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Race and class in the United States: J. Sakai and the politics of revolution

 

 

By Doug Enaa Greene

 

July 22, 2016 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- In 1843, Karl Marx described the proletariat as a “class with radical chains ... which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all other spheres of society and thereby emancipating all other spheres of society.”[1] The proletariat's struggle, as envisioned by Marx, was not only against its own exploitation, but would take up the struggles of all those oppressed under capitalism, and lead the way to the communism.However, in the United States, the working class has been far more likely to be reformist and conservative than to act as revolutionary “grave-diggers of capitalism.” The question of why the US working class is not a revolutionary force has preoccupied radicals for decades. Does the existence of racism and white supremacy prevent white workers from becoming revolutionary? Or does the origin of the United States as a settler-colonial state mean that the white working class is incapable of being revolutionary force?

 

One answer to these questions can be found in the work of J. Sakai. Sakai's 1989 work, Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat is an influential work among many Maoists and Third Worldists, that covers the broad sweep of US history from the 1600s to the 1980s. Settlers argues that the class structure of the US is abnormal since it was built on a foundation of conquest, genocide, and enslavement and that “Euro-American workers as a whole were a privileged labor stratum. As a labor aristocracy it had, instead of a proletarian, revolutionary consciousness, a petit-bourgeois consciousness that was unable to rise above reformism.”[2] Sakai says white workers are a privileged stratum, while “the colonized peoples have been the proletariat ... from which capitalism derives its super profits.”[3] Settlers poses a number of interesting questions and (correctly) challenges left and mainstream labor histories which ignore the interaction of race and class and the settler-colonial origins of the US. However, the book is marred by its cherry-picking of data, poor methodology, multiple claims advanced without foundation, its unclear use of class, and the fact that ultimately it advances politically defeatist conclusions.

 

I. Settlers

 

Settlers begins with the European colonization of North America, these settlers were attracted by the prospects of easy access to land. The US settler-colonial structure was further shaped by two factors – the first being the genocide of the native population. In order to gain control of land, the settlers had to forcibly remove the indigenous population through genocide because “the land wasn't 'empty' after all-and for Amerika to exist the settlers had to deliberately make the land 'empty'.”[4] The deliberate massacre of the indigenous population was spoken of as an “advance of civilization” and openly carried out.

 

The second distinguishing feature of US settler colonialism was the enslavement of Africans. Sakai says that slavery “dictated the very structure of Euro-Amerikan Society... Without slave labor there would have been no Amerika. It is as simple as that.”[5] The enslavement of Africans was not a plot of wealthy planters nor did it hurt the interests of poor whites, but benefited them. Due to the existence of heavily-exploited slave labor, white workers “never coalesced into a proletariat because they were too privileged and transitory in condition.”[6] Sakai says that white workers earned “twice what their British kinfolk made - some reports say the earnings gap was five or six times what Swedish or Danish workers earned.”[7] In turn, settler-colonial society was able to “afford this best-paid, most bourgeoisified white work force because they had also obtained the least-paid, most proletarian Afrikan colony to support it.”[8]

 

Thus, the indigenous genocide and slavery benefited not only the planters and the bourgeoisie, but also poor whites. Ultimately, all classes of settler society had a material interest in maintaining white supremacy:

 

It is the absolute characteristic of settler society to be parasitic, dependent upon the super-exploitation of oppressed peoples for its style of life… This is the decisive factor in the consciousness of all classes and strata of white society from 1600 to now.[9]

 

According to Sakai, since white workers maintained a higher standard of living at the expense of slaves, they became a labor aristocracy that was never able to achieve revolutionary consciousness. In contrast to white workers, Sakai argues that the real proletariat in the United States is composed of those (such as Latinos, Blacks and immigrants) whom capital is able to exploit for super-profits. Ultimately, the settler-colonial structure of the US means that whites cannot transcend their privilege to fight for common liberation with other workers since they have no structural reason to do so.

 

Throughout Settlers, Sakai details how white supremacy was created and maintained during the course of US history from the period of slavery, World War I and II, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), through to the Reagan Era. Sakai shows how the class formation of the white nation was constantly reformed by the incorporation of new waves of immigrants from Ireland and Eastern Europe. Sakai's thesis is a challenge to more mainstream and populist labor histories (such as those of Marxist historians like Philip Foner or Leo Huberman) which either downplay and ignore the settler-colonial origins of the United States and how that plays out in the real world class struggle. However, as we shall see, Sakai's work does not serve as a corrective to this history.

