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Deepening Contradictions: Identity Politics and Steelworkers

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Although the question of identity politics has been simmering for years in academic journals and the left press, it came to a full boil in the 2016 elections when Hillary Clinton became its symbol. Often referred to as multiculturalism, neither term was adopted by Trump in his racist and sexist attacks on the Democrats. He preferred “political correctness”, an epithet intended to stigmatize his opponents as giving preferential treatment to gays, women, and minorities. In the aftermath of Trump’s victory, supporters of the Democratic Party have been nursing their wounds and trying to figure out where to go next, with an emerging tendency around the fizzled Sanders campaign arguing that abandoning identity politics will help it win future elections. Sanders put it this way:

It goes without saying, that as we fight to end all forms of discrimination, as we fight to bring more and more women into the political process, Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans – all of that is ENORMOUSLY important, and count me in as somebody who wants to see that happen. But it is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me.” That is not good enough. I have to know whether that Latina is going to stand up with the working class in this country and is going to take on big-money interests. And one of the struggles that we’re going to have…in the Democratic Party is it’s not good enough for me to say we have x number of African Americans over here, we have y number of Latinos, we have z number of women, we are a diverse party, a diverse nation. Not good enough!

As someone who had little use for Hillary Clinton or any Democrat for that matter, there was something a bit troubling about the “class trumping identity” plea since it reminded me of contradictions that have bedeviled the revolutionary movement from its inception. While the idea of uniting workers on the basis of their class interests and transcending ethnic, gender and other differences has enormous appeal at first blush, there are no easy ways to implement such an approach given the capitalist system’s innate tendency to create divisions in the working class in order to maintain its grip over the class as a whole.

In fact, American socialists have had problems over such matters since the 1870s when Karl Marx was in contact with his comrades in the USA. Frederick Sorge, his leading disciple here, defended a “pure” Marxism that would not be diverted from its tasks by the special needs of women, Blacks or immigrants. At the NYC branch of Sorge’s section, a worker from San Francisco addressed his comrades:

The white working-men see and feel daily the effects of the Chinese labor in that State. We cannot only perceive how it affects us, but know assuredly that it will seriously affect the destiny of the working classes of this country. The Chinese have driven out of employment thousands of white men, women, girls and boys…. They are in all branches of the manufacturing business, and it is only a matter of time when they will monopolize all branches of industry; as it is impossible for white men to exist on the same amount and sort of food Chinamen seem to thrive upon.

So, white working-class support for the nativism of Trump and Brexit has roots in a history going back 125 years.

I was further reminded of this kind of class reductionism when reading Ahmed White’s magisterial study The Last Great Strike: Little Steel, the CIO, and the Struggle for Labor Rights in New Deal America that took up the circumstances that led to a police riot against striking steelworkers and their families on Memorial Day in 1937 and FDR’s infamous declaration of neutrality: “A plague on both their houses”. The Steelworkers Organizing Committee (SWOC), a group formed by the CIO with a strong presence of Communists in leading positions, was faced by a major challenge in signing up Black workers who had bitter experience in the industry:

When SWOC organizers showed their keenness to recruit them, many black workers reacted with suspicion, believing they were being lied to or might be used as “cat’s paws” by treacherous white unionists. And even if fully convinced of the organizers’ sincerity, black workers had other reasons to be cautious. As sociologist Horace Cayton Jr. pointed out in his 1939 study of black workers in the SWOC’s campaign, if blacks rejected the union they risked the ire of white unionists; but if they joined, they had every reason to think they would be the first fired, denied relief, or evicted from their homes.

Even if the Little Steel Strike was a failure, the CIO eventually triumphed—aided by the massive expansion of the wartime economy that required order to prevail in the critical steel sector rather than class struggle disruptions. Since the Communist Party had backed a no-strike pledge during the war, this made perfect sense to the steel bosses.

After the United Steelworkers Union (USW) was firmly entrenched as the bargaining unit of all sectors of the steel industry, including the notorious Little Steel companies (Republic, Bethlehem, et al), racist practices persisted even when civil rights were routinely praised at national conventions. In 1964, when black workers amounted to 30 percent of the membership of the USW and when the civil rights movement was at its peak, they had been consistently excluded from its national leadership.

Black workers would not wait for the union to reform itself. The formed Black caucuses to press for their demands. In a critical review of a book on USW history by CUNY professor Judith Stein titled Running Steel, Running America : Race, Economic Policy, and the Decline of Liberalism that reflected the bureaucracy’s viewpoint, NAACP leader Herbert Hill cited an open letter written by a Black member of the union to I.W. Abel, the USW president at the union’s 1968 convention:

“The time has come for black workers to speak and act for ourselves. We make no apologies for the fact that we as black workers and loyal trade unionists now act on our own behalf. Furthermore we are fully prepared to do so…Blacks were in the forefront during the formation of this union 25 years ago. Through the acceptance of crumbs down through the years instead of our just desserts, we now find ourselves hindmost…”

Stein, it turns out, is a “pwogwessive” as Alexander Cockburn would have put it. She has written for In These Times, Dissent and The Nation—pillars of support for the Sanders campaign and uniting workers on a class basis. Such unity in her eyes precludes affirmative action since it would divide Black and white steelworkers. All lawsuits directed at the union and the corporations designed to promote equality were rejected by her since they were a plot by “Elite whites, possessing a potent brew of concern, guilt, and a desire to retain control of the social order. . .”

