Rosa Luxemburg on Present-Day Capitalism, Colonial Genocide, and Indigenous Resistance

By Stephen D’Arcy

Sometimes, when reading Rosa Luxemburg’s great book, The Accumulation of Capital, published in 1913, it’s impossible to escape the feeling that one is receiving a clear, compelling explanation of the main trajectory of Canadian history — even when she never says a word about Canada. In the passages reproduced below, she walks us through an analysis of how capitalism was in its origins, and is still today, driven (by its relentless drive for profits) to seek control over the lands and resources of Indigenous peoples. When it finds Indigenous societies unwilling or unable to engage in commodity exchange, capitalism “knows no other solution to the problem than violence, which has been a constant method of capital accumulation as a historical process, not merely during its emergence, but also to the present day.”

Luxemburg reminds us, though, that the colonial violence of capitalist settler states does not go unchallenged. “For the [Indigenous] societies, on the other hand, since in such cases it is a question of their very existence, the only possible course of action is to engage in resistance and a life-or-death struggle….” The main conclusion of her analysis is that capitalism, by its very nature, is driven to pursue “the systematic, planned destruction and annihilation of any non-capitalist social formation that it encounters.” Capitalism’s logic, according to Luxemburg, is strictly genocidal.

To convey the outlines of her analysis, I reproduce here a few paragraphs from her book. (Note: some breaks between paragraphs have been added, to make it easier to read online.)

“….[C]apitalism above all wages a constant war of annihilation everywhere against any historical form of natural [that is, subsistence-based, pre-capitalist] economy that it encounters….The economic goals pursued by capitalism in its struggle with societies based on a natural economy…[include attempting] to gain direct control over important sources of the forces of production, such as land, wild game in the jungles, minerals, precious stones and ores, the products of exotic flora, such as rubber, etc….During original accumulation, i.e., during the historical emergence of capitalism in Europe at the end of the middle Ages, the dispossession of the peasants in the U.K. and on the [European] continent represented the most tremendous means for transforming the means of production and labour-power into capital on a massive scale. Since then, however, and to the present day, this same task has been accomplished under the rule of capital through an equally tremendous, although completely different, means: modern colonial policy.

“It is illusory to hope that capitalism could ever be satisfied with the means of production that it is able to procure by means of the exchange of commodities. Indeed, the difficulty for capital in this respect consists in the fact that, over vast expanses of the exploitable surface of the globe, the productive forces are in the possession of social formations that either have no inclination to exchange commodities or, worse still, cannot offer for sale the most important means of production on which capital depends, because their forms of property and social structures as a whole preclude this a priori [in advance]. This goes above all for the land, with all its rich mineral resources underground and its wealth of pastures, forests, and waterways on the surface, and also for the livestock of…pastoral peoples.

“From the standpoint of capitalism, the inference to be drawn here is that the violent appropriation of the colonial countries’ most important means of production is a question of life or death for it. However, since the…social bonds of the indigenous inhabitants constitute the strongest bulwark both of their societies and of the latter’s material basis of existence, what ensues is that capital introduces itself through the systematic, planned destruction and annihilation of any non-capitalist social formation that it encounters.

“This is no longer a question of original accumulation [at the dawn of capitalist development]: this is a process that continues to this day. Each new colonial expansion is accompanied by capital’s relentless war on the social and economic interrelations of the indigenous inhabitants and by the violent looting of their means of production and their labour-power. The aspiration to restrict capitalism to ‘peaceful competition,’ i.e., to commodity exchange proper, as it occurs between capitalist producing countries, rests on the doctrinaire delusion that the accumulation of capital could manage without the productive forces and demand of the [pre-capitalist] social formations, and that it could rely on the slow, internal process of the disintegration of the natural economy….Capital knows no other solution to the problem than violence, which has been a constant method of capital accumulation as a historical process, not merely during its emergence, but also to the present day.

“For the [Indigenous] societies, on the other hand, since in such cases it is a question of their very existence, the only possible course of action is to engage in resistance and a life-or-death struggle….Hence permanent military occupation of the colonies, indigenous uprisings, and expeditions to crush these are the order of the day for any colonial regime. These violent methods are here the direct consequence of the clash between capitalism and the natural [subsistence] economic formations that represent constraints upon its accumulation.

“The means of production and labour-power of these formations, as well as their demand for the capitalist surplus product, are indispensable to capitalism itself. In order to wrest these means of production and this labour-power from these formations, and to convert them into purchasers of its commodities, capitalism strives purposefully to annihilate them as independent social structures. From the standpoint of capital, this method is the most expedient, because it is simultaneously the one that is most rapid and most profitable…. British policy in India and that of the French in Algeria represent the classical examples of capital’s application of this method.”

[Source: Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital (1913), Chapter 27]

It’s probably worth adding to the above passages the following paragraph, in which Luxemburg draws attention to a commonality between the anti-capitalist struggles of European workers and the anti-colonial struggles of Indigenous and other colonized people around the world:

“The bourgeoisie, clearly affected in their class interests, scented an obscure connection between the ancient communist survivals that put up stubborn resistance in the colonial countries to the forward march of the profit-hungry ‘Europeanization’ of the indigenous people, and the new gospel of revolutionary impetuousness of the proletarian mass in the old capitalist countries. When the French National Assembly was deciding the fate of the unfortunate Arabs of Algeria in 1873, with a law on the compulsory introduction of private property, it was repeatedly said, in a gathering where the cowardice and bloodlust of the conquerors of the Paris Commune [anti-capitalist workers’ revolt] still trembled, that the ancient common property of the Arabs must at any cost be destroyed, ‘as a form that supports communist tendencies in people’s minds.'”

[Source: Luxemburg, “Introduction to Political Economy” (More precisely, p. 163 of The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, Volume I: Economic Writings I)]

The Limits of the Organizing Model


(The following is the text of a talk I gave at a recent conference, in June 2017. The fact that it was written for oral delivery accounts for some of its features, e.g., the minimal references, etc.)

In recent years, Jane McAlevey, the influential labour organizer and labour studies academic, has mounted a vigorous case for what she calls “the organizing modelof movement-building. The key features of the model, and the arguments she makes on its behalf, are drawn from reflection on her experiences over many years in trade union organizing. McAlevey is quite insistent, however, that this same model is the only model — literally, the only one — that can effectively contribute to movement building more broadly, that is, not just in trade union struggles, but in workers’ struggles against racism, colonialism, sexism, police violence, environmental destruction, and so on. She regards the organizing model, in short, as the exclusive and all purpose model for rebuilding all anti-systemic movements very generally.

What is striking and provocative in her claim is not so much the idea that the organizing model she proposes could help these movements, as part of a larger repertoire of movement-building approaches. That seems uncontroversial enough. What is provocative is her claim that only the organizing model can build real power for social movements, and everything else is bound to fail.

Of course, since some of the most high-profile social-movement upsurges of the past several years, including Idle No More, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and even the Arab Spring, were what she calls “mobilizations,” not organizing projects, her bold claim has the remarkable implication that none of these movements either were in fact effective, or even had the possibility of being effective, at building oppositional social power.

BLM, OWS, and INM: Real or Pretend Power?

McAlevey does not shy away from explicitly drawing out and defending this conclusion. When asked about Black Lives Matter and the early wave of anti-Trump protests in the early months of 2017, she says: “All that protest stuff is good for activists, but if we are trying to expand the universe of people who identify with making progressive change, we ain’t close to the numbers we need.” On her website, she adds that “movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter lack an organized base, and therefore are unable to build the power to effect meaningful change.”

More provocatively still, in her book No Shortcuts, she makes it clear that she classifies the kind of power that is generated by these surging waves of street protest as instances of what she calls “pretend power,” which is to say, a dramaturgical or staged presentation of apparent influence. Pretend power contrasts with what she calls “actual power,” which is the tested capacity to extract reluctant concessions from even determined adversaries.

Mobilizations of pretend power, even on a large scale, as in the case of the anti-globalization movement of the early 2000s, she says, accomplish little or nothing: “I used to go to more anti-globalization protests, direct actions and other things when I was young, but I just stopped.” Pulling no punches, she explains why: “It looks great, we congratulate ourselves when we have a huge direct action, but it adds up to nothing.”

This gloomy sense that mobilizations, even on the mass scale of “a huge direct action,” will inevitably “add up to nothing,” resonates with many people who have found themselves working through what has become an all too familiar cycle of protest upsurges, in which a rapid rise is followed by a relatively short-lived peak of activity, ending with an equally rapid decline and near total disappearance. The sense that spontaneous or self-activating protest upsurges, like Occupy Wall Street, Idle No More, and Black Lives Matter, may have a time-limited life-span of a couple of years before they lose their steam, leaving little or no ongoing movement infrastructure in their wake, has encouraged a fairly widespread mood of disenchantment with instances of mobilization that don’t convert into organization-building more or less directly. Seeing how little these upsurges leave behind leads many people to consider, in reflecting on their own activity, that their tireless efforts to build the protests were, to some significant degree, wasted.

McAlevey has a diagnosis ready-made to appeal to this mood of disenchantment. The problem, she argues, is that the model being pursued by movement participants is deeply flawed.

