Two Models of Anti-Racist Struggle: Allyship and Self-Emancipation

There’s a tendency, which I have observed over many years, for lots of white people to want to frame anti-racist struggle in ways that highlight and foreground their own agency and capacity to contribute. No doubt, this tendency is rooted in good, commendable intentions. Many white people quite rightly want to contribute, and so they look for guidance about how they might contribute as usefully and effectively as possible. The result is that the capacity for white people, as white people, to contribute to anti-racism gets surprisingly extensive levels of attention within activist circles, much more so than would have been the case in the heyday of North American anti-racism (if that’s what it was), in the days of Malcolm X, the Black Power movement, the Black Panther Party, and the Combahee River Collective. Well-intentioned or not, we should stop, I think, to reflect on the possibility that all this attention to white people’s agency in the struggle against racism might create a certain imbalance, at least, in our analysis and discussion of the aims and methods of anti-racist organizing.Free Huey newton, Black Panther Rally San Francisco, May 1, 1969 Leaping wi Mao Book sheet 294 frame 42

This habit of highlighting the role of white people in anti-racism can find expression in a number of different ways. Traditionally, white liberals in the USA foregrounded their own role by imagining that the courts and the official political process (or, in the most preposterous version, FBI agents!) were the spearheads of anti-racist social change. More recently, some activists whose discourse is motivated by political radicalism rather than liberalism have adopted a different way of foregrounding the agency of white people. They do so by conceptualizing anti-racist struggle, at least to some substantial extent, in terms of what they call “allyship.” In this discourse, a central reference point (although certainly not the only reference point) in anti-racist politics is the figure of the “anti-racist ally,” which is understood to be a type of white person.

The concept of allyship in general, and the anti-racist ally in particular, did not first emerge from within the domain of social-movement strategy. Instead, it was imported into social movement activism from the outside, from the social work profession, e.g., from the work of people like Anne Bishop, whose 1994 book, Becoming an Ally, played a role in popularizing the term (in its current meaning). Allyship, in this context, should not be confused with a similar-sounding word, “alliance,” which has a very different meaning, and which is an irreducibly strategic concept. This other word, “alliance,” refers to the confluence in struggle of large-scale social forces, like social classes or social movements, that take up one another’s demands in the context of a joint commitment to reciprocal solidarity and mutual aid. By contrast, “allyship” is undertaken by individuals, not by entire movements. Allyship is a sincere commitment on the part of a privileged person (and, in the context of anti-racism, that means a white person) to offer ongoing support to individuals, groups, or organizations that are excluded from that kind of privilege, and to take direction from them about the form that support should take.

To advocates of the allyship model of anti-racism (like Anne Bishop, Tim Wise, and others), anti-racist struggle is, if not mainly, at least crucially a matter of white people (1) recognizing their privilege (the benefits that racial hierarchies confer on them); (2) identifying ways in which they are complicit in practices that maintain and reproduce those hierarchies; (3) working to withdraw from or interrupt such practices; and (4) taking direction from people of colour, mostly on an individual basis, about how the would-be ally may be contributing to racial hierarchies, and how they might act differently, to oppose instead of perpetuating those hierarchies.

I do not propose to offer any criticisms of this model of anti-racist struggle, either with respect to its effectiveness at weakening the grip of racism in capitalist societies, or with respect to its capacity to broaden and deepen social movements devoted to destroying racism. For the most part, my intention here is only to highlight the fact that the allyship model is directly in tension with an older, competing model of anti-racism, which does not in fact foreground the agency of white people, but on the contrary treats the struggle against racism as an activity wholly led and largely carried out by racialized people (people of colour) themselves. The most influential advocate of this competing model, which is sometimes called the “self-emancipation” model of anti-racist struggle, is Malcolm X. But it has had other important advocates, including CLR James, and organizations like the BPP, SNCC, and many others.

One might suppose that this “self-emancipation” model is in fact consistent with the “allyship” model. According to this optimistic thought, these two views are not in tension, because while it is true that anti-racism is a self-emancipation struggle, it is also true that anti-racist allyship on the part of white people plays a secondary, but also important role. This sounds plausible, in the abstract. It would be a neat resolution of the tension between these models if they could be parcelled out in this way: self-emancipation for people of colour, supported in a secondary way by the allyship role for white people. Unfortunately, Malcolm’s self-emancipation model of anti-racist struggle differs from the allyship model of anti-racism not just in terms of whose anti-racism it addresses, but in terms of how it positions both racialized people and white people who oppose racism. So, apparently, there can be no tidy accommodation between these models (which doesn’t mean that they have to be mutually antagonistic).

Let’s take a closer look at the points of divergence, where these two models seem to be enduringly in tension with each other. Four points of divergence stand out.

1. Whose Agency is Foregrounded? First, as already suggested above, whereas the allyship model emphasizes the importance of white people in acting to oppose racism, to unlearn it and repudiate the advantages they derive from it, and so gives white anti-racists a crucial role in anti-racist politics, the self-emancipation model relentlessly foregrounds the agency of people of colour in liberating themselves through their own self-activity and self-organization. Anti-racist struggle, according to the self-emancipation view, is something that racialized people, people of colour, undertake in order to free themselves from oppression and subordination. White people, in this conception, are neither expected nor invited to contribute, as white people, any more than labour unions invite supportive participation from employers as a class.

2. Allyship versus Alliances. Second, the self-emancipation model assigns a very different role to white people in the process of anti-racist struggle. While white people are not foregrounded in the self-emancipation model, neither are they excluded entirely from it. Their role, however, is understood in terms of alliances between large-scale social forces or social movements, in which white individuals figure alongside others. In Malcolm’s conception, once racialized people have organized themselves, autonomously, to fight for their own emancipation, they may indeed find it advantageous, from the point of view of maximizing the potency of their struggles, to seek out alliances with other movements or organizations. For example, organizations pursuing the self-directed struggle of African-American people to free themselves from racial oppression may decide, once their own capacity to self-organize and lead their own movement has been secured, that an alliance with (multi-racial) labour unions could assist the movement in its struggle. In that case, the African-American liberation movement could work to develop an alliance, for mutual advantage, between these two movements. Were the terms of such an alliance to be worked out in practice, formally or informally, white people would then have a clear way to participate in the self-emancipation struggle of African Americans: they would be participants in an alliance, such that their organizations (unions, in this case) were committed to making a priority of the demands and aspirations specific to the African-American anti-racist struggle (and vice versa). In such alliances, “an injury to one” is supposed to be treated as “an injury to all.” Therefore, injuries to African-Americans would be treated as if they were injuries to union members generally, including non-racialized (white) union members. In practice, such an alliance might work well sometimes, and badly at other times. In this context, I only want to point out that, in principle, the self-emancipation model of anti-racism also offers a role for white people, as participants in (macro-level) alliances with the self-emancipation struggles of people of colour. But it does not foreground white people, and their agency, as central to anti-racism.

3. Should Whites Oppose Racism as White People, or as Participants in Allied Movements? This brings up the third difference between the two models, which is that, whereas in the allyship model white people participate in anti-racist struggle as white people, that is, in their capacity as a group that is privileged by racism, in the self-emancipation model their participation is not rooted in their own whiteness. Rather, it is rooted in their participation in social movements and social-movement organizations that are aligned with (in the example I have been using) the Black self-liberation movement. Thus, they participate, not as people with white privilege invited to sacrifice their own privileges on the basis of a moral duty, but in their capacity as people pursuing their own struggles (union struggles, environmental struggles, feminist struggles, and so on), but fighting alongside alliance-partners who perhaps share a common enemy, or overlapping strategic objectives, and so lend support to each other’s struggles on that basis. The spirit in which solidarity and support from allied groups (including white anti-racists) is understood within the self-emancipation model is well-captured by the principle promoted by Indigenous activist groups in the South Pacific region (namely, what is now called Queensland, Australia): “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

4. Where Does the Power to Contest Racism Reside? Finally, the self-emancipation model proposes an understanding of where the power to contest racism lies which is starkly different from the understanding implicit in the allyship model. The starting point of the allyship model is that “privileged” groups are powerful, because of their many advantages, and therefore bear a special responsibility to offer aid to weaker groups. By contrast, the starting point of the self-emancipation model is that the oppressed themselves have the capacity, the potential power, to liberate themselves by their own self-activity, using the tools of collective struggle and self-organization (and making such cross-movement alliances as they deem to be necessary and appropriate). This is not just a difference of emphasis, but a wholly different way of framing the struggles of the exploited and oppressed and thinking about how others can or can’t offer support and solidarity.

Now, it might seem that an obvious weakness of the self-emancipation model is that it “lets white people off the hook,” so that they do not have to work in any way to support anti-racist struggle. “How convenient for them!,” some might say. In fact, however, this is a misunderstanding of the model. The point is not that white people don’t have to contribute. It is that their contribution is not grounded in their whiteness or their status a privileged group, but in their participation in struggles and organizations that should, and often (at least on paper) do bear a commitment to working in alliance with anti-racist self-emancipation struggles. White people should actively support anti-racist demands and struggles as environmentalists, as feminists, as union members, as anti-capitalists, and so on, since these movements and the (best) organizations that make them up are committed to aims and struggles that are “bound up with the liberation of” racially oppressed people, who are struggling for their own liberation alongside allies that they have chosen to take on as partners in linked and overlapping (“intersecting”) struggles.

Importantly, there is no reason whatsoever to imagine that the allyship model is more demanding toward white people than the self-emancipation model. Rather, the difference is that the self-emancipation model grounds those demands in the responsibilities created by participation in cross-movement alliances, rather than grounding them in obligations that stem from the injustice of differentiated access to privilege. There should be no doubt, however, that the self-emancipation model gives us ample reason to denounce white environmentalists, union activists, feminists and others who fail to take fighting racism seriously, or refuse to make it a priority in their political activities and personal lives.

Although the self-emancipation model seems to stand out as the more sophisticated and politically astute model, it may not be necessary to reject the allyship view as wholly incorrect. Perhaps in practice there could be a productive tension between these two approaches, so that each model enriches the other by generating insights to which its counterpart would otherwise remain oblivious. That possibility can’t be discounted. But, at the very least, we need to acknowledge that the tension here is real. In particular, we should be alert to the price we pay when we allow the allyship model to take up so much space in activist discourse that it threatens to overshadow and obscure from view the insights of the self-emancipation model.

Related post: Early 20th Century Views on Anti-Racist Strategy in the USA

Environmentalism as if Winning Mattered: A Self-Organization Strategy

[Note: This article was first published on the internet as a contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications in 2009, where it seems no longer to be available. This version is substantially revised.]image

By Stephen D’Arcy

Many people doubt that the environmental movement can actually defeat its adversaries and achieve its key aims. After all, it seems clear that winning would mean introducing sweeping social change and a new kind of sustainable and socially just economy. But the forces arrayed against this kind of change – including corporations, governments, and many affluent consumers hoping to raise their consumption levels – seem to represent too powerful a force to be overcome by a relatively small and seemingly powerless group of environmental activists.

These doubts about the capacity of environmentalists to win are confined neither to the movement’s self-serving and greed-motivated adversaries in business and government, nor to the many indifferent bystanders who cast an equally skeptical eye on all attempts to transform society by means of popular mobilization from below. As it happens, many environmental activists themselves are no less convinced that failure is all but inevitable.

When this sort of pessimism overtakes environmentalists, they tend to adopt one of several familiar responses. First, there is the response of those who retreat from the movement altogether in favor of “lifestyle” environmentalism, replacing their former activism with “conscious” shopping. Second, there are those who reject activism as naïve compared to their own approach of apocalyptic “survivalism” which leads them to prepare for the day when “civilization” collapses, such as by stockpiling food or learning how to hunt and gather. A third group responds to the apparently bleak outlook for environmental activism not by leaving the movement, but by remaining active while seeking to cultivate “friends in high places,” linking arms with Big Business or the capitalist state in a mode of “mainstream” environmentalism that tries to promote “environmentally friendly” capitalism and “socially responsible” corporations. A fourth group also remains active, but replaces the aim of winning with the more readily attainable aim of making a moral statement, by serving as a “moral witness” or by “speaking truth to power.” Finally, a fifth group also accepts the inevitability of failure but tries to seize every opportunity to put on public display the purity of their own uncompromising and self-righteous (albeit relentlessly impotent) radicalism, as a form of self-congratulatory “posturing.”

There is nothing to be gained by adopting a judgmental or holier-than-thou attitude toward people who adopt such responses. Why condemn such choices, which are all more or less understandable adaptations to the admittedly distressing predicament of contemporary environmentalism?

Nevertheless, we do need to see these stances for what they undoubtedly are: failures (in some cases) or refusals (in others) to develop a strategy for winning. Yet a strategy for winning is precisely what we need. The scale of the general environmental crisis is well known, and needs no special emphasis here: we are only too well-informed about the potentially catastrophic impact of plutogenic (caused-by-the-rich) climate change, the degradation of air quality, the erosion and poisoning of soil, the disappearance of forests and spreading of deserts, the despoliation of both fresh water sources and oceans, the historically unprecedented rates of species extinction, and so on. If nothing is done about any of this, it is not because there is any uncertainty about the gravity of these threats (notwithstanding cynical attempts by Big Business to fund “denial” research from “free market think tanks,” as a transparent ploy to muddy the waters of public discussion).

