Reviving class consciousness
By FW Ben Robertson
“As a rule, [working women and men] vote just as they would bet on a prize fight—to see if they can pick a winner.” – Ralph Chaplin
Wobbly Ralph Chaplin’s description of typical political thinking in 1933 rings depressingly true 83 years later. Not only are workers still lulled into believing that their ability to better the conditions in which they find themselves is confined to selecting from a list of names on a ballot, they are also increasingly having that selection dictated for them. On a near-daily basis in the United States for instance, we are told who can or cannot win elections, as if endlessly repeated voter preference statistics have anything to do with the daily struggles of the working class.
This stale, recycled information is not at all concerned with uprooting wage slavery, state brutality, or exploitation (if capitalism has consistently proven capable of anything, it is an inexhaustible capacity for reinventing all manner of violence toward earthly life, conveniently packaged with even more ways to privatize, distract and profit from it). Buying mouthpieces in corporate media outlets to obsess over the constantly shifting opinions of very scientific-sounding “demographic” divisions has proven to be a fairly successful strategy for the bosses. This line of attack seeks to dupe workers into believing that they have no unifying interests as a class because of their many different political preferences, and that the best one can do is choose the “lesser evil” from among some sad rabble of a few ultra-wealthy candidates labeled “serious” only after ingratiating themselves to the boss class.
Ralph Chaplin goes on to remind us that, “Regardless of how much political dissatisfaction may exist at any given time, the workers’ bedrock complaint against capitalism will continue to be economic,” not political. For they are robbed as a class, “at the point of production, and at the point of production [they] must fight against continued exploitation.” We must vigilantly resist the narrative that the ones to blame for economic suffering are fellow workers who “steal jobs” or “mooch” off of the system. There is indeed a class directly responsible for the theft of countless jobs, and the reaping of profits from harvests where they have sown no seed by their own sweat or ingenuity. We need no polls or pundits to explain to us which class that is.
At the root of all the political injustices faced by particular groups of workers is a singular trough from which the salivating jaws of the capitalist monster are fed: fruits produced by the working class in mines, farms, factories, and homesteads across the planet are placed immediately into the vaults of the employing class. From these overflowing vaults they graciously and with wisdom of foresight dole out the smallest pittance legally (or illegally) possible back to the worker.
This is grand larceny on an epic scale committed in broad daylight with nodding approval from passersby. Yet the worker is encouraged in the political realm not to act immediately to stop this crime when and where it is committed, but to take his or her time voting for a kind-hearted capitalist who promises to “look into” such matters and perhaps encourage the bosses themselves to write up some sort of legislation which is not likely to become law, but which will allow the kind-hearted capitalist to display some admirable willingness to “stand up to Wall Street” and “fight for Main Street.” This advice propagates the idea that voting (especially in national elections) and indirect political action, rather than class consciousness and direct action on the job, is the most effective way to rearrange the prevailing order.
“Workers must not delude themselves about the efficacy of political action,” Chaplin urges. “The danger of overstressing the importance of political action lies in the fact that the workers are thereby led to trust someone else (usually not a member of the working class) to do something for them which, with a little understanding and determination, they could have done a whole lot easier by themselves…Confidence in political action not only robs the worker of the initiative for independent action, it also leads [them] into that state of mind where [they are] willing to exchange one kind of dictatorship for another.”
Is it true that our only reasonable option is to behave ourselves and let the fighting be done for us by elected officials foisted into power by dark money from the most corrupt and devoted capitalists of the employing class? Must we passively rely on those who, in the alternate universe of polling are shown to hold similar political ideals as us, but in the real world have nothing in common with the working class? Are we to simply look after our own individual interests at work, hoping a few extra scraps will fall from the banquet table of the ultra-wealthy? Must we try to find a measure of isolated happiness as we helplessly watch the bosses hoard unconscionable profits off our backs while the politicians they buy find new “markets” to tap by poisoning the earth (which we toil to feed both them and ourselves), and by pumping the bodies of our young people full of bullets?
Class consciousness—loyalty to one another as workers across national, political, ethnic, sexual, and social divisions—leads us to a winsome imagination for a better world, and to courageous direct actions which confront the real-life struggles faced by workers on a daily basis. Wage theft, intimidation and unnecessary stress, inhumane work environments, working hours which make the enjoyment of home life impossible, lack of maternity leave—and any other conditions workers of a given place determine to be a hindrance to their flourishing in that place—all contribute to the systematic exclusion of workers from a proper share in the wealth they have quite literally labored to create.
We hope those who find themselves in positions of political power will muster the motivation to join us in these struggles. But we do well to remember the words of Big Bill Haywood and “refuse to have the ballot interpreted for [us].” For, “when the workers are brought together in a great organization they are not going to cease to vote. That is when the workers will begin to vote…”
Whether or not we silently cast the single vote allotted to us by those who are afforded a bit more influence than that, it is not political participation which ultimately empowers the working class. We can spit out the pacifier by making noise and organizing at the point of production for industrial democracy. There in One Big Union we retain that power which the bosses know we have; that power they so desperately hope we dilute and forfeit to their politicians.
And as we work together to form a new world within the shell of the old, we may even have the simple and time-honored joy of causing some harmless trouble for the bosses (who surely will find it all quite educational). Solidarity forever!