First Published: Frontline, Vol. 1, No. 23, May 28, 1984.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Frontline Introduction: The January 14 issue of the Daily World, newspaper of the Communist Party U.S.A. (CPUSA), carried a column by Tim Wheeler, the paper’s Washington, D.C. correspondent, which criticized Frontline’s view that Ronald Reagan had made substantial headway in undermining the post-Vietnam antiwar consensus in the U. S. Frontline reprinted Wheeler’s column, along with a response by Frontline co-editor Irwin Silber, in our February 20 issue. Wheeler again criticized Frontline in a two-part series March 13 and 14, and Silber submitted a rejoinder to the Daily World for publication. The Daily World did not publish Silber’s article; it is printed here along with Wheeler’s polemic of March 13 and 14.
Frontline editor Irwin Silber devotes more than a page of his paper’s February 20 edition to rebutting my polemic in the Daily World (Jan. 14) in which I challenged his claim that Reagan has successfully reversed the Vietnam “antiwar consensus.”
I am criticized for “official optimism” as against alleged hardnosed realism. He declares, “The undeniable fact is that relative to the mid-1970s, the bourgeoisie has succeeded in moving the terrain of national political debate decidedly to the right.”
Is this true? Certainly Reagan has moved his own class to the right. But Reagan, the “Great Communicator,” has been the “Great Radicalizer” of the working class and its allies. The main ; political process in the U.S. under Reagan is one of polarization. The labor movement has suffered setbacks and defeats. Much of the workers’ struggle has been defensive. The fightback has been hampered by class collaborationist leaders who advocate labor-management cooperation which the employers use to trick workers into more concessions.
But this is a dynamic, not a static, situation with worker anger against give-backs and concessions rising steeply. The sentiment for class struggle unionism is on the increase. Other sectors of the population have also been radicalized, especially the Afro-American people, other oppressed people, women, youth, small farmers and important sections of small business.
Reagan’s ultra-right base from the beginning has been wildly exaggerated by the Big Business media. In his so-called “landslide” 1980 election, marked by the lowest voter turnout in memory, he received 27 percent of the eligible vote. Millions of these were negative votes against President Carter, not votes for Reagan’s right-wing policies. The hardcore base of the “New Right” estimated to number perhaps three million has not grown significantly since Reagan took office.
The same issue of Frontline offers a lengthy centerfold article which concludes that Reagan “starts the 1984 campaign a clear favorite” for re-election. The “sobering truth,” Silber writes, is that running on a platform of war and racism, Reagan’s prospects “while not certain, are quite good.”
Reagan enjoys a “consensus” of monopoly ruling class support, it is stated, and furthermore, his racist and jingoist war policies are attractive to the “more stable sector of the working class.” It goes on, “For every individual of color who sees Reagan as the personification of racial oppression... there are twice as many whites who accurately see the President as the unshakable guardian of white racial privilege. .. . With Reagan ably positioning himself as the foremost guardian of ’white rights,’ the structural racism of U.S. society is a powerful material factor that will benefit him...”
It would be hard to find a more clear cut example of empty, classless phrasemongering than this. In fact, classlessness is the source of such political pessimism, this loss of nerve in the middle of a hard fight. Classlessness can never be impartial or objective, much less realistic; it is always the cover for peddling ruling class positions. Non-class is pro-ruling class.
Talk of Reagan’s success in shifting the “terrain” of the “national political debate” doesn’t tell us which classes have shifted or in what direction. Similarly, presenting “whites” as a unified social category implies that a David Rockefeller and a white Michigan autoworker share similar life styles, needs and problems.
What is meant by the statement that whites “accurately” perceive Reagan as the guardian of their “privilege?” Does this mean that Silber, himself, believes that a jobless white autoworker enjoys some “racial privilege” doled out by General Motors and blessed by the White House?
Karl Marx wrote that labor in the white skin will never be emancipated so long as labor in the Black skin is branded. Wage differentials between white and Black workers are an instrument not only for squeezing maximum superprofits from the labor of Black workers. This also facilitates maximum exploitation of white workers.
In his book, “Economics of Racism,” Victor Perlo estimated that Big Business raked off $27 billion in extra profits by paying Black workers less than whites for the same work. But Perlo estimated that racism’s effectiveness in depressing the wages of white workers added ”indirect extra profits ... at least as large as the direct extra profits. . . . The total extra profits attributed to racism came to $46 billion in 1972 or 27 percent of business profits generally.”
If “racial privileges” benefit white workers, Perlo continued, then southern white workers should enjoy the highest living standards of any U.S. workers. “But what is most dramatic,” Perlo continued, “in each of these blue collar groups, the southern white worker earned less than northern Black workers.”