Something must be done, clearly. And most people certainly want more to be done. Globally, according to a survey of world opinion in 2010, “84 percent of those polled globally said the problem was serious, with 52 percent saying it was very serious. The number of people saying that it was not a problem averaged just 4 percent.” Even in the United States, where public awareness about environmental issues is lower than anywhere else on earth, “in 2010, 70 percent of US respondents described the problem as serious and 37 percent described it as very serious.” According to Steven Kull, director of (which conducted the poll), “most people around the world appear to be impatient that their government is not doing enough to address the problem of climate change.” Indeed, “on average across all nations polled, 60 percent want climate change to get a higher priority, 12 percent want a lower priority.”

Evidently, inaction on the part of governments does not reflect any pressing need to “change attitudes” or “educate the public.” If governments and corporations were even modestly responsive to public opinion, the prospects for implementing real change would be much more favorable for our side than they actually are at present.

The widespread pessimism about the movement’s prospects for success is impossible to explain without relating it to a widely understood insight registered in another recent opinion poll. According to a 2012 Harris Poll, 86% of Americans believe that “Big companies” have “too much power and influence in Washington.” An even higher percentage, 88% of Americans, believe that “political action committees that give money to political candidates” also have too much power and influence. Conversely, a full 78% of Americans believe that “public opinion” has “too little power and influence in Washington.” Americans, it seems, understand the workings of their political process rather better than many people give them credit for.

It should be clear, therefore, that we need a strategy for winning, and we need to develop it sooner rather than later. The approach that I pursue in this article will be to identify strategic objectives for weakening and ultimately defeating the adversaries that stand in the way of doing what science, morality, and good sense dictate must be done: transforming our destructive, unjust and unsustainable social order into a democratic, egalitarian and sustainable one.


The strategy that I propose here is a self-organization strategy. By that I mean that it looks, not to business or government, but to the voluntary organizations established and operated by the exploited and the oppressed, as the key drivers of change.

A self-organization strategy looks not to business or government, but to the power of grassroots action and horizontal cooperation as the keys that can unlock a way forward for environmentalism.

In the context of discussions about environmentalism, however, it is particularly important to highlight the distinction between two importantly different types of “voluntary organization” external both to business and government. The kind of self-organized grassroots action groups proposed here are certainly, in a literal sense, “non-governmental.” But most environmentalists use the term “non-governmental organization” to refer to something very specific: “NGOs,” in the sense of formal organizations run by a paid staff, perhaps with a dues-paying but passive membership or a passive donor-base in the general public, such as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund, Environmental Defense Fund, and so on. These NGOs represent the most visible and well-funded, but least effective face of modern environmentalism. Although they are themselves voluntary organizations, they do not normally rely on community-based self-organization as the driver of social change. On the contrary, for the most part, mainstream environmental NGOs opt for some combination of a statist approach, focusing on lobbying efforts to promote public policy remedies (e.g., regulation or taxation), and a “green capitalism” approach, focusing on preaching the benefits of “corporate social responsibility” and encouraging the exercise of “consumer power” to incentivize corporations to limit the scale and scope of their destructiveness.

So the first thing we need to do in order to develop a plausible self-organization strategy for the environmental movement is to make a distinction between different sorts of non-state associations.

Besides formal NGOs with passive memberships (for which I will reserve the label “NGOs”), there are three other sorts of non-state, non-business, community-based associations that we need to take into account:

  1. Social Movement Organizations (SMOs): As I use this term, these are participatory activist organizations (formal or informal), in which members/participants actively organize themselves, at the grassroots level, to engage in popular mobilization or public advocacy, as part of a social movement, such as the environmental movement, the disability rights movement, the feminist movement, or anti-racist movements.
  2. Class Conflict Organizations (CCOs): The most high-profile example is trade unions. It is crucial to add, however, that rank-and-file caucuses within unions are also CCOs. So, too, are workers’ centres, living wage campaigns, struggles for migrant worker rights, and other working-class struggle organizations, including many socialist and anarchist organizations (as long as they are not, or not mainly, oriented to campaigning in elections), organizations fighting for childcare access for workers, workplace health and safety, an end to sexual harassment of women workers, a higher minimum wage, and so on.
  3. Popular Autonomy Organizations (PAOs): These are institutions through which communities of people gain some autonomy to govern themselves, relatively free from the dictates of market domination and bureaucratic administration. Examples include traditional self-governance institutions of Indigenous communities, as well as forms of community-based, horizontal economic production and distribution. Other key examples include co-operatives (housing, retail, financial, and worker co-ops). To cite a historical example, during the Irish Revolution, there was an oppositional Dáil (assembly) operating in antagonism to the official (UK) state, linked to a parallel, insurgent legal system (“the Dáil courts”). In some more recent contexts, such as contemporary Venezuela, there are other types of PAOs, such as community councils, which make decisions outside the formal state apparatus. In several cities in Brazil, in Kerala, India, and other places, participatory budgeting popular assemblies are probably best described as PAOs, although in these cases there is a degree of integration with the state that makes them hard to classify as entirely as forms of “self-organization.” (Arguably, they represent a kind of reclamation of power and autonomy by grassroots self-organization into a domain previously monopolized by state institutions. A similar point could be made about co-operatives vis- à-vis the market economy.)

From a political-strategic point of view, the difference between NGOs on the one hand and SMOs, CCOs, and PAOs on the other, is crucial. When I speak here of a self-organization strategy, I am not talking about NGOs, but rather about SMOs, CCOs and PAOs. This is because, although I favor a non-statist strategy that rejects any and all attempts to find allies in the corporate class, I also reject the model of organizing that typifies (according to the way I use the term in this article) NGOs: the top-down model of an environmentalism-from-above, in which ordinary working people figure as donors or, at best, letter-writers and petition-signers, rather than active participants in a process of grassroots popular mobilization and self-organization.

By “self-organization strategy,” then, I mean an approach to environmental movement-building that satisfies two criteria. First, it focuses on organizing for change within the “community-based” or social sphere, as opposed to the personal sphere (which lifestyle environmentalists and eco-survivalists prioritize), the economic sphere (which “green consumer,” “natural-capitalism” and “corporate social responsibility” advocates prioritize); or the state sphere (which mainstream lobbying NGOs and most Green Parties tend to prioritize). Second, within social sphere, it highlights, not top-down NGOs, but grassroots SMOs, CCOs, and PAOs as the key organizational vehicles for mounting a challenge to ecocidal capitalism and for constructing anticipatory post-capitalist alternatives that model sustainability and both social and environmental justice.


By definition, a strategy for winning will sketch out a path – a “line of march,” as they say – for getting us from where we now stand to where we need to be, if we are to win our struggle and impose defeat on our adversaries.

Because “where we need to be,” in this case, is in a post-capitalist, democratic, sustainable, and socially just economy (see Hahnel, “Protecting the Environment in a Participatory Economy”), the path along which we need to move will involve breaking the resistance of an adversary that we know will remain, to the bitter end, implacably opposed to everything we are trying to accomplish: the giant corporations that dominate our economy as well as our political process. We have, therefore, a formidable opponent, with enormous resources of every sort, determined to fight against our efforts every step of the way. By comparison, we environmentalists are at the present time alarmingly weak and ill-prepared for the task of winning this fight (this in spite of the vast monetary resources at the disposal of the big NGOs that monopolize the public face of the movement but have no intention of mobilizing for a serious fight against Big Business).

How should we proceed? I propose that our movement should think about a strategy for winning as falling into two phases. The first phase — which I call the resistance phase — will be devoted to weakening our adversary and strengthening our own side. In the resistance phase, we will be able to fight effectively, to win political ‘battles’ in many cases, and always to lay the foundation for a future decisive victory. But we will not yet be ready to actually win. The second phase — which I call the transition phase — will only begin once we have successfully carried out the strategic objectives of the resistance phase, that is, after we have weakened the corporate class and its political representatives and strengthened our own forces to the point where a direct challenge to the hegemony and power of corporations will stand a realistic chance of succeeding. In the transition phase, we will not just be fighting a defensive struggle to resist the environmental havoc wreaked by corporate greed and capitalist maldevelopment; we will be launching a struggle to force — by mobilizing the social power of grassroots self-organization — a transition from capitalism to a sustainable, environmentally just post-capitalist economic democracy.

From these considerations it follows that a self-organization strategy for the environmental movement will take the form of two sets of strategic objectives: first, resistance objectives which, when carried out, will so weaken the ecocidal ruling class as to make a direct grassroots challenge to its power possible; and second, transition objectives which, when carried out, will launch us on the path toward a building a new society. 


The strategic objectives of the resistance phase are each to be pursued simultaneously. There are four of them:

  1. To construct an anti-corporate alliance of Indigenous communities, workers’ organizations, and environmental protest groups, based on a serious, sustained commitment to practical solidarity at the grassroots level.
  2. To build cost-raising protest movements, directed against all forms of environmental destruction, framing these struggles whenever possible as struggles for environmental justice, including Indigenous self-determination, economic justice and public welfare.
  3. To promote prefigurative community-based alternatives to capitalist production that model sustainability, solidarity, popular autonomy, and environmental justice.
  4. To re-establish vital currents of ecologically oriented anti-capitalist radicalism, for instance, eco-socialism, anarcho-Indigenism; social ecology; left eco-feminism; and so on.

I will say a few things about each of these objectives in turn.

Cost-raising Environmental Justice Protest Movements

The first resistance-phase strategic objective is to build cost-raising protest movements against all forms of environmental destruction, framing these struggles whenever possible as struggles for environmental justice and/or for prioritizing the public interest over corporate profits. To explain this objective, I need to explain (a) the idea of a cost-raising movement, and (b) the rationale for a focus on environmental justice and people-over-profits.

A key assumption upon which the self-organization strategy is based is that governments and corporations are not responsive to moral principles, to arguments about the public interest or what is best “for our grandchildren,” or to appeals to reasonableness, scientific evidence, and common sense. Instead, governments and corporations are self-interest-motivated institutions. That is to say, they act almost entirely based on cost/benefit analysis, factoring in not the public interest but the interests of the elites who rule these institutions. This insight has to inform how we “do activism.”

If corporations and their political representatives in the capitalist state are self-interest-motivated, and base their behavior on cost/benefit calculations, then we can explain their unwillingness to allow constraints on their environmentally destructive policies and practices as a side-effect of the fact that they benefit from their freedom to destroy the planet, and that it would be costly to them if they were no longer allowed to exploit and despoil the Earth.

If that analysis is basically correct, which few can seriously doubt, then something should follow about the kind of strategy we ought to adopt in trying (in the short term) to challenge their behavior and defend the planet and its occupants from the ecocidal effects of capitalist production and accumulation: if we want them to stop, we have to change the balance of costs versus benefits, until destroying the Earth is more costly than refraining from doing so.

That is the basic idea of a cost-raising movement: we inflict penalties on the rich in response to plutogenic environmental injustice and destruction, in order to change the cost/benefit calculations of elites, until they change their behavior (while recognizing that there are limits to how successful this effort can be as long as the economy remains profit-driven and undemocratic).

How can we raise the costs of environmental destruction? One way is to impose monetary penalties. If we know anything, we know that capitalist elites are responsive to monetary incentives. This is well understood by today’s environmentalists, even when their politics are in other respects extremely weak (e.g., PETA, WWF). It is the premise behind boycotting tactics, which are widespread, and also eco-sabotage, which is less widely practiced but quite high-profile and also well understood.

A less obvious, but ultimately more effective form of cost-raising occurs when a movement threatens, not just particular monetary losses, but the reproduction of the privileged social position of Big Business itself. Ideally, this should be our aim in building an environmental protest movement.

If the environmental movement can convince corporations that popular opposition to the environmental destructiveness of Big Business is driving large numbers of workers, students, poor and unemployed people to begin to question, not just the particular actions of individual companies, but the dominance of corporate power itself, then the movement will have a real capacity to intimidate corporations into at least limited forms of compliance with the imperatives of sustainability and environmental justice.

Because the corporate elite will never change its behavior by the force of rational arguments, our capacity as activists to influence their decision-making is always indirect: by creating a level of dissent, both wide enough (encompassing masses of people, from multiple sectors of society, including Indigenous communities, labour unions, student groups, etc.) and deep enough (opposing not just a particular policy, but the whole corporate agenda and the corporate power structure that imposes that agenda), that the corporate elite has grounds to worry that its position of unquestioned privilege and societal ‘hegemony’ or leadership is being placed in jeopardy by the environmentally destructive behavior that is fuelling this dissent.

So, a cost-raising protest movement would aim, first, to mobilize and politicize masses of workers and students, Indigenous people, poor and unemployed people, women and communities of colour, and others to speak out and protest against environmental injustice. Second, it would seek to educate and ultimately radicalize those politicizing people by demonstrating to them that the destruction of the Earth is being propelled by the greed of corporations and the servility of the state in relation to those corporate interests. And, third, as the movement grew and more people begin to turn against the corporate agenda and develop a willingness to oppose it and demand that governments refuse to serve it, the movement would aim to force some corporations and governments to make significant concessions to the movement, out of elite fears that their privileges are threatened by the growing and deepening opposition to corporate power being fuelled by a popular backlash against environmental injustice and destruction.

