Book Review: ‘In Defense of the US Working Class’

The presidential debate between Trump and Biden on Tuesday night was a dumpster fire next to a train wreck. It’s all the talk now on cable TV, but really more was revealed than what most commentators are focused on. To me the debate exposed vividly the total bankruptcy of the two-party system.

The two parties and the system they serve — the employers and their class — have exhausted themselves. They’re in crisis with social and economic problems beyond their capacity to solve. It’s this exhaustion that led to the spectacle we saw the other night. They’re flailing.

It’s time now for working people and their class to get a crack at it.

“Did the 2016 election of Donald Trump as US president indicate an increase in racism, xenophobia, anti-woman prejudice, and every other form of reaction among working people in the United States? Is that why millions of workers, of all races, voted for him?”

These questions and others are in a book entitled In Defense of the US Working Class by Mary-Alice Waters. The book contains the transcript of a talk delivered at a conference in Cuba on April 26, 2018 hosted by the Cuban History Institute and the Central Organization of Cuban Workers (CTC). The speaker, Mary-Alice Waters, is President of Pathfinder Press, Editor of the New International magazine, and a member of the National Commitee of the US Socialist Workers Party (SWP). The book also covers a panel discussion that same on the topic “From Clinton to Trump: How working people in the US are responding to the anti-labor offensive of the bosses, their parties, and their government.”

Waters’ talk is about the fighting capacity of the working class in the United States — now more diverse, multi-racial and multi-cultural than it’s ever been. This fact scares some people, but this diversity means the US working class has within its ranks a powerful depth of knowledge and experience to draw upon as it struggles against layoffs; slashing of wages and pensions; speedup on the job; gutting of safety protections; rising health care costs; and cutbacks in funding for education, transportation and other social necessities.

Liberals frequently condemn those workers who voted for Trump in 2016 as stupid and racist — “deplorables” as Hillary Clinton called them. These “deplorables” are the same workers who largely voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. They voted for Obama hoping he’d bring change, and they voted for Trump for the same reason. Admittedly it hasn’t turned out well, but the some 80,000 voters that tipped the Electoral College were urban workers who saw the Democratic Party as abandoning them. It wasn’t racism that drove these workers to Trump, it was the unrelenting hardship of their lives with closed factories, unemployment, under-employment, and more. Trump promised to shake up the system while Clinton was aloof, arrogant and entitled. She turned workers off.

It’s true a segment of Trump’s base is indisputably racist, white supremicist, anti-Semitic, misogynist, and more. Workers on the whole, owing to the diversity described here, are not among them.

In Defense of the US Working Class

The mainstream media is consumed 24/7 with news about COVID-19, Trump and the upcoming election. Waters’ talk started with the US working class, the challenges it faces and its strengths in addressing them.

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Waters described the difficult conditions that Democrats and Republicans together have inflicted on working people.

“[The] devastation facing working people is not only the consequence of the worldwide capitalist crisis of production and trade, which began in the mid-1970s and is still deepening. It is the consequence of the policies initiated by the Democratic Party administration of the two Clintons in the 1990s and pursued with equal vigor by the Republican administration of George W. Bush and the Democratic administration of Barack Obama.

“• The elimination of federal aid to children of single mothers and drastic cuts in other social welfare programs on all levels.

“• Policies and legislation disguised with names like a “war on drugs” and calls for more “criminal justice” that have made the United States the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. With a little over 4 percent of the world’s population the US has some 25 percent of all prisoners on earth.”

Waters then spoke about how workers don’t need to be victims, and especially don’t need to rely on the same two parties that have been working against them. Instead workers can organize together to fight collectively for better lives and working conditions. To illustrate this, she described some of labor battles that were taking place in 2018 when she spoke, especially strikes by “tens of thousands of teachers and other public workers in states Trump carried by a large margin in 2016.”

“Less than two months ago, in February and March, in the state of West Virginia, one of the most significant strikes in a quarter century exploded onto the national scene. Some thirty-five thousand teachers, janitors, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and other public school employees walked off the job together, defying past court rulings denying public employees the right to strike. With overwhelming support from their communities, they closed down the schools in all fifty-five counties in the state. Every single one! That surprised even the fighting teachers…

“The West Virginia teachers strike was just that kind of volcanic eruption. It seemed to come out of nowhere, but it had been building for years. Its roots were deep.

“When the teachers and other school employees walked out, when they saw the strength of their numbers, their confidence and determination soared too. With support from their pupils, families, unions, and churches — and a living memory of the many bitter strikes fought by the miners — they organized emergency food services for the students and strikers. Daytime activities for the children were put in place. Clothing and funds were collected, and more.

“In the best traditions of trade unionism — and a precursor of the fighting labor movement that will again be built — the strike took on elements of a genuine social movement, battling for the needs of the entire working class and its allies.”

Working people can be transformed as they’re strengthened and steeled through fights like West Virginia. That’s how unions were built in the early labor movement. Waters referenced as an example the 1934 organizing drive and strikes first launched in Minneapolis that spread to 11 states winning tens of thousands of truck drivers their first-ever union contracts and protection.

Waters said,

“None of us on this panel today lived through the great labor battles of the ’30s. But several of us were part of the generations transformed by our experiences as part of another profoundly revolutionary, working-class struggle — the mass movement of the 1950s and ’60s that brought down the Jim Crow system of institutionalized race segregation in the US South. That successful fight forever changed social relations in the North as well as the South, including within the working class and unions.”

The victories over Jim Crow and the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement remain strong today. But they must be defended — and expanded. These are the lessons in this book, In Defense of the US Working Class.

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Is Socialist Revolution Possible In the United States?

Waters’ talk also addressed the question, “Is a socialist revolution in the US really possible?”

The question is important because problems like unemployment and racism will not be resolved ultimately by either party — even if some politicians sincerely want to address them. These problems are endemic to the system of capitalism and can’t be fully eliminated by any policy or law.

The conflict between workers and employers is also endemic to this system of unequal and opposed classes. Sooner or later, the question of socialism will come to the forefront.

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Hundreds of thousands of workers, farmers, and youth marched in Havana, on May 1, 2018 — May Day —demonstrating their support for Cuba’s socialist revolution.

Waters explained the perspective of the Socialist Workers Party on this question.

“We say not only is socialist revolution in the US possible. Even more important, revolutionary struggles by the toilers are inevitable. They will be forced upon us by the crisis-driven assaults of the propertied classes — as we’ve just seen in West Virginia. And they will be intertwined, as always, with the example of the resistance and struggles of other oppressed and exploited producers around the globe.

“What is not inevitable is the outcome. That is where political clarity, organization, prior experience, discipline, and, above all, the caliber and experience of proletarian leadership are decisive.”

In Defense of the US Working Class is a very short and readable book, an excellent introduction for anyone new to the subject matter. For those interested there’s another very short and readable book, Is Socialist Revolution in the US Possible? A Necessary Debate Among Working People. Both books include excellent photo signature pages that help bring the content to life.

Title image: Skyler Gerald on Unsplash

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