Class, Community and Working-Class Consciousness



“There is very little class consciousness in this country,” one high-level leader in the AFL-CIO told me several years back, during the nadir of the Bush-Republican Party stranglehold on the US government. “So, if the labor movement is going to grow, build strength, win victories and win more political power, we need to build coalitions with the community,” he concluded.

Another community and union activist about the same time said, “People on the left say all the time that we need one big labor or socialist party. Well that's not going to happen soon. So we need to build coalitions if we are to have any chance of advancing democratic struggles.” If these comments are true, what is the importance of coalition-building to the development of class consciousness, working class power and social progress in the era of reform since the victory in the 2008 election?

Both of these working-class activists hit on key aspects of politics and class in the US. Media pundits typically use stock but meaningless phrases like “center-right” or “fiscally conservative and socially liberal” to characterize US politics generally. More a projection of capitalist class values than an empirically-based description of society, this view of US politics reflects an attempt to preserve political and cultural hegemony. In fact, the right-wing ideas and political formations that have held sway over the last 30 years have served as the cornerstone of capitalist power in the US.

Hegemony, ideology and consent

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci argued two basic things about politics in developed capitalist societies that contain valuable lessons for today. First, he argued that “hegemony,” or the maintenance of class power by the capitalist class, flows from the ability to preserve a multi-class coalition led by the capitalist class. In this manner, while resistance and opposition persist, capitalist rule is preserved in the main by the consent of the governed.

We can see how this principle operates in the health care debate today. The sections of the capitalist class that oppose health reform, using fear tactics and a far-right ideology mired in religion and populist libertarianism, have formed a coalition. This coalition includes insurance companies and a powerful right-wing media (Fox News and right-wing radio personalities) and their followers – many of whom are the very working-class people who would benefit most from health reform.

On the other hand, the reform movement is comprised of labor and other working-class-oriented democratic movements, some sections of the capitalist class, small business owners, middle-class professionals (like doctors), and the majority of federal-level elected officials in the Democratic Party.

These configurations are radically different from those which operated in the early 1990s when reform failed. Then, as in the past, reform efforts led by a fragmented reform movement met with united and powerful opposition from the capitalist class.

However, the key to winning meaningful reforms that restructure the broken private health care system into one that puts human needs before profits lies beyond just those who make up of the present coalition of forces that is demanding reform.

Reform driven by the principle that health care is a human right that can only be guaranteed by providing expanded, affordable coverage, would be a major victory for democracy and would substantially improve the material situation of the working class. It would also advance the general struggle for socialism by laying a basis for future humanization of the health care system through the elimination of exorbitant profits. And while the struggle for reform on this front has exposed the lies of capitalist ideology – the perverse idea that the appropriation of social wealth as private capital is the best, most democratic way to organize a social system – the effort to win a humane system will not be over when a reform bill is signed.

Secondly Gramsci argued that hegemony of the capitalist class is preserved by means of the formation of a broad, pro-capitalist support base for that hegemony. Marxists, up to this point, had tended to emphasize the development of productive forces as the primary influence on the formation of ideas. Thus advanced capitalist societies should naturally have advanced working-class movements, ideas and cultures, they insisted. But Gramsci countered that ideology and culture are often relatively autonomous from the material bases of society, as evident, to him, in the slow-to-develop socialist movements in the major imperialist and capitalist countries of his time.

While Lenin and others facilely explained this by saying that imperialism's material benefits, the surplus that trickled down to working classes in the big capitalist countries, created an “aristocracy of labor” opposed to socialist revolution, Gramsci insisted that the main answer to the question really lies in the realm of culture and ideological struggle, a factor which is still incompletely understood or ignored by pro-working-class forces and movements in developed capitalist countries.

Today, we might add a qualification to Gramsci's point: that because of the anarchic, cut-throat nature of capitalism itself, sections of the capitalist class compete amongst each other for hegemony as well (for example, think of the fierce, high-stakes competition between emerging owners of potential capital reaped from renewable energy sources and the titans of Big Oil).

