The cover for Michael Yates’s “Can the Working Class Change the World?” was a stroke of genius. Ralph Fasanella’s “The Great Strike (IWW Textile Strike, 1912)” sets the tone for a book that has deep roots in working-class struggles in the USA and that shares the artist’s solidarity with the people who take part in them. Fasanella’s father delivered ice to people in his Bronx neighborhood and his mother worked in a neighborhood dress shop drilling holes into buttons. In her spare time, she was an anti-fascist activist. The family’s experience informed his art just as Michael Yates’s working class roots and long career as a labor activist and educator shapes his latest book.
Many years ago when I was a Trotskyist activist, the party was consumed with how to reach working people. To be frank, we would have learned more from Michael’s books than reading Leon Trotsky especially given the life experience outlined in the opening paragraph of the preface:
BY ANY IMAGINABLE DEFINITION of the working class, I was born into it. Almost every member of my extended family—parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins—were wage laborers. They mined coal, hauled steel, made plate glass, labored on construction sites and as office secretaries, served the wealthy as domestic workers, clerked in company stores, cleaned offices and homes, took in laundry, cooked on tugboats, even unloaded trucks laden with dynamite. I joined the labor force at twelve and have been in it ever since, delivering newspapers, serving as a night watchman at a state park, doing clerical work in a factory, grading papers for a professor, selling life insurance, teaching in colleges and universities, arbitrating labor disputes, consulting for attorneys, desk clerking at a hotel, editing a magazine and books.
As a college professor, Michael never cared much for the arcane debates that are fodder to academic Marxists just as Jane Austen novels are to Modern Language Association conference attendees. Both are just ways to further your academic career. Indeed, one of the more important points in this important new book is the need to get away from “I” and begin thinking in terms of “Us”. For tens of thousands of years, starting when hunters and gatherers began to build communities based on sharing, the idea of competition never entered the picture. Once agriculture superseded such “backward” modes of production, it paved the way for class formation. Later on, as capitalism became the most individualistic form of class society, workers and peasants or wage workers were conditioned into thinking that survival rested on their ability to fend for themselves. As Margaret Thatcher once put it, “They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.”
Thatcher and her ideological soul-mate Ronald Reagan set the course for neoliberalism in the early 80s that was kept alive by politicians such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair at the expense of the working-class people who voted for them in the hope that the “lesser evil” would be more tolerable. Not much has changed since then. Even after the brutal toll liberal governments have taken on working-class families, much of the left holds out hope that a new social democratic partnership between rulers and ruled can emerge within a capitalist framework.
The chief value of “Can the Working Class Change the World?” is to make absolutely clear to readers that there is no alternative to socialism. If Thatcherism rested on the assumption that there is no alternative to capitalism, it has become abundantly clear over the past four decades that unless we abolish that system and create one based on human need rather than private profit, the planet is doomed.
As is the case with other books by Michael Yates that I have been reading and reviewing since 2004, the latest is graced by stylistic clarity that is in keeping with Monthly Review traditions. As the head of Monthly Review books, Michael has a finely developed sense of how to get across ideas about the class struggle without using jargon. Whether or not he has read George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”, he has obviously sought the same results as the great English author who disdained pretention and pedantry. Orwell wrote: “In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a ‘party line.’” As someone who has never undergone the training in bad writing that you get in a Marxist sect, Michael’s writing is a joy to read.
For example, in the section subtitled “The Working Class Has Changed the World” in chapter four, he writes:
The depredations of capital are legion, relentless and pervasive, forced upon us with fierce intensity and violence. No assault on humanity, no annihilation of nature will be forgone if money can be made. Theft is capital’s watchword. And yet, from capitalism’s birth centuries ago, those harmed most by its imperatives have resisted. Their defeats have been many, their victories too few.
This leads us to the significance of such a book being published now. With socialism becoming a household word due to the massive publicity surrounding the growth of the DSA and the success of the candidates they support like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, there is a crying need to reaffirm the foundations of Marxian socialism.