 

Sakai views immigrants' struggle in unions and for equality as a “nothing more nor less than a push to join the oppressor nation, to enlist in the ranks of the Empire.”[10] He believes that immigrants, even those in the more left-inclined Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) or CIO, just wanted to gain entrance into the white nation, so they could partake in its benefits. Thus, the history of trade unionism is not one of class solidarity, but continual betrayal of non-whites: "every advance ... of European trade-unionism meant the 'clearing' of Afrikan workers out of another mill, factory, railroad, warehouse or dock.”[11] Sakai believes the process of integrating immigrants into the white nation was mainly accomplished through the welfare programs of the New Deal, which “reflected the desires of the vast majority of Euro-Amerikan workers. They wanted settler unionism, with a privileged relationship to the government and "their" New Deal.”[12] The post-WWII boom brought so much prosperity to white workers that it “saw the final promotion of the white proletariat. This was an en masse promotion so profound that it eliminated not only consciousness, but the class itself.”[13] Yet this integration was not final or total.

 

Following, the neoliberal assault on the welfare state, the stagnation of wages and living standards since the 1970s means “white settler society itself is fragmenting and being forced to gradually give up its old national form under immense pressures from the new global imperialism.”[14] The neoliberal “desettlerization” is shattering the old social contract, meaning that “some sectors and classes of the old settler society are now more open to neo-fascism in their desperate search for a new civilization for themselves in which they will still be masters of the land.”[15] It could certainly be argued that the forces surrounding the Presidential campaign of Donald Trump, who include many (not-so-subtle) racists, desire to maintain America as a white nation. What is needed to overcome US settler-colonialism and resurgent fascism, Sakai argues in Settlers that what is needed to overcome US settler-colonialism are “self-reliance and building mass institutions and movements of a specific national character, under the leadership of a communist party, are absolute necessities for the oppressed.”[16] However, his whole analysis and the politics which flows from it impedes the creation of the very communist party he champion.

 

II. Methodology

 

Sakai's Settlers undertook the immense challenge to survey the entire history of white America. In this broad sweep, it is only to be expected that over-generalizations and errors would appear. Even the best general histories would not be free of them. Settlers touches on many areas and topics summarily or not in any real depth. This does not necessarily undermine Sakai's thesis.

 

Yet Sakai's methodology is marred by his tendency to cherry-pick data to fit his conclusions. One egregious example is Sakai's treatment of the IWW, a multi-racial anarcho-synicalist union that achieved its greatest influence just before and during World War I. He claims that the IWW was a better example of white unionism and that their “vision of all nations and peoples being merged into "One Big Union" covering the globe only covered up the fact that it had no intention of fighting colonialism and national oppression.”[17] In fact, the IWW's history of fighting racism is erased by Sakai, who states that the goal of the Wobblies was “to control colonial labor for the benefit of white workers.”[18] He accuses the IWW of acting in bad faith and being willing “to sacrifice the interests of colonial and oppressed workers in order to gain their real goal - the unity of all white workers."[19] This is all a lie. The IWW did have a principled history of opposition to racism and imperialism, suffering severe repression at the hands of the US government during World War I. If the IWW's goal was “white unionism” then it would have made more sense for them to operate as a craft union along the lines of the AFL. And if the IWW primarily supported the unity of white workers, then why did they stick so stubbornly to their internationalism during the nationalist and racist hysteria during World War I? To these questions, Sakai provides no answers.

 

A second example of Sakai's poor methodology and cherry-picking of the facts can be found in his treatment of the CIO. The CIO was formed during the 1930s in a major unionization drive, with its membership eventually totaling several million members. Many CIO unions were led by socialists or communists, who were not only dedicated organizers, but took principled stands against racism and segregation. In the interview When Race Burns Class, Sakai says learning the “truth” of Black-white worker relations in CIO unions led him to undertake the research for Settlers:

 

So for years after this I read labor history and asked older trade union radicals questions whenever I could. Finally, an anarchist veteran of the autoworkers' historic 1937 Flint Sit-Down strike told me that the strike had been Jim Crow, that one of the unpublicized demands had been to keep Black workers down as only janitors ... or out of the plants altogether. This blew my mind. That's when it hit me that the wonderful working class history that the movement had taught us was a lie.[20]

 

In Settlers, Sakai advances the fantastic claim that the “CIO played an important role for U.S. Imperialism in disorganizing and placing under supervision the nationally oppressed. For the first time masses of Third World workers were allowed and even conscripted into the settler trade unions.”[21] However, the evidence that Black workers were conscripted into the CIO is never revealed – for the simple reason that it does not exist. All the radical politics and the anti-racism of the socialists, communists and anti-racists in the CIO is ignored by Sakai, who only sees the CIO as

 

reestablishing the rights of all Europeans here to share the privileges of the oppressor nation. This was the essence of the equality that they won. This bold move was in the settler tradition, sharing the Amerikan pie with more European reinforcements so that the Empire could be strengthened.[22]

 

Clearly, racism has made a tremendous impact in distorting the class consciousness of white workers, producing many betrayals. That is all Sakai can allow himself to see. The betrayals are real enough - craft unions like the AFL did not simply advocate higher wages or better working conditions, but supported restricting labor markets through Jim Crow and excluding immigrants. However, Sakai's historical view of US labor as one of “white betrayal” is just as partial as the “class unity” advanced by historians like Foner. Whereas Foner tends to flatten out US history as one of just workers versus capitalists, Sakai denies the existence of a multinational proletariat since white workers are just oppressors. While a partial truth can sometimes be a guide to greater truth, this is only when it does not ignore facts that contradict its central thesis. Yet the partial truth Sakai advances is just utter falsehood.