But why the focus on “environmental justice” and “prioritizing people over corporate profits”? Why not focus on fostering a new “deep ecological” consciousness or a post-productivist “paradigm shift,” etc.?

There are multiple reasons, from an intellectual point of view. But, from a strategic point of view (which is the crucial one here), it needs to be underlined that a focus on environmental injustice and people-over-profits is a necessary part of a larger emphasis, which is built into the self-organization strategy, on popular mobilization and the building of an anti-corporate alliance. Talk of a movement that would be “neither left nor right,” that would be based on some kind of expanded ethical consciousness or a “neo-primitivist” repudiation of modernity, or any of the multitude of “consciousness-raising” forms of environmentalism, rather than a clear-eyed focus on defeating Big Business as the key enemy of the environmental movement, will only lead us down the road to defeat. We are seeking, on the contrary, a strategy for winning. And a focus on fomenting popular indignation and resistance against the corporate elite is crucial for any plausible strategy for winning.

Moreover, the environmental justice movement is founded on a moral as well as a strategic insight: morally, we ought to be clear that environmental destruction does disproportionately affect people who are subjected to socially organized disadvantage (such as Indigenous people, workers, the poor, racialized groups, women, most people in the global South); and strategically, we have good reason to use this injustice to help channel and mobilize popular anger in constructing an anti-corporate alliance between social justice movements, labour movements, and environmental movements.

A Grassroots Labour/Community/Environmental Alliance

The second resistance-phase strategic objective is to construct an anti-corporate labour/community/environmental alliance at the grassroots level. This is not so much a separate objective in relation to the first, but rather a way of thinking about the forces we need to unite in the course of building an effective environmental protest movement that is willing and able to confront corporate power.

As part of a self-organization strategy, this objective has to be distinguished from a superficially similar strategy, sometimes called a “blue/green alliance” or “labor/environmental alliance” strategy or a “turtles-and-teamsters” strategy, which is almost always understood to be (or at least practiced as) a top-down approach in which union presidents meet with NGO executive directors to plot a joint legislative lobbying agenda (see and This extends all of the weaknesses of NGO-orchestrated spectator-activism into the workers’ movement, and the self-organization strategy entirely rejects this approach. True, unions are CCOs, not NGOs, in the sense I give to these terms. But in their capacity as government lobbying groups, which is the aspect of unions that are front-and-centre in most high-level “blue/green alliance” efforts, unions actually function much more like NGOs, notably in the sense that their members figure in these projects as passive dues-payers rather than as active participants. By contrast, the self-organization strategy proposes to develop forms of grassroots self-organization, not to build alliances between various top-down organizations hoping to bolster their bargaining power when lobbying politicians. One consequence of this is that I don’t mean to single out unions as such, but rather working-class organizations, including groups organizing living wage campaigns, campaigns against sexual harassment of women in the workplace, solidarity campaigns with workers other parts of the world, and so on. Unions are important in all of this, of course, but so are other expressions of working-class self-organization.

Note also that I am talking about a labour/community/environmental alliance, not just a labour/environmental alliance. The reason is simple: the labour movement and the environmental movement need each other, to maximize their anti-corporate mobilizing capacity, but both of those movements also need to align themselves with grassroots efforts in the feminist movement and the anti-racist movement, with anti-poverty movements and with Indigenous movements. In the absence of this broader community-alliance orientation, the labour and environmental movements will be undermined internally, because they will not be challenged to respond effectively to the grievances of many exploited and oppressed people in the wider society, and they will be undermined externally, because their mobilizing capacity will be more limited.

Building a labour/community/environmental alliance against Big Business will be difficult, even though important work on this front has already been done over a period of decades. We are not starting from scratch by any means, but neither can we rest content with things as they stand today. In building on the work of previous generations, we need to cling to the basic principle of all solidarity-building: to remember that an injury to one is an injury to all. This means that the grievances and aspirations of all groups in this alliance — women, Indigenous peoples, poor people, people of colour, workers, environmentalists, and so on — need to be taken seriously and given prominence and weight in the decisions and actions of all the other groups. For environmentalists, this means cultivating an anti-colonial environmentalism, a feminist environmentalism, a class-struggle environmentalism, a poor-people’s environmentalism, an anti-imperialist environmentalism, and so on. For this reason, as for others, the framework of environmental justice is crucial for building our movement into an effective anti-corporate force.

One final point. The labour movement can be an unusually difficult ally for environmentalists (and, sometimes, vice versa), because unions tend to have a bias in favour of protecting present-day employment sources, even if those employment sources are unsustainable and violate principles of environmental justice. Why bother working to strengthen such an alliance? The answer is clear: unions, and other working-class organizations, are especially strategically important for all anti-corporate social change movements because it is the working class that has, uniquely, the capacity to deal the most crushing blows to capitalist production: to shut down workplaces. In the absence of an effective and longstanding alliance between working-class organizations and environmental organizations, it is simply inconceivable that the environmental movement can win an enduring and decisive victory.

The demand for free retraining and “green-job” employment guarantees (in unionized jobs) for workers displaced by environmental progress must be front and centre in all the discussions and actions undertaken by environmentalists.

Sustainable Community-based Alternatives

The third resistance-phase strategic objective is to create and support anticipatory community-based alternatives to capitalist production that model sustainability and environmental justice.

Protest, surely, is not enough. In part because of the discrediting of earlier Left social reform projects (the statist command-planning economies of countries like the USSR, and the welfare-state bureaucratism of European social-democracy), it is crucial that the environmental movement give serious attention to pursuing a “build-it-now” strategy, constructing non-capitalist, sustainable production and distribution vehicles before the defeat of capitalism. In order to position our movement as offering a credible and viable alternative to capitalism, we need to draw people out of their immersion in and dependence on the capitalist mode of production and draw them into “counter-capitalist” alternatives that model sustainability and environmental justice. The viability of post-capitalist economies cannot be left to the realm of plausible-sounding speculation.

It is worth recalling that, when the socialist Left in Europe was (arguably) at its strongest, in the years prior to World War I, it had been an entrenched, taken-for-granted feature of socialist strategy to build a strong co-operative movement, with close ties to both unions and socialist organizations. In general, and with many important exceptions, neither the socialist Left nor the environmental movement has given enough attention to building this kind of counter-economy in recent decades. (In fact, both socialists and environmentalists have tended to overemphasize state-sector investment in “green” infrastructure, seeming to accept as a “given” the hegemony of the capitalist state and its bureaucratic structures.) Nevertheless, the “social” or “solidarity” economy of co-operatives and other non-profit, grassroots, egalitarian, and non-statist forms of community-based economic democracy is in many ways thriving. It consists of an array of counter-capitalist institutions such as food retail co-ops, community gardening and urban farming co-operatives, local participatory budgeting processes, ecologically responsible worker co-ops, transnational grassroots fair trade arrangements, and experiments in participatory economics. And it already has broad appeal and deep roots in many communities in most countries. Building this sector, and encouraging it to evolve in the direction of a class-struggle, anti-colonial environmental justice orientation, must be made central to the struggle for a sustainable post-capitalist social order.

Vital Currents of Ecological Anti-Capitalism

The fourth and final resistance-phase strategic objective singled out by the self-organization strategy is to establish, or re-establish, vital currents of ecologically oriented anti-capitalist radicalism.

It is no secret that anti-capitalist radicalism in North America has been in decline since the 1970s, both quantitatively and qualitatively. But it should be equally clear that a strategy for winning for the environmental movement will need to be able to draw on a strong anti-capitalist Left as a source of analysis, strategy, and vision. Ultimately, to take up the task of winning, environmentalists will have to merge with anti-capitalists. This merger will require a double transformation: the anti-capitalist Left will have to move toward an ecologically informed critique of capitalism, and environmentalists will have to move toward an anti-capitalist interpretation of ecology.

This double shift has been underway for decades. Social ecology, which emerged from the anarchist Left, was one pioneering political current promoting this convergence. More recently, eco-socialism and ecological democracy have emerged from the Marxist Left to give further impetus to this process. Meanwhile, an anti-corporate sensibility has taken firm root in much of the environmental movement, especially among environmental justice activists, even if the grotesque alliances with Big Business undertaken by some high-profile, well-funded establishment NGOs have obscured the strong and growing rift between environmentalists and bosses that exists at the grassroots level.

Many will be tempted, in a predictable way, to think of fostering currents of anti-capitalist radicalism as a task best pursued in small membership organizations or ‘sects’ that promote the Correct Program, as interpreted by the group’s founders. A self-organization approach proceeds differently, by means of a proliferation of “political centres” (to use Hal Draper’s term). Political centres are not membership organizations but publishing and popular education projects that cultivate the emergence and consolidation of identifiable political currents (social ecology, anarcho-Indigenism, eco-socialism, etc.), while allowing these currents to maintain ongoing dialogue with a wide array of activists, not just actual or potential joiners of a membership organization. Some examples of political centres would be: Defenders of the Land, the Eco-socialist International Network, Monthly Review, the Institute for Social Ecology, and so on. Creating political centers instead of programmatically uniform membership organizations sets up a healthier dynamic and draws the Left away from zero-sum competition for members and toward a healthy ongoing dialogue among comrades who see things differently and want to make their case to each other without reifying differences into organizational boundaries that divide activists unnecessarily.

Part of rebuilding a strong anti-capitalist Left, which can play a key role in bolstering and radicalizing the environmental movement, is working to create “two, three, many” political centers or currents of ecologically informed anti-capitalist radicalism, each of which can attempt to make a real contribution to moving our struggles forward, but none of which can credibly claim to monopolize insight or to be the voice of the movement.


Once the strategic objectives of the resistance phase are carried out, the situation of the environmental movement will be radically transformed. Instead of being a relatively weak and badly positioned movement, despairing at its incapacity to defeat a formidable adversary, it will find itself in a position of relative strength, backed by (1) powerful environmental-justice protest movements, (2) a strong anti-corporate alliance between working class organizations and environmental SMOs, (3) an array of healthy and well- functioning counter-capitalist alternative economic institutions comprising an egalitarian, sustainable and democratic prefiguration of a post-capitalist future, and (4) a resurgence of anti-capitalist radical currents, which would now be informed by an ecological awareness largely missing from the radical politics of the past.

The once-mighty ruling class, meanwhile, would be everywhere on the defensive: fighting off the demands of mass protests; its waning hegemony challenged by a powerful anti-corporate alliance; discredited by the visibility of viable alternatives to profit-motivated production; and locked in an ideological struggle against the growing influence of radical anti-capitalist environmental vision and analysis.

From such a position of strength, the environmental movement could finally take up directly the task of imposing defeat on its adversary. Specifying strategic objectives for a transition struggle is, necessarily, more speculative in a time like the present, when transition tasks are not on our agenda. But, reflecting on struggles taking place in countries like Venezuela (where the Left is stronger and more advanced, on the whole), and factoring in what can be learned from a study of upsurges of mass radical action in earlier decades, it is possible to sketch a few key objectives that can give content to the idea of a “transition phase” of the struggle to defeat capitalism and launch the project of constructing a just and sustainable post-capitalist economic democracy

Somewhat schematically, I would propose that we think of the transition phase as having four strategic objectives to carry out:

  1. To organize anti-capitalist environmentalists into a common front of radical community organizations (SMOs, CCOs, PAOs), capable of tactical concentration for united action;
  2. To establish the hegemony of the anti-capitalist common front within the mass environmental movement, so that it exercises a consensual, acknowledged leadership role in pointing the way forward for large sections of the broader movement;
  3. To gain for the common front and its allies a degree of community-based “social” power, resting on the capacity to deploy general strikes, mass protest, and mass civil disobedience campaigns, on such a scale that the community-based opposition constitutes a community-based counter-power that can effectively challenge the economic power of corporations and the coercive power of the state;
  4. To secure the transfer of ever more extensive governance functions to community-based self-organization (SMOs, CCOs, PAOs), so that “social” sector institutions ultimately displace — rapidly whenever possible, gradually whenever necessary — both “private” and “state” sector institutions from their role in running the economy, the healthcare and education systems, providing social services, etc.

The first three of these transition-phase strategic objectives could be carried out simultaneously, and over a period of years. The fourth transition objective could be pursued simultaneously with the others, but only completed at the culmination of the whole strategic project, by actually breaking once and for all the resistance of Big Business, and embarking on the construction of a sustainable, socially just post-capitalist social order, based on community organizations (“councils”) in workplaces and neighborhoods.

I will say a little bit about each of these transition objectives.

A Common Front

The first transition-phase strategic objective of the self-organization strategy is to organize anti-capitalist environmentalists into a common front of radical community organizations (SMOs, CCOs, PAOs), capable of tactical concentration or unity in action.