Ideologues who side with the capitalist class, or sections of the capitalist class, adopt fragments of the ideologies of the working class and the democratic movements allied with the working class, creating a mirror image of their slogans and stock phrases to reinforce capitalist-controlled coalitions in order to maintain the status quo. Words and symbols are stolen from working class or revolutionary history and pressed into the service of capitalist hegemony.

Take, for instance, the American flag. What was once a symbol of the multi-class, national liberation coalition of landowners, slaveholders, merchants, farmers and the emergent industrial working class against British imperialism, has been turned by the ultra right into a nearly meaningless symbol of hackneyed patriotism and jingoism.

Consider the lapel pin brouhaha against Barack Obama during the Democratic primary campaign. Expressing the emptiness of the right-wing symbolism of the flag, Fox News personality Sean Hannity explained to his audience, “Why do we wear lapel pins? Because our country is under attack!” As if lapel pins could defend us from imaginary WMD. In recent years, more than anything else, they became an emblem of support for Bush's “war on terror” and his war of choice in Iraq.

Obama's reasoned response called out this phony patriotism: “I'm less concerned with what you're wearing on your lapel than what's in your heart.”

Working-class Americans have long fought to recover and re-appropriate the real meaning of the US flag. During the Spanish Civil War, volunteers in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, which sided with the Republican cause against the fascist forces, wore American flags on their uniforms as symbols of their internationalism and their willingness to shed blood for liberty.

Union members demanding better wages or working conditions, or a shift in power away from the bosses and capitalists, march with American flags in their demonstrations. Civil right activists demanding equality and democracy carried US flags, as if to proclaim how “un-American” inequality is. For them, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s invocation of an American dream that makes “justice a reality for all of God's children” was more than simply words.

In 2005, I had the honor of marching with hundreds of US youth in Caracas, Venezuela during the opening ceremonies of the World Festival of Youth and Students. We carried the American flag as a symbol of our rejection of US intervention around the world and our refusal to bend to capitalist and right-wing dominance in our own country, and as a symbol to the youth of the rest of the world, who had also gathered there, that people like us still existed in the biggest capitalist superpower. They looked at our US flag pins and knew a working-class movement persisted here.

Right-wing and capitalist ideologues also distort and steal working-class values of faith, family, responsibility, integrity, and the value of work and unity, to advance their own far-right agenda. Capitalists have learned over the years that stealing our ideas and values and twisting them to serve the status quo they dominate can be very effective. This capitalist-manufactured ideological hodgepodge aims to preserve capitalist rule by turning social problems and their causes into private matters for individuals to solve on their own.

Take, for example, the question of responsibility. Working-class people strongly believe in the personal responsibility they have for taking care of their families, and making sure they have enough to eat, a roof over their heads, education, safety and quality of life.

Right-wing, pro-capitalist ideologues have turned this virtue into a vice. If you lose your home because a bank, freed from government oversight by right-wing anti-regulation efforts, engaged in corrupt banking practices and preyed on your vulnerabilities, you are responsible. This is exactly what right-wing media pundits blurted when the home foreclosure crisis erupted. It wasn’t the banks or Wall Street who were responsible, and certainly not the right-wing politicians who dismantled the financial regulatory system or blocked efforts to stop banks from using such methods.

If you lost your job during the subsequent recession, you alone were responsible for providing for your survival, right politicians and media pundits intoned as they railed against extensions of unemployment benefits, or voted to a person against the economic recovery package.

If you are sick and have no insurance or have bad coverage, you're on your own. You are responsible for yourself.

For too long too many working-class people have believed these distortions of their own class ideas. But the crisis of capitalism revealed by the current recession has exposed the emptiness and destructiveness of the capitalist distortion of those ideas.