Of course, southern workers–white and Black–are largely unprotected by trade unions. Black-white labor unity in the basic industries of the North has been key to advancing the common interest of all workers.
Reagan’s three year anti-labor offensive including the worst recession since the Great Depression has resulted in a sharp widening of wage differentials. Black and other oppressed minority workers have borne the brunt of the attack. In the absence of strongly enforced affirmative action we have seen a wholesale return to “last hired, first fired” for millions of Black workers.
This poses a grave danger to working class unity–and it is a danger deliberately fostered by Reagan and his ilk. Defending working class unity requires maximum clarity and maximum loyalty to working class principles on the part of left and progressive movements. It requires patient struggle to convince white workers that the effort to bring Black, other specially oppressed and women workers up to conditions of wage equality is in their own self-interest.
It means exposing the fraud that affirmative action is “reverse discrimination” against whites, or that it constitutes “stealing white workers’ jobs and giving them to Blacks.”
The phrase, “white racial privilege,” reinforces the illusion Reagan seeks to foster that white workers gain by racist discrimination. The use of the phrase in itself is racism in a left guise.
It is little wonder that Silber is so gloomy. Those with a more realistic assessment know that it is going to take a hard fight to unite the working class to oust Reagan–but it is a fight we can win if we are armed with the class conscious understanding that racism is profitable for the boss and therefore it cannot benefit workers, Black or white.
The progression of Tim Wheeler’s polemic with Frontline has brought to the fore what are perhaps the central questions of communist political strategy today: what is the main social base for the struggle against Reaganism and what are the cutting edge political questions of that struggle?
It all started when Wheeler (Daily World, Jan. 14) criticized an article by Victor Uno and myself in which we argued that Reagan had made substantial gains in eroding the post-Vietnam antiwar consensus in the U.S. Pointing to mass actions such as Solidarity Day, the nuclear protest of June 12, 1982, last year’s August 27 March on Washington and “the rising tide of fightback against Reaganomic takeaways signaled by the Greyhound workers’ heroic strike,” Wheeler asserted that “the post-Vietnam antiwar consensus is still intact”.
On factual grounds alone, Wheeler’s assessment is hard to understand. In the late 1970s, the U. S. was forced to stand by and watch the victory of the MPLA in Angola over two U.S.-backed factions as well as the overthrow of two of Washington’s most important strategic “assets”– the Shah of Iran and Somoza in Nicaragua. Of equal significance, the U.S. was forced to accept a policy of detente with the Soviet Union reflected most pointedly in the Salt I and Salt II treaties.
U.S. inability to take military action in order to save its clients in Angola, Iran and Nicaragua of course reflected the historic shift in the world balance of forces away from imperialism and toward socialism and national liberation. But it also reflected a popular mood in the U. S. itself. Similarly with detente. Certainly Washington was not pleased with the fact that the Soviet Union had achieved relative military (including nuclear) parity with the U. S. and its allies; but it was obliged to accept this reality, in part because the U.S. bourgeoisie did not believe that the U.S. masses would support a policy of militarization aimed at achieving military superiority once again.
Clearly this pattern has changed drastically–as witness the enormous increases in the military budget, deployment of the cruise and Pershing II missiles, the restoration of draft registration, the ending of numerous restrictions on CIA activity, the far more extensive military involvement of the U.S. in the Middle East, the invasion of Grenada and the advanced preparations for full-scale war in Central America.
Wheeler attributes all this to a shift to the right in the U.S. ruling class–which, of course, it is–but argues as though this shift took place without some corresponding shift in the ideological consensus which every ruling class requires among the masses. Taking his point even further, Wheeler’s most recent comment (Daily World, March 13) asserted that, in fact, Reagan “has been the ’Great Radicalizer’ of the working class and its allies.”
Now it is certainly true that a sector of the working class has been moved to the left by Reaganism. This can be seen most graphically in the new motion of Black politics which today has crystallized in the mass support accorded Jesse Jackson’s presidential candidacy by the Black community–a support which clearly rests in the overwhelmingly proletarianized mass of Blacks who have been tracked into the lowest strata of the working class by the racist system.
But it is also true that a section of the working class–and not an insubstantial one–has become part of a broad ideological consensus which is prepared to support the increased use of U.S. military options abroad and which has actively rallied on behalf of Reagan’s efforts to shore up and reinforce the system of white supremacy.
Why does Wheeler have such great difficulty in grasping this virtually self-evident point? (And if, as I suspect, he would ruefully acknowledge that some workers do support Reaganism, why is he unable to see the extent of this opportunism right within the working class or to understand its causes?)