Tired of being relegated to second-class citizenship in steel mills as janitors and other menial positions, Blacks supported affirmative action that would afford them preferential treatment to make up for discrimination endured in the past. Referring to Stein’s treatment of the Sparrows Point plant of Bethlehem Steel (one of the Little Steel companies), Hill writes:

To Stein as beholder it was all subjective, but in steel manufacturing, in the building trades, on the railroads, and in virtually every other industry, a clear distinction exists between desirable jobs and those that are not. An extensive body of law based on many court cases supports this. Federal courts have analyzed in great detail and described in various industries the jobs that have higher pay, that involve less dangerous and cleaner work, and that provide opportunity for advancement, comparing them with jobs that are more dangerous, that provide lower pay, and little or no opportunity for advancement. In the racialized steel industry labor force there was no ambiguity between “white men’s jobs” and “nigger jobs.” In his opinion in the Bethlehem, Lackawanna case, Judge Henderson made a clear distinction between desirable and not desirable jobs.

In 1979 Brian Weber, a white worker employed by Kaiser aluminum, sued the USW for violating his civil rights. It seems that the union had complied with an affirmative action program that allowed Blacks and whites into a training program on a one-to-one basis even though there were far more white employees (as you might expect in Louisiana). Stein attacked “liberal and academic elites” who supported affirmative action at Kaiser or any other factory where Blacks had been relegated to lower-paying and dirtier jobs historically.

One other magazine of the left where Stein has left her ideological footprints is none other than Jacobin, the voice of the Sanders campaign, the DSA, and other rock-ribbed calls for prioritizing class—if not, god forbid, on behalf of a socialist revolution than at least for a return to New Deal traditions including, one supposes, neutrality in the Little Steel Strike.

Interviewed by editorial board member Conor Kirkpatrick under the title “Why Did White Workers Leave the Democratic Party?”, Judith Stein defends the New Deal’s legacy as a paragon of racial equality and the USW as one of its crowning jewels. It is a whitewashing of American history at odds with the one presented by Ira Katznelson’s recently published “Fear Itself” that told the sordid tale of FDR’s reliance on KKK-backing Democrats from the Deep South or Kenneth O’Reilly’s 1995 “Nixon’s Piano” that reviewed the racial policies of 42 presidents, including FDR who used the word “nigger” in private conversation and letters and who once wrote Eleanor about his trip to Jamaica where “a drink of coconut water, procured by a naked nigger boy from the top of the tallest tree, did much to make us forget the dust.”

Nearly everything that Stein says to Kirkpatrick are bromides about enlightened AFL-CIO bureaucrats, with this being typical:

Nonetheless, most union leaders in the South tried the best they could to promote black rights because they saw black voting as crucial to union success, as well as to their own liberalism.

There is no doubt that there were conflicts, generally over methods and the speed of black advancement. The conflicts escalated when the number of jobs was falling.

Yes, so enlightened about “black rights”, why would anybody want to put teeth into hiring practices with affirmative action programs that would divide the working class, including Brian Weber who faced reverse discrimination because of the color of his skin—poor oppressed Caucasian that he was.

At one point, Stein takes a shot at my friend David Roediger: “The current “wages of whiteness”school reifies whiteness and makes it all-powerful, to counter a straw-man conception of Marxism that nobody even accepts anymore.”

I don’t know about “nobody”. I certainly accept it and that’s all that matters to me. Frankly, I wouldn’t care if every last leftist in the USA was hostile to affirmative action. What I have seen of American history tells me that Black people should be indemnified for past transgressions, including slavery and Jim Crow. If white workers resent that, I part ways with them just as Black revolutionaries in South Africa took a stand against apartheid even if it was backed by 99 percent of white workers.

Roediger’s argument is not about the need for white workers purging themselves of racist attitudes but destroying the institutional basis of racism. When Blacks were confined to menial positions in steel mills, white workers would naturally be inclined to view them as inferior. When you enforce racial equality on the job, attitudes tend to change in accordance with the reality that Blacks are just as good as whites at a job, even better.

The problem we face now is that the traditional well-paying jobs in USW-organized plants have become rarer than hen’s teeth in the Rust Belt. At the start of the 1980s, there were 450,000 steel jobs. Now there are 87,000. All through the states that formerly housed steel mills from Ohio to Pennsylvania, there are now empty lots. We are told by both Trump and Sanders that America has to create the jobs that were once the hallmark of the Rust Belt, a utopian hope given the drive for profits in a period of deepening competition globally that leads to capital growing wings and taking flight to countries with cheap labor. Trump’s protection of 1,000 Carrier jobs will likely be dwarfed by the disappearance of 10 million with an administration bedecked by Goldman-Sachs bosses.

Clinton bargained that the continuing loss of jobs during Obama’s presidency would not hurt her because a coalition of educated whites and fearful minorities would be sufficient to entitle her to what amounted to Obama’s third term. Whether this was “identity politics” is questionable. I doubt that anybody would confuse her bid with Social Text magazine or the Duke University literature department.

Indeed, the term is a virtual Rorschach test that allows one to project a variety of different agendas into the inkblot. My own experience goes back to the 1960s when the Trotskyist movement was still rooted in American realities. Party leaders conceived of the coming American revolution as a kind of united front of different struggles that would come together on a basis of shared class interests. If that is a concession to “identity politics”, I plead guilty.

In a way, despite the obvious decline of the 60s radicalization, I still envision revolutionary change in the same way. With Black Lives Matter as a reminder of the continuing power of Black militancy, there is every possibility that it will spark a new radicalization just as the civil rights movement helped to spawn the student movement of the early 60s.

A socialist movement that disavows particular Black demands and those of other sectors of the population acting on their own interests on the basis of gender, sexual preference, etc. will inevitably lack the universality it needs to triumph over a unified capitalist class. To state it in dialectical terms, denying the existence of contradictions and a refusing to resolve them will only lead to deeper contradictions.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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