McAlevey makes the point by sketching two models of movement building, the mobilizing model and the organizing model. (She contrasts these with a third model, less important either to her or to me, called the advocacy model, closely associated with staff-led NGOs relying on a passive donor base and/or foundation funding.) Since her depiction of the “mobilizing model” is so saturated with dismissiveness and polemical caricature, it would be pointless to recount what she says about it, but it is worth looking for a moment at McAlevey’s organizing model, to see what it would mean to generalize it and put it at the very centre of our movement-building efforts, in environmental, feminist, anti-racist and other movement building activity in the broad workers movements.

In this talk, I want to argue that, in spite of the many strengths of the organizing model, and the real plausibility of McAlevey’s claim that the model can be a potent asset in the context of trade union movement building, there are strong reasons to doubt the generalizability of the model to other workers’ movements, such as movements against police violence, movements for climate justice, movements against sexism and Islamophobia, and so on. The key barrier to generalizing from union activity to social movement building generally is that the organizing model requires, as one of its central principles, that organizing be restricted to what she calls “bounded constituencies,” such as individual workplaces, or specific houses of faith, like a church, a mosque or a synagogue. This, in turn, makes the organizing model structurally impervious to, that is, impenetrable by, decentred influxes of popular self-activity of the sort that unfold during spontaneous protest upsurges.

My basic claim is that no model of movement building that refuses even to attempt to integrate people who flow through movements during protest upsurges can be sufficient, on its own, as a basis for a broad anti-systemic movement-rebuilding strategy.

The rest of my talk makes this case in three steps:

  1. First, I recount the core features of the organizing model itself, highlighting the importance of bounded constituencies in the model.
  2. Second, I briefly note four features of the dynamics of social contagion as they play out in spontaneous or self-activating protest upsurges, which both make these upsurges a precious resource that we ought to try to capitalize on in our movement-rebuilding strategy, and make it impossible to do so within the confines of the organizing model, restricted as the latter is to what McAlevey calls the “target rich environment” of bounded constituencies.
  3. Finally, third, I sketch the elements of a competing, self-mobilization model that I think should supplement the organizing model, as part of a complex and differentiated approach to rebuilding anti-systemic workers’ movements.

* * *

The Contours of the Organizing Model

OK, so what are the basic contours of McAlevey’s model? The first, and in my view the most important feature of the organizing model is that it operates always in what McAlevey calls a bounded constituency (see No Shortcuts, pp. 13-14). A bounded constituency is a spatially confined location, where a substantial but not indefinitely expansive number of people come together and interact regularly, such they all could change their lives for the better if they were to use collective action to extract concessions from elites. The primary paradigm instance of a bounded constituency is a workplace. Other examples mentioned by McAlevey include a public school, a social housing complex, and a racially segregated neighbourhood.

What this is meant to exclude is unbounded constituencies, such as workers in general, or precarious workers, or women, or students, or migrant workers, or trans workers, and so on.

With this crucial point in mind, let me lay out the basics of the organizing model in seven basic points, which for simplicity I will describe — somewhat superficially, I admit — as if they were sequential steps.

  1. First, identify a bounded constituency of people, the members of which could be motivated to make some positive change in their lives via collective action.
  2. Second, identify the natural leaders within the bounded constituency and recruit them to the organizing process.
  3. Third, collectively begin to map out the power structure of the bounded constituency, and its relation to the wider community, to reveal sources of worker power, such as internal or external resources from which they can draw support or strength, such as money, influence, or disruptive capacity.
  4. Fourth, use the identified natural leaders to recruit an ever-widening circle of participants into the organizing effort, by tapping into their networks of influence, aiming always to win over a majority of members of the bounded constituency.
  5. Fifth, conduct a series of ‘structure tests,’ such as getting a majority of members to sign a petition supporting some demand, in order to fine tune the identification of actual leaders and to gauge whether or not the support of a majority, ideally a supermajority, has been secured.
  6. Sixth, once the majority or supermajority is formed, build up the confidence of members by getting them to take actions at gradually increasing levels of risk.
  7. Finally, seventh, cap off the organizing project by launching a struggle — classically, a strike — that tries to impose high enough costs on an adversary that conceding to organizers’ demands becomes the only rational option.

This is the organizing model, in a nutshell. As far as it goes, I’m happy to embrace it. But whether it goes as far as McAlevey thinks it does is another matter. My concern is that it is structurally impervious to the influxes of large numbers that are typical of spontaneous protest upsurges.

Logic of Spontaneity

The word spontaneity entered the marxist lexicon by way of German idealism, deriving ultimately from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, where spontaneity (Spontaneität) is contrasted with receptivity (Receptivität). In effect, spontaneity is a synonym for another term popular with German Idealists, “self-activity” (Selbsttätigkeit). Here, “spontaneous” doesn’t mean unintelligible, random, or undertaken without forethought or encouragement. The spontaneity of workers who move into struggle during sudden upsurges of protest is contrasted with the receptivity of workers who take action in the manner of following instructions from organizers. (Luxemburg, scornful of worker receptivity, compares receptivity to soldiers following marching orders, a disastrous model for the workers’ movements to emulate, in her view.)

In contrast to the receptiveness of a bounded constituency to being organized, which follows a logic of growth by addition, the spontaneity of protest upsurges follows a logic of growth by social contagion. The dynamics of this logic of social contagion can be summed up in a schematic, broadly intuitive way, in terms of four features:

  1. First, social contagion is sporadic, rather than continuous and uninterrupted.
  2. Second, a social contagion’s emergence is sudden, rather than gradual.
  3. Third, social contagion unfolds in a relatively unforeseen, rather than in a pre-planned manner.
  4. Fourth, social contagion is self-organizing, rather than orchestrated by organizers.

(It is probably worth including a warning, here, against the danger of being seduced by the organizer’s fallacy, the belief that, because a protest involving masses of people was organized, it must be the case that the cause of the mass participation in the protest was the prowess and diligence of the organizing activity itself, as if it were a unilateral achievement, like deploying pawns in a chess game, an activity in which the organizers are imagined to be unilateral protagonists. In the most extreme expressions of the organizer’s fallacy, some people suppose that they have generated a mass movement by deploying on twitter a carefully crafted #hashtag.)

It’s a familiar fact about spontaneous protest upsurges, when they follow this logic of contagious enthusiasm, that they generate, or rather consist of, dramatic influxes into movements of people, activity, and passion, and that they tend to generate broad social ferment, in the sense of expansive and high-profile public controversy and debate (over matters normally ignored or marginalized in mainstream media and official politics, like police violence or poverty or the social harmfulness of the financial industry). I shall treat it as axiomatic — in part because today I don’t have the time to substantiate this intuition with detailed arguments — that this array of features makes spontaneous upsurges a rare and precious resource with which to build social movements, on the condition that the surge of self-activity can be harnessed and integrated before it dissipates.

If so, it should count against the organizing model that it closes off movement builders from engaging in a substantial way with these influxes of people and energy. Because these upsurges happen outside of the bounded constituencies targeted by the organizing model, namely, because they originate in spatially diffuse and socially differentiated sectors of the broad working class (Marx’s “immense majority,” the “mass of the people”), rather than originating in a specific workplace or church, say, the organizing model has no way to engage with them. An upsurge like Black Lives Matter, for instance, does not allow for winning over a majority of people in the unbounded constituency, because it is indefinitely expansive; it doesn’t allow for structure tests, because there is no way to engage with everyone in the constituency; and there is no way to map the power structure of the constituency, because it is too expansive and indeterminate. The model just doesn’t apply to such scenarios.

As a result, what the model prescribes, what it celebrates and trains organizers to do, is to ignore these upsurges. That is why McAlevey is so content to be dismissive of upsurges of movement activity that most leftists regard with much more enthusiasm.

This raises the question, however: what is the alternative to the organizing model? Now, McAlevey claims that the main alternative to her model is what she calls the mobilizing model, a model that she describes in the most unflattering terms. But I will offer a different account of a model of movement-building that takes mobilization seriously, which I will call the self-mobilization model.

A Self-Mobilization Model

The model begins with an acknowledgement that, when upsurges of popular spontaneity or self-activity occur, a movement-building strategy should try to consolidate the influxes of people, energy and social ferment that these upsurges generate

It further assumes that, to consolidate and integrate these influxes, movement-building cannot restrict itself to engaging with bounded constituencies like workplaces or houses of faith, or even neighbourhoods, but must be receptive to the way people self-mobilize via assembled constituencies, which are neither permanent and spatially localized like bounded constituencies, nor indefinitely expansive like unbounded constituencies. An assembled constituency, which forms around a movement like Black Lives Matter, the Arab Spring, the Gezi Park Revolt, and so on, is a temporary, spatially diffuse collectivity forged spontaneously (that is, by self-activity) through common struggle.

Self-Mobilization Model

The model further recognizes the differentiated, pyramid-like structure of these assembled constituencies (see the pyramid graphic), which have a widest layer at the base, consisting of a pool of sympathizers, who wish the movement well, but do not try to support it actively; a somewhat narrower pool of supporters, who lend moral or material support, without actually participating in movement activities; above this, there is a narrower group, the pool of participants, who attend events and actions or public meetings, but do not engage as agitators or organizers for the movement; closer to the top of the pyramid, there is a still narrower group, the pool of agitators, people who work to create entry points into movement activity and avenues of integration into the movement, so that as many supporters and sympathizers are drawn into participation as possible; at the top of the pyramid-like structure is the pool of organizers, who try to draw agitators and participants into permanent, membership-based social movement organizations (which may or may not follow McAlevey’s model), working on the issues at the centre of the mobilization.