Note two points about this proposal. First, it is not a political party. It is, above all, not a party aiming to win state power, whether by means of elections or in some other way. On the contrary, it is an organized formal alliance of multiple grassroots “civil society” (community-based) organizations, with a mass constituency rooted in neighborhoods, communities, and workplaces. Second, however, note that the common front proposed here is something that can do some of the things that party-building advocates rightly regard as strategically necessary for defeating Big Business. It can coordinate tactical concentration and convergence: united action by the anti- capitalist opposition to challenge corporations and the state, and ultimately attempt to defeat them once and for all. And it can serve as a an organized vehicle for the radical, activist wing of the wider movement to make its case to the general public for militant and decisive struggle against Big Business and the capitalist state.

The precise form to be taken by a common front of this kind will have to be worked out by activists attempting to actually build it, in the context of a strong mass movement with influential ecological anti-capitalist currents (conditions that do not now exist in North America). The only point upon which a self-organization strategy insists is that it be an organization for popular mobilization, public advocacy and other forms of grassroots self-activity, as distinct from a political party attempting to win elections or install itself atop the capitalist state (a structure that, by its very nature, organizes people by means of structures of representation, bureaucratic administration, and coercion, precisely so as to preclude self-organization and participatory self-activity from below).

Anti-capitalist Hegemony

The third transition-stage strategic objective of the self-organization strategy is to establish the hegemony, or acknowledged leadership role, of the anti-capitalist common front, within the broad-based environmental movement.

As always, the reason for adopting a strategic objective is that it seems like a necessary element of a strategy for winning. If the environmental movement is to be successful, then it will have to come to pass, eventually, and as soon as possible, that the radical, anti-capitalist wing of the movement, which promotes a real challenge to the rule of Big Business, and which is committed to fighting for sweeping social change, will find itself increasingly acknowledged by the mass base of the movement as the force that has the right approach to pushing the movement forward. Today, of course, this is far from being the case. But it would be fruitless to try to conceive of a strategy for winning against Big Business that doesn’t envision a situation — probably a time of profound social crisis — in which the anti-capitalist wing of the movement emerges as the acknowledged leadership of the struggle.

Of course, here we need to ward off possible misunderstanding. By saying that the anti-capitalist wing of the movement, as organized into the common front of radical SMOs, CCOs, and PAOs, has to emerge as the acknowledged leadership of the broader movement, I do not mean that it should exercise authority over the movement or make decisions on its behalf. I mean that it must be able to count on broad-based support from the wider movement, so that if the common front calls for a general strike, workers actually go out, and if it calls for mass civil disobedience, then masses of people take up the call. This is not a matter of authority; it is a matter of the most advanced and militant sector of the movement forging a consensus within the wider movement in support of a certain line of march, which masses of people ‘buy into’ as representing the most compelling proposal for how to move the struggle forward during a time of acute social crisis.

A Community-based Counter-power

The third transition-phase strategic objective of the self-organization strategy is to gain for the common front and its allies a degree of community-based “social” power, resting on the capacity to deploy general strikes, mass protest, and mass civil disobedience campaigns, on a scale that can effectively challenge the economic power of corporations and the coercive power of the state.

We know where corporations get their power — they control the means of production; and we know where the capitalist state gets its power — it has a monopoly of legal coercive force; but we need to be equally clear where the environmental movement gets its power. Environmentalism’s strength, and therefore its capacity to win, depends crucially upon its capacity to exercise a kind of power that is neither economic nor political but social, that is, it is the community-based power of grassroots self-organization within “civil society.” In short, its power resides in the organizational capacities of social movement organizations, class conflict organizations, and popular autonomy organizations.

A strategy for winning, therefore, must include a strategy for building up the social power of the movement to such a degree that it can actually rival the degree of power that corporations and their political underlings in the capitalist state can jointly muster. It is a tall order. But we know from the history of revolutionary movements that, under the right conditions, when an emboldened and militant mass movement confronts a weakened and ineffective ruling elite, the social power of militant, broad-based movements can topple regimes and institute sweeping social change. That is just a plain fact of modern history. If all four of the resistance-phase strategic objectives have been successfully secured, the environmental movement will be rather well positioned to begin building up this kind of social power.

The way to do it, though, is not in the usual way that social power is built up, which is by building grassroots organizations that collectively address people’s needs and advance their aims. Instead, building up the kind of power needed to challenge the ruling elites of capitalist society directly will require that the strongest weapons in the arsenal (so to speak) of grassroots popular struggle: general strikes, militant mass demonstrations, and mass campaigns of civil disobedience. These tactics, when supported not just by small and isolated groups (as is often the case today), but by a broad and powerful constellation of social movements that is unwilling to take ‘No’ for an answer, can generate vast concentrations of social power, certainly enough (when the circumstances are favorable) to rival the power of a compromised, weakened ruling class.

Transferring Public Authority to Community Organizations

The fourth transition-phase strategic objective of the self-organization strategy, and the one that more than any other gives content to the aim of “winning,” is the objective of securing the transfer of ever more extensive governance functions (including running the economy, the healthcare and education systems, providing social services, etc.) from “private” and “state” sector institutions to the “social” sector of community-based self-organization (i.e., to grassroots SMOs, CCOs, PAOs).

To complete this transfer would be, in and of itself, to have defeated capitalism (but not necessarily to have consolidated a coherent and well-functioning alternative, which presumably may take time). But there is no reason to delay this work until we reach the climax or the end-point of the struggle against the rule of Big Business. In principle, it can begin today. Clearly, though, in the transition phase of the movement, when the community-based Left is very strong and the ruling class is weak, it will be an especially opportune time for the community-based organizations to try to wrench governance functions away from corporations and the state.

In each case, when a governance function is captured by grassroots self-organization and taken over by the community-based “social” sector, a key task will obviously be to reconfigure these functions (economic, administrative, technical, pedagogical, medical, etc.) in ways that are consistent with our core values and ultimate aims, namely, political and economic democracy, social and environmental justice, and ecological sustainability. This, of course, will be a continuation of work being done throughout the resistance phase (see the third resistance-phase strategic objective).

One question that arises in this connection is whether we should think of this transition — this transfer of governance functions from the hierarchical and authoritarian institutions of capitalism (corporations and the state) to the egalitarian and democratic institutions of a radicalized grassroots civil society — as taking place gradually, emerging (through struggle) over a period of many years, or abruptly, by means of a relatively brief revolutionary process. Both scenarios have an element of plausibility to them. However, it is just common sense to acknowledge that those periods which witness sudden upsurges of civic engagement, in which popular participation in public affairs is both more widespread than usual and takes more insistent forms than usual, and which we call “revolutions,” are golden opportunities to be seized upon to push the transition process as far as it can possibly go. In that sense, the self-organization strategy is clearly a revolutionary strategy. But there is no reason to wait for such an upsurge before beginning to undertake the transition, nor is there any reason to cease struggling for still more far-reaching change after a revolutionary upsurge has died down. This opportunity-driven approach to revolutionary transition — gradual transformation whenever necessary, rapid transformation whenever possible — seems to be the approach of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, which is as good a model as we have before us today (in spite of the well-known limitations of its approach to sustainability and other issues and its more extensive use of the state than a self-organization strategy would encourage).


The self-organization strategy is designed to offer what many approaches to environmental activism stop short of proposing: a strategy for winning.

It is distinctive for two main reasons. First, it looks neither to the “personal” (lifestyle) sphere, nor to the “economic” (market) sphere, nor to the “political” (state) sphere, but instead to the “social” (grassroots self-organization) sphere of society as the key locus for building a powerful movement for challenging corporate power and constructing a sustainable and environmentally just alternative. Second, within the sphere of broadly “social” self-organization, it looks not to the high-profile and well-funded environmental NGOs as key agents for organizing collective action, but instead to the social movement organizations, class-conflict organizations and popular autonomy organizations that serve as the primary vehicles for the self-organization of grassroots activism in the environmental movement and in other struggles for political and economic democracy and for social and environmental justice.

(Stephen D’Arcy is the author of the book, Languages of the Unheard: Why Militant Protest is Good for Democracy, and a co-editor of the book, A Line in the Tar Sands: Struggles for Environmental Justice.)

Rosa Luxemburg on “the Socialist Civic Virtues”

By Steve D’Arcy

Of all the early-20th century marxists, Rosa Luxemburg arguably made the most notable contributions to leftist democratic theory, underlining the importance of the self-emancipation of the working class, and the dangers of substitutionism. “Let us speak plainly,” she wrote. “Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.”rosa_luxemburg

But one of her most striking and least well-understood contributions was to draw on the classical “republican” notion of “civic virtue,” as a vital part of her analysis of working-class democracy. Although the application of notions of “vice” and “virtue” to personal dispositions within the workers movement (e.g., virtues like solidarity and vices like opportunism) was no doubt already widespread by the end of the 19th century, Luxemburg may have been the first to explicitly deploy the formula of “socialist civic virtues,” and to integrate this notion into a larger “civic-republican” conception of political engagement as active participation of all in public affairs, animated by a public-spirited devotion to the self-governance of equals.

It is in the context of articulating this socialist-republican ideal that Luxemburg introduced the notion of “socialist civic virtues.”

The essence of socialist society consists in the fact that the great laboring mass ceases to be a dominated mass, but rather, makes the entire political and economic life its own life and gives that life a conscious, free, and autonomous direction…. Only through constant, vital, reciprocal contact between the masses of the people and their organs, the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, can the activity of the people fill the state with a socialist spirit…. From dead machines assigned their place in production by capital, the proletarian masses must learn to transform themselves into the free and independent directors of this process. They have to acquire the feeling of responsibility proper to active members of the collectivity which alone possesses ownership of all social wealth. They have to develop industriousness without the capitalist whip, the highest productivity without slave-drivers, discipline without the yoke, order without authority. The highest idealism in the interest of the collectivity, the strictest self-discipline, the truest public spirit of the masses are the moral foundations of socialist society, just as stupidity, egotism, and corruption are the moral foundations of capitalist society. All these socialist civic virtues, together with the knowledge and skills necessary to direct socialist enterprises, can be won by the mass of workers only through their own activity, their own experience. The socialization of society can be achieved only through tenacious, tireless struggle by the working mass along its entire front, on all points where labor and capital, people and bourgeois class rule, can see the whites of one another’s eyes. The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself.

This is such a remarkable contribution to socialist political philosophy that it merits a closer look. I want to draw out and underline some examples of specific socialist civic virtues, highlighted both in this passage and elsewhere in Luxemburg’s work. In particular, I think five of the socialist civic virtues merit particularly close examination: the civic virtues of militancy, solidarity, collectivism, self-activity, and “tenacity in struggle.”

In the most general sense, a virtue is an admirable disposition (where “disposition” means a reliable tendency to act in a certain way, under appropriate circumstances). We admire the disposition to be willing to take personal risks in pursuit of important ends. This is the virtue of “courage.” It contrasts with the vice of cowardice, the disposition to shirk or evade risks, even when important ends demand risk-taking.

Specifically civic virtues differ from such personal virtues mainly because our admiration for them is grounded in the importance we assign to their impact on public affairs. A civic virtue is a disposition that we admire because of its salutary effect on public affairs. For instance, we admire some dispositions because their activation, by large numbers of people, tends to weaken the grip of systems of domination or exploitation or to hasten the self-emancipation of the exploited and oppressed.

Consider five of the socialist civic virtues identified, either explicitly or implicitly, by Luxemburg.

