Left Luggage

The socialist strategy site

Rebuilding working class consciousness

Posted by Left Luggage on May 21, 2009

Some arguments just seem to keep on reappearing, no matter how many times their contentions are shown to be folly. Such is the case with the “search for a revolutionary subject” by the Left, or “why has the working class failed us”. Over time this has seen various sections of the Left transferring their revolutionary aspirations to, variously, anti-colonial movements, students, peasants, the lumpen-proletariat, and international movements of a number of shades.

The concern over the working class as revolutionary subject was raised on the UK Left Network discussion group this week. As usual in such forums, the level of debate was variable at best. On poster argues “the working class no longer exists” and that the key is to oppose illegal wars, imperialism and privatisation. The writer goes on: “Once they have a good pay they will only be concerned when their own jobs are at risk. In the meantime they are engaged in a rat race, not realizing that they are losing in the end”. Another poster suggets the decline of manufacturing has put paid to the working class in the “Western imperialist countries” and argues that this class was identified as:

the agent of change not because it was the most oppressed class historically but because of the circumstances of its creation, it was able to effect change. That clearly isn’t the case today.

Another highly optimistic poster argues regarding the increasing support for the BNP, that:

To most workers nationalism is a bit of a joke- at best. barring a real socialist alternative they may vote for it but without any real enthusiasm.

The prompt for this discussion was an article on the International Viewpoint website. Now, I hadn’t come across IV before, but apparently this is the magazine of the reunified Trotskyist Fourth International, linked to the organisation Socialist Resistance. (Apologies to those readers who are more au fait with small far-left sects.) The article, in which Phil Hearse asks whether working class consciousness is dead, actually covers some very interesting ground although it reaches some worrying conclusions.

Hearse argues there has been a decline in working class consciousness and identifies four factors which have caused this: 1) the industrial defeats of the Thatcher years; 2) the restructuring of the workforce and the decline of heavy industry; 3) the semi-destruction of social housing provision by Thatcher; and, interestingly, 4) the political culture that has emerged from this process, which seems to concur with some of our recent arguments:

As a consequence of these defeats and declining confidence in collective action a general ideological retreat that finds its expression in the ‘dumbing down’ of popular culture and the absurd cult of celebrity and the dreamworld of fame. This aspect is particularly important among young people who are likely to be apolitical and have no experience of trade unions, although there are important counter-examples, most importantly the involvement of young people in the enviromental movement.

As we argued, this is an important aspect of ideological formation that is too often overlooked by the Left who tend to see all working class young people as inherently inclined towards radicalism.

Using a survey that shows 57% of Britons consider themselves to be working class, Hearse rightly makes clear that this is not a redundant category, and further stresses that class consciousness is still at an extremely low level:

in Britain at least, the working class still exists as an objective category and that very large numbers of them consider themselves to be working class. But does this amount to a ‘class for itself’. Clearly consciousness of being part of a class is just a spit away from recognising that that class has its own interests but a much bigger step away from finding the means for fighting for those interests.

How to assist in re-establishing such a sense of working class consciousness? Hearse correctly points out that the Left currently spends much of its time engaging in campaigns that are of little interest to the vast majority of the population, and does little to engage in building working class self-organisation nor attempts to meet the immediate needs of working class people:

at this time there is a dispersal of fields of struggle, of campaigns and issues that do not necessarily find their focus in the organised working class. But it is not, and cannot be, a question of getting involved in 101 campaigns and ‘waiting for the working class’ to achieve a higher level of organisation and consciousness at a future time.

Instead, and again as we have argued, he argues for the Left to become involved in community campaigns, but to make these more explicitly political and to link them with local trade unions. However, the importance he places on community organising in itself seems doubtful, as Hearse appears to see them primarily as a means to increase political action by the labour movement rather than as a means to working class self-organisation in themselves.

In terms of the Left’s approach to anti-fascism (recently subject to an excellent critique at The Commune) Hearse critiques the approach of organisations such as the Anti-Nazi League, stressing the need to fill the political vacuum in working class areas, although worryingly he still feels such strategies have a certain place. Most troublesome is his endorsement of Respect, which he sees as aiding the development of working class self-organisation, despite much evidence to the contrary:

Once again however the left cannot adopt a spontaneist, wait and see attitude, hoping for a working class upsurge and the appearance by some magical process of a broad left alternative. Class politics, of the kind provided by Respect, aids the development of class consciousness and trade union struggle.

This goes completely against the findings in the rest of the article and is rather inexplicable really in terms of its political conclusions. A second problem is that Hearse seems overly optimistic that the current economic crisis will lead to an upsurge in struggle and hence class consciousness:

While growing unemployment is likely to be a disciplining factor it is highly likely that we shall see in the next period a big increase in strike action, particularly in the public sector. Already we’ve seen important strikes of local government workers and others this year. The likelihood is that trade unionism will grow in this period and not decline, and struggle naturally leads to an increase in levels of class consciousness not their decline.

Clearly when the bill for the public sector deficit has to be paid, and the government attempts to introduce austerity measures in the public sector, we can anticipate some level of trade union resistance. Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that there is no causal link between economic crisis and trade union action. For example, trade union membership has fallen every year from 1979, despite the upsurge in struggle during the 1980s. In any case, can we really expect trade unionism to grow at this time, or feed into increased radicalism, without a coherent – and radically different – strategy from the Left?

It is heartening to see this strategic debate getting underway on the Left. But it seems like there is a long way to go before we reach even a recognition of the scale of the problems of strategy and organisation facing us, and even further before we begin to draw fresh conclusions.

One Response to “Rebuilding working class consciousness”

  1. Duncan said

    Once again, a very good article here. It’s obvious that the priorities of most left-wingers are not the same as the priorities of the people they see as their natural political constituency.

    If leftists are concerned about this then a good place to start would be looking at what the electorate list as their political priorities around election time, several reasonably accurate surveys are usually carried out on this theme, and their adjust their activity/propaganda accordingly. Or they could ignore this and carry on doing what they’ve always been doing and demand that working-class people become interested in what they are interested in.

    If I were being cynical that would suggest to me a person has a hobby rather than a genuine political commitment. This may explain a particularly embarassing example of this sort of behaviour I saw online recently when a member of a certain British leftist group asked the Irish Socialist Party why they weren’t including the demand of ‘Irish troops out of Chad’ on their election material. Beyond parody…

    Also, I think describing the level of debate on UKLN as ‘variable’ is being overly polite. Calling it ‘atrocious’ would be putting it politely.

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