 

Sakai simplifies the contradictions that exist in US society into those of an oppressor white nation and oppressed nations, when the reality is far more complex. While oppressed nations do exist within the US, nationality often interacts with class in many different and contradictory ways - for instance, producing a Black proletariat and a Black bourgeoisie. Most importantly, there is a multinational working class – with millions of whites in its ranks who suffer exploitation and oppression. Within the working class, there are many layers (including among whites) with revolutionary potential. And the influx of new waves of immigrants into the US over the past several decades has created new conditions and possibilities. Radical movements in the past, whether the IWW or the Communist Party, had to deal with the complex interaction between race and class in order to overcome them. While the IWW and CP did not always handle those contradictions correctly, there is more to their story than simple betrayals. Similarly, contemporary social movements need a methodology to understand the changed conditions of race and class in order to navigate them and discover revolutionary possibilities. However, the method of identifying those prospects will not be found using Sakai's partial and simplistic approach.[23]

 

III. The labor aristocracy[24]

 

Central to Sakai's argument in Settlers is that white workers are incapable of achieving revolutionary consciousness because they are a labor aristocracy who benefit from the super-exploitation of Blacks, Latinos, etc. However, neither the concept of the labor aristocracy nor super-exploitation explains conservatism among the working class.

 

The term “labor aristocracy” was first used by Engels to explain conservatism of organized English workers; the concept in its modern form was developed by Lenin. In 1914, Lenin was stunned at the victory of opportunism as socialist parties rushed to support the war aims of their respective ruling classes in violation of their previous anti-war pledges. In order to explain the triumph of opportunism and reformism in the socialist parties, Lenin argued that imperialist exploitation generated

 

enormous superprofits (since they are obtained over and above the profits which capitalists squeeze out of the workers of their “own” country) it is possible to bribe the labor leaders and the upper stratum of the labor aristocracy. And that is just what the capitalists of the “advanced” countries are doing: they are bribing them in a thousand different ways, direct and indirect, overt and covert.

 

This stratum of workers-turned-bourgeois, or the labor aristocracy, who are quite philistine in their mode of life, in the size of their earnings and in their entire outlook, is the principal prop of the Second International, and in our days, the principal social (not military) prop of the bourgeoisie. For they are the real agents of the bourgeoisie in the working-class movement, the labor lieutenants of the capitalist class, real vehicles of reformism and chauvinism. In the civil war between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie they inevitably, and in no small numbers, take the side of the bourgeoisie, the “Versaillais” against the “Communards”.[25]

 

For the newly-emerging Communist parties, the theory of the labor aristocracy explained working class conservatism and the persistence of reformism in the advanced capitalist countries. Therefore, the task of communists was not to organize with nor ally with the labor aristocracy (who were a counterrevolutionary force), but “to go down lower and deeper, to the real masses; this is the whole meaning and the whole purport of the struggle against opportunism.”[26] However, Lenin was careful to argue that the labor aristocracy was just a privileged minority while “the “lowest mass”, the real majority, was not infected by “bourgeois respectability".[27]

 

Sakai draws a number of lessons which need to be drawn from Lenin's theory of the labor aristocracy. Firstly, that workers who supported imperialism and colonialism were not simply backward, but their politics was “an outward manifestation of a class 'alliance' with the imperialists.”[28] Secondly, that the “labor aristocracy of bribed workers is not neutral, but is fighting for its capitalist masters.”[29] On a global scale, revolution “would be decided by the fact that the oppressed nations constitute the overwhelming majority of the world's population.”[30] Lastly, Sakai said that under imperialism,

 

Euro-Amerikan workers were the most privileged in the entire capitalist world...[And at] the very bottom, upholding everything else, were the colonial proletariats of Afrikan, Mexicano, Indian and Asian workers... [whose] "super-profits" wrung from the oppressed nations (plus those wrung from imported labor from Asia) were the foundations of the Empire. Everything "American" was built up on top of their continuing oppression.[31]

 

As we shall see, Sakai's conclusions can be objected to on a number of grounds.

