Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Class, Class Interest and Class Struggle: A Reply to Owen Jones

Do not panic

Following Donald Trump’s presidential victory, identity politics has been subjected to a close and critical examination. For some, identity politics has been identified as one of the major causes of the widespread backlash against gender, sexual and ethnic equality. A so-called “Metropolitan elite”, hermetically sealed from the rest of society, particularly those unemployed in the rust-belt states like Michigan, has been blamed for Trump’s success. Right-wing popularism is apparently on an unopposed march across Europe and the US supported by a large section of the working class drunk on a cocktail of patriotism, nationalism and anti-immigration. It is back to the 1930’s and the rise of protectionism and fascism.

Liberals rant and rave in the US against “angry white man”, The New York Times writes horror stories about the “alt-right”, Militias and the Tea Party believing the US is about to be darkened by a fascist politics. In Britain hysterical articles are written in the GUARDIAN, INDEPENDENT and The OBSERVER against the “white working class”, as though they were some moronic sub-species who would never grace the smart dinner tables of genteel London society. And within the working class itself there appears to be little or no class solidarity; just class division, class fragmentation and blaming other workers for the situation many workers find themselves in.

The use of the word “fascism” has to be used with caution. Trump’s team, full of billionaires, is reactionary, deeply conservative and supports US capitalism, but it is fascist. Yet what can be said of the Democratic Party Alternative? On Tuesday mornings President Obama routinely authorised the killing by drones of people thousands of miles away. Hilary Clinton represented the interests of Wall Street bankers, waged aggressive wars when Secretary of State and had no interest for the working class.

For socialists, the Republican Party and Democrat Party are just two sides of the same capitalist coin. The working class should support neither. Trump may be a congenital liar and sexual predator but his support for capitalism is on equal par to President Obama and Hilary Clinton.

A casualty of the Brexit-Trump reaction, though, is the use of the term “elite”. The meaning of “elite” has been turned on its head – it is used to denote those in any given society who have wealth, power and privilege to the exclusion of everyone else. Now “elite” is used in a derogatory manner against anyone or any group of people who defend women, blacks, gays and other minorities from discrimination, abuse and violence.

So a former City metals dealer and millionaire like Nigel Farage is now seen as a radical outsider and friend of the people not as a paid-up member of the ruling class. And a billionaire property developer like Trump is also portrayed as anti-establishment and rooting for “the Joe Blows”, as the film director Michael Moore recently put it, instead as someone who has made his fortune from the exploitation of the working class.

However, what can Trump do all with this political power? Not as much as he thinks. Wage war against other nation states, yes; but to go against the interests of the US capitalist class, no. And his followers on the racist wing of the Republican Party will be disappointed. There will not be a line of burning crosses across the lawn of the appropriately named White House. There will not be “strange fruit” hanging from the poplar trees. Opposition politicians will not be imprisoned for dissent.

In reality, Trump can do little more than serve the corporate agenda and class interests of Wall Street, the multi-nationals and US Capitalism. In the US, as elsewhere in the world, real power lie with the capitalist class not their politicians. President Trump will fail politically as others have failed before him.

And can the Brexit demagogues - Farage, Johnson, Rees-Mogg et al - solve the problems of the unemployed workers in places like Wales, the Midlands and the North of England? Of course not. They all represent and serve the interests of the capitalist class not the working class. When the Brexit gang are long gone and forgotten, the problems facing the working class - poverty, unemployment, poor housing and rationed health care - will still remain. Only the establishment of socialism can solve these economic and social problems.

Demagogues, Charlatans and Political Hysteria

Demagoguery is not just the preserve of mendacious Brexit opportunists. Here is a sample of Teresa May’s petty nationalism at this Year’s Tory Conference. She said:

If you are a citizen of the world you are a citizen of nowhere”.

Socialists would like nothing more than to be “citizens of nowhere”. We would like nothing more than a world socialist system without nation states and artificial political boundaries. We look forward to a world without national flags, international competition and war.

Joining Teresa May in celebrating a reactionary politics was the Times journalist, Melanie Philips. Writing from a padded prison cell somewhere in Berkshire, she celebrated the Brexit’s and Trump’s victories as:

…the people’s counter-revolution: an attempt to move politics back to the true centre of cultural gravity
(TIMES, November 15th 2016).