This is done by Michael in the most clear-cut and uncompromising terms. In a chapter on “theoretical considerations”, he reviews the Marxist theory of the exploitation of labor as presented in Volume One of Capital but in terms easily accessible to the layperson. In the same chapter, he discusses the capitalist state. In the same way, he makes Marxist economic theory comprehensible, his analysis of the capitalist state flows from Lenin’s “State and Revolution” and other such works geared to a reader trying to cope with American realities. In dispensing with arcane references to Russia in 1917, he gets to the core ideas and makes them relevant to a contemporary reader.
Without mentioning the hopes placed in the Democratic Party by much of the left, Michael makes a point that should not be lost on it:
One of the characteristics of capitalism is the separation of the political and economic spheres. In the feudal mode of production, state and economy were controlled directly by the nobility. They sat atop the manors, where food, cloth, and artisanal goods were produced; and they controlled politics as well. With capitalism, however, at least in those organized as liberal democracies, political leaders are elected by those eligible to vote. For capital’s ideologues, this is the definition of democracy and the reason why they claim that capitalism and democracy are congruent. The notion has been spread far and wide, and, to the extent that most people believe it, obscures the autocracy that reigns supreme in the workplace.
In the final chapter titled “Can the Working Class Radically Change the World?”, Michael gets down to brass tacks on the question of how a socialist society can be built. This begins with democracy both in the workplace and beyond over policies that affect the entire population, even on a global level. Given the urgency of climate change and other environmental crises, it is clear that only a socialist world is capable of resolving them.
Notwithstanding the buzz about a Green New Deal that allows even a scoundrel like Andrew Cuomo to claim support for it, he defines certain criteria as a kind of “red line” that must be satisfied in order for genuine socialism to exist. This includes first and foremost ending the private ownership of the means of production and beginning to produce on the basis of a plan—a dirty word for many leftists who fail to understand why it is so necessary. Given the interconnectedness of labor and resources on a global scale, scientific expertise accountable to democratic decision-making is more urgent than ever.
If these policies smack of the USSR, especially in its early pre-Stalinist period, as well as Cuba, that’s just what is needed to ground the discussion in earlier attempts at producing for human need rather than private profit. To simply say that socialist revolution leads to disaster is a failure of the intellect and avoidance of the moral obligation we have to save the planet. Nothing serves the status quo better than writing off the possibility of creating a new society based on “Us” rather than “I”.
For much of the left, the idea of worker cooperatives has become seductive. While nobody can deny the benefit of workers taking over a company, as long as it functions within a market economy, it becomes susceptible to the “same old shit”.
For its advocates, such half-way measures are a substitute for seizing power through revolutionary action. As one DSA member argued in Jacobin, those 20thcentury revolutions are not relevant:
It’s one thing to know what democratic socialists fight for, and another to lay out a convincing path to realizing it. This is where democratic socialists truly differ with some of our friends on the socialist left. We reject strategies that transplant paths from Russia in 1917 or Cuba in 1959 to the United States today, as if we could win socialism by storming the White House and tossing Donald Trump out on the front lawn.
The last thing you will find in “Can the Working Class Change the World?” is calls for storming the White House and tossing Donald Trump out on the front lawn, although I for one would certainly take the Amtrak down to participate. In the final chapter, you will instead find demands for much shorter working hours, early and secure retirement, and free universal health care. Like peace, bread and land in 1917, these are goals that most Americans can identify with. In moving forward to achieve them, they will face considerable resistance including fascist-like measures of the kind that developed in the last major collapse of the capitalist economy in the 1930s. Given the inevitable polarization, workers will need to defend themselves against right-wing violence. If this sounds like a prospect worth avoiding, it is understandable why the alternative of a slow, molecular process based on the growth of institutions such as Mondragon is attractive even if it is utopian.
Given the terrible state of the world and the growing threat of fascism, it is necessary to put working-class struggles, including the need for general strikes, on the front burner. Working people need to push back the ruling class and the state it controls on its heels, and eventually to replace it with direct working-class democracy. As the words crafted for the character Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” by socialist playwright Arthur Miller, we are in a situation both literally and figuratively in which “The woods are burning”. The time for revolutionary struggle is now and “Can the Working Class Change the World” is a call to action.