Obama’s soaring rhetoric, and his advocacy of policies that link personal responsibility to a shared community responsibility to provide for basic needs, prevailed during the 2008 election campaign. A virtual overthrow of the right-wing ideological domination of the public debate began.

Not just words

In the summer of 2007, during the Democratic primary, the AFL-CIO organized a Democratic candidates debate. At that event, union members got to ask the candidates questions on live TV. The entire debate revealed the momentum the working class and the labor movement had been gaining in the struggle to delegitimize the right-wing's dominance of ideological questions and to counter right-wing hegemony.

One question of note during that debate serves as a highlight of that struggle. Retired steelworker Steve Skvara stood up and spoke about working-class families values in a way that presented an authentic, independent working-class point of view. He said, After 34 years with LTV Steel, I was forced to retire because of a disability. Two years later, LTV filed bankruptcy. I lost a third of my pension, and my family lost their health care. Every day of my life, I sit at the kitchen table across from the woman who devoted 36 years of her life to my family, and I can't afford to pay for her health care. What's wrong with America and what will you do to change it?” A person in Skvara's position who had been overly influenced by right-wing capitalist ideology might have blamed him or herself for this situation. That person might have believed that he or she was solely responsible for the problem and its solution. Certainly, that's what they would have heard on right-wing talk radio, Fox News, or Republican Party politicians and Republican Party-tied television evangelists.

Skvara, however, flipped the script. He re-articulated basic working-class values – personal responsibility, family, gender equality, community and country – to strike at the heart of capitalist values and contradictions. Health insurance companies, in order to fatten the bottom line, are known to deny health care coverage to people with serious – and expensive – illnesses. Steel companies, seeking profits from cheap labor elsewhere, laid off people like Skvara, closed their plants here, and declared bankruptcy to get out of contractual obligations that required them to pay for retiree health insurance for people like Skvara.

In his moving words, Skvara claimed personal responsibility for his family, but demanded that politicians who sought his vote fight with him on his family's behalf against the outrages of corporations that had abused him and his family for private gain. He also spoke as a member of a union, a community of workers who banded together to take on the bosses who sought to worsen exploitation in the workplace. He tied his own predicament with working Americans as a whole; he tied the solution to his personal problems to a broad struggle. Indeed, he seemed to be claiming that a solution to the problems he faces, and that working Americans as a whole face, lay in generalized, systemic solutions, such as health care reform, workers' rights, and changed trade and economic policies that create rather than kill jobs in working-class communities in this country.

Right-wing media pundits and bloggers got shaken up by this revision of the dominant ideology of personal responsibility. As might be expected, they accused Skvara of being a communist and all kinds of other things.

Skvara's intervention was recalled in a very public way recently. At the AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh this past month. President Obama remembered Skvara's comment, retold his personal story, and connected it back to the idea of community. “This isn't just about Steve,” he said, “this is about all of us.” When workers like Steve Skvara are able to work in a job that provides them the satisfaction of being able to care adequately for their families, then the whole “middle-class” (code word for working class) and the whole country “succeeds,” Obama said.

“In America, the success of all is built on the success of each,” Obama said to thunderous applause.

Those aren't just words. They are a reflection of a conscious struggle by the working-class to re-write the ideological script penned by right-wing, pro-capitalist ideologues. Skvara's words and their reflection in Obama's speech are not simple, empty sloganeering. They represent a way of thinking and speaking forged in the heat of the steelworkers’ struggle to keep jobs, pensions, and health care in the face of a capitalist drive for super-profits that discards human beings like slag.

Indeed, the call and the response – Skvara's original defiance reflected in President Obama's speech – signal an emergent class consciousness that moves beyond local workplace struggles or special interest politics. They precisely reflect the concerns of the labor leaders, quoted at the beginning of this essay, who urged the broadening of the labor movement's basic goals and aims beyond contract negotiations and electing politicians who once in a while support pro-union policies.

These were words saturated with lived struggle, with the history of the working class itself.