In light of this picture, the self-mobilization model of movement building tries, in advance of upsurges of popular spontaneity, to build movement infrastructure with graduated commitment-requirements at the entry points. By that I mean that people can be engaged at multiple levels, not only at levels that presuppose willingness to make a strong commitment, attend organizing meetings, or take on substantial risk (as in the organizing model). People are always welcome to engage, even if their commitment levels are very low. At the same time, they are also welcome to engage at high levels of commitment, too. Basically, the model prioritizes the construction and maintenance of permanent “invitations” encouraging sympathizers to become supporters, supporters to become participants, participants to become agitators, agitators to become organizers.

The model further involves creating accessible avenues of integration, at every level of engagement. This means that the movement offers flexible, differentiated forms of sustained connection with the movement, suited to multiple levels of engagement: people can join a social media network, they can subscribe to a newsletter, or get involved in a working group, or receive training in political skills, join a reading group, or — importantly, but not exclusively — they can connect with and join a membership organization working on issues related to the mobilization. The point is, though, that they do not have to go to an organizing meeting or joint a membership organization as the price of entry into the movement.

Next, the self-mobilization model (that is, agitators who embody its principles) will try to generate a sequence, ideally an escalating sequence of empowering experiences of the possibility of achieving political efficacy through collective action, allowing people to learn in practice how popular mobilization can exercise power by means of disruption, and generate social ferment and debate around issues that may have long been ignored.

Finally, a crucial, but particularly difficult part of the self-mobilization model is that it requires that, even when the sporadic upsurge dissipates, the orientation of movement receptivity toward popular spontaneity, must be maintained, and the infrastructure of movement-receptivity has to be kept alive and accessible.

* * *

This “self-organization model” is certainly less well-developed, and probably less useful and important than McAlevey’s organizing model. I am very far from wanting to make the kind of bold and emphatic claims for the self-mobilization model that she makes for the organizing model. (On the contrary, I insist on a pluralistic and flexible approach to strategy, for reasons rooted in the logic of strategic interaction very generally, not just in this case.) Even so, I do want to insist that some such alternative to organizing, which takes sudden, broad-based, decentered upsurges of popular protest activity seriously as a precious resource from which movement-building work can draw strength, vitality, and crucially, scale.

On this last point, I couldn’t agree more with McAlevey’s insistence that today’s movements suffer, above all, from a disastrous failure to establish and maintain the capacity to operate on the scale needed to threaten intransigent elites and unresponsive systems of power. Where we disagree, obviously, is that I see protest upsurges as a crucial opportunity to, as she sometimes puts it, “scale up” our movements so that we can win.

Six Questions About Your Class Location that Isn’t Asking You to Think About

By Steve D’Arcy

Nurses strike at Mills-Peninsula hospital, 2011. (Photo by Justin Sullivan)

Nurses strike at Mills-Peninsula hospital, 2011. (Photo by Justin Sullivan)

If, like me, you read a lot of the articles passed around on social media that address issues of social injustice and oppositional politics, then you may have seen the recent piece on “class privilege,” posted on the popular liberal-feminist site, (hereafter, “EDF”). The article, written by Carmen Rios, has been widely circulated, but also widely criticized. It’s called, “Did You Do Any of These 6 Activities Today? Then You’ve Got Class Privilege.” 

Although the attempt to bring “privilege” discourse to bear within class analysis does have its defenders within marxism, most marxist readers of the EDF article would agree that the politics of the article represent a kind of inversion of marxism, or a marxism-in-reverse. For instance, whereas marxism describes most forms of full-time paid employment as “exploitation,” the EDF article describes having a full-time paid job as, in and of itself, a form of “class privilege.” And whereas marxism regards 6-8 hours of sleep per night as one of the costs of reproducing labour-power, from which employers benefit but for which workers aren’t paid, making it, too, a form of exploitation, the EDF article says that getting 6-8 hours of sleep per night is also “class privilege.”

Other markers of class privilege, according the article, include being able to purchase fruit and vegetables from a neighbourhood grocery store, spending money on a babysitter while going to job interviews, or being able to take public transportation to work. All of these, according to the author of the EDF piece, are signs that one is “damn lucky, y’all.” In this way, the article depicts the condition of most working-class people, at least in the marxist sense of “working class,” as that of a privileged elite, the fortunate beneficiaries of advantages denied to others, whereas marxism depicts the working class as an oppressed, exploited and dominated class.

A Counter-Listicle — Six More Questions

The article in question follows the standard formula: a privilege listicle — a privilisticle, one might even say. Did you do this today? If so, then you’re privileged, folks! Did you do that today? If so, then you’re damn lucky, y’all.

Although I feel reluctant to do anything that might contribute, even inadvertently, to the pervasiveness of this already ubiquitous genre, I do want to respond to the EDF privilisticle class analysis with six questions of my own. These questions, I think, would serve much better as a basis for thinking about how one’s work situation locates one within the class structure of modern capitalism.  

  1. Are you an employee, hired to work by an employer/boss who is better paid and more powerful than you and your co-workers?
  2. Does your employer — or an authoritative manager acting on behalf of the employer — get to tell you and your co-workers what to do, and to punish or fire you for insubordination if you refuse?
  3. Does your employer benefit whenever you and your co-workers can be made to do more work for less pay?
  4. Is there a market for the kind of work you do and the skills you use in doing it, so that if you were fired or quit, others would compete to be hired as your replacement?
  5. Could you and your co-workers improve your pay, benefits, and working conditions, by banding together to exert collective pressure on your employer to make these concessions, no doubt grudgingly?
  6. Finally, would you and your co-workers benefit if public policy-making and the design of leading social institutions were reoriented to prioritize social and environmental justice, and political and economic democracy, rather than maximizing profits and capital accumulation?

If you answered yes to all six of these questions, then — like most people — you’re probably a member of the global working class. That’s bad news, because it’s an exploited, oppressed, and dominated class. The good news, though, is that, with some luck and hard work, it’s a class that can abolish itself.

{For some qualifications and points of detail, see the Appendix, below, which discusses the difference between “proletarians,” and the broader category of — in the jargon of the Old Left — “toilers” (or “the 99%”).}

Is a “Divided Class” Still a Class?

But here’s where the issue of privilege comes in. The oppression, exploitation and domination imposed on the working class hits some people rather harder than others. In one notable recent case, some US workers were revealed to have laboured under conditions of employment that were unusually unfavourable to them, compared to many other US workers. At least until a recent class action lawsuit led to promises of reform, these workers produced clothing for Abercrombie & Fitch, Target, and the Gap in “numerous garment factories on the island [of Saipan, a Pacific island governed by the USA],” which “hired impoverished Chinese women” under contracts that “included special recruitment fees intended to put the signer into debt and then require the person to work two to three years to pay off the debt. Factory rules prohibited workers from engaging in basic activities such as dating, getting pregnant, going to church, or criticizing their employers. Workers who broke the rules or tried to quit were threatened with fines, deportation, and imprisonment.” Even basic labour standards like the federal minimum wage were not in place for these workers, because Saipan was exempted by US law from these “floors” or minimum standards. (I could give even more extreme examples of hyper-exploitation in the global economy today, but I want to focus on US workers here.)

Many other workers, in other parts of the USA, have much more favorable terms of employment than those women migrant workers. For instance, consider the 3.1 million working Registered Nurses in the USA. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these RNs enjoyed a median annual salary in 2012 of $65,470 (which, at time of writing, is almost $90,000 in today’s Canadian dollars), while the top 10% of RNs, at least some of whom must be workers, were paid “more than $94,720” (which is just over $130,000 Canadian dollars). Moreover, according to the Houston Chronicle, most RNs receive “medical, dental and vision” insurance, plus “retirement savings…available primarily through 401(k) and 403(b) plans….Vacation, paid holidays, sick days and personal time off are also common.”

None of this will come as a surprise to the author of the EDF article, or for that matter, to the authors of books like The Worker Elite (Bromma) or Divided World, Divided Class (Zak Cope), both of whom have an analysis of class privilege that partly overlaps with, but is by no means identical to, the one sketched by Rios in the EDF article. Neither will anyone be surprised by the fact that many of these differences in rates of pay, extent of benefits, and degrees of autonomy or on-the-job respectful treatment, are correlated to some significant extent with one’s location in the socio-political hierarchies of race and gender, or one’s place in the imperialist world order.

The Friction of Interests

The question is, how should we think about these differences? Should we adopt Martin Luther King’s view, that the deployment of race (or gender, etc.) to differentiate access to money, power and respect has from the beginning been “a political stratagem employed by…[business] interests…to keep the…masses divided” and to keep wage rates and levels of political influence of all workers lower than they would otherwise be, by always reminding the white worker (for example) that, “no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man”? Or is King being too “class reductionist,” when he advances that sort of view? It’s an important debate. But rather than trying to answer it here, I want to underline the point where King’s position and that of the EDF article are most fully at odds with one another.

