his book, to fall back on “consciousness” or-what amounts to the same thing - “will” as the basis for a revolutionary perspective. “Only the will to keep in their own hands the power they have taken can protect ordinary people from losing it.” (p.308) That is nonsense, and if it were true the cause would already be lost.

What is the source of the revolutionary capacity of the working class? It is the fact that workers are at the point of production, that their work itself teaches them how to run production, and that the conditions of their work force them to struggle against the existing relations of production, and therefore against capitalist society. The fundamental indicator of revolutionary capacity is not political belief, much less demands and slogans, but rather the capacity to organize production and to defend the new social relations from attack. Brecher’s criticism of the Russian Revolution is totally misplaced. (I disagree with the details of his criticism, but I don’t see the point to raising that discussion in the present context.) What led to the defeat of the Russian Revolution was not Lenin’s evil ways, but the inability of the Russian working class to take control of the means of production and run the society. This inability did not stem from lack of will. If there was lack of will, it was because “will” was obviously not enough. If you compare the Russian Revolution of 1917 with the -Hungarian revolution of 1956, it becomes evident that in all the things that matter in creating a new society the Hungarian workers were far in advance of the Russian. They were not a tiny minority in a vast peasant country; they were literate and had access to and familiarity with the most modern technology and the most advanced means of communication. They took hold of the means of production and began to build a new state and anew society. Nothing in Hungarian society could defeat them. That took an invasion by a foreign power.

Brecher says that “There is a natural tendency for responsibility to re-centralize in the hands of a few individuals, accepted leaders, who then come to do more and more of the movement’s thinking and deciding for it.” (p.307) There is nothing natural about it. And in any case it is not a tendency that will be countered by “will”. The centralization of power is the tendency of the counter-revolution to step in to fill any gaps or lacks that are permitted by the working class. That is to say, there are two “natural” tendencies-that of workers to decentralize and democratize, and that of capital (no matter who speaks in its name) to discipline and centralize. To raise the Stalinist overthrow of the Russian Revolution in the way that Brecher does is to assume that 50 years of history have brought about no changes in capitalist society and in the working classes of the industrial nations.

In this context the American working class are not less advanced than their brothers of 50 or 100 years ago, but more advanced. Better educated, better organized (not by unions, but by production), with the most advanced means of communication available to them, without the loyalty to old established labor parties that still inhibits European workers... American workers-and particularly those in transportation and heavy industry-have the capacity to transform American society. Brecher sees this only dimly, and the result is that in the last chapters of his book he departs from the methodology that sustains and informs most of what he writes. Instead of seeking out the evidence of revolutionary capacity and inherently revolutionary activity, he begins to look for substitutes for it. That is not much help to either history or the working class. Marx and Engels wrote in their earlier days: “Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution. This revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.” 3

It is the real, existing, American working class, with all its limitations, that will make the American revolution. But in making that revolution, it will be transformed.

First published in Radical America, vol.7, no.6, November-December 1973.
Republished in Martin Glaberman, The Working Class and Social Change (pamphlet), 1975.
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  • 1. George Rawick: Working-Class Self-Activity, Radical America, Vol.3, No.2 (March-April 1969), p.27.
  • 2. Marx and Engels: The German Ideology (Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1968), p.61
  • 3. 3. Ibid., p.87.