  1. Militancy. The virtue of militancy is the admirable disposition to adopt an adversarial, confrontational stance toward intransigent elites and unresponsive systems of power, and so to be willing to defy authority and disrupt institutions in order to oppose injustice and oppression. As Luxemburg puts it, this demands that the working class cultivate a rebellious, fighting spirit, “by extirpating, to the last root, its old habits of obedience and servility.” There must be a shift, she says, from “the regulated docility of an oppressed class” to “the self-discipline and organization of a class struggling for its emancipation.” The socialist civic virtue of militancy consists of what Luxemburg calls the “combative spirit” that animates the class struggle at its best. Elsewhere she calls it, more vividly still, “the forward-storming combative energy of the masses.” In her view, we are right to admire this combativeness, to exhort one another to cultivate it, and to hold up exemplars of it to ourselves and each other as models of civic excellence worthy of emulation. (I try to develop this notion of militancy as a civic virtue in my own book, Languages of the Unheard.)
  2. Solidarity. Luxemburg’s activism and intellectual work were carried out at a time when the value of solidarity was widely understood. Today, this is no longer the case. Even on the activist Left, there are many who view solidarity with suspicion, on the grounds that the exhortation to treat “an injury to one” as if it were “an injury to all” seems, to some, to imply that everyone in fact undergoes the same injuries, which obviously they do not. But Luxemburg believed that the morality of the working class was grounded in “solidarity, harmony, and respect for every human being.” In her view, solidarity does not mean actually enduring the same injuries, but something quite different: resisting injuries to others as if they were direct attacks on oneself. Rather than viewing it with suspicion, we should admire the stance of solidarity, not only because it is a effective at building and maintaining potent alliances based on long-term commitment to common struggle, but also because it embodies the “highest idealism in the interest of the collectivity.” It elevates us above the bourgeois-ideological “rationality” of egoistic calculation of personal advantage.
  3. Collectivism. This brings us to the third socialist civic virtue, collectivism. In this context, collectivism is the disposition to act politically in ways that repudiate individualism, in favour of “the feeling of responsibility proper to active members of the collectivity.” In other words, we rightly admire those who act in “the truest public spirit of the masses.” Collectivism, in this sense, is among “the moral foundations of socialist society, just as stupidity, egotism, and corruption are the moral foundations of capitalist society.” (Quotations in this section are all from the long quoted passage, given above.)
  4. Self-activity. Self-activity is another important socialist civic virtue, which Luxemburg continually promotes. As she says (see above), it is by means of this admirable disposition of self-activity that “the great laboring mass ceases to be a dominated mass, but rather, makes the entire political and economic life its own life and gives that life a conscious, free, and autonomous direction.” Here Luxemburg echoes the Kantian idea (and anticipates its use in Irish Autonomism, from Connolly to Holloway) that it is our capacity to direct our own decision-making that gives us our peculiar dignity. Whereas autonomy elevates us, heteronomy — the other-directedness of a “dominated mass” — is degrading. Heteronomy lowers and demeans us, so we rightly admire those who embody the disposition to act for themselves, notably to “break the chains” that subject them to the dictates of others. “The mass of the proletariat must do more than stake out clearly the aims and direction of the revolution. It must also personally, by its own activity, bring socialism step by step into life.”
  5. “Tenacity in Struggle.” The fifth socialist civic virtue to which Luxemburg draws our attention is what she calls “tenacious struggle.” We applaud all struggle against exploitation and oppression, of course. But the most excellent, admirable struggle embodies a relentless insistence on prevailing, even in the face of setbacks. What we admire, she suggests, is not just struggle in general, but “tenacious, tireless struggle by the working mass along its entire front, on all points where labor and capital, people and bourgeois class rule, can see the whites of one another’s eyes.” In this sort of tenacity in struggle, even “after fresh disappointments and disenchantments,” she says, the best exemplars “will stand all the more firmly and faithfully by” the movement “that knows no compromise, no vacillation…, without counting its enemies and dangers – until victory.”

It is important for those of us on the Left of today — so different, in both good and bad ways, from the Left of her time — to be willing to learn from Luxemburg’s insights about civic virtue. There’s a danger that we might slouch, thoughtlessly, into a neo-Schmittian marxism, which recognizes only the strategical categories of “friend” and “foe,” but cannot stomach the more demanding categories of “admirable” and “contemptible,” upon which so many of Luxemburg’s most emphatic assessments rested. But we need these concepts. We need to cultivate the kind of sensitivity to excellence and degradation that enables the best, most admirable among us — people like John Brown, or indeed Rosa Luxemburg — to steer clear of the corrupting influence of “access to power,” a “seat at the table,” “taking the helm,” and other temptations.

Allies with Benefits: The Strategic Challenge of Solidarity-Building

Working-class struggles against sexism, racism, colonialism, environmental destruction, and capitalism are often discussed in terms of “benefits” and “interests.” In particular, the strategic challenges confronted within these movements are often framed in terms of how settlers benefit from colonialism, how white people benefit from racism, how relatively affluent workers benefit from the despoliation of the planet, and so on. The implication is that those who benefit from these forms of domination would seem to have an interest in maintaining the social relations that the struggles against these systems attempt to contest. For example, the implication of the claim that settlers benefit from colonialism is supposed to be that they have an interest in maintaining the ongoing colonial domination and dispossession of Indigenous peoples. The implication of the claim that white women benefit from racism is supposed to be that white feminists have an interest in maintaining the racial oppression of women of colour. And so on.

Conflicts of Interest?

Those who emphasize these points do so out of a suspicion that these advantaged groups might not be reliable allies in struggles that oppose the very social structures from which they derive benefits. This in turn suggests that they may not be suitable partners for a convergence in common struggle. Women of colour, for example, might have reason to doubt the reliability of white feminists in struggles against the racist domination of women of colour, since — although white feminists have an “interest” in the empowerment of white women specifically — they actually benefit from the racist subordination of black and brown women. This seems to suggest that there is a conflict of interest in play here, which we ignore at our peril.solidarity-forever

Clearly, there is a great deal at stake here. The more we underline and emphasize this set of observations about apparent conflicts of interest within popular movements for social justice, and the threat these conflicts of interest can potentially pose to solidarity and mutual aid within and between movements, the more pessimistic we might become about the prospects for common struggle in broad-based alliances. Ultimately, the effect may be to foster a more and more fragmented and inward-looking set of oppositional movements, of the kind often associated with the “twitter Left” and the “social justice blogosphere,” where a pervasive skepticism about the capacity to mobilize broad-based popular movements based on solidarity across real differences is taken for granted as an unspoken, and usually unchallenged assumption.

Acknowledging that the Benefits are Real

Of course, this thought — that these worries about conflicting interests can seem to undermine our hopes for solidarity-building — can lead us down a terribly misguided path. We might find ourselves tempted to bury our heads in the sand, and to pretend that these concerns are not grounded in genuine insights. For example, we can be tempted to cast doubt on the perception and understanding of those women of colour who perceive these conflicts of interests within feminism. But the truth is, their assessments are based not on hasty preconceptions, but persistent experiences of disappointment within practical politics, reinforced by longstanding empirical and theoretical findings by important research traditions. Any self-blinkering refusal to admit that these conflicts of interest are both substantiated by research and repeatedly confirmed by experiences in struggle (not just twitter debates, but actual movement activism), would be a recipe for disaster for the Left. Instead of offsetting the tendency toward fragmentation and mutual suspicion, such denialism would have the effect of intensifying these divisions and reinforcing pessimism about broad-based alliance-building, by seeming to confirm the fear that interest-conflicts make those who benefit from inequalities incapable or unwilling to admit that systems of domination directed against some groups confer advantages on other groups. On the contrary, we have to begin by acknowledging the reality of these interest-conflicts, and by insisting on the need to grapple with the strategic and analytical problems they pose, rather than trying to bypass the hard questions by pretending the problem is a figment of overactive imaginations.

The first step is to acknowledge that the benefits are real. White people do benefit from racial oppression; settlers (i.e., all residents of a colonized region who are not members of one that region’s Indigenous peoples) do benefit from colonial dispossession and displacement; men do benefit from sexism; and so on. And this fact explains people’s very real experiences of unreliable alliance-partners. For instance, it helps to explain the ways that white feminism has, in some but obviously not all cases, participated in the racist depiction of black men as threats to white womanhood, or the racist depiction of “the West” as saviour of vulnerable women in the Global South via imperial “interventions” in the context of the “war on terror.” The harms visited upon women of colour by these forms of racism are much more readily recognized by women of colour themselves than by white women, in part because racism threatens the well-being and the dignity of women colour in ways that it doesn’t threaten white women. Indeed, racism can create opportunities for enhanced well-being and dignity for white women, in some ways and under some circumstances.

Against “the Whole Damn System”?

And yet — crucially — this is not the whole story. There is a much more subtle set of dynamics at work here. For one thing, there is a clear, albeit no doubt complicated sense in which everyone — or all but the most wealthy and powerful few, the “ruling class” or the “one percent” — would benefit from a post-racist, post-sexist, post-capitalist, post-colonialist world. Some people try to point to this more complicated and seemingly contradictory situation by saying (in my view, too hastily) that the conflicts of interest discussed above are merely apparent, but not real. That is, they say that, even if it seems to almost everyone concerned that these conflicts of interest exist, in fact the conflict is a kind of ruse or deception, which conceals an underlying commonality of interests. According to this view, racial and gender oppression, colonial and capitalist domination, and other such hierarchies and inequalities, actually create a common interest of all exploited and oppressed people in overturning “the whole damn system” of racist, sexist, colonial, ecocidal capitalism. When we fail to confront and challenge all of these forms of domination, we merely shoot ourselves in the foot, by propping up the very system that attacks us all, albeit in different ways and by different means. Our real interests, or at least our “long term” interests, according to this view, actually converge on one overriding, shared interest in overturning the system and establishing a post-capitalist, non-oppressive, ecologically sound, egalitarian and democratic society that prioritizes the welfare of all, instead of the enrichment and empowerment of a few.

There is a grain of truth in this view, to be sure. But I am convinced that it fails to get at the central point. The point is not that the interests or benefits in maintaining inequalities and oppressions are merely apparent, instead of real interests, nor that they are merely short term, instead of long term interests. Instead, the point is that the very real, and quite possibly long-term interests that advantaged groups have in maintaining inequalities only exist in a context of atomization and individualization (so that we can speak here of “asolidaristic” interests), but they would not exist in the context of a common struggle where the fate of each was bound up with the fate of all (where asolidaristic interests give way to “solidaristic” or “alliance-dependent” interests).

“Benefits” and “Interests” Distinguished

To see this point, consider an analogy. Suppose a group of 20 people are being held hostage by one person, a man who is carrying a knife. The hostage-taker is the only one who is armed, and so he has a great advantage. Any of the 20 who tries to overpower the hostage-taker can expect to be wounded or killed. But suppose 10 or 15 of the hostages were to try all at once, in a coordinated way, to overpower the hostage-taker. In that case, they could easily prevail, with only a modest risk of serious injury to any one of them. Seeing this threat of a possible coordinated rebellion, the hostage-taker institutes certain benefits or advantages to those who comply with his instructions, and imposes penalties to those who resist. Now ask this question: do the 20 hostages have an interest in complying with the hostage-taker’s instructions, thereby helping to prop up his dominance, or do they have an interest in cooperating with each other to mount a coordinated assault on the knife-wielding hostage-taker, liberating themselves and each other through a common struggle, as if an injury to each were an injury to all?

We should not be too quick to answer this question. Before we can answer it in a sufficiently nuanced way, we need to become sensitive to a distinction that has lurked in the background of this whole discussion: the distinction between a benefit and an interest. In most cases, we have an interest in X whenever we benefit from X. But there is an important class of exceptions to this general rule. Sometimes, benefits come at a price that is so high that claiming the benefits is self-destructive, and hence contrary to one’s interests. Importantly, though, they do not stop being benefits. In such cases, benefits and interests cease to coincide. In the present context, the most important type of example occurs when a group of people is given access to certain privileges denied to others, where this differentiation of group fates is deployed by elites as a form of social control. Karl Marx, the social theorist who pioneered this kind of analysis, gives the example of colonial domination of the Irish by the English. According to Marx’s analysis, the offering of privileges to English workers, as benefits conferred upon them from England’s colonial domination and occupation of Ireland, and the related anti-Irish racism within England itself, were indeed linked to benefits made available to English workers. But the deployment of these benefits, and the correlative disadvantaging of Irish workers, were in fact a ruling-class stratagem of social control that weakened the social power of both Irish and English workers. The benefits in question, according to Marx, were “the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its [high level of] organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.” In short, the English workers benefitted from colonial domination and dispossession of the Irish, but because the deployment of these benefits or privileges undermined the potency of the workers’ movement in England, English workers were undermining their own position by failing to repudiate and help to overturn their own access to those benefits.

With this distinction between benefits and interests in mind, let’s return to our hypothetical question about the hostages. Where do their interests lie? Do they have (1) an interest in offering compliant assistance to the hostage-taker, in order to secure personal advantages as a reward for collaboration, or (2) an interest in rebelling against the regime of the hostage-taker in order to overthrow their own subordination along with that of all their fellow hostages? We know that, as long as the hostage-taker is offering advantages to compliant individuals, then hostages will benefit from docile and cooperative compliance with the hostage-taker’s regime. But do they have an interest in that kind of compliance?

The correct answer, I think, is that it all depends. Both are possible interests that they could have. Which of these two interests they do in fact have, in practical terms, depends on what they have reason to expect one another to be willing to do, given the situation in which they find themselves. If any one hostage has reason to expect that, were he or she to rush the hostage-taker, very few or none of the others would join in the effort, then proceeding to rebel in isolation and without support or cooperation would be self-destructive: a recipe for personal disaster. In this scenario, where the hostages do not coordinate their response, each of the hostages is clearly better off seeking to curry favour with their overseer as best they can, in the hope of receiving benefits in return for collaboration and complicity. On the other hand, however, if each of the hostages could plausibly expect that, were he or she to revolt, several of the others could be counted upon to join the fight and to coordinate their efforts in a common struggle to disarm their shared captor, then a new calculation would be necessary. In this second scenario, it would actually be self-destructive to collaborate with the hostage-taker in pursuit of personal benefits, because such collaboration in pursuit of personal gain would actually prop up artificially the hostage-taker’s dominance, by insulating it from the prospect of a coordinated challenge from the dominated majority. The result of collaboration would be disastrous, because it would foreclose the possibility of a potent common struggle to disarm the hostage-taker. Collaborating with the hostage-taker, instead of revolting, would ruin their only chance of ending the ordeal once and for all.