What King wants us to see, and the EDF article apparently wants us to ignore, is what has sometimes (since Balzac) been called the friction of interests between employer and employee, boss and worker. It is this friction of interests that my six questions attempted to focus particular attention upon. Is there a power struggle and a conflict of interest here, and if so, where? My six questions suggest that the basic and fundamental conflict and power struggle in the world of work is not between workers who can take a bus to work and workers who have to walk to work. Instead, the conflict is between the employer class and the working class as a whole (including those who can’t find work and those who are dependent on working-class incomes). This conflict is multi-dimensional: a struggle over time, over money, over respect, and over security. But whereas employers are systematically advantaged whenever their employees are granted less time, money, respect and security, better-positioned workers do not (systematically) benefit from the deprivation of their fellow workers. On the contrary, the existence of an especially low-paid, especially disrespected sector of the work force tends to lower the standard overall, exerting a downward pressure on the pay and benefits of even the best paid workers.

For example, if there are hospital workers paid the minimum wage, persistently disrespected and disciplined on the flimsiest pretext, there is no mechanism to transfer the advantages denied to those workers over to another, better-faring employee group, like the same hospital’s RNs. No, instead the forms of power and monetary savings gained at the expense of that first group of workers tends to be used as a basis for chipping away at the standards of pay and benefits that the RNs have previously enjoyed. “What makes you so special?,” the employer will say to the RNs. “If these other workers can make do with less, why can’t you tighten your belts for the common good?” And, if this strategy works, the lowered RN pay and benefits will in due course be used by the boss against the lower-paid workers themselves: “What? Do you expect to be paid almost as much as we pay the RNs, with their years of special training?

Solidarity Isn’t Discovered, but Forged

And this brings us right back to King’s analysis. King’s point is that, to understand the antagonisms between Black and white workers, we need to see ideologies and practices of white supremacy as ways that wealthy and powerful elites dole out differential access to power, income and respect to different groups of people as a “stratagem” of governance and social control, “engineered” (as he put it) to strengthen the bargaining position of the wealthy and powerful, and to weaken the prospects for a potent, well-organized response from workers. The appropriate reaction to this stratagem, he assumed, was not to catalogue all the differences between those who get more or less access to this or that advantage, but to forge bonds of solidarity and common struggle, based on a shared understanding of the potential benefits that a solidaristic response makes available to all workers.

This word — the verb, to forge — doesn’t get nearly enough use in the political discourse of the broad left today. Solidarity doesn’t exist, like a material object, the way tables and chairs do. Solidarity is the confidence we can sometimes have that others, sharing with us a common enemy and a core of overlapping aspirations, will have our back when we find ourselves under attack, or when we need their support to win a crucial struggle. We don’t stumble upon solidarity when poring over statistics; we won’t find it by comparing our pay stubs with that of the worker down the street. We forge it in common struggle, and when — as so often — we find it faltering under pressure or dissolving after periods of disuse, due perhaps to sectionalism or short-sightedness, or simply because liberal individualism always threatens to eat away at the collectivist values of the left that were painstakingly built up in the struggles of earlier generations, we can only restore solidarity by reinvigorating the practices and commitments of mutual aid and mutual defence that constitute it. And these only gain their meaning in the heat of struggle, a heat generated by the friction of interests, the class struggle.  

Privilege Discourse

Does the propagation of privilege discourse help or hinder the attempt to forge working-class solidarity in practice? (It is important to insist, upfront, that this is the decisive question, even if we can’t be sure how to answer it.) Does it make good strategic sense, or for that matter social-scientific sense, to understand class in terms of privilege? Although, in general, I’m a skeptic about the strategic effectiveness of giving a central role to privilege when thinking about class, even I would concede that the question isn’t to be answered with a simple Yes or No. There is some complexity and ambiguity that has to be acknowledged. On the one hand, pretending that there are not real differences in the scale and scope of the harms inflicted on different sections of the class by capitalism isn’t going to help forge solidarity, but only to further fuel the festering resentment and mutual misunderstanding that weaken the grip of solidarity already. Viewing the EDF article sympathetically, it could be seen as a (somewhat clumsy) attempt to draw attention to these important differences, in order to forge a more meaningful solidarity, one which ensures that the least well-positioned workers won’t find their needs ignored by the wider workers’ movement. On the other hand, even if drawing attention to these differences often has a valuable role to play in the promotion of solidarity within the working class, nevertheless it would be going too far to replace analysis of the commonalities of working-class exploitation, domination and oppression, with an analysis that depicts many workers as a “lucky” and a “privileged” social group, essentially depicting most workers as beneficiaries of capitalism, even hinting that they would benefit from maintaining the status quo rather than from challenging it. A privilege discourse on working-class differentiation that is denialist about the exploitation and oppression of most workers surely both reflects and encourages the embrace of a politics that has gone decisively off the rails, that has switched sides, and that — in spite of itself, one hopes — now speaks from the standpoint of the employer.

When the question we pose to unionized workers is, “Don’t you see how lucky you are?,” it is a sign that we have lost our way.

My six questions are offered, therefore, as a proposed course correction for those who may have lost sight of the value of a politics, like King’s, founded on the project (not the discovered fact, but the resolutely chosen challenge) of forging solidarity among people who share the predicament — which politically, and collectively, is also a kind of shared strategic opportunity — of being members of the global working-class.


On the difference between the working class and the broader category of the “toiler” classes

Strictly speaking, not everyone who answers ‘Yes’ to all six of my questions will be a member of the working class. In the classical, old-school jargon of global workers’ movements, everyone who answers ‘Yes’ to all six of these questions would be called a “toiler,” but only some of them (albeit a substantial majority) would be considered working-class, in the classical marxist sense. (See The Program of the Communist International, 1929, IV [no.2], which distinguished between “the working class and…the broad masses of the toilers who march under its leadership.”)

The term “toilers,” now seldom used, was meant to include at least three groups of people: (1) tenant farmers (or “peasants,” as one used to say), who work on land leased from a rentier class, (2) proletarians, whose labour is fully commodified and so have “nothing to sell but their labour-power,” and (3) waged or salaried “craft” or “skilled trade” employees, usually partly protected from wage competition by “guilds” or “professional associations” that insulate these employees from some labour market effects (notably downward pressure on wages due to competition, but also often the pressures of deskilling), giving them more autonomy on the job and sometimes more security. Famously, the practice of collective bargaining by proletarians has tended, as a practical matter, to blur the difference between proletarian and craft employees, so that increasingly this contrast takes the form of a continuum, as the Registered Nurse example illustrates. At the same time, the craft protections (or “privileges,” if we’re to use the term) traditionally made available by guild membership tend to be eroded over time, as employers try to subject craft employees to market discipline (as seen, for instance, in the ever-expanding use by universities of “contract faculty,” who are largely denied access to the guild protections available to the “tenure-track” professoriate, even if they are sometimes able to protect themselves as workers by union membership and collective bargaining). Marx, and many later marxists, have noted that “professional” or “skilled craft” employees tend only to be receptive to forming an alliance with the proletariat when they find their traditional protections to be eroding or under attack, a fact which renders them politically erratic, rather than reliable allies of either capitalists or proletarians.

By some classical definitions, the “toilers” also included (4) self-employed people and small proprietors, such as shopkeepers (the “urban petty bourgeoisie”), but members of this group wouldn’t answer ‘yes’ to all six questions, because they would not be employees. In the jargon of the contemporary (official) labour movement, the term “toilers” has been replaced — for better or for worse — by terms like “working people,” “working families,” or even “hardworking families,” which are more vague and expansive than the term “working class,” a feature that endears these terms to some AFL-CIO officials, among others. The pros and cons (mostly cons) of these terms have been widely discussed. But what hasn’t happened, perhaps regrettably, is that no one seems to have found a word to replace the old word, “toilers,” even if it remains as politically important as ever before. Possibly the best proposal was put forward by the late George Jackson, who — inventing a formula that simultaneously echoes Marx’s term, “the mass of the people” [die Volksmasse], and anticipates the #OWS slogan, “We are the 99%” — introduced the term “the 99%” in contrast to “the 1%,” as a novel way to describe the toilers.

Finally, a word on managers — a big topic. While few if any people with opinions about class would call a high-level, upper-management employee either a member of the working class or a “toiler,” there are obviously a series of gradations of broadly supervisory or quasi-managerial functions undertaken by employees at a range of different levels. For instance, there are shift supervisors at a fast food restaurant, who may exercise some minimal, low-level managerial functions, and exercise some limited authority in the workplace, albeit clearly subject to the whims and the instructions of higher-level managers or owners. But these low-paid, low-level supervisors are not plausibly depicted as bosses in any strong sense. They seem, at most, to be a hybrid employee group, working-class in most respects (probably answering yes to all or almost all of my 6 questions, and not protected by guild restrictions on labour market effects), but granted limited authority in the workplace to act as managerial delegates in the absence of a proper boss. At this point, the line between working-class and non-working-class just isn’t as clear as it is in more standard cases, because the job-description of the low-level supervisor — in contrast to upper management on the one hand, and workers with no managerial functions at all — is inherently ambiguous in this way. Marx used the the term, “intermediate classes,” to describe hybrid or ambiguous cases. More recently, Erik Olin Wright has used the term, “contradictory class locations.”

The End.






Self-exoneration via Self-flagellation: The structure of neoliberal guilt

By Stephen D’Arcy

You may have seen the video: a young white woman declares her complicity with white supremacy, insists on her own affinity and commonality with racists who murder Black people, and yet — such is her genius — she manages to depict herself in the most idealized way, as a paragon of virtuous anti-racism.