There has been no counter revolution. There is no “true centre” of cultural gravity. All that has occurred is the disintegration of a politics which saw itself on the side of history with its vision of a free trade, free market and crisis-free global economy brooking no alternative.

This has not stopped the political panic at Brexit’s win at the referendum and Trump’s presidential victory against Hilary Clinton. Where did it all go wrong? Who is to blame? Where are the culprits? Owen Jones, a Guardian journalist, Owen Jones believes he has the answers.

In an article “Don’t be Divided – minorities are part of the working class”, (GUARDIAN, November 17th 2016), Jones set out to find who is to blame. It did not take him long: “the white working class” and “white straight men of the Old Left”. He chides socialists for believing that the class struggle comes first; before identity politics.

Owen then makes the unsubstantiated claim that socialists naively believe discrimination against minorities can be dismissed as irrelevant to class politics because socialists believe that after the revolution “everything will be all right”. This has never been the socialist position. Socialists do not know what problems will exist once socialism has been established.

Owen conveniently ignores the fact that a growing socialist movement taking place within capitalism would be global in outlook, united and acting with a singular socialist purpose. Class solidarity would replace class division and an emancipatory politics would replace forms of discrimination. Socialism is open to all member of the working class.

Discrimination exists and thrives in a class divided society. The problem for those pursuing identity politics to the exclusion of class politics is that they erroneously believe capitalism can be changed to become a divisive-free and equal society. It can’t. The only space free from discrimination is the world-wide socialist movement. The reason is simple. Socialism has to be established by a socialist majority irrespective of gender, ethnicity, sexuality and gender. Discrimination undermines class solidarity.

The Emancipation of the Working Class means the whole Working Class

Socialists agree with Jones that “the emancipation of the working class” means the emancipation of whole working class. However this means a socialist working class. Without socialists you are not going to get socialism and without socialism you are not going to address and resolve the social problems facing all the working class no matter who they are or what they look like.

Class solidarity not class division is crucial for a socialist revolution to be possible. Workers who fight other workers and workers who discriminate against other workers just make socialism that much harder to achieve. A class politics is required to slay down the foundations of the emancipation of all the working class; but Jones rejects the primacy of the class struggle and the Marxian principle that the class struggle is the motor force of history (Marx and Engels, THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO).

The problem is not socialism but people like Owen Jones. Jones has no interest in the establishment of socialism. He supports capitalism. But he wants capitalism without the effects of capitalism. This is not possible.

Socialists have never denied that the working class is full of diversity. After all, socialism will allow men and women to flourish and fulfil their creative potential. A socialist society will acknowledge, support and encourage the meeting of different social needs across the six continents of the world. As Marx wrote:

In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms,. We shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (COMMUNIST MANIFESTO).

This is why socialists recognise that the most powerful social relationship within capitalism is not one based on gender, sexuality and ethnicity, but the conflict between classes over the ownership and non-ownership of the means of production and distribution.

Identity politics supported by Liberals and others generally rejects the social relationship of class inequality found right at the heart of capitalist production and distribution, erroneously believing that a rights-based politics would bring about true social equality without the need for a socialist revolution. It does not. Social gains made in gender, sexuality and ethnicity are not immune from a reactionary and conservative backlash any more than social reforms are. One government enacts social reforms and another government takes them away. Social reformism is never the answer. Socialism revolution is.

In fact, what is Jones’s definition of the working class and socialism? His definition of the working class is a very narrow one. So narrow it sifts-out at least 30 percent of the working class derided by Jones as “middle class”. What does it say about his appeal for class solidarity when he considers about a third of them are not even members of the working class?

Socialists have never made the mistake of discounting large sections of the working class as “middle-class”. For socialists, the working class includes anyone who has to work for a wage and salary or is dependent on those who do, plus the elderly and the self-employed. It includes men women, straight and gay, black and white, the young and the old. It is a majority class, a class which is engaged in the worldwide class struggle on a daily basis, irrespective of gender, sexuality and race.

Socialist Principle and the Emancipation of the Working Class

Finally, there is Jones’s total ignorance of the meaning of socialism. Socialism is not what the Labour Party does. It is not what Corbyn and Momentum exist for. It is not about the more equitable distribution of wealth while retaining commodity production and exchange for profit. It is not Keynesianism and nationalisation. It is not a