 

To begin with, there are a number of methodological and empirical problems with utilizing Lenin's theory of the labor aristocracy. According to the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm,

 

it is evident that the corrupted minority could be, even on Lenin’s assumptions, a numerically large sector of the working class and an even larger one of the organized labor movement ... the question why they command the support of their followers is not discussed.[32]

 

Secondly, Hobsbawm says that the position of the mass of workers is unclear since

 

the mechanism of exploiting a monopoly of markets, which Lenin regards as the basis of “opportunism,” functions in ways which cannot confine its benefits to one stratum only of the working class ... It is evident that such reforms were likely to benefit the “non-aristocratic” workers relatively more than the already comfortably situated “aristocrats.”[33]

 

Lastly, Lenin's formulation “argues that the “handful of the richest, privileged nations” turned into “parasites on the body of the rest of mankind,” i.e., into collective exploiters, and suggests a division of the world into “exploiting” and “proletarian” nations.”[34]

 

These points could support Sakai's theory that white workers in the US form a privileged labor aristocracy. Yet, Marxist sociologist Charlie Post offers a number of objections to the labor aristocracy thesis, which also undercuts Sakai's claims. Post says, it is not necessarily true that better paid workers are necessarily more conservative since the

 

antiwar wing of the pre-First World War socialist parties and of the postwar revolutionary Communist parties were relatively well paid workers in the large metalworking industries. These workers led militant struggles against speedup and deskilling that became political struggles against conscription and the war.[35]

 

And during the CIO unionization drives of the 1930s, it was

 

relatively well paid workers in the U.S. auto, steel, rubber and other mass production industries, often with skilled industrial workers in the lead, spearheaded the creation of industrial unions that united skilled and unskilled, highly paid and poorly paid. Well paid and skilled workers were, again, over represented in radical and revolutionary organizations in the United States during the 1930s.[36]

 

Post says that the significant presence of well-paid workers in militant and radical struggles is because they are

 

concentrated in large, capital intensive workplaces that are often central to the capitalist economy. These workers have considerable social power when they act collectively. Strikes in these industries have a much greater impact on the economy than workers in smaller, less capital intensive workplaces (garment, office cleaning, etc.) Workers in capital intensive industries are also often the first targets of capitalist restructuring in periods of falling profits and sharpened competition.[37]

 

He also says that imperialist investment cannot explain the existence of labor conservatism since “foreign direct investment makes up only 5% of total world investment - that is to say, 95% of total capitalist investment takes place within the boundaries of each industrialized country.”[38] This does not mean that imperialism has no impact on the profits and wages, but rather

 

the export of capital from the global North to the global South, especially when invested in production processes that are more labor intensive than those found in the advanced capitalist countries, tends to raise the mass and rate of profit in the North. There is indeed some evidence that foreign profits - from investments in both the global North and global South - constitute an important counter tendency to declining profits in the United States.[39]

 

Therefore, the search for profits abroad is a counter-tendency to declining profit rates at home.

 

Post acknowledges that there has been a history of working class reformism in the United States and that most of the time this is because workers do not act on their potential power. According to Post, the working class is not continually active in strikes, demonstrations, etc, rather their struggle is episodic since they are “compelled to sell their labor power to capital in order to survive. They have to go to work!”[40] Outside of a revolutionary situation, most workers will not be politically active, and the struggles waged will be of short duration and different segments will be active at different times. Since only a minority of workers are active, they form a labor bureaucracy, who will

 

take on responsibility for administering the unions or political parties created by periodic upsurges of mass activity. This layer of fulltime officials - the bureaucracy of the labor movement - is the social foundation for "unconditional" reformist practice and ideology in the labor movement.[41]

 

As the labor bureaucracy in both political parties and unions expands, it sees a need to defend those institutions as previous gains of working class struggle. This means the labor bureaucracy is not likely to engage in revolutionary struggle, but will stick to the “tried and tested” methods of reformism.

 

However, this still leaves the question open of what role imperialism and investments play in the development of working class conservatism? Post argues “that imperialist investment in the global South benefits all workers in the global North - both highly paid and poorly paid workers.”[42] This could be used to confirm Sakai's thesis on the white labor aristocracy, but as Post says, these benefits are “neither automatic nor evenly distributed. Rising profits and increased investment do not necessarily lead to higher wages for workers in the absence of effective working-class organization and struggle.”[43] We can theoretically envision a section of workers who are paid above the value of labor they produce, but this is a small stratum that exists in very extraordinary conditions.

 

However, the “benefits” of imperialism are countered by the disastrous effects that come with capitalist expansion. Capitalist restructuring since the 1970s has meant the freer movement of capital has been fatal to workers throughout the world, crushing unions and leading to a growth of unemployment. In the US, workers are not, in their majority, better off. From 1970 to 2003, GDP tripled (adjusted for inflation) from $3.7 to $10.8 trillion. During this time, hourly wage and income figures either stagnated or decreased (from $8.99 to $8.29), while the earnings of CEOs increased.[44] In 1970, CEOs earned 49 times as much as an average wage earner. By 2000, that ratio had increased to nearly 300 to 1.

 

Not only have the rich grown richer, but the poor have lost out. In 1952, corporate taxes amounted to 32% of all federal tax receipts. By 2003, corporate taxes amounted to 7.4% of tax receipts. From 2001 to 2003, 82 of the most profitable corporations made $102 billion in pretax profits and should have paid $35.6 billion (considering the 35% corporate tax rate). Due to neoliberalism, the wealthy classes are able to avoid paying taxes while increasing their profits and power. The growth in ruling-class power has been accompanied by a concerted assault on the working class since the 1970s that has slashed the social safety net and caused a sharp decline in unionization.[45]

 

The Great Recession revealed some of the underlying fault lines of inequality and class power in the United States. The crisis in the global financial system saw the loss of trillions of dollars and tens of millions of jobs. Yet the US government has handed over trillions in bailouts to the wealthiest 1%, while millions of workers have received little or no relief. According to the Washington Post, since the “recovery” began, more than 95% of income gains have gone to the top 1%.[46] While there has been job growth in the US since the recession, it is in low-wage sectors where workers earn an average of 23% less than their previous jobs.[47]

 

Far from being affluent, the United States is the most unequal advanced industrialized capitalist country in the world. According to a study released by Political Blindspot in 2013, close to 50 million US citizens live below the poverty line, with close to 80% near poverty or below it. This was only slightly mitigated by government programs such as food stamps. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Blacks and Hispanics were more likely than Whites and Asians to be among the working poor. In 2011, 13.3% of Blacks and 12.9% of Hispanics were among the working poor, compared with 6.1% of Whites and 5.4% of Asians.”[48] With an extreme disparity in wealth and power, a recovery that has benefited very few and a government, whether Democratic or Republican Party, committed to maintaining the reigning state of affairs, we must conclude: the system is not broken, but rather that it is working exactly as it was designed to. All of this points to the fact that class struggle and the possibilities for revolution remain present within the United States.

 

IV. Class formation

 

A further problem with Settlers is that Sakai's use of class remains decidedly unclear and confused. As we recall, Sakai said that white workers form a privileged labor aristocracy, but during the post-WWII boom, they were integrated into the white nation and this “eliminated the class itself.”[49] Yet Sakai states elsewhere, that “there obviously is a white working class in the u.s. A large one, of many, many millions. From offshore oil derricks to the construction trades to auto plants. But it isn’t a proletariat. It isn’t the most exploited class from which capitalism derives its super profits.”[50] There are a number of objections to make. Leaving aside the question of the labor aristocracy, Sakai's contrasting the Black, Latino, etc. proletariat and the white working class is meaningless. The terms are simply interchangeable, therefore Sakai is making a distinction without a difference.

 

Sakai seems to believe that white workers, in light of their racist, chauvinistic backward ideas and constant betrayals of other workers means that they are not workers. For instance, Sakai says the IWW's “inability to confront the settleristic ambitions within themselves reduced these sparks of real class consciousness to vague sentiments and limited economic deals.”[51] He states that class consciousness “implies a participation in the class war. While such a consciousness certainly can involve fighting for better wages, it cannot be limited to or even centered on this.”[52] He ends up concluding that no major group of white workers are a class since they lack class consciousness.[53] For him, all the struggles undertaken by white workers are not class struggles and display no class consciousness, but are simply done to ensure their share in the super-profits of the white nation at the expense of Black, Latino, and immigrant workers.

 

Sakai believes both class and class struggle are mainly defined by its conscious element. However, class should be looked upon primarily as an objective category defined by the social relations of exploitation that extract surplus labor from the immediate producers. And while the class struggle can (and does) have a subjective factor, this is not necessarily so and the development of collective unity or class consciousness may or may not emerge in the course of struggle. Even without a sense of collective identity, resistance by the dominated classes still occurs, since the very nature of exploitation compels the exploited to struggle against it. Most class struggles throughout history have not been defined by class consciousness, but that does not change their nature as class struggles.

 

In contrast to Sakai, the Marxist historian of antiquity, G.E.M. de ste Croix offers a far better definition of class:

 

A class (a particular class) is a group of persons in a community identified by their position in the whole of social production, defined above all according to their relationship (primarily in terms of the degree of ownership or control) to the conditions of production (that is to say, the means of labor and production) and to other classes... The individuals constituting a given class may or may not be wholly or partly conscious of their own identity and common interests as a class, and they may or may not feel antagonism towards members of other classes as such.[54]

 

Croix goes on later to say:

 

To adopt the very common conception of class struggle which refuses to regard it as such unless it includes class consciousness and active political conflict (as some Marxists do) is to water it down to the point where it virtually disappears in many situations. It is then possible to deny the very existence of class struggle in the United States of America or between employers and immigrant workers in Northern Europe, and between masters and slaves in antiquity, merely because in each case the exploited class concerned does not or did not have any "class consciousness" or take any political action except on very rare occasions and to a very limited degree. But this, I would say, makes nonsense not merely of The Communist Manifesto but of the greater part of Marx's work.[55]

 

If we are to look at class and class struggles as principally defined by their degree of consciousness, we would have to discount most of the class struggles which have occurred throughout history. However, even if that resistance is conscious, it can still be formed and manipulated in a manifold number of ways by racist, sexist, or chauvinistic ideas. We should not expect to find a pure proletarian knights in shining armor who are unmarked by backward ideas. Other historians of the US working class such as Alexander Saxton, Ted Allen, David Roediger and Noel Ignatiev have been able to develop far more nuanced understandings of the interaction between race and class in the formation of the white workers than those advanced by Sakai.

 

For instance, Saxton's The Rise and Fall of the White Republic looks at how racial white supremacy in the USA grew out of the rationalizations, justifications and exploitation of land from non-white populations. White supremacist ideology was formed and reformed in differing contexts by rulers to create and sustain various class formations. Yet ideology does not just originate from the upper class. It can be accepted by the lower class (of white workers) through various forms of media. Saxton traces the development of racism/white privilege through the early 19th century by looking at the struggles and strategies of Democrats, Whigs and Republicans. He is to able to trace how racism and privilege were continually formed and reformed through class struggle.

 

Looking at the early 19th century, David Roediger argues in Wages of Whiteness, that for white workers, racism was not just about economic advantage, but that racism emerged due to their fear of capitalist work discipline and wage dependency (or wage slavery). In this process of making peace with the capitalist wage system, white workers derived a psychological benefit from whiteness and came to see Blacks as the “other.”

 

Leaving aside any objections to the concept of privilege (discussed below), both Saxton and Roediger offer far better understandings of class formation than Sakai, since they do not deny the existence of a white working class, while still cataloging how white supremacy shaped and deformed the class struggles white workers engaged in.

 

V. Privilege[56]

 

Sakai has stated that due to globalization and neoliberalism, the old settler social contract is breaking apart and that the US was undergoing “desettlerization.” This should conceivably open the door for whites to partake in the class struggle. Yet Sakai sees a greater likelihood for fascism among white workers as a way to restore their crumbling privileges.

 

Even in instances of desettlerization, Sakai sees the white working class as “not neutral, but is fighting for its capitalist masters. Therefore, they must be combated, just like the army or police (who are the military base of the imperialists, while the labor aristocracy is its social base).”[57] In fact, Sakai argues that any revolutionary change would be against the interests of white workers since they have a material interest in maintaining white supremacy: “In the metropolis, radical and democratic change can only come against the wishes of the bribed majority. That may be tough to swallow for white folks, but reality is just reality.”[58] Ultimately, no significant sector of whites can ever free themselves from their privileges and join in a common struggle for revolution.

 

Although Sakai's work purports to explain the historical emergence of white supremacy and privilege, he winds up reifying both and making them an insurmountable condition which whites can never transcend. A better approach was developed by the Marxist historian Ted Allen, who recognized that the white race has been nothing other than a bourgeois form of social control. Allen argues that the concept of the white race was developed historically by the plantation bourgeoisie in the late 17th century following Bacon's Rebellion in order to forestall unity between European-American and African-American laboring people, whether free and bond. A system of racial oppression was created where members of the white race were granted special benefits and privileges, according to law, whereby poor whites saw themselves as having common interests with rich whites as opposed to poor non-whites. As Allen concluded:

 

First, that racial slavery constituted a ruling class response to a problem of labor solidarity. Second, that a system of racial privileges for the propertyless 'whites' was deliberately instituted in order to align them on the side of the plantation bourgeoisie against the African-American bond-laborers. Third, that the consequence was not only ruinous to the interests of the African-Americans, but was 'disastrous' for the propertyless 'whites' as well.[59]

 

While Allen recognized that racial supremacy brought short-term benefits to white workers, over the long-term it undercut their interests. Just like injecting a drug, the immediate effect may feel good, but over the long term, it is fatal. And white supremacy was not an inherent trait of white people; rather the “white race" must be understood, not simply as a social construct, but as a ruling class social control formation.”[60] In other words, race was something that developed historically and the ultimate beneficiary of white supremacy was not the working class, but the ruling class. The white race and its privileges (including access to land on the frontier) served as a “safety valve” to prevent the emergence of full-scale class struggle. The ability of the ruling class to maintain privileges for the white race came under pressure during times of crisis when the system begins to breakdown. Allen described the phases of US class struggle and its impact on racial oppression as follows:

 

1) The normal course of capitalist events brings on a deterioration of the conditions of the laboring classes. 2) The substance of the white-skin privileges becomes somewhat drained away by increased insecurity and exploitation. 3) The laboring-class “whites” manifest, to a greater or lesser extent, a tendency to make common cause with laboring-class Blacks against capital. 4) The ruling class moves to re-substantiate the racial privileges of the white workers vis-à-vis the Blacks. 5) The white workers take the bait, repudiate solidarity with Black laboring people and submit themselves without radical protest to exploitation by the privilege-givers.[61]

 

In contrast to Sakai, Allen offers a strategy on how to intervene in the different phases of the class struggle. For one, it was imperative for the revolutionary forces to stress the importance of anti-racism at all times, “to challenge the re-substantiation of 'white race' privileges and to heighten anti-white supremacist struggle.”[62] Revolutionary forces needed to uphold two principles: first, anything that cuts into profit is good, and, secondly, the need to maintain anti-white supremacist, proletarian hegemony in mass struggles. Whatever objections one may level against Ted Allen's interpretation of history or his understanding of white-skin privilege, he does not reify whiteness, but offers a strategy to overcome it.

 

While there is clearly an exploited and impoverished working class in the United States, this does not answer the question of whether or not it is “bought off” and, thus, incapable of leading a revolution. No final definitive answer to this question can be given here, but some thoughts to spur further debate will be offered. It is undeniably true that the US working class has a history of class struggle, but it is equally true that workers are divided by white supremacy, nativism, divisions based on gender and sexuality, skill, religion and union status. Various forms of relative privilege exist within the working class: men make more money than women, whites do not suffer the same type of police brutality as Blacks, etc. Certainly, that relative privilege comes from systems of white supremacy, patriarchy and imperialism.

 

Although a white racist worker in Virginia may make more than his Black counterpart or a textile worker in Bangladesh, those relative privileges do not change the fact that he is still exploited and has bills to pay. And that same racist white worker's relative privilege does shape his or her view of the world. While US society is full of segments of people who have some form of relative privilege, to identify that is not the end of the story.

 

Too often, especially among Third Worldists, the identification of relative privilege among a segment of the population is enough to condemn them as “bought off” or “hopelessly reactionary.” As the argument goes, privileged whites who are “bought off” have no material interest in fighting capitalism (since it benefits them). The only way for the privileged to join the revolutionary struggle is by “checking” or “renouncing” their privileges in an individualistic moral way which enables them to join the struggle. Yet this approach is rooted in idealism, not in an understanding of the material necessity for workers to engage in struggle.

 

This is not to deny that white supremacy, homophobia, sexism, etc are not problems or that they do not need to be ruthlessly combated. If history is any guide, then large swaths of the people, including among workers, will cling to the relative privilege that racial oppression protects and fight to the last against a revolution. Yet the relative privilege or race of someone does not determine their destiny. It is not a mark of Cain upon people. Privilege is not the only factor at work upon consciousness. Nor is that privilege permanent since the dynamics of capitalism reacts upon the social status of people in various ways, potentially providing an opening for revolutionary politics among tens of millions of workers, farmers, small shopkeepers, etc who do have a material interest in socialism. The lines between who will fight for revolution and counterrevolution are not already drawn, since we cannot know the political alignments of the future.

 

Furthermore, it is not necessarily true that those without privilege and the poorest of the poor are somehow inherently revolutionary and will fight for socialism. That is not only an economistic understanding, but has been proven to be false by history. Poor people can just as easily turn to religious fundamentalism or reactionary politics, as opposed to socialism. The founders of many western Communist parties, including in the United States, came not just from immigrant workers, but highly-paid skilled workers. The movement against the war in Vietnam was led in many ways by affluent students. In other words, even those with relative privilege are not devoid of revolutionary potential. The objective conditions are not eternally stacked against us, but they contain the seeds of many openings and alignments.

 

VI. Conclusion

 

Marxists need a materialist history and analysis of US society, its existing class relations, the role of race and national oppression and to identify those agents of revolutionary change. Unfortunately, J. Sakai's Settlers does not provide that understanding. The work is marred by gross methodological and factual errors and the political conclusion leads one to see white workers in the US as a hopelessly “reactionary mass.” For Sakai, there is no strategy for unity; rather division of the working class is seen as a permanent feature. There is no hope for revolutionary transformation and ultimately he puts forward a defeatist pessimism about the possibilities of broad alliances among the oppressed and exploited. Sakai's whole approach is one that promises defeat in advance since there is no vision of victory.

 

Notes

 

[1] Karl Marx, “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm

 

[2] J. Sakai, Settlers: Mythology of the White Proletariat (Chicago: Morningstar Press, 1989), 24-5.

 

[3] J. Sakai, When Race Burns Class: Settlers Revisited, A Critical Assessment of the U.S. White Working Class (Montreal, Kersplebedeb Publishing, 2000), 13.

 

[4] Sakai 1989, 7.

 

[5] Ibid. 8.

 

[6] Ibid. 10.

 

[7] Ibid. 11

 

[8] Ibid.

 

[9] Ibid. 6.

 

[10] Ibid. 49.

 

[11] Ibid. 43.

 

[12] Ibid. 84.

 

[13] Ibid. 146.

 

[14] Sakai 2000, 23.

 

[15] Ibid.

 

[16] Sakai 1989, 164.

 

[17] Ibid. 66.

 

[18] Ibid. 69.

 

[19] Ibid. 71.

 

[20] Sakai 2000, 3.

 

[21] Sakai 1989, 85.

 

[22] Ibid. 84.

 

[23] Mike Ely, et all. “Evaluating J. Sakai’s Mythology of White Proletariat: Toward a communist theory of anti-racist liberation,” Kasama Project. https://kasamaarchive.org/2011/07/03/evaluating-j-sakai-toward-a-communist-theory-of-anti-racist-liberation/

 

[24] Portions of this section are drawn from my: The raw material of exploitation: Harry Braverman's 'Labor and Monopoly Capital',” Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. http://links.org.au/node/4566

 

[25] V. I. Lenin, “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism: A Popular Outline,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/imp-hsc/

 

[26] V. I. Lenin, “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/oct/x01.htm

 

[27] Ibid.

 

[28] Sakai 1989, 53.

 

[29] Ibid.

 

[30] Ibid.

 

[31] Ibid.

 

[32] Eric Hobsbawm, “Lenin and the 'Aristocracy of Labor,'” Monthly Review 64:7 (December 2012): 32.

 

[33] Ibid. 33.

 

[34] Ibid.

 

[35] Charlie Post, “The "Labor Aristocracy" and Working-Class Struggles: Consciousness in Flux,” Against the Current 124 (September/October 2006b): 36.

 

[36] Ibid.

 

[37] Ibid.

 

[38] Charlie Post, “The Labor Aristocracy Myth,” Against the Current 123 (July/August 2006a): 34.

 

[39] Ibid. 35.

 

[40] Post 2006b, 37.

 

[41] Ibid.

 

[42] Post 2006a, 35.

 

[43] Ibid. 36.

 

[44] For some recent figures on the gap between CEOs and workers, see the following article: Lawrence Mishel and Alyssa Davis, “Top CEOs Make 300 Times More than Typical Workers,” Economic Policy Institute. http://www.epi.org/publication/top-ceos-make-300-times-more-than-workers-pay-growth-surpasses-market-gains-and-the-rest-of-the-0-1-percent/

 

[45] Figures drawn from Michael Perelman, “Some Economics of Class,” Monthly Review 58: 8 (July-August 2006): 18-28. Also see David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

 

[46] Dylan Matthews, “How the 1 percent won the recovery, in one table,” The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/09/11/how-the-1percent-won-the-recovery-in-one-table/ See also Michael Yates, “The Great Inequality,” Monthly Review. http://monthlyreview.org/2012/03/01/the-great-inequality/

 

[47] Shannon Stapleton, "U.S. jobs rose since '08 crisis, but pay is 23 pct less: report," Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/08/11/us-usa-mayors-jobs-idUSKBN0GB1T920140811. See also, Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, “Plight of the US Working Class,” Monthly Review. http://monthlyreview.org/dev/2014/01/01/the-plight-of-the-u-s-working-class/

 

[48] Bureau of Labor Statistics, “A Profile of the Working Poor, 2011.” http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpswp2011.pdf . For more on how racial oppression effects poverty and oppression in the United States, along with insights on how to fight white supremacy, see Jeff B. Perry, “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights from Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight against White Supremacy,” Cultural Logic (2011) http://clogic.eserver.org/2010/Perry.pdf

 

[49] Sakai 1989, 136.

 

[50] Sakai 2000, 13.

 

[51] Sakai 1989, 69.

 

[52] Ibid. 154.

 

[53] Ibid.

 

[54] G.E.M. de Ste Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World: from the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), 43-4.

 

[55] Ibid. 57.

 

[56] I also have profited from the following articles from the International Socialist Organization: Sharon Smith, “The politics of privilege-checking,” Socialist Worker. http://socialistworker.org/2014/11/18/the-politics-of-privilege-checking; Sofia Arias, Keegan O'Brien and Lindie Lou, "Solidarity must be the guiding principle," Socialist Worker. http://socialistworker.org/2015/04/02/solidarity-is-the-guiding-principle; Candace Cohn, "Privilege and the working class," Socialist Worker. http://socialistworker.org/2015/04/15/privilege-and-the-working-class

 

[57] Sakai 1989, 53.

 

[58] Sakai 2000, 17.

 

[59] Ted Allen, The Invention of the White Race, Volume 1: Racial Oppression and Social Control (Verso: New York, 2012), 21. [60] Ted Allen, “Summary of the Argument of The Invention of the White Race”, Cultural Logic (1998). http://clogic.eserver.org/1-2/allen.html [61] Quoted in Perry 2011, 54.

 

[62] Ibid. 55.

 

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