I was thinking that there should be a proper label for this increasingly common, perhaps distinctively neoliberal communicative stratagem that deploys ritual self-flagellation (“We’re quite shit!”) as a vehicle for self-exoneration (“As one of those declaring that we’re shit, clearly I’m an exemplary figure, to be admired and emulated”). But then I realized that the whole point of ritual self-flagellation, in the literal as well as the metaphorical senses, is self-exoneration, or at least a taking of one’s distance, on a now-elevated perch, from the mundane sinners all around who don’t even bother to whip themselves. So, the observation that it is used as a self-exoneration tactic is redundant, ultimately. That’s just what what we mean by self-flagellation. Still, this somehow doesn’t satisfy my hunger for phrases, so for the time being I’m going to call it “auto-exculpatory self-flagellation.”

Why do I suggest that auto-exculpatory self-flagellation might be “distinctively neoliberal”? It’s because there’s an element of brand management and self-marketing built into this practice. It is self-promotion in a properly entrepreneurial sense of the word “promotion.” More specifically, like an app-flogging tech startup, one cleverly creates the perception of a lack (in this case, a lack of virtue), even as one offers up one’s services as the local monopolist provider uniquely positioned to satisfy the new demand.

So understood, it is perhaps the substitute, among suitably entrepreneurial, neoliberal egos, for the obsolete experience of “liberal guilt.” If liberal guilt wallowed in a longing for the lost confidence in one’s own innocence, expressed in a para-Keynesian displacement of agency onto policy makers, neoliberal guilt sees instead an opportunity to cash in on one’s complicity with wrongdoing by converting it into a kind of psycho-social “income” stream, in the currency of “social capital,” namely, the prestige of being “one of the good ones.” What this situation demands, the self-exonerator thinks, is a promotional video for a campaign of viral marketing…promoting me!

But is it a bad thing? Or more pointedly, should we blame these entrepreneurs of self-exoneration?

Well, that would be the wrong way to think about such things, especially if the context is political. The way to think about politics is politically, and that means to foreground two elements conspicuous by their absence from the discourse of the guilt-neoliberal: causal explanation and strategic analysis.

Instead of the individualizing, personalizing pronouncement that “we’re shit,” or “they’re shit,” political thinking analyzes why bad things are happening, with a particular interest in the institutions, structures and systems that generate harms and injustices. On this basis, it looks to develop a strategy for defeating and (to borrow Marx’s term) smashing [brechen] these systems by means of popular resistance and social struggle, including (where feasible) the construction of self-organized alternatives.

The question isn’t, is this person (me, you) or this group of people (us, them) bad or good? Rather, the question is, how can we find a plausible path toward smashing the systems that generate so much injustice? And here is where auto-exculpatory self-flagellation falls so short. It hides the systemic, institutional causes of injustice behind a screen of personalizing moral righteousness and it eschews the development of strategies for winning, preferring instead to focus on the accumulation of social capital. The way to relate to it is not with a counter-moralism that tries to shame the self-exonerator, but to analyze the causes of this phenomenon and develop strategies for undermining its influence. Above all, that means advancing radical politics as an attractive and effective alternative to liberalism. Liberalisms of every sort, as forms of individualism, thrive in contexts where the prospects for potent collective action seem bleak. It can be undermined only by showing in practice that collective struggle can win.

Four Styles of Labour Organization: Representation, Self-organization, Networking and Institutional Coordination


It is customary, nowadays, to apply the term “organized labour” only to trade unions. This, I think, is a mistake in the way we speak or the way we allow ourselves to be spoken about. The organizations of unemployed workers, demanding food, housing, dignity and jobs; the organizations of sex workers, demanding basic labour standards and the end of abuse and harassment at the hands of the police and others; the organizations of injured workers, demanding a decent living, just compensation and access to adequate healthcare services; the organizations of the “travailleurs et travailleuses sans papiers” demanding the right to move in search of security, justice and work; the organizations of feminist workers, demanding legal remedies for women facing sexual harassment at work and discrimination in hiring, pay or promotions; or the organizations of Indigenous workers demanding jobs and fair treatment — all of these are ways in which “the labouring many” have organized in struggle and solidarity to improve their lives as working-class people. Like unions, these, too, are forms of “organized labour,” broadly understood.

NYC-based Domestic Workers United, a membership-based social movement organization

Domestic Workers United, a membership-based workers’ organization, based in New York City.

With this in mind, I want to propose a simple typology, a sort of basic classification system, for describing different styles of labour organization, in the broad sense.

I discern four basic styles of labour organization, although I want to emphasize in advance that some organizations or political projects combine more than one of them, and in effect function as hybrid forms of organized labour. The four styles are self-organization, representation, networking and institutional coordination.


The oldest, and arguably still the most important type of organized working-class struggle is self-organization. Self-organization is characterized by its “grassroots” reliance on active participation by ordinary people (that is, people who are not “professional organizers” or “staffers”), not only in the setting of goals, but also in the design and implementation of plans for joint action. In this style of labour organization, workers coordinate with one another in a participatory way, getting directly involved in articulating their grievances and aspirations, making key decisions through open debate and discussion, and then taking collective (“direct”) action to implement their decisions and pursue their shared aims. Partly because of its non-professionalized and participatory character, it is often the most frustrating for participants, because decision-making can be difficult, and there may be uneven implementation of decisions, among other problems. On the other hand, when it works well, it is arguably the style of organizing that is most inspiring and empowering for participants, who learn in practice that they can change the world by acting in common.

Some examples of working-class self-organization include popular assemblies, the camps and general assemblies of the Occupy movement, the “solidarity networks” that organize workers to support one another against wage theft or landlord abuses, self-managed worker cooperatives, the grassroots action organizations that play such a key role in struggles against poverty, unemployment, gender violence, environmental racism, and so on. Some hybrid political projects have a self-organization component, including the local grassroots action groups (in contrast to the formal “Founders” organizations or the informal online networks) organizing under the banner of Black Lives Matter or Idle No More.

What is important is not the issue upon which the groups focus, but the organizational features that they embody: by its very nature, self-organization is participatory and oriented toward direct action, in ways that other organizational forms are often not.


A second style of labour organization is representation. Whereas self-organized grassroots groups are characterized by broad participation and direct activation (or what Marx called “self-activity”), representational forms of working-class organization tend to be divided between a broad base of supporters or “stakeholders,” on the one hand, and a narrow base of “core” activists or “leaders,” on the other hand. The basic function of representational organizations is “advocacy” — speaking up for the interests of a “constituency” or represented group or “community” whose interests are served or promoted (but who are not themselves directly activated, on a broad basis) by the organization.

To some extent, organizations of this type do try to “mobilize” the wider group of stakeholders whose interests they hope to represent. They may try to hold a large “day of action,” to demonstrate (notably, to politicians, or in some cases, to prospective funders) that they do indeed have credibility with the people on whose behalf they claim to speak. For the most part, however, they engage in mobilization of a very particular and limited kind: they tell people where to show up, what to demand, and when to go home. What they do not do is invite these wider circles of people to participate in the organization’s ongoing activities, nor do they actively work to draw wider groups into directly making decisions and planning actions. In general, representational organizations draw (in practice, if not always in the way they talk about what they’re doing) a fairly sharp line between activists or leaders and the broad base on whose behalf they believe they speak.

It is worth noting that representational organizations are almost always led (or staffed) by people who are sincerely committed to winning things for the stakeholders they try to represent or “advocate for.” It is not some kind of cynical con. Nevertheless, there are a number of potential, even typical features of these organizations that arguably undermine their stated aims, in many ways. (I won’t stop to pursue the point, but one could consult a book like Paved with Good Intentions, by Nikolas Barry-Shaw and Dru Oja Jay, to get a sense of how these organizations can play a very “contradictory” role in attempts to deal with the problems they are ostensibly trying to address.)

The most clear-cut examples of representational organizations are NGOs, notably environmental NGOs. But I would describe other relatively non-participatory “advocacy”-focused organizations, like the Canadian Labour Congress, the Assembly of First Nations, and the Canadian Federation of Students as representational workers’ organizations. Arguably, the formal or semi-formal Founder groups linked to Idle No More and Black Lives Matter are representation organizations, with very limited decision-making participation by “stakeholders” outside of the small leadership circle.

I won’t go into the point here, and it may be of diminishing relevance now that social democracy has largely dissolved itself into conventional liberal electoral politics of the Democratic Party variety, but I should mention that the classical “labour party” form (e.g, the pre-Blair UK Labour Party, the German SPD, Canada’s NDP) is a specifically parliamentary variant of representational organization, in which “rank and file” party members are represented by professional politicians and other party functionaries, and the party does not really activate the broad membership except as “foot soldiers” during election campaigns and as “base voters” on election day.


