Working Class identity

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Working Class identity
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Friends, In recent discussions, cdes have bemoaned the lack of working class (WC) identity. The argument being advanced is, I think, in brief, that if the WC do not come to see themselves as a *distinct* class they won’t be able to form a distinct, communist class party and thus communism is rendered an impossibility. There is a lot to take on in that (fairly classic) argument, so I just want to focus here on the WC identity issue. (I’m UK-based so I’m aware that I’m probably smuggling in some Western bias into this brief intervention.) What does history tell us? I’d suggest that WC identity has shown itself historically in 3 ways: sociologically; workerism/TU-identity; Stakhanovism. There is, doubtless, a continuum between the three. i) By “sociologically” I mean that (some members of) the WC have seen themselves embedded in the social hierarchy that limits them culturally and financially. Either deferentially or robustly, because of their position within the mode of production, they have accepted/battled their place in society. Some have fatalistically accepted their lot. Their position as WC has been accompanied by certain signifiers: job; clothing; accent; places you drink/socialise etc. ii) By “workerism/TU-identity” I mean that (some members of) the WC have taken their subordinate role within capitalism as a point of pride, usually via identifying heavily with their job/trade. Membership of a trade-union, work/role in a particular factory/shop and the accompanying socialising in certain venues, has seen (some members of) the WC (especially trade unionists) take great pride in their identity as workers. This has informed several different political ideologies: from syndicalism (“we don’t need politics, we built everything, let’s have a mass strike, take it all over, we can run things better than the bosses ever could”) through to the reformist Labourism that praises the WC for being able to do an “honest day’s work”. iii) The most extreme version of “workerism” is the productivist, Stalinist hero worship known as Stakhanovism. With regards to point i). The signifiers I mentioned have, since the 80s, begun to wane. In very broad brushstrokes, e.g.: the middle class obsess over (the previously WC domain of) football; pubs have closed in their thousands; we used to get marched into factories (all wearing the same clothes, doing similar jobs, and visibly, culturally and linguistically obviously as a distinct class)… Now the WC often don’t work and those factories have closed, or the WC works at desks and so thinks of themselves as MC, and when/wherever they do work they don’t have a massified, unified identity daily re-affirmed: individualism is all. With regards to point ii). The deserving poor, the honest WC, is now often portrayed as scroungers and chavs. The sociologically middle class Momentum movement behind Corbyn, along with myriad other Leftists, has of late been vocal in trying to remind us that not all members of the WC are criminal! But the huge drop in trade union membership and the fact that members of the WC no longer want to identify with their job, hate work when/if they have it, and have no pride in being poor or fucked over, has many positive aspects. This means a call for WC identity, if we are not VERY careful, sounds very much like (Leftist) nostalgia. The political expressions of WC identity (syndicalism, trade-unionism, labourism, stalinism) have ALL been regressive. What do we know for certain about those forms of WC identity mentioned above? We know that none of them helped advance the WC towards communism! None of them were progressive, and some of them were violently regressive (Stakhanovism). Whilst a strong WC identity has, in the past, helped inform the solidarity required e.g. to help us collectively march out of those factories we’d just been marched into, it has never done so without attendant dangers. When the class has seen itself as a class it has often taken that to mean that socio-cultural and geographical (and even religious) identity was what mattered and not its place within the mode of production. WC identity qua WC socio-cultural identity has rarely helped the class and has always been a barrier to its fullest self-understanding. In brief, there is a lot about the WC *losing* its identity as WC that is positive. With that in mind, a positive call for (the requirement of) WC identity sounds historically deaf. It goes without saying that the WC has, on occasions, formed itself into a conscious fighting force the very fact of which shows it can overcome the limitations of identity. But calling for identity when capitalism itself has moved to a place whereby the dead-ends of identity can be left behind – and when the bourgeois narrative of identity as lifestyle choice is so massively a part of the current ideological firmament – seems a dangerous and undialectical move. Given the dangers of WC identity as it has historically manifested itself, how do cdes calling for the re-affirmation of WC identity see this playing out without becoming a Leftist dead-end?

I think that the

I think that the working-class (proletariat) cannot develop a revolutionary consciousness without recognizing itself as a distinct class with distinct interests, capabilities and potential to transcend capitalism. In this sense, "working-class identity" is absolutely essential to the communist project. Class consciousness is just not possible without the working class recognizing itself as such.

But it is also true that there are all kinds of ideological (mis)appropriations of working-class identity both historically and currently that are not helpful to the development of class consciousness, i.e. the construction of "working-class" as limited to blue collar whites who lack a university education. However, the obverse of this construction is that many who are objectively "proletarian" in a sociological sense do not recognize this and take on the identity of "professionals" with distinct interests that are something other than "working-class." This kind of loss of class identity is no more helpful than the obverse misconstruction of it. So, yes there are all kinds of ideological dangers out there, but I can't see how the loss of class identity that results from certian forms of bourgeois ideology is anyway positive form the point of view of the proletariat developing a revolutionary consciousness.