Alliance-Dependent Interests

The predicament outlined in this parable very precisely maps onto the situation described above. Settlers really can gain advantages (benefits) by collaborating with the colonial domination and dispossession of Indigenous peoples, but by doing so they foreclose the possibility of accessing a far greater benefit of common liberation, which is only available on the basis of a coordinated, solidaristic struggle against “the whole damn system” of domination and exploitation. White feminists really can secure benefits by embracing the racial hierarchies that subject people of colour to domination and exclusion, but by doing so they prop up the very system that blocks their own access to liberation by insulating that system from a coordinated, solidaristic challenge from below. These cases echo the situation Marx described: the benefits are real, but they don’t generate interests, because the claiming of privileges blocks access to the kind of potent, solidaristic revolt that could bring liberation from forms of domination to which the privileged are also subject. If that’s the case, then (non-elite) settlers would seem to have no interest in propping up colonialism to claim benefits, white feminists would have no interest in propping up racism to claim benefits, and so on.

Unfortunately, this falls short of the neat and tidy resolution that our minds might wish we could find for these problems. What makes the thought raised here unsatisfying is the “big if” that it references. If they can count on broad-based solidarity and reliable mutual aid in a context of a common struggle for their joint liberation, then, and only then, will they have an interest in renouncing the dubious benefits of collaboration, in order to gain access to the liberation promised by a broad-based, anti-systemic revolt from below: a potent, transformative, and liberating rebellion against the system as a whole. Where that condition — that “big if” — is met, the asolidaristic interest in seeking to protect access to benefits, by collaborating with the prevailing distribution of power, would give way to the solidaristic or alliance-dependent interest in rebelling alongside all the exploited and oppressed against a ruling class and its system that blocks the emancipation of all workers.

At this point, the more pessimistic among us will be only too quick to insist that, alas, the crucial condition is not in fact met. There is no plausible basis to anticipate that such reciprocity and mutual aid will be forthcoming. Therefore, the pessimist will conclude, the interest in rebellion (and the benefit-renunciation it would entail) does not exist, as a practical matter, even if it exists “in principle” or would exist, counterfactually, under different circumstances. Indeed, this thought has real merit as part of an explanation for the low levels of popular revolt in many parts of the world today. Rebelling feels far too much like the self-destructive attempt of an individual to rush the knife-wielding hostage-taker all by herself, with no expectation that others will “have her back” and support her, “shoulder to shoulder,” in the way that working-class rebels of yesteryear could often expect to be backed up by neighbours, co-workers and comrades in the movement. To most people, in today’s very different context, it seems that the best way to gain benefits for oneself and one’s family is by pursuing an individualistic path to improved well-being: getting a better job, a raise, or whatever, by “impressing the boss” and “staying out of trouble.” In short, the problem with alliance-dependent interests is that they tend to evaporate in the absence of the reliable expectation of solidarity upon which they depend in order to have real weight in people’s decision-making about what to do. In the absence of reliable solidarity, asolidaristic interests reassert themselves.

Solidarity can be Cultivated

But this bleak thought misses something important. The expectation of solidarity is not an “all or nothing” affair. Solidarity can be built. Trust can be cultivated. Relationships of reliable mutual aid can be fostered over time. The norms of solidarity and cooperation that working-class movements against racism, sexism, colonialism and capitalism relied upon in the past did not spring up out of nowhere. They were constructed over time. People had to learn how to count on one another for backup. They had to discover, as a hard-won practical lesson, that sacrifices made by one person this year could be reciprocated by that person’s neighbour the next year, so that even apparent self-sacrifice pays off in the end, as our common strength is bolstered by our commitment to stand and fight by one another’s side.

But let’s not look on this learning process in a mythological, rose-coloured and cartoonish way. Often, in the years of the Left’s former periods of relative “ascendancy,” there were bitter failures of solidarity. There were unforgivable betrayals. There were reversions to sectionalism, individualism, and very often racism and sexism. This is the flip-side of the slogan, “workers of the world, unite.” Very often, working people failed to unite; otherwise, why exhort them to do so? In the same way, the slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all,” would be unnecessary and pointless, if not for the fact that some injuries, often of the most egregious and brutal kind, were treated by many workers as if they were “someone else’s problem,” or no problem at all. And yet, rather than simply react to these tendencies toward the dissolution of solidarity and common struggle as “facts of life,” forever precluding a common struggle, the Left traditionally grew out of the opposite impulse: the impulse to insist on solidarity, even in the face of betrayals and disappointments; to exhort neighbours and co-workers to embrace mutuality and cooperation, even as the drift toward individualism, sectionalism and competition continually undermined efforts at effective working-class organization.

A “Mission Statement” for the Left?

This, then, is what we need to recall today, in the hour of the Left’s most grim marginality and seemingly bleak prospects. The Left was founded upon a singular, very precise insight: that the exploited and the oppressed, or what Marx called “the downtrodden millions,” could liberate themselves only on the basis of a repudiation of the “bourgeois” values of careerist self-seeking and individualistic competition, and a corresponding embrace of the opposite values of solidarity, cooperation and mutual aid. It is no accident that the slogans of the classical Left continually foregrounded this thought: “workers of the world unite!”; “an injury to one is an injury to all!”; “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere!”; “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all!” Neither should we be surprised that the gravest vice against which the Left continually railed was that of the turncoat who, seeking a personal advantage, exempted himself or herself from the common obligation of unbreakable unity: the dreaded scab.

Recalling the sheer repetitiveness and even shrillness of the constant exhortations to solidarity that accompanied the rise of the Left in its heyday should remind us of something decisively important: solidarity, and the common interest in revolt that it brings in its wake, is not a given. It has to be fought for, continually, against systemic pressures and elite stratagems that always work to erode and undermine it. The recomposition of reliable, practical solidarity has to be nurtured and pursued as a high-priority political objective. Without it, the alliance-dependent interest in revolt tends to evaporate, generating asolidaristic “conflicts of interest” within the wider workers’ movements.

Perhaps this, then, can serve as a kind of mission statement for the Left: our role is to defend solidarity, not by denying every departure from it, not by ignoring the many failures to deliver on it, but by exposing and reversing these missteps, by working to repair our solidarity whenever it breaks down, reinforcing it wherever it falters, and embodying it materially when it threatens to degenerate into a mere pious ideal. The broad-based, working-class interest in rebellion is a special, alliance-dependent interest. It only emerges, as a practical matter, when we have good reason to count on our co-workers, neighbours and comrades to back us up as we move into struggle. That makes cooperation and solidarity into precious resources upon which the very fate of humanity depends. The challenge of building solidarity won’t take care of itself. And the benefits it confers are by no means automatic or unassailable. We have to put the rebuilding of solidarity on our shared agenda, across all our struggles, and to recognize it as a matter of both the greatest difficulty and the highest importance.

(Stephen D’Arcy is a member of Climate Justice London, author of the book, Languages of the Unheard: Why Militant Protest is Good for Democracy, and co-editor of the forthcoming book, A Line in the Tar Sands: Struggles for Environmental Justice.)

What is Dialectical Reason?

By Stephen D’Arcy

1. Reason is a special sort of capacity or competence: the capacity to weigh considerations for and against adopting either (1) a belief, or (2) a course of action. To be rational, in the relevant sense, is to be capable of deliberating about these considerations, which are called “reasons” (to believe or to act). When we weigh reasons to believe, we call this activity epistemic reasoning; when we weigh reasons to act, we call this practical reasoning.

2. In the marxist tradition, notably in the work of Marx himself, the favoured mode of reasoning, about both epistemic and practical matters, is dialectical reasoning. It is favoured because the “point” of reasoning, in this tradition, is not “scholastic,” but transformative: “The philosophers have [hitherto] only interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it.” Dialectical reasoning encourages the interpreter to understand the world as a field for possible transformative interventions, to be “understood in its contradiction and revolutionized in practice.” (All of these quoted passages are from Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” 1845.)marx123

3. Dialectical rationality, in the marxist tradition, is the competence to deploy a set of higher-order interpretive standards about how best to weigh reasons at the first-order level, in light of the overriding “practical-critical” interest (or “point”) that animates dialectical research, which is to lay bare the opportunities for potent and emancipatory intervention into dynamic systems of conflict and subordination or “fettered” human “development.” Reasoning is dialectical, in this “practical-critical” way, when the standards it uses to steer decision-making (about what to believe or to do) jointly prioritize an understanding of the world, and the intervention-opportunities it offers, that is informed by a conception of events and actions as importantly embedded within and largely generated by antagonistic and dynamic systems with discernible developmental trajectories (concepts that I explain below).

4. The interpretive norms that qualify reasoning (about what to believe or to do) as dialectical can be stated concisely:

(a) First, dialectical reason is committed to a norm of systemic understanding, according to which events and actions are to be understood, not in terms of pure facticity (as something that “just happens”) or pure agency (as voluntary choices of an unconstrained “free will”), but rather in terms of larger antagonisms and systems that tend to generate events and acts of the relevant kinds, in ways that comply with an intelligible systemic logic.

For instance, dialectical reasoning discourages adoption of the belief that a certain CEO chose to attack a union due to her moral failings as an individual. The “dialectical” basis for casting doubt on such an interpretation is that the proposed view understands the events and actions under consideration as generated by voluntary decisions made by an individual, who could just as easily have chosen to encourage union activity. When we adopt the interpretive norm of systemic understanding, we tend to discount such judgments as ill-founded, in favour of competing interpretations, according to which (for example) the CEO is responding to systemic imperatives that tend to govern her choices, systematically encouraging profit-maximizing choices, and systematically discouraging public-interest-furthering choices. Dialectical reasoning treats the systemic character of this second interpretive option as counting in favour of its adoption (other things being equal).

At the level of practical reason, our reasoning accords with this norm of systemic understanding, when it diagnoses the antagonism between the CEO and his or her employees, “not in the sense of individual antagonism but of an antagonism that emanates from the individuals’ social conditions of existence” (Marx, Capital), and therefore prescribes interventions that target the systemic logic at work, rather than the individual choices of a specific personage.

(b) Second, dialectical reason is committed to a norm of dynamic understanding, according to which these systems are to be understood, not as stable structures that automatically self-regulate toward a reliable equilibrium, but unstable, dynamic systems that transform themselves according to discernible (albeit not necessarily predictable) developmental trajectories. As Lukacs puts the point, dialectical reason regards the “present as history,” always already undergoing transformation and reconfiguration.

For example, a description or explanation of “the economy” will better accord with the interpretive standards of dialectical reason to the extent that it highlights the tendencies toward instability, crisis and system-malfunctioning. Conversely, dialectical reasoning will tend to view sceptically any description or explanation of “the economy” as tending automatically to gravitate toward a stable equilibrium. (Again, this is not a matter of refusing to recognize reality, under the influence of some a priori ideological commitment. Rather, it is a matter of highlighting the points of possible intervention, and “laying bare” the instabilities that can focus proposals or projects for emancipatory practical engagement — all of which are glossed over or repressed by undialectical interpretations.)

(c) Third, dialectical reason is committed to a norm of antagonistic understanding, according to which the dynamics of unstable systems are to be understood in terms of conflicts and antagonisms that animate and destabilize them.

For example, dialectical reasoning will assess a proposed description or explanation of a social problem (like climate change or unemployment) more favourably, other things being equal, to the extent that the proposed interpretation reveals the basis of transformations and instabilities of prevailing systems as products of the tensions, conflicts and struggles between opposing social forces or groups, pitted against one another in ways that undermines social cohesion. An interpretation of climate change in terms of “overpopulation” or “overconsumption,” for instance, will tend to be weighed unfavourably by dialectical reasoning, to the extent that it glosses over or conceals the roots of social actions and events in conflicts between profit-motivated employers and need-motivated workers, or the antagonism between business interests and the public interest. A class-struggle analysis, and/or an anti-colonial analysis, will — by contrast — be weighed more favourably by reasoning that is dialectical, assuming that the analysis highlights rather than covering up the conflicts between what Marx called “the mass of the people” and “a few usurpers.”

(d) Fourth, there is the norm of negation-negative understanding, according to which the conflicts and antagonisms that animate dynamic, unstable systems are to be analyzed in terms of “fetters” on the “free development” of social “forces” or social energies that antagonistic systems both rely crucially upon and continually struggle to constrain and domesticate. (In the jargon of dialectical research, the overcoming of fetters that block development is called the “negation of the negation.”)

Dialectical standards of sound understanding encourage adoption of proposed descriptions or explanations of actions and events when these interpretations reveal forces or energies within the prevailing situation (that is, the socio-historical object under study) that are blocked or held back from full and free development by established social relations. For example, a dialectical interpretation of unemployment will highlight the capacity for productive, socially useful work by unemployed people, whose contributions are blocked from taking full effect by the dominance of a social structure (the labour market) that allocates labour power according to criteria of profit-maximization rather than need-satisfaction. Such an interpretation brings into view a kind of “negativity” or “lack” within observable reality, consisting of possibilities that are present in principle, but blocked in practice by existing social relations. As such, it highlights prospects for liberating transformations that un-block reality (negate the prevailing negation) in order to actualize potentialities that are “fettered” or tied up due to interest-conflicts between antagonistic social forces (e.g., workers and capitalists). A dialectical interpretation will thus tend to reveal existing social relations as (to cite the Communist Manifesto) “so many fetters” to be “burst asunder.”