Networking is another, and much-discussed, form of labour organization. In this context, I am not talking about networks of formal organizations, but networking as an informal alternative (or supplement) to formal organization

The word “networking” has a slightly “contemporary” ring to it, but networks are not really a new development. For example, when the Russian Communists urged socialists around the world to organize the “vanguard of the working class” into a political party, they understood this “vanguard” to be an already existing, but ill-coordinated, loose and informal network of anti-capitalist radicals, who could be much more effective if they combined to form a common organization. The Bolsheviks were skeptical of networks, but today networks are widely celebrated, often uncritically. Moreover, in the past few decades they have developed an ever-more acute form of self-consciousness. Yesterday’s informal, unnamed, ill-defined network tends to become increasingly replaced by today’s semi-formal, hashtag-branded, social-media-based network, often with semi-official buzzwords and catchphrases. But networks, by definition, stop short of constituting formal, membership-based organizations. Rather, they are something like shared affiliations, by which people signal to one another, or to adversaries, their joint commitment to a (sometimes only loosely defined) political project. This gives networks their main strength: they can spread in a “viral” manner, without acquiring the burden of constructing either mechanisms for accountable decision-making or the kind of large and unwieldy infrastructure that a formal organization would need in order to accommodate tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of participants.

Some of the most important social movements of recent years have functioned partly as networks. For instance, Black Lives Matter and Idle No More are in part networks organized via social media, in which people express their affiliation by deploying hashtags and other public declarations of political alignment. The way the quasi-official “Founders” describe #blacklivesmatter makes clear that they regard the wider movement as in large part a network in this sense:

“#BlackLivesMatter is an online forum intended to build connections between Black people and our allies to fight anti-Black racism, to spark dialogue amongst Black people, and to facilitate the types of connections necessary to encourage social action and engagement.”

The exact relationship between local grassroots action groups, the BLM Founders circle, and the social-media-focused network remains to be fully clarified and/or worked out in practice. However, I think most participants and observers would agree that there is a network aspect, distinct from both the local self-organization groups and the small circle of Founders.

Another notable example of networking as a form of working-class organization would be BDS, the movement calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. Although it was launched by a groups of ‘civil society’ formal organizations, BDS exists in practice mainly as an informal network that tries to motivate formal organizations, including but not limited to working-class organizations, to adopts its boycott and divestment policy proposals.

Institutional Coordination

Finally, there is institutional coordination, the type of labour organization that typifies modern unions and other formal member-funded organizations with a paid staff and a relatively passive membership base, as far as daily operations are concerned. In institutional coordination, as an organizational form in the workers’ movements, there is (usually) a formal membership, which is in principle able to democratically control the group’s activities. But in contrast to self-organization in grassroots groups, the day to day operations of unions are largely overseen by a combination of paid staff and elected office holders.

The difference between “representation” and “institutional coordination” isn’t always readily apparent, and to some extent organizations of either type can be influenced by the organizational norms of the other. But in principle, there is a clear distinction. A representation organization does not require that the stakeholders it purports to represent actually join the organization and pay regular dues, much less go out on strike if the membership decides to do so. At most, a representation organization may need to mobilize a base of supporters periodically to boost its credibility. By contrast, unions need members, and many key decisions are actually made and subsequently implemented by the members (even if there may be varying degrees of member engagement and substantive democracy in different unions). In short, institutional coordination combines the formal commitment of signed-up members, which is typical of self-organization, with the feature of being staff-led on a day to day basis, which is typical of representation-oriented organizations.

Besides unions, other examples of institutional coordination as a type of labour organizing include consumer cooperatives like Mountain Equipment Co-op, and possibly ASSÉ (L’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante), which goes beyond advocacy by organizing strikes and has a staff and a team of officials supported by a large — but most of the time, predominantly non-active — membership base.

The two main strengths of institutional coordination as an organizing style in the broad workers movement are, first,stability, since they do not disappear when the level of struggle declines sharply (which grassroots self-organization groups often do); and second, access to resources, since their stable dues-base enables them to invest in “education departments” and hiring organizers to work on campaigns, mobilizing members, or organizing the unorganized. These features give the institutional coordination organizations a credible claim to constitute a kind of backbone, or (to switch metaphors) the scaffolding, of the wider working-class Left.


The working class consists not only of the waged employees that the capitalist class accepts as workers, but also retired workers, sick or injured workers, unemployed workers, people whose social labour is neither paid nor commodity-producing but is nevertheless exploited by capital in a wider sense, and students bound for the labour market upon graduation. Marx was right to count not only wage labourers, but also the many “surplus populations” excluded from paid employment into his expansive understanding of the workers’ movement (“the movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority”). And, just as our understanding of the class needs to be broad and expansive, so too does our understanding of what it means to organize workers. Our conception of organized labour obviously must include, crucially, the various forms of workplace-based organization, notably unions and workers’ cooperatives. But it must also include ways in which workers are organized outside the workplace to defend or advance working-class interests and demands for justice. The conception of organized labour that emerges from such a perspective will necessarily be differentiated, one way or another. What I offer here is only one of many possible ways of analyzing that differentiation. Hopefully, by noting these differences, we can get a better look at the strengths and weaknesses of different organizational forms and methods, and see more clearly how they might help or hinder our efforts, depending on the context and circumstances in each case.

Some Early 20th Century Views on Anti-Racist Strategy in the USA

By Steve D’Arcy

There’s a tendency to assume, perhaps unconsciously, that radical political analysis gets better and more sophisticated over time. Sometimes it really does. But certainly not always. Often, when we think we’re discovering something new, what’s actually happening is that we’re groping towards a rediscovery of the long-forgotten but hard-won insights of earlier generations. Too often, the collective intelligence and accumulated wisdom of the powerful and transformative social struggles of yesteryear have been carelessly consigned to oblivion by what one famous historian of poor people’s movements has called “the enormous condescension of posterity.”

In light of the recent intensification of the struggle against police killings of working-class Black people, it is worth taking a look back at how radicals of earlier generations, especially (in this case) some US-based Black revolutionaries, thought about the strategic questions posed by struggles of this kind.

When we do look at what they had to say, the superficial campus cliché according to which early 20th century marxists were “class reductionists” who ignored anti-racism altogether, or at best “subordinated anti-racism to class struggle,” begins to unravel in the face of a reality that bears little relation to the old liberal talking points.

Back in the 1940s, CLR James tried to sum up the early-20th century marxist view of anti-racist strategy for the USA in three points:

“We say, number 1, that the [Black] struggle, the independent [Black] struggle, has a vitality and a validity of its own; that it has deep historic roots in the past of America and in present struggles; it has an organic political perspective, along which it is traveling, to one degree or another, and everything shows that at the present time it is traveling with great speed and vigor.BlackPowerMatters2

“We say, number 2, that this independent [Black people’s] movement is able to intervene with terrific force upon the general social and political life of the nation, despite the fact that it is waged under the banner of democratic rights, and is not led necessarily either by the organized labor movement or the Marxist party.

“We say, number 3, and this is the most important, that it is able to exercise a powerful influence upon the [wider] revolutionary proletariat, that it has got a real contribution to make to the development of the proletariat in the United States, and that it is in itself a constituent part of the struggle for socialism.

“In this way we challenge directly any attempt to subordinate or to push to the rear the social and political significance of the independent [Black people’s] struggle for democratic rights. That is our position.” (From CLR James, “The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the US,” 1948).

[[Note: in the passage above, in order to focus the reader’s attention on the meaning, rather than the obsolete terminology, I replaced the word “Negro” with “Black,” but in the quoted passages below, I leave the wording as it appeared originally.]]

These three points — which James equated with “the position of Lenin thirty years ago” (see below) — have their roots in Karl Marx’s view of the relation between anti-colonialism and anti-capitalism, according to which “the most important object[ive]” for European workers hoping “to hasten the social revolution” against capitalism should be to help secure “the national emancipation” of colonized peoples, which workers in the colonizing nations should recognize as “the first condition of their own social emancipation.” In his main work, Capital (1867), he famously applied this same logic to racism in the US: “In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.”

Since I do not think the development of anti-racist politics in the US has been entirely for the better in the years since James underlined his three points (in spite of some hugely important advances, like thisthis, this, this, and this, to name a few), I want to encourage anyone who hasn’t studied early marxist views of anti-racist strategy in the US to look into a few of the classic contributions to the marxist tradition in this area. Below, I provide links to several key texts, including one by Marx himself in 1870, and then seven others published in the first half of the last century. For each of the links, I have included a brief excerpt, hoping to whet the appetite of possible readers. Apart from Marx and Lenin, all of the others — George Padmore, CLR James, Harry Haywood, WEB DuBois, and Claudia Jones — wrote the relevant pieces while living in the United States, as far as I can tell. (On the other hand, it’s striking that three of them — Padmore, James, and Jones — were born and initially educated in Trinidad.)

I should point out that — unsurprisingly — the opinions elaborated in the following works do not all neatly comply with James’ formulation of what he depicts as “the” marxist view. In many cases they diverge from one another very directly, and in important ways. But the divergences are also instructive and important, and repay careful study.

1. Karl Marx, On the relation between anti-colonialism and anti-capitalism (“Letter to Meyer and Vogt”) (1870)

“And most important of all! Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life….He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards [Irish workers] is much the same as that of the ‘poor whites’ to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A…..This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the…working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.”