... thanks for getting back

JK thanks for getting back.

And apologies for the lack of formatting in my first post -- doesn't make it easy to read. Sorry.

I wouldn't say that the "the loss of class identity that results from certain forms of bourgeois ideology" is "positive". Rather, I'd suggest it was neither more or less positive (or negative) than previous ideological/material modalities.

Or -- put another way -- that the current so-called *lack* of WC identity (e.g. "the construction of "working-class" as limited to blue collar whites") is as positive as it is negative. Certainly, "we" lack identity-defined-as-sameness, but we've gained some individual "agency"; for sure, we lack trade-union-consciousness, but we therefore "lack" the ability to be conned by trade unionists. 

I've heard some comrades who rightly say that the trade unions are enemies of the WC simultaneously claim that the evidence for the lack of the WC's identity is that they no longer join unions! This is important because when we try e.g. to evaluate the balance of class forces, if we're not careful, despite Left Communism being one of the few traditions that understands there is a left-wing of capital, we will continue to use Leftist (i.e. anti-WC) signifiers (e.g. union membership) to inform our understanding of the strength/weakness of the class. I think that is a very dangerous thing to do. 


Craftwork's picture
Restructuring, workers' identity, populism

The restructuring of the capitalist mode of production (around the 1980s) has had as its primary consequence the suppression of the workers' identity (previously) confirmed in the production process, i.e. through capital's rising demand for industrial labour in the historic period stretching from the birth of capitalism (i.e. the genesis of the proletariat ) to the end of the postwar boom.

The large factories, the shipyards, the steel mills, the mines, …, all those sectors that served as bastions of militant, working-class political life since the time of the IWMA, the workplaces within which a mass of workers were concentrated, spaces that served to produce a homogenised class-consciousness and organise the proletariat into vast industrial armies, forming the ranks of the old, hegemonic, mass organisations (unions and political parties) of the workers' movement - and all those communities, cultures, traditions shared experiences, histories of struggle, …, that grew around these industries - all that which served to produce a strong workers' identity, whose affirmation was the basis of a labour movement, whose affirmation clearly affirmed not simply the existence of a labour movement, but also a labour movement as an entity distinct from capital and the world of capital - and therefore capable of existing against and beyond capitalism; of posing and realising an alternative social programme, a programme for a different world, for a workers' world, for a time when the whole of humanity would be proletarianised and labour for the construction of the new world - all this appears to have gone out the window.

The result now is a considerable mutation of all the so-called workers' movement, which is less an expression of workers' identity and more the expressions of citizenism or radical democratism.

Gone are the days of jobs for life, regular bargaining, sliding wages, the enclosure of accumulation over a national area, (relatively) functional public services, or the "sharing of productivity gains" - as such these changes evoke within the working-class a subjective feeling of national decline, that "something's wrong with the country", of separation from the national community. In attempting to regain what it's missing, the working-class ends-up supporting populists (of the Left or Right).

In one sense, the disappearance of the old labour movement, which was attached to reformism (i.e. politically-committed to the parties of social democracy and Stalinism in Europe), ought to present the working-class with new opportunities, but as we see, old illusions die hard, and never underestimate the problem of class amnesia!

Much of the new generation of workers, young people who came of age in those heady-days after the Great Recession, with occupations, demos, riots, and all manner of projects, have ended-up supporting the revival of centre-left politics (SYRIZA, Podemos, Corbyn) or rank-and-file unionism. The problem was really one of energy/time - spectacular, street-level activity is not sustainable, and as the movement dies down, people switch to something more gradual and long-term, and this is how the transition happens: from activism to Labourism.

Non ex hoc mundi
Thanks Cw

Great post above.


_Mark_ wrote:

I've heard some comrades who rightly say that the trade unions are enemies of the WC simultaneously claim that the evidence for the lack of the WC's identity is that they no longer join unions! This is important because when we try e.g. to evaluate the balance of class forces, if we're not careful, despite Left Communism being one of the few traditions that understands there is a left-wing of capital, we will continue to use Leftist (i.e. anti-WC) signifiers (e.g. union membership) to inform our understanding of the strength/weakness of the class. I think that is a very dangerous thing to do.