The norm of negation-negative understanding is particularly important in dialectical practical reasoning, since it discourages us from weighing heavily a reason to act which does not link a proposal for change to fettered forces (blocked or negated potentialities) that can be unleashed and turned against the social relations that limit and block them. For instance, Marx’s critique of Utopian socialism was grounded in the norm of negation-negative understanding: the Utopians proposed abstract ideals that were purely exterior to the status quo, rather than finding within capitalism itself the social forces (productive forces, organizational forms, like co-operatives and unions, and the collective agency of working class people) that could be mobilized and turned against the system to “burst asunder” the constraints that block their development, negating the negativity or fettering that held them back. As Marx says in the Grundrisse, “if we did not find concealed in society as it is the material conditions of production and the corresponding relations of exchange prerequisite for a classless society, then all attempts to explode it would be quixotic” (Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), trans, M. Nicolaus, Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1973, p. 159.)

5. These broadly “methodological” or “meta-interpretive” commitments to an understanding of social reality that reveals its susceptibility to transformative political action through anti-systemic mobilization are clearly substantive, in the sense that they predispose dialectical social analysis to adopt a certain range of descriptions and explanations over others. In principle, it is possible that the substantive pre-commitments of dialectical inquiry might prove to be systematically misleading (to be, not only prejudgments, but prejudices, in the worst sense). But here, the materialist-dialectical approach to inquiry returns to its guiding intuition: that the “practical-critical” mode of inquiry will prove itself in the context of emancipatory political struggle. The question of the “ultimate” justifiability of these dialectical commitments “is not a question of theory but is a practical question,” according to the marxist tradition. Ultimately, critical researchers “must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the this-sidedness [Diesseitigkeit] of [dialectical] thinking, in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question,” and hence falls outside the scope of dialectical thought. But the exclusion of this “metaphysical” question, about whether and to what extent dialectical reason is justified by the way the world “really is,” indicates less a limitation of dialectical reason than a limitation of the pertinence or value of metaphysical speculation for the projects that motivate dialectical research in the first place. Once again: “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” (Quotations in this section are from Theses on Feuerbach.)

Some Concise Research Notes on Two Concepts in Early Marxism: The “Volksmasse” and “Antagonismus”

“A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism.”
(Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848)

“In the former case, we had the expropriation of the mass of the people by a few usurpers; in the latter, we have the expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people.”
(Marx, Capital, Volume I, Chapter 32, 1867)

  • Although early marxism (1848-83) obviously attached great importance to class struggle, it is important to see that it attached even greater importance to communism or, as Marx sometimes puts it, “communality” — a more flexible term that acknowledges intra-capitalist collectivisms. After all, in the early-marxist schema, class relations are not basic, but derived, that is, constructed by means of active, and often violent processes of enclosure, dispossession, and expropriation, in which the dominance (Herrschaft) of a social class is imposed on a wider social order, so that (as Marx puts it) “the labour of the many becomes the wealth of the few” (Civil War and France). This few — “a few usurpers,” as Marx puts it in Capital — constitutes the group within a social order that Marx calls its “ruling class” (herrschenden Klasse). They assume the position of pre-eminence that Marx calls domination (Herrschaft), in contrast to the “mass of the people” (Volksmasse) whose members are subjected to the position of “servitude” (Knechtschaft). The terms “domination” and “servitude,” which I cite from Capital, are borrowed by Marx himself from Hegel, whose discussion of Herrschaft and Knechtschaft is one of the centrepieces of his Phenomenology of Spirit.
  • Today, class domination is pervasive, across the globe. But it has never been total or uncontested. Marx believed that some survivals, continuations, or resurgences of what he and Engels called “Urkommunismus,” i.e., originary communism, persisted at least well into the 19th century, when they wrote, and they regarded these enduring collectivisms as very important. (Marx attempted to study several of these, notably in India, Ireland, Russia and the Americas, and Engels used Marx’s research as the basis for a book he later wrote, on The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.) In particular, Marx and Engels highlighted the importance of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in the Eastern Great Lakes Region, as having attained a degree of political equality and democracy that far exceeded the attainments of any other modern political systems, a fact that they attributed to the persistence of elements of pre-class collectivism within their social relations. The inclusive and consensus-building aspects of Haudenosaunee political processes, Marx and Engels thought, could serve as a model for a form of post-capitalist democracy in which “supreme authority” would be vested in a “Council” functioning as “a democratic assembly, [where] every adult male [and] female member had a voice upon all questions brought before it” (Marx, Ethnological Notebooks, p. 150; the fact that this was deemed by early marxism to be a model for emulation by anti-capitalists in Europe and beyond is made particularly explicit by Engels, in The Origin of the Family, chapter 3, whereas in Marx’s ethnological notes it is more implied than stated).
  • Nevertheless, even in social orders that have undergone a more thoroughgoing and comprehensive “usurpation” by a ruling class (i.e., a more nearly total liquidation of traditional practices of collectivist egalitarianism or “commoning”), the primary communality of human production and reproduction – that is, collaborative, coordinated social labour, drawing on the integrated cooperation of everyone who labours and the transmitted heritage of “all the dead generations” – remains operative, as a “spectre” that “haunts” systems of exploitation, as the permanent possibility of an “expropriation of the expropriators”: the spectre of a communal re-appropriation. This looming prospect of a “negation of the negation” brings forth in the ruling class “the foreboding…that present society is no solid crystal, but an organism capable of change,” i.e., that their privileges are vulnerable to subversion and revolt. This is a roundabout way of saying that the Achilles heel of any system of class Herrschaft is its dependence on the continued willingness to work, and to submit to the orderly coordination of social action, on the part of people who have both the capacity to rebel against their exploitation and an interest in doing so.
  • For this reason, the basic and ineliminable political challenge for any ruling class (herrschenden Klasse), certainly including the capitalist ruling class of today (“in view of the threatening upheaval of the proletariat,” as Marx said), is to keep this spectre of communal re-appropriation at bay: to encourage “the isolation of the labourers, due to competition,” and correlatively to discourage their “revolutionary combination, due to association” (Marx, Capital, I). In short, the most indispensable activity of ruling is that of fostering the atomization and decomposition, while discouraging the convergence and recomposition, of what Marx called “the independent self-conscious movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.” In short, the ruling class must “constitute itself as the nation” — or as Marx elsewhere puts the point, it must “acquire” the “faculty of ruling the nation” — precisely so that the proletariat does not do so by composing itself, in the mode of “revolutionary combination through association,” as the Volksmasse, bearers of the public interest, or – again, quoting Marx – “raising itself to be the national class” (nationalen Klasse). (In The German Ideology, Marx pointed to this under the label, “die herrschende geistige Macht,” i.e., the ruling spiritual power.)
  • In the first volume of Capital, Marx sums up much of the above by means of a decisive contrast between the “Volksmasse” or the “mass of the people,” on the one hand, and “a few usurpers” (wenige Usurpatoren), on the other. This aspect of Marx’s mature (1867-83) thought is too little appreciated. Most people assume that marxism will treat class as primary, and regard communality, the Volksmasse, or as Engels says, “Gemeinwesen,” or community, as dimensions of a distant, post-revolutionary, and post-“transition” future. By contrast, Marx locates the self-defense of the Volkmasse against the class-imposition of the few usurpers at the very heart of class society generally, and capitalism in particular.
  • Related to this idea of community, as the spectre of communal re-appropriation that haunts class society, Marx makes substantial use in multiple key works of a distinction (which, symptomatically, never caught on subsequently, except in the anti-colonial marxism of James Connolly) between (1) “the nation,” in “the bourgeois sense of the word,” which is what we today would call, “the nation,” full stop; and (2) “the nation,” in the proletarian or oppositional sense. The proletariat, Marx said, “must constitute itself [as] the nation,” and the struggle against the ruling class is “at first national in form,” although it is internationalist and counter-nationalist in content. What do these formulations mean? They mean that the “spectral” communality of the social order, its pre-enclosure, pre-expropriation basis in human cooperation and collaboration (and indeed, the persistence of intra-capitalist collectivisms, pointed out by James Connolly and others, and indeed by Marx in his last decade, in reference to Russian rural communalism, the Irish “Rundale” system of collective tenant-farming, and other cases of modern, intra-capitalist collectivisms), implies a common interest of the people, namely, “the mass of the people” (die Volksmasse). The working class is itself the bearer of the common interest in resisting and overturning the expropriation of the commonwealth of the labouring many, and in this sense it can, and indeed must, claim its place as collective defender of the mass of the people against the few usurpers.
  • Ultimately, according to the conception proposed in Capital, the class struggle is an “antagonism” (Gegensatz or Antagonismus) between “the mass of the people” and the “few usurpers.” The spectral communality of the mass of the people, interrupted and undermined by the ruling class’s stratagems of decomposition, implies a notion of the public interest or common good: “the interest of the immense majority” (Interesse der ungeheuren Mehrzahl), the interest of the Volksmasse. (The same idea reappeared in early-1970s marxism, when Black Panther Party intellectual George Jackson proposed a fateful distinction between “the 99%” and “the 1%,” a formula greeted with an uncompromisingly rigorous silence within official marxism at the time, but strikingly consistent with the impulses of early marxism.)
  • But the counterpoint to the early-marxist idea of the “interest of the immense majority” is another crucial early-marxist idea: the idea of antagonisms within the Volksmasse. “Antagonisms” (i.e., “Gegensätze” or “Antagonismen”) is Marx’s most general concept for describing social conflicts between collectivities with adverse interests, founded upon structures of asymmetrical (dis)advantage. Among these, Marx pays particular (but not exclusive) attention to four antagonisms: (1) “the antagonism between capital and wage labour”; (2) “the antagonism between man and woman”; (3) “the … antagonisms of peoples” (die…Gegensätze der Völker), notably, “the antagonism between Englishman and Irishman,” i.e., colonizer and colonized; and (4) the “antagonism” between ‘white’ and ‘non-white’ people in the context of what Marx called “racial relations” (Racenverhältnisse).
  • The ruling class rules in that its position is one of Herrschaft (domination), but to rule it must ward off the consolidation of an oppositional Volksmasse. It must dissolve or decompose the Volksmasse; it must dis-integrate or dis-aggregate the “interest of the immense majority.” The basic formula for ruling by decomposition, according to early marxism, is to order difference as antagonism. Decomposition is the undoing or dissolution of the oppositional class(es) “constituted” as “the nation,” in the non-bourgeois sense, the Volksmasse. To produce conflicts of interest, in place of a common or “national” (in the non-bourgeois sense) interest, is the work of decomposition as a ruling stratagem. But, in a context when the most salient interest “of the immense majority,” is to “expropriate the expropriators,” to throw off the Herrschaft of “the few usurpers,” antagonisms have to be seized upon and intensified, when they already exist, or actively constructed, where they don’t exist already. This process, described in some detail by Marx (in his Letter to Meyer and Vogt on the Irish question), may be called the deployment of antagonisms.
  • The deployment of antagonisms does not mean inventing differentiation within the Volksmasse. It means ordering differences as antagonisms, that is, crafting social structures that distribute benefits and burdens asymmetrically, so as to function as what Engels called “machines for holding down the oppressed,” or what Marx called “engines of class despotism.” An example of such a machine would be white supremacy, i.e., racism. By systematically deploying “racial” differentiation as a basis for asymmetries of benefit and burden, new interests are introduced, which decompose the (non-bourgeois-sense) “national” or “Volksmasse,” setting up an antagonism between members of the Volksmasse, the Gemeinwesen or community, in which some are systematically privileged by the asymmetry, and others are systematically disadvantaged by it.
  • Typically these “machines” or “engines” deploy asymmetries of legal standing, social status, income and wealth, representation in ‘mainstream’ culture, health care access and health outcomes, vulnerability to police or domestic violence, and so on, on a systematic basis. As Marx says, antagonisms of this sort are “antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism but of an antagonism that emanates from the individuals’ social conditions of existence,” i.e., from the operation of pervasive and enduring (albeit by no means uncontested) social structures.
  • Although these engines are indeed structures, nevertheless they are deliberately deployed structures, and in that sense they are both structures (social engines, social machines) and stratagems: “This [kind of] 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.”
  • Engels describes this sort of deployed asymmetry as “a relative regression, in which the well-being and development of the one group are attained by the misery and repression of the other.” It is a “relative regression,” in that every advance for the privileged group is purchased by a relative or comparative deprivation by the disadvantaged group.
  • In this way, this sort of social machine — where “machine” means any social structure that relentlessly generates the intended outcome, on a systematic basis — functions in such a way as to “cleave” [spalten] (as Marx puts it) the Volksmasse into “two hostile camps.” The privileged camp “sees itself as part of the dominant” group, and enjoys certain benefits. The disadvantaged group regards its privileged counterpart as both duped by the ruling elite and unjustly benefitting from its tacit, de facto alliance with the enemy. (On these points, see Marx’s Letter Vogt and Meyer on the Irish Question, 9 April 1870.)
  • The effect of these deployments of antagonisms is to increase what Marx calls “Isolierung” or isolation of differentiated sections of the labouring “many” from the wider Volksmasse, and to diminish what he calls “Vereinigung” or combination of the labouring many in opposition to the “few usurpers.” But crucially, it is also to decompose or dissolve the very existence, as a practical matter, of a Volksmasse (“national” or “public” or “general”) interest.
  • It is in this sense that the proletariat “must constitute itself as the nation,” rather than simply being the nation in advance. (Here Marx is perhaps more nuanced than Connolly on the “non-bourgeois” sense of “nation.”) It has to forge the commonality of the Volksmasse. But, in forging this commonality, the proletariat does not invent “the people” or “the public,” in short, “the community” (Volk). Rather, it becomes “for itself” what it already is “in itself” (as the spectral communality of social labour upon which private appropriation is always already parasitic).