In his speech before the AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh, after detailing his views on the concrete issues of the 2009 agenda – climate change legislation, green jobs, expanding educational opportunities, passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, and passing health reform that includes a public insurance program – President Obama then proceeded to rewrite the “master narrative” of American history.

What do I mean by that? A “master narrative” of history, as the recently deceased historian of America's multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-gendered, multi-national working class, Ronald Takaki, said, is the story of America written, by, for and basically about America's “masters.” It is a story that erases working-class and minority history. It ignores the voices of women, immigrant populations, and the LGBT community. The “master narrative” presents a tale of progress that denies the realities of exploitation and oppression and the fact of struggle for power and community by working and democratic-minded people against exploitation and oppression.

In short, it is a masterpiece of ideological hoodwink. Like contemporary right-wing ideology, the master narrative’s goal is to preserve an image of the basic goodness of the capitalist class and to forge a false, but powerful belief in a national unity that transcends classes or communities.

In his speech, Obama re-wrote that “master narrative” from a working-class perspective: “The battle for opportunity,” he said, “has always been fought in places like Pittsburgh, places like Pennsylvania. It was here that Pittsburgh railroad workers rose up in a great strike. It was here that Homestead steelworkers took on Pinkerton guards at Carnegie mills. It was here that something happened in a town called Aliquippa.

“It was a tough place for workers in the 1930s – ‘a benevolent dictatorship,’ said the local steel boss. Labor had no rights. The foreman's whim ruled the day. And the company hired workers from different lands and different races – the better to keep them divided, it was thought at the time.

“But despite threats and harassment, despite seeing organizers fired and driven out of town, these steelworkers came together – Serb and Croat, Italian and Pole, and Irish and Greek, the kin of Alabama slaves, and the sons of Pennsylvania coal miners. And they took their case all the way to the Supreme Court, securing the right to organize up and down the Ohio River Valley and all across America.” President Obama has consistently told a version of American history from the ground up. He has spoken of social progress as the result of workers and communities in struggle: women fighting for the right to vote, slaves and abolitionists united against slavery, men and women workers united against fascism, and so on.

Again, I would not pretend that political struggle and social progress are only won on the level of words or discourse, but words like Steve Skvara’s and speeches like Barack Obama’s give a snapshot of the current state of struggle and the balance of forces in the fight. They are not just words, as left and right pundits have uncritically opined. President Obama, with a united labor-led coalition of workers and democratic movements behind him, holds certain principles and values and is fighting for an agenda that itself is saturated by the complexity and contradictions of the coalition he leads.

Marxism and coalitions

The first Marxist theory of the formation of political coalitions came from Marx himself. In his various works in which he describes mid-19th century European revolutions, Marx makes some important points on this question. The labor movement in early 19th century Europe was mostly unorganized and often failed to see itself as a class for itself. So Marx highlighted the times when workers sought or fell into alliances with non-proletarian strata and movements. Sometimes these alliances crossed class lines to include sections of the bourgeoisie. While Marx rightly remained skeptical of such multi-class coalitions, assuming that the most powerful forces in a coalition would abandon the cause of the workers, he accepted their practical necessity.

In Capital, for example, Marx traces the multi-class coalition in England that played on the splits in the capitalist class in order to pass the most important, if limited, reforms of the period: the Factory Acts. These reforms reduced working hours, provided the basis for government oversight of the safety and health of workers, and improved working conditions. Marx argued that these reforms not only eased the most outrageous working conditions for workers - they also helped to develop the forces of production and “[mature] the contradictions ad antagonisms of capitalism.”

Simply put, it was unnecessary at that point for the advanced sections of the working class to adopt a narrow revolutionary or socialist posture. In alliance with other forces who shared a common program, workers won minimal reforms. Contrary to standard left-wing rules for revolution, these reforms did not mitigate the class struggle or the contradictions of capitalism, but in fact helped them to mature, Marx argued.