2. V.I. Lenin, “Draft Theses on National and Colonial Questions” (1920)

“The Communist International’s national policy…cannot be restricted to the bare, formal, purely declaratory and actually non-committal recognition of the equality of nations to which the bourgeois democrats confine themselves….In all their propaganda and agitation—both within parliament and outside it—the Communist parties must consistently expose that constant violation of the equality of nations and of the guaranteed rights of national minorities which is to be seen in all capitalist countries, despite their ‘democratic’ constitutions….[A]ll Communist parties should render direct aid to the revolutionary movements among the dependent and underprivileged nations (for example, Ireland, the American Negroes, etc.) and in the colonies. Without the latter condition, which is particularly important, the struggle against the oppression of dependent nations and colonies, as well as recognition of their right to secede, are but a false signboard….”

3. George Padmore, “Black Slaves in the New World” (Chapter 2 of The Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers) (1931)

“Even in the United States, which the apologists for bourgeois democracy consider the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave,’ we find 15 million Negroes brutally enslaved. The story of the oppression of Negroes in the United States forms one of the darkest pages in the history of capitalism. In no other so-called civilised country in the world are human beings treated as badly as these 15 million Negroes. They live under a perpetual regime of white terror, which expresses itself in lynchings, peonage, racial segregation and other pronounced forms of white chauvinism….Race prejudice or white chauvinism is one of the chief weapons in the hands of the capitalist class in order to oppress and enslave the black workers. In the United States the working class is made up of different nationalities and races which are grouped into white and black. In order to prevent these workers from uniting together in militant struggle against the bourgeoisie who rob them all alike, the employers and their agents in the Labour movement…encourage the workers to hate each other by playing up racial and national differences….Even in the North, where Negroes are supposed to be better off than in the South, they are still the victims of varied forms of social oppression. First of all they are isolated from the rest of the working class by traditional social codes imposed upon the workers by the bourgeoisie, in order to maintain an ideological influence over the white workers, who are taught to hate and despise their black comrades. Therefore, we find that the less class-conscious white workers, like the capitalists, have the tendency to consider the Negro workers as social outcasts – members of a pariah race.”

4. Harry Haywood, “The Struggle for the Leninist Position on the Negro Question in the United States” (1933)

“The emphasis upon the development of economic struggles among the Negro toilers does not mean to slacken but on the contrary to increase in every way the struggle around general issues of Negro liberation, such as Scottsboro and the fight against lynching. It is necessary to broaden out and deepen these struggles, bringing forward our full program of social equality and right of self-determination and building the broadest united front on these issues. Our chief task, however, is to bring this struggle into the shops and factories and on the land, linking it up with the more immediate demands of the Negro toilers, making the factories the main base in the struggle of Negro liberation and our trade unions the main lever for the organization of the Negro working class. At the same time the revolutionary mass organizations and particularly the trade unions must come forward more energetically in the struggle on behalf of the political demands of the Negro toilers. This must go hand in hand with the ruthless combating of all forms of chauvinist and Jim Crow practices and the patient, systematic but persistent struggle against the ideology and influences of petty-bourgeois nationalists among the Negro toilers.”

5. WEB DuBois, Black Reconstruction (1935)

“That dark and vast sea of human labor in China and India, the South Seas and all Africa; in the West Indies and Central America and in the United States — that great majority of [hu]mankind, on whose bent and broken backs rest today the founding stones of modern industry — shares a common destiny; it is despised and rejected by race and color; paid a wage below the level of decent living; driven, beaten, prisoned and enslaved in all but name…–how shall we end the list and where?…Here is the real modern labor problem….Out of the exploitation of the dark proletariat comes the Surplus Value filched from human beasts….The emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown, and black.”

6. CLR James, “The Right of Self-Determination and the Negro in the United States of North Americas” (1939)

“Up to 1935, organized labor, as represented by the AFL, discriminated against the Negro as sharply as the capitalist class; today the poor whites of the South are the most savage of lynchers and the most rabid upholders of the theory of white superiority….[N]ot even a socialist revolution can immediately destroy the accumulated memories, mistrust, and suspicions of centuries; and today, in this period of capitalistic decline in America, the racial prejudices are more than ever based on economic privileges, possessed by one group of workers at the obvious and immediate expense of the other….Three centuries of property and privilege have used their wealth and power to make the Negroes feel that they are and must continue to be outcasts from all sections of American society, rich and poor; and the political backwardness of the American working-class movement has made it an easy victim to this propaganda, fortified by tangible if slight economic advantages….The desire to wipe out the humiliating political subservience and social degradation of centuries might find expression in an overpowering demand for the establishment and administration of a Negro state….Should the masses of Negroes raise this slogan, the [marxists], in accordance with the Leninist doctrine on the question of self-determination and the imperative circumstances of the particular situation, will welcome this awakening and pledge itself to support the demand to the fullest extent of its power.”

7. Harry Haywood, “The Negro Nation” (Chapter 7 of Negro Liberation) (1948)

“The ‘white supremacists’ insist on presenting the Negro question as one of race. This makes it possible for them to ‘justify’ the notorious color-caste system in the name of spurious race dogmas which depict the Negro’s servile status in American life, not as the result of man-imposed prescription, but as a condition fixed by nature. Negro inequality is supposedly due to natural inherent differences. In this credo, Negroes presumably are a lower form of organism, mentally primitive and emotionally undeveloped. ‘Keeping the Negro in his place’ is thus allegedly prescribed by nature and fixed by Holy Writ. Color of skin is made an index to social position. Race…[is] used as an instrument for perpetuating and intensifying Negro subjugation. The Negro problem is explained in terms of natural conflict between races, the result of inborn peculiarities. This hideous distortion, whose roots go back into ante-bellum times and beyond, permeates the entire cultural pattern of the South; this vile calumny is fixed in the South’s folkways, mores and customs, sanctioned in its laws, and, in the last analysis buttressed by violence and lynch terror. The lie of natural, innate and eternal backwardness of the Negro and other dark-skinned peoples is the theoretical foundation upon which rests the whole noxious system of Negro segregation and its corollary, ‘white supremacy.’ Formerly a rationalization of chattel slavery, it is used to justify the Negros present-day vassalage….From its taproot in the semi-feudal plantation system, anti-Negro racism has spread throughout the country, shaping the pattern of Negro-white relationships in the North as well. With the clandestine encouragement of Yankee financial power and its controlled agencies of public opinion, art literature, education, press, and radio, the dogma of the Negroes ‘inherent inferiority’ has been cunningly infiltrated into the national consciousness of the American people. Woven into the national fabric, it has become an integral part of the ‘American way of life,’ despite repeated refutation by authoritative science.

8. Claudia Jones, “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of Negro Woman” (1949)

“The bourgeoisie is fearful of the militancy of the Negro woman, and for good reason. The capitalists know, far better than many progressives seem to know, that once Negro women undertake action, the militancy of the whole Negro people…is greatly enhanced. Historically, the Negro woman has been the guardian, the protector, of the Negro family. From the days of the slave traders down to the present, the Negro woman has had the responsibility of caring for the needs of the family, of militantly shielding it from the blows of Jim-Crow insults, of rearing children in an atmosphere of lynch terror, segregation, and police brutality, and of fighting for an education for the children. The intensified oppression of the Negro people, which has been the hallmark of the post-war reactionary offensive, cannot therefore but lead to an acceleration of the militancy of the Negro woman. As mother, as Negro, and as worker, the Negro woman fights against the wiping out of the Negro family, against the Jim-Crow ghetto existence which destroys the health, morale, and very life of millions of her sisters, brothers, and children.”BlackPowerMatters

On the Social Ontology of ‘Race’ — Was Karl Marx White? And Is He?

By S. D’Arcy

There are those who think of Karl Marx as a classic example of the kind of “dead white males” that universities in the West lavish with such rapt attention. But is this quite true? He was male, to be sure. And he’s fully dead. But was he white? Or — in what appears on the surface to be the same question — is Karl Marx white?

For some, the question is to be answered by fixing one’s gaze on the colour of Karl Marx’s skin. One is invited to pour over old sepia photographs, looking for clues. I think there’s good reason to doubt the soundness of this approach, as I will note below. But, for the sake of scrupulous comprehensiveness, let’s look briefly at the matter of Marx’s skin. In his first year as a student at the University of Bonn, according to Jonathan Sperber’s recent biography, Marx’s classmates dubbed him “the Moor,” because of “his swarthy complexion,” i.e., his dark skin. Another biographer, Franz Mehring, says that the nickname was “given to him on account of his jet-black hair and dark complexion.” The label stuck with him until his death almost five decades later. He was judged by his contemporaries, apparently, to have physical features associated (in their minds, at least) with the Maghreb region of North Africa. On the other hand, another biographer, Jerrold Seigel, makes a convincing case that the nickname was — at least in part — a reference to the hero of Friedrich Schiller’s famous Romantic novel, The Robbers [Die Räuber], whose name was Karl von Moor and who denounced the corruption of the rich and powerful. (Note that, as Seigel points out, Marx’s nickname was spelled Mohr, in German, not Moor, so the match is inexact.)karl-marx-ageing

In any case, Seigel makes another point which, as I see things, is more relevant to the matter at hand: the nickname served within his milieu to highlight Marx’s Jewish heritage, hinting that he wasn’t fully recognized as German. Seigel notes that, in spite of his father’s conversion at the age of 35 to Lutheran Christianity (and his corresponding name change from Heschel to Heinrich), which was necessary because a post-Napoleanic Prussian legal reform made it illegal for Jews to practice law, Marx was regarded by his peers as a Jew. Indeed his daughter Eleanor Marx Aveling, who was as secular as Marx albeit less estranged than him from their common Jewish roots, continually referred to herself proudly as “a Jewess.” (Eduard Bernstein, in an obituary for her, wrote that, “At every opportunity she declared her [Jewish] descent with a certain defiance.”)