“Exploitation” versus “Privilege” in Class Analysis

If a group of unionized nurses in Oakland, California, goes out on strike, to oppose their employer’s attempt to gut their pensions and benefits; or a group of autoworkers fights with the police in Seoul, South Korea, over an employer’s plan to lay off members of their union; or if a group of tire factory workers in the French city of Amiens holds a manager hostage, to negotiate better severance packages for laid off workers — should these actions be understood as “proletarian” struggles against exploitation, which ought to be actively and vigorously supported by the socialist Left? Or are these, on the contrary, the struggles of a parasitic elite attempting to defend its unearned privileges, which have been gained largely at the expense of the actual proletariat by means of a corrupt bargain struck with the capitalist ruling class? This is the question taken up by the leftist writer, Bromma, in the book, The Worker Elite: Notes on the ‘Labour Aristocracy’ (Kersplebedeb, 2014)


BC Teachers’ Federation: Defending privilege? Or opposing exploitation?

According to Bromma, none of the struggles described above are “proletarian.” Instead, they are the struggles of a parasitic section of the middle classes, which Bromma calls “the worker elite.” And they are not, according to Bromma, struggles against exploitation, but struggles to defend privilege. Anti-capitalists who align themselves with such workers make a grave error, according to this analysis. “Flattering a failing worker elite with crocodile tears for its lost privileges…leads to disaster for proletarian forces,” above all by fueling right-wing populism (57). Ultimately, Bromma concludes, “the parasitic and patriarchal agenda of this class must be defeated” (75).

The “Proletariat” versus “Privileged Workers”

Bromma’s book is not unusual in its opposition to the struggles of unionized nurses, construction workers, teachers or factory workers, nor the first to single out these workers as “overpaid” and “privileged.” These groups of workers and their unions have always had an overabundance of enemies. What is unusual is that, in this case, the attacks originate from within the ranks of the anti-capitalist Left. Indeed, Bromma’s accusations of privilege and corruption are motivated by the very thing that (from one point of view, at least) seems least likely to pit anti-capitalist activists against workers who fight with their employers: a commitment to the class struggle of the proletariat against the capitalist ruling class.

What turns Bromma’s commitment to class struggle into a hostility toward the struggles of so many workers is the conviction, defended in The Worker Elite, that workers do not constitute a single class, but on the contrary can be divided into three distinct classes: a “lumpenproletariat” of criminals and underground economy labourers, a worker elite of “privileged” labourers, and the proletariat proper, which comprises about 80% of humankind, but excludes many people that would normally be regarded as “proletarians” by most (non-maoist) socialists. The proletariat proper is depicted by Bromma as a genuinely productive class, exploited by others. But both the lumpenproletariat and the worker elite are, like the capitalists, fundamentally parasitic on the proletariat:

[I]t is an unavoidable fact that the worker elite is an intrinsically parasitic class. The treasured privileges of the worker elite are funded by the ongoing capitalist exploitation of the proletariat….The ruling class diverts a portion of the wealth that it [exploits]…to cultivating and maintaining worker elites, which in turn are persuaded to abandon and attack the proletariat and other enemies of capital….Its prized middle class status comes from a preferential social contract, approved and paid for by the bourgeoisie (11-12).

This view will be familiar to readers of books like J. Sakai’s Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat and Zak Cope’s Divided World, Divided Class, among others. Bromma’s book is less an attempt to innovate than to lay out, in accessible, clear language, yet with considerable sophistication and relatively substantive arguments, a concise statement of the case for the claim that many construction workers, factory workers, teachers, and other workers with (especially in global terms) unusually favourable rates of pay, working conditions, health and safety protections and job security, are not only non-proletarians, but indeed are the class enemies of the proletariat and key allies of the ruling class: “The worker elite provides mass acquiescence and mass support for anti-proletarian politics, including settler colonialism, imperialist war, male domination, and genocide” (9).

All of this will be rejected by many leftists, quite emphatically. But why? What’s this dispute all about?

In my view, what accounts for the deep gulf separating the class politics of Bromma and other adherents to this view from the class politics of others on the anti-capitalist Left is a disagreement about how to think about the nature of class. Specifically, should we understand class in terms of exploitation, or in terms of privilege? (For some important background on the use of concepts like “exploitation” and “privilege,” which I can’t detail here, see my article, “The Rise of the Post-New Left Political Vocabulary.”) Whereas many marxists view class through the lens of the concept of exploitation, Bromma instead views class mainly through the lens of the concept of privilege. (I say ‘mainly,’ because Bromma does make use of the concept of exploitation, but it has a secondary role, largely to support the book’s analysis of ‘worker elite’ privilege.)

I think we can understand the issues better if we take a closer look at these two approaches: the exploitation approach versus the privilege approach to class analysis.

The Exploitation Approach to Class Analysis

In the exploitation approach, class is understood in terms of the antagonistic relationship between boss and worker, and the “friction of interests” (as EP Thompson put it, deploying a phrase from Balzac) that propels them toward conflict. In this view, workers are regarded as fundamentally productive, in contrast to members of the employer cass who are fundamentally parasitic and unproductive. In some cases, the productivity of workers is a matter of directly generating wealth in the form of commodities (for example, work producing automobiles, food, or computer software). In other cases, the productivity of workers is a matter of establishing or reproducing the necessary societal background conditions for the generation of wealth (for example, the work of teaching, caring for the physical or emotional needs of children, or restoring the health of the sick and injured). In still other cases, productivity is a matter of work enabling what Marx called the “realization” of wealth by facilitating the sale of commodities for cash (for example, shipping, advertising, or retail work). By contrast, the capitalist ruling class is strictly unproductive and parasitic: it extracts wealth from work done by others, by converting its control of productive resources (“means of production”) into relations of exploitation over workers. Capitalism is then a system of exploitation: an institutional structure through which the labour of the many is pressed into the service of the enrichment of the few.

This approach to thinking about class tends to encourage those who adopt it to look favorably upon the struggles of workers generally (including the struggles of highly paid workers, with sometimes atypical levels of job security, and so on). When workers are able to secure improvements in the terms of their employment, either through struggle (such as strikes) or through a favourable bargaining position (such as labour shortages), the higher wages or benefits that accrue to them are usually depicted by those on the Left as “gains” or “victories” in relation to the employer-class. Generally, an exploitation approach to class encourages an understanding of the advantages of higher pay, pensions and improvements in workplace health and safety as outcomes to be fought for, welcomed, and then defended, even if for the time being only some workers have made these gains, while other workers have not.

The Privilege Approach to Class Analysis

We can contrast this with the privilege approach. In the privilege approach, class is understood as a location in a system of differences, but not primarily, or at any rate not exclusively, as a two-way antagonism between boss and worker. Just as important as the boss/worker conflict, from this point of view, is the antagonism or differentiation between differently located groups of workers. The differences between them — that is, the “privileged” position of some working people, which sets them apart from other workers — may very well, according to this approach, necessitate that we treat differently positioned workers as constituting different, antagonistic classes: a privileged class of elite workers that benefits from unearned advantages that are denied to members of the genuinely “proletarian” class of workers.

Consider two groups of workers. The first group consists of non-unionized migrant workers seasonally employed in agriculture, paid at or near (or even below) the minimum wage; the second consists of unionized, stably employed nurses working at a hospital, with relatively high status, pay and benefits. An exploitation theory of class encourages us to highlight the commonality between these two groups of workers, noting their shared antagonism to the class of employers (including private investors and high-level managers in both the private and the public sector). But a privilege theory of class encourages us, on the contrary, to note the differentiation between these two groups, and the fact that the first group is shut out of the benefits and advantages — the “privileges” — of the second group. In particular, the privilege approach will encourage us to focus on ways in which the second group may have access to some of those advantages due, at least in part, to such factors as membership in a favoured racial group (whites), a favoured gender (men), a favoured legal status (citizens as opposed to undocumented people), or the fact of residence in an imperialist country.

In contrast to the exploitation view, the privilege conception of class encourages us to view advantages or gains made by some (but not all) groups of working people, not positively, as “victories for our class,” but rather negatively, as unearned advantages, subsidized by the continuing impoverishment of the lower paid, less advantaged workers.

Evidently, Bromma’s use of “privilege” as the primary concept in class analysis is a symptom of a much wider transformation of the political vocabulary of the activist Left in North America, in which the New Left political vocabulary of the 60s and 70s (with its emphasis on “systems” of exploitation and oppression and the possibility of “alliances” among anti-systemic movements, grounded in supposed cross-difference commonalities among “the people”) has increasingly lost ground to what I have called the “post-New Left political vocabulary” of today’s activist Left (with its emphasis on “intersecting axes of privilege,” and other barriers to the construction of broad alliances of the exploited and the oppressed). The privilege-focused, post-New Left vocabulary generates a much more suspicious stance toward proposals for broad-based alliances across differences.

Dangers of Giving Up on the Exploitation Approach

Is this shift toward a privilege conception of class a welcome development? Whatever the pros and cons of adopting a ‘privilege’ conception of racism, sexism, and other social hierarchies and antagonisms, I am convinced that this approach is unhelpful when introduced into class analysis. There are two basic reasons: one theoretical, and the other practical.

Theoretically, a privilege conception exaggerates the importance of distribution, and tends to obscure the importance of production. To be sure, writers like Bromma and Cope claim to be highlighting a difference between a productive class of proletarians and an unproductive parasitic class of ‘labour aristocrats’ in the ‘worker elite.’ But Bromma bases this claim largely on the difference between the wages and working conditions of the two (supposedly distinct) groups. If the wages and benefits of autoworkers in Detroit were, in the next 20 years, to fall to a quarter of what they are today, Bromma would no doubt re-define them as proletarians. But that, surely, is not the key variable for understanding the class structure of capitalism. Instead, what matters is (1) the exclusion of most people from control over means of production (workplaces, machinery, patented processes, etc.), which forces them to seek paid employment (as bearers of commodified labour-power) in the labour market, and (2) their consequent subordination to bosses in the workplace. How much pay or benefits they can extract, by means of such measures as union organization and strikes or political mobilization leading to expanding welfare state provisions, bears on our understanding of the of prevailing distribution of wealth. However, it tells us little about the basic structure of capitalism as a system production, and therefore it can’t be the basis for a plausible analysis of capitalism’s class structure.

Practically, the implications of the privilege approach to class analysis are even more troubling. By singling out the most organized sections of the labouring population, with the most potent capacities to organize strikes, including general strikes, or indeed to launch mass protest movements; by depicting this group of workers as the class enemy of the “proletariat,” to be not supported, but “defeated” by the proletarian struggle; and by stigmatizing gains won through strikes or reform campaigns as “corrupt” and “anti-proletarian” — the “privilege” approach can be fairly described as actively hostile to unions, and either indifferent to or enthusiastic about the disappearance of hard-won advantages that some workers enjoy: pensions, job security provisions, health and safety protections, restrictions on child labour, and so on (all of which Bromma describes as privileges available exclusively or disproportionately to the worker elite).

I hesitate to describe a sincerely advanced political position held by some people on the Left as “reactionary,” so I will simply say that this conception rests on a view of what it means to be pro-proletarian that I find highly suspect. Its widespread adoption on the Left would, I fear, have the effect of badly disorienting workers’ movements and the Left. (I have offered what I regard as a much better way of understanding the material basis for the decline of militancy and anti-capitalist politics among various groups of workers, in the article, “Why Rebellion is Rare, or Why Solidarity Matters.” There, I analyze workers’ acquiescence in capitalist domination in recent years in terms of what social scientists call “collective action problems.”)

For the time being, Bromma’s view seems to be a marginal one on the Left. Most people who identify as leftists continue to regard unions favourably, more or less, and fear rather than welcoming the dissolution of the advantages that union struggles and political mobilization have made available for some workers. But, given how rapidly and thoroughly the problematic (interpretive framework) of privilege has come to pervade the discourse and the strategic thinking (such as it is) of the activist Left in recent years, one can’t help but wonder how long the exploitation approach to class analysis can continue to shape the politics of activists, especially in Canada and the United States (where the post-New Left political vocabulary is now most entrenched).

The exploitation approach is a kind of residue or remainder of an earlier incarnation of the anti-capitalist Left (above all, its marxist variants). Increasingly, many younger activists have begun to embrace a more individualistic analysis of colonialism, patriarchy and racism, preferring to talk about these oppressions in terms of individual privilege rather than in terms of large-scale systems of institutional power. Will the same shift lead, sooner or later, to the displacement of the exploitation approach to class analysis? It’s hard to say. But no doubt the prospect of such a transformation is a real danger, to be discouraged if possible by vigorous attempts to insist on a conception of class that is crucially linked to the analysis of capitalism as an exploitative system of production.