Thus, being able to identify those moments when tactical alliances could help the working class attain strategic aims and produce social progress is a key function of the Marxist outlook. This Marxist outlook contrasts sharply today with “revolutionary” ideas that are more concerned with being “to the left” of someone else, or with being anti-capitalist enough in all cases.

In the case of early 19th century England, the outcome of the struggle for labor law reforms necessarily reflected the balance of forces in place. While power relations among the strata in this coalition were neither equal nor favored the workers, it was Marx's view that organized workers could, through struggle and unity, decisively influence the course of events, public policy, and the development of capitalism.

The international communist movement has consistently argued for broad, united coalitions to fight for democratic rights, increases in working-class power, national liberation, and socialism. Much of the theoretical frameworks for these arguments flows out of the lived experiences of socialist movements. For example, in 1903 and 1905 in two well known books, Lenin approached the question of building a working-class challenge to capitalist ideological and cultural hegemony – working-class political education – from the perspective of a coalition activist.

Emphasizing the importance of democratic struggle, in What Is to Be Done? Lenin urged his readers to become politically engaged “in the most varied spheres of life and activity” and to learn from the practical experiences that arose from the fight against “all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence and abuses, no matter what class is affected.” Class consciousness becomes “genuine,” he asserted, when workers become involved in, and can observe, reflect upon and articulate, an analysis of the various class and social forces operating around them in a particular struggle.

A couple of years later, in the midst of the sectarian fights within Russia's Social Democratic Party, Lenin unapologetically rejected the leftist notion in his party that revolutionary conditions mature, as the pro-socialist forces become narrower (and numerically smaller), by fighting against the less advanced politics of the center forces in the broad democratic movement. In this view, developed in Two Tactics of Social Democracy, Lenin maintained that a revolutionary situation develops and grows as the result of the necessary alliances among many class forces – capitalist, small business, workers and farmers. The immediate goal of wining a general democratic victory (“bourgeois in its social and economic content”) would prove immediately beneficial to the working class. But to reap the reward of being able to construct more democratic institutions, workers had to align themselves with sections of the capitalist class and other non-working-class forces that shared this interest, he argued.

About 15 years later, after the collapse of the Czarist dictatorship and the imposition of the socialist government, Lenin developed this line of reasoning further. In his book, Left-wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, he chided European communists who felt that setting themselves apart from workers and other social strata as “the vanguard” was the best way to advance the working class as a whole toward socialism, refusing to “compromise” or join forces with non-revolutionary elements, decrying such activity as “reactionary.”

Today some leftists use the word “revisionism” to describe such compromises, and the phrase “move to the left” as the counter-measure to such revisionism.

Lenin responded to these types of sentiments by saying that a flat rejection of such compromises on principle is “childishness which is difficult to take seriously.” When the German communists refused to align themselves with centrist parties on the vague “principle” that the only party of the working class should not be tainted by others, Lenin called their tactic “old and familiar rubbish.”

Beyond name-calling, Lenin offered an alternative. He insisted that coalitions unite diverse social forces and movements by developing a common agenda, a plan of action, resources for cultural and ideological struggle, and benchmarks of success. In addition, such coalitions should reflect real forces, not invented ones. Today, we sometimes find leftist parties or groupings creating “coalitions” of leftists (often from the same party) in an attempt to attract unsuspecting affiliated leftists to their leftist cause. They call this a movement or even “party-building”.

To claim that a single political party can create a truly representative coalition or try to control an existing one, even refusing on principle to contribute to an existing coalition, indicates a disconnect between the so-called vanguard status of that party, the working-class movement as a whole, and the general democratic cause. The refusal to participate, Lenin stated, was a “repudiation of the party principle” and was “tantamount to disarming the proletariat for the benefit of the bourgeoisie.”