It seems to me there are two reasons for this political myopia.
One is that Wheeler has exaggerated both the scale and–more important–the significance of the trade union movement’s fightback. Wheeler seems to have forgotten the elementary Leninist truth that while the immediate economic struggle of the workers in any particular branch of industry to improve (or defend) their own condition is an inevitable consequence of the capital-labor relation, such struggles –no matter how militantly conducted– do not necessary indicate an advanced political consciousness. The need to keep such a perspective firmly in mind is underscored by the fact that “fightback” of this kind, unfortunately, is not necessarily in contradiction to a set of politics which embraces support for anti-immigrant legislation, protectionism, opposition to affirmative action and support for military adventures designed to defend “our” strategic interests abroad.
What Wheeler has not come to terms with is that Reaganism is more than a checklist of reactionary policies. At its heart is the military buildup and the attempt to restore to U.S. imperialism the full and free use of its military option.
Its other main feature is an attack on the U.S. working class in order to enhance the profitability of capital and to pay for the swollen military budget. But–and this is the crucial point–the attack on the working class does not come down in an undifferentiated fashion. In order to win popular support for this program, including a base of support within the working class itself, Reagan’s assault on the working class has been deliberately racialized. Not only have minorities felt the brunt of the attack; white workers, in varying degrees, have been disproportionately cushioned from the most glaring aspects of the assault.
Because this is the essential character of Reaganism, there can be no fightback deserving of the name that is not measured by the degree to which it objectively takes up the struggle against war and racism. Any assessment of the fightback not based on those criteria becomes inevitably a blatant concession to opportunism in the working class.
Wheeler’s inability to grasp this point stems from a theoretical framework which denies a material basis for the most pernicious form of opportunism in the U.S. working class–racism. To Wheeler, the idea that white workers enjoy some measure of “racial privilege” relative to Black workers is a “myth” which serves the bourgeoisie, thus demonstrating that the ancient custom of blaming the messenger for the bad news is still deemed an acceptable form of polemic. Wheeler’s “proof” is to argue that since racism benefits the bourgeoisie, it cannot possibly benefit any section of the working class.
What is true is that racism does not benefit the working class as a whole; it is also true that in the long-term struggle with capital, all workers regardless of racial (and other distinctions) will benefit enormously from the achievement of racial equality. And it is further true that the extent of the racial privilege enjoyed by white workers varies considerably and is dependent on where those workers are situated economically within the other forms of stratification that exist in the working class. But to deny that white workers do have a set of privileges relative to their non-white counterparts–greater access to employment, housing, education, health care, etc., to say nothing of such things as differences in the way in which the police and legal system deal with whites and minorities–is to deny a social reality which is obvious to all and within which every worker functions.
What is “racial privilege” after all if not the concrete manifestation of a system in which the social condition of whites is qualitatively better, containing a greater measure of benefits and a wider range of options, than that of Blacks and other racially oppressed minorities?
The struggle against racism and for equality is, therefore, fundamentally the struggle to eliminate this distinction in conditions and treatment But since time and again substantial sections of white workers have demonstrated that they will mobilize politically in defense of the privilege growing out of that distinction, the struggle against racism does not simply occur between Blacks and the white bourgeoisie; it is also a struggle internal to the working class which will take place whether the communists choose to recognize its existence or not.
In fact, that struggle has already erupted. This is the historic significance of Jesse Jackson’s candidacy which is, in the first place, a challenge to the domination of the Democratic Party by a reactionary coalition whose center includes the class collaborationist leadership of the U.S. trade union movement The Jackson campaign confirms a bitter but inescapable truth about the class struggle in the U.S.: this particular working class will never become a class for itself with its own class politics until and unless the profound split which already exists within it matures into a political split Such a split will have to emanate from and be led by the political representatives of the lower strata of the working class and must focus around the cutting edge issues of war and racism.
A polarization of this kind will pose a profound challenge to the white workers who will then be confronted by a choice between their strategic class interests as workers and their privileged positions as whites within a system of common exploitation. The point here is that while many white workers can and will be won to class struggle politics, many will not–precisely because they will be unable to surpass the backward consciousness flowing out of a condition of racial privilege.
Ironically, many in the communist movement have not yet grasped either the historical significance or necessity for such a development even though the signs of such a polarization are unfolding before our eyes. Wheeler’s narrow tunnel vision would doom the communist movement to a futile pursuit of a depoliticized working class “unity” at the very moment when the spontaneous movement itself is identifying and organizing to combat the opportunism which continues to hold dominant influence in the working class.