If one can say anything positive about unions its that, yes, on some level they do keep a sense of "working-class identity" alive. Of course, that is a usually an ideologically warped construction of working-class identity, but is that better than none at all? Unions do this as part of their function of recuperating dissent, perhaps today as a kind of hang over from the Fordist era, which I am not sure tells us a whole lot about the strength weakness of the proletariat today. But what does? Populist forms of dissent (citizenism?) Election results? Are there any empirical signifiers that are really helpful? What are they? Is it better to be conned by trade unions or populist demogogues? Is one closer in some way to class consciousness and the other further removed?

Great post, thanks for

Great post, thanks for it.

Couldn’t agree more: history “produce[d] a strong workers' identity, whose affirmation was the basis of a labour movement.” And now we’ve moved beyond this. There is good and bad to this, but it’s a material fact regardless: those days are (mostly) gone. Following this, protest these days is often (although certainly not always) “the expressions of citizenism or radical democratism”; and one danger indeed is the reformist transition (and dead end) leading from this activism to Labourism.

If we agree on this, we’d certainly agree that calling for a revival of WC identity is a-historic (it ain’t going to happen; that ship has sailed) – and even if we could somehow wish a strong WC identity back into play, it was always (at best) a very contradictory phenomenon.

The question of identity soon therefore becomes the trickier question of strategy. If there is no WC identity to affirm – and no political programme arising from such an identity to be radicalised – then how, in that light, do we understand the core class in itself / class for itself tenet?

Surely it requires us to think about class a little differently?

It used to be the case that big factories = big WC communities = big unions / parties = strong identity (qua blue collar) – with radicals functioning because they were the left of the left (of the left). If the WC is now as dispersed and individualised as the capitalism that makes it (and it daily makes), then any strategy that seeks to be a radical and radicalising part of that (dispersed, individualised) class itself has to change.

The first step here is seeing how struggles today manifest themselves whilst not criticising their manifestation from the position of yesterday (a demandless riot is no more or less of a dead end than a trade union march). One way that position of yesterday shows itself is when the lack of WC identity is bemoaned. “[W]orkers' identity…was the basis of a labour movement” and the (general) loss of the labour movement is not something we should be particularly nostalgic about.

Another, blunter way of saying this might be: buck up, we aren’t any further away from communism just because the labour movement is dead!

Hi JK, Thanks for this. "Is

Hi JK,

Thanks for this.

"Is it better to be conned by trade unions or populist demogogues? Is one closer in some way to class consciousness and the other further removed?"

No, I don't think it is. And that's my main point really -- calling for a revival of WC identity sails very close to being dangerously nostalgic for Leftist forms of repression/mediation.

And because it is just as bad "to be conned by trade unions" as "populist demogogues" we simply shouldn't go there.

OR -- better -- we should use the knowledge that neither trade unionism nor populism is any closer or further from communism than the other: both are dead-ends that the class that can create communism regularly gets caught up in.

This should help us realise that that class is still there, still fighting, despite it *not* fighting yesterday's battles in yesterday's clothes.

Is a call for the revival of WC identity simply an admission that the WC doesn't look or feel like it used to and that confuses/blinds us? Nostalgia is bad strategy.

Further or Closer?

_Mark_ wrote:

Another, blunter way of saying this might be: buck up, we aren’t any further away from communism just because the labour movement is dead!

But are we further away from it because the objective conditions which produced a labour movement no longer prevail? If today's reconstructed capitalism really does produce an individualistic subjectivity in the way it is suggested, what is the possibility for the development of the communist perspective? Is this individualizing tendency something inevitable in the objective reality of this new phase of capitalism or is it something that the working class can still resist through the development of solidarity and an eventual recovery of class consciousness? Is it working class identity that is being questioned here or class consciousness itself?

The 'identity' of an elite?

jk1921 wrote:

... the objective conditions which produced a labour movement ...

'Objective conditions' never 'produced' anything, jk.

Workers' activity (and bosses' reactions, in attempts to suborn it) is what 'produced' a labour movement. The social theory and practice of an exploited class, and the contrasting social theory and practice of an exploiting class, produce all the social life of humans within a class society.

Democratic Communism (Marx's political aim) will only come about when the vast majority of humans actively want it to, and not before. The aim of all communists should be to build a consciousness amongst their fellow workers, suitable to the production of communism.

Telling workers fairy stories about the 'activity' of 'objective conditions' (and hiding the truth that this method posits, as Marx argued, an 'elite minority', above society, who 'know better' than workers, an elite who 'know objects' outside of the class' own production of their objects) which will 'liberate' workers, only prevents the development of a revolutionary class consciousness amongst workers.

Communists reveal the 'identity' of this elite, to their fellow workers. 

Resolution on the Class Struggle

Comrades may be interested to know that we have just published the Resolution on the Class Struggle from our Congress earlier this year. It deals with some of the concerns raised on this thread and tries to situate them historically.