As for compromise with other social forces, Lenin urged communists to work at understanding the differences between a compromise that advances the interests of the working class and those that do not. This understanding is shaped by the ability to understand the specific conditions in which working-class people live and struggle to survive, and on the refusal to base strategies and ideas on “recipes” or “phrase-mongering.” Subjective impulses and emotional radicalism are very poor substitutes for critical analysis. Analysis should be based on knowledge gained from experience in the workers' struggle, as all class-consciousness is, not something worked out in coffee shops or on Marxist list-serves. Leadership in struggles for democracy and working-class power – by socialists, communists or advanced democrats alike – involves understanding where people are coming from (even reactionary people) and how they view the world, and then providing a means of clearly articulating the basic and advanced demands of workers and their allies.

Any serious union organizer knows this. Workers join a movement to organize a union in a workplace when they are able to articulate the specific nature of the exploitation they face. Maybe they want higher pay. Maybe they want better healthcare. Maybe they want to be treated with dignity by their supervisor. When those demands are articulated and brought together in a common agenda workers join the struggle. When there is a clear path to building the necessary alliances to create the possibility for victory, workers, more often then not, will sign a union membership card.

Modern struggles to advance the condition and power of the working class cannot be 'workers-only' clubs. Think about the struggle for the Employee Free Choice Act. In its effort to build broad support for this crucial reform, the labor movement has sought and has won allies in the small business community, in the environmental and civil rights movements, and even among some capitalists. Undoubtedly some people on the far left (especially some who refuse to support the Employee Free Choice Act) will say this tactic is an indication that the labor movement needs to 'move to the left.'

The truth, however, is that such necessary alliances make victory more possible. In such political contests, Lenin argued the refusal 'to maneuver, to utilize the conflict of interests (even though temporary) among one's enemies, to refuse to temporize and compromise with possible (even though transitory, unstable, vacillating and conditional) allies – is this not ridiculous in the extreme?' Lenin helped formulate what would become a basic policy of the communist movement: the united front. In 1921, in a speech before the Third Congress of the Communist International, he argued that even small communist parties should join with other forces on single-issue, reform-oriented immediate demands. The goal was “to win the majority of the working class to communism” – not just a tiny fragment. This kind of activity must also include meaningful alliances with other groups, not always narrowly working-class, but those which are always exploited by capital: intellectuals and professionals, small business owners, farmers, the racially and nationally oppressed, women and so on. Lenin insisted that the most politically advanced sections of the working class could 'defend the interests of the whole class with success' only if the majority, or if tens of millions of people in all their diversity, could be drawn in the mass 'proletarian united front' struggle.

The term 'mass,' Lenin said, 'implies the majority, and not simply a majority of the workers alone, but the majority of all the exploited.' Such a broad vision became the foundational philosophy – though often contested from the left – of the communist movement.

What does it have to with us?

Lenin spoke from a different time and place. So what does pre-revolutionary Russia, a reactionary social system ruled by an autocrat and mired in corruption and exploitation, or even the early Soviet Union with few democratic institutions and very little economic development, have to do with the 21st century working-class movement in the United States? On the most general level, the answer to this question can be found by answering a more specific historical question: Why, even as productive forces in the US advanced in the mid and late-20th century, didn’t the US working-class movement develop an anti-capitalist consciousness?

The quick answer is that the assumption embedded in the second question is wrong. The US working class did develop an anti-capitalist class consciousness. We've just forgotten about it. One reason for this amnesia is the major, persistent flaw in much socialist analysis: linear thinking, that is history must necessarily progresses in straight lines. According to this reasoning, if US workers today are only minimally class-conscious, then this must have also been so in the past. Human history, however, has repeatedly failed to follow such rigorous timelines or to stay on such narrow paths. Progress made in one era has frequently been negated and deleted from memory in another.

During the Great Depression, aided by a Popular Front strategic policy (against fascism, for civil rights and working-class power), communists in the US pursued coalition-building as the best tactic for building strength.