I will put my cards on the table, at this point: If we come to judge that Marx wasn’t white, it should not be because we think his skin was too dark to count (or “pass”) as white. It should be because we decide that Jews in Germany (and Europe more broadly) in the 19th century were racialized as exterior to the “white race.” In other words, if Marx wasn’t white, it’s because other Jews of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Rosa Luxemburg or Leon Trotsky, were also not white.

The question of whether or not Marx was white holds considerable interest, I think, for two reasons. First, it raises some interesting and important questions in social ontology; and second, it raises the possibility that although Marxism arose in Europe, obviously, it may never have been a political tradition dominated by white people, since it has been crucially shaped by and centrally associated with racialized (that is, racially subordinated) people from its inception. Anyone can observe that in our own time, and indeed since no later than the mid-20th century, marxism has been a political tradition whose adherents have been overwhelmingly confined to the Global South. That applies both to intellectuals and to workers’ movements and leftist political parties. There are far more marxists in India today than in Europe, the USA and Canada combined. But it isn’t as well known or well-understood that even many of marxism’s earliest and most influential adherents within Europe were also non-white, including its main founder.

To make the point fully clear, two things have to be established: that European Jews in the 19th century weren’t white; and that Marx and many other leading early marxists were also Jewish, in the relevant sense, even if they were secular and/or atheist, as most were. These two issues are in fact closely related, because in order to make the case that European Jews in the 19th century were not white, one has to establish that Jews were regarded, not simply as a religious group, which one could exit by means of conversion to another religion or adoption of atheism, but a racial one, from which no escape was possible.

Certainly, anyone would agree that Jews in Europe in general, and in Marx’s Germany specifically, were subjected to systematic subordination, often being persecuted mercilessly. The mechanisms of this subordination ranged from the pogroms (violent anti-Semitic rioting) of the Russian empire, to longstanding denial to Jews of civil rights across Europe, to the spread of (sometimes biologically and sometimes culturally framed) ideologies of Jewish inferiority, typified by Immanuel Kant’s depiction of Jews as “a nation of cheaters,” who were “bound by an ancient superstition” which encouraged them to “seek no civil dignity and [to] try to make up for this loss by the advantage of duping the people among whom they find refuge, and even one another” (Kant, 1798, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View). As recently as the late 1920s, the most important logician since Aristotle, Gottlob Frege, could insist that the Jews should not “be considered as Germans,” expressing support for the project of expelling them from Germany outright, if possible, and in the meantime advocating the denial to them of equal civil rights.

So, yes, there was a system of wide-ranging persecution and subordination of Jewish people, certainly. But the question is, was this a matter of “religious persecution” or “racial subordination”? This matters here particularly, because Marx’s family converted to Christianity, with the result that he grew up in a secular family that was officially or formally affiliated to Lutheranism, not Judaism.

Interestingly, according to George M. Fredrickson, author of Racism: A Short History, “The word ‘racism’ first came into common usage in the 1930s when a new word was required to describe the theories on which the Nazis based their persecution of the Jews” (Racism: A Short History, p. 5). But was the anti-Semitism of the Nazis racist, specifically, and why? How, if at all, was it fundamentally different from the more longstanding anti-Jewish religious persecution of earlier times?

The racist version of anti-Semitism differed from the religious version in that it was linked to an essentialist interpretation of what was viewed as disreputable about Jewishness. In religious persecution, it is one’s religious affiliation that is discrediting, but that can be changed by means of conversion; in the racist version, the view is not that Jews are bad because their religion has disreputable features, but rather that their prior, more fundamental Jewishness explains the supposed defects of the religion that most of them practice, and no mere change of religious affiliation can make that go away. Thus, in religious persecution, one is a Jew because one adheres to the Jewish religion; in racist anti-semitism, if one adheres to the Jewish religion, it is just one of many possible expressions of one’s more basic Jewishness. To the Nazis, it didn’t matter if one practiced Judaism; either way, a Jew was a Jew.

But was this type of racial anti-Semitism a specifically Nazi invention? No, certainly not. Although the details are better left to historians, the overall picture is clear enough: the rise of modern nationalism, beginning at the end of the 18th century, in combination with the rise of modern imperialism, encouraged the development — nowhere more forcefully than in Germany — of the idea of a people bonded by ethnic commonality, distinguished from and superior to foreigners. “Previously, their Christian neighbours had thought of Jews as members of an alien and false religion, adherents to a broken covenant. Now secularized antisemites would hate them as members of an alien and inferior race, unassimilable by those among whom they lived, a dangerous source of pollution for the cultural and racial purity of their neighbors” (Nicholls, Christian Anti-Semitism, p. 313). “Jews were now to be regarded as a race….This was especially true in Germany, where the Romantic movement spoke of the Volk, the ancient Aryan race in its pure German form.” In this form of anti-Semitism, the Jews “were aliens, unassimilable even when they did their utmost to assimilate” (Ibid., p. 289).

It is for this reason that Marx’s nickname, the Moor, is significant: its hint that Marx, in spite of his atheism and his parents’ conversion to Christianity, was nevertheless regarded by his peers as a foreigner, a Jew, whose roots were to be found in the Middle East, not Germany.

Marx, in short, was regarded as a Jew, not a white person, not a German or even a proper European. Of course, it might seem like a leap to go from saying (1) Marx was regarded by anti-Semites as a Jew, not white, to saying (2) Marx wasn’t white. Shouldn’t the critical distance we rightly take from the racist view of Jews lead us to ignore ascriptions of racial categories by racist Europeans in the 19th century?

Well, that would hold if we believed there there were such a thing as mind-independent races. But surely we should not think that. Here, we touch on one of the ontological points that I want to make. Race is “socio-genic,” that is to say, it is the outcome of a social process of differential status-assignment that institutes hierarchically ordered social positions and consigns people to these positions, not because of what they already are (as if racial assignments reflected natural differences), nor because of how they look (as if racial difference were something we that social orders simply registered by noticing pre-existing diversity), but instead by actively establishing as authoritative and thereby instituting socio-political criteria for sorting people into groups using diversity, sometimes phenotypic (physical appearance) and sometimes non-phenotypic, as a pretext. In short, racial categories are a socio-political invention. Racial positions are instituted, socially. (A view that is, in broad outlines, consistent with this view is applied to the case of American Jews in the book, How Jews Became White Folks, and What That Says About Race in America, by Karen Brodkin.)

Of course, it is an invention that is taken very seriously, both by its inventors and by those who take their cue from them. Employers, landlords, judges, police officers, teachers, and many, many others routinely decide how to talk about someone, how to treat someone, and more generally how to relate to someone, based in some large part on the racial category into which they class that person. We all know that. But what’s less clear is why they do that. Or, more to the point, how is the practice of racialization functional for powerful institutions and systems? I won’t stop to try to answer that question, except to say that my own view is heavily informed by Martin Luther King’s view, according to which white supremacy was “engineered” by elites as a form of social control. (For more on that, see “Some Concise Research Notes on Two Concepts in Early Marxism: The ‘Volksmasse’ and ‘Antagonismus.’”)

But it is crucial to see that races exist in much the same way that 20 dollar bills exist: they exist in a way that depends crucially on the fact that people think that one thing (a piece of rectangular paper with certain markings on it) counts as another thing (a unit of currency). Once that social condition is met, however, 20 dollar bills produce very real effects. The idea that they are only imaginary (just because they are, among other things, imaginary) is gravely mistaken. No, they are not mere figments of imagination, but institutions, constituted in part by socially shared imaginings. The key to understanding races, including counterfeit cases of racial ‘passing,’ is to understand that, like universities and 20 dollar bills, races are institutions.

I want to close these comments by returning to my starting-point. Was Marx a “dead white male,” in the sense that people use that term to criticize the narrowness of “canonically” “important” intellectual work? Although Marx was not white, his inclusion in a so-called “Canon” of so-called “Great Philosophers” could still be seen, today, as a maneuver enabled by his acceptance, long after his death, as white (an acceptance made possible by virtue of the very “background” that once precluded him from being recognized as white: his German Jewish heritage).

He wasn’t white, but he is white. He switched races many years after his death. (Of course, this seems like a less remarkable feat when compared to Socrates, who took thousands of years to become, posthumously, a “homosexual.”)

As for Marxism, it should be accepted, I think, that Marxism did not emerge mainly from white society, or rather, from white people. Many of its most important early promoters and innovators were not white (until they were made so, well after their deaths): people like Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Julius Martov, Otto Bauer, and György Lukacs, to name only a few. For the most part, marxism emerged from racialized, non-white intellectuals and activists in Europe, just as racialized non-white intellectuals and activists outside of Europe are today its leading exponents and innovators. Of course, it did emerge from European society and European culture, so the implications of its origins in Europe would have to be discussed separately. There are important works that address this issue, and I will mention four: Samir Amin’s Eurocentrism (which isn’t specifically about marxism, but deploys and addresses it); Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the Margins; Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital; and Robert Biel’s Eurocentrism and the Communist Movement.