The Left

A partial dissent

As a believer in class-based democratic politics, let me register my disagreement with part of Marko’s recent guest post.

Marko writes:

All social classes and ethnic groups should be judged by the same standard; none has any inherent nobility greater than the others; all should be subject to criticism but defended when necessary. So long as one places the support of groups above the support of principles, then principles will inevitably degenerate. It is principles, not groups, that should be supported: support social justice and trade-union rights, rather than the ‘working class’ as such; national self-determination, not Croats or Palestinians as such; religious tolerance, not Muslims as such; anti-racism, not Jews or black people as such.

I agree absolutely that all ethnic groups should be held to the same standard. But I found myself cringing a bit a the suggestion that inherently unequal social classes should be judged so impartially. To an old-fashioned democratic leftist like me, taking sides in the struggle between classes is at the heart of what it means to be on the Left.

Now some on the extreme, dogmatic Left may cherish dreams of an idealized “working class” triumphing over the “ruling class” in some grand, apocalyptic struggle. Others, like myself, think in terms of using existing democratic structures (elections, lobbying, etc.) to help actual, flesh-and-blood workers make better lives for themselves and their families.

The point is that even what some would call (sneeringly) my moderate and reformist politics are opposed and resisted by some of the richest and most powerful elements in society.

Last year, for example, a major push by corporate lobbyists blocked a bill in Congress that would have made it possible for workers to organize unions with less fear of intimidation by their employers. There is, however, good reason to hope that with the election later this year of a new Congress and a new President, the bill will become law.

And a few years ago I wrote here about how the term “class warfare” had become an essential tool in the rhetorical arsenal of the American Right.

These days anyone who suggests that perhaps some Americans are more privileged than others is liable to be accused by some conservative of inciting class warfare. And if you hint that the tax code favors the very rich, and ought to be adjusted, the accusation is almost a slam-dunk certainty.
The implication of this rhetoric is that the warfare is completely one-sided: it’s just those envious Democrats stoking up resentment by bashing the rich who, of course, wouldn’t dream of advancing their own interests at the expense of the less well-off.

Marko asserts:

It is principles, not groups, that should be supported: support social justice and trade-union rights, rather than the ‘working class’ as such…

But sometimes principles require taking sides with one group over another– especially if those principles are vigorously opposed in practice by the side with more wealth and power. And the best way for workers to get a fair shake in that struggle is through old-fashioned, imperfect democratic means.

The problem– or rather, one of the many problems– with groups like the Socialist Workers’ Party is not their rhetorical support for the “working class” (although that support strikes me as simply a means to a slightly sinister end). The problem is their real, existing support for some of the world’s most reactionary, undemocratic and therefore anti-working class forces.

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