In her study of radical labor activists in St. Louis affiliated with the Communist Party, labor historian and activist Rosemary Feurer recently noted that these radicals adopted the concept of 'civic unionism.' Called 'social unionism' by others, this vision of class organizing and consciousness building expanded the notion of struggle beyond any particular workplace (although part of the struggle would certainly be there) to the political and cultural dimensions. Labor leaders found ways to build alliances (even though they were sometimes unreliable or shifting) with other social forces to build the power of the working class in a given particular city or town.

These workers were not just up against the capitalists who owned the factories. They were up against a 'political economy of control,' Feurer writes, that dominated the region. Her description calls to mind the complex analysis provided by Gramsci: that capitalist hegemony relies on a multi-class coalition and sway over ideological and cultural formations. To win a victory in a factory, workers realized they had to counter the political forces and media that sided with their bosses. The only way to do that was to build a working-class idea machine and political pressure on the other side of the scale. To effectively counter the economy of control workers needed to build an 'equal and opposite force.' In this way, the movement soon became something bigger than a fight for a good union contract, something bigger than simply desegregating the lunch counter at Woolworth's. It became something that united the community and the workplace in a struggle to gain a voice and power.

It was this theory in action that frightened capitalists the most. Think about the struggle for the union at the Ford Motor Company, which finally succeeded in 1941. Union leaders, many of whom had affiliations with the Communist Party, built worker and community coalitions to unite Black and white workers in the plant and in the greater Detroit area. This involved outreach to ministers and civil rights organizations, who had been previously suspicious of the union because a good portion of the white workers had been influenced by the racist ideology promoted by Henry Ford himself.

When white union leaders and community leaders convinced the white workers that their best interests lay in interracial unity, and when Black leaders in the community and in the plant convinced Black workers about where their best interests lay, the strike for union recognition worked. But more than that, when the struggle for UAW recognition became a cause of the whole people, who waged a public opinion campaign against Ford and supported the strikers with their material and moral resources, the struggle was won, and the cause of the workers moved from the workplace to the political, cultural and ideological dimensions. This is what was most radical about the that movement, and this is what frightened people like Henry Ford and his cronies the most.

From Birmingham, Alabama to Youngstown, Ohio, from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Seattle, Washington examples can be found where coalitions forged links between the workplace and communities and linked politics and culture with the economic side of life. Unfortunately, this time period, which lasted through the 1930s and the late 1940s, is often disparaged as not very radical, even by some communists. The Popular Front, some insist, was little more than a period of dilution of struggle and a time when the movement 'moved to the right.'

This attitude should be rethought in light of the historical facts.

The radical nature of this time period can be measured by the swift and heavy reaction to it led by right-wing, anti-democratic forces. Those forces were the most reactionary, the most racist, anti-communist, anti-worker, anti-woman forces the capitalist class could muster. They surrounded Joseph McCarthy in the US Senate, and they slithered out of corporate board rooms. With the powerful tools of legal authority, and media fear-mongering, they influenced the basically democratic forces to break former their alliances with the working class. They even convinced historians to erase or distort the true meaning of this alliance. These were the ideological and political precursors of the ultra-right that wrested power and dominance in the capitalist class from the socially-minded centrist leadership that held sway in the 1960s and 1970s.

The general defeat of the advanced working-class forces cannot be separated from the global setting in those days. McCarthyite attacks on workers and civil rights organizations were the domestic tactics utilized by the capitalist class in the global Cold War. The effectiveness of such attacks reflected not the weakness of coalition tactics or the Popular Front strategic policy. but rather the power of global capital based on its cultural and ideological hegemony.

While we have seen a reengagement with the idea of civic unionism by the US labor movement since the collapse of the Cold War regime, we have yet to see a systematic engagement in the arena of ideas and of culture. Further, we have seen little movement on the part of the left specifically to find ways to modernize its own ideas, to speak in the language of the working class, or to identify with the local and national traditions and popular culture, which hold such deep meaning for the working class. The working-class movement risks future defeats by one-sidedly ignoring this crucial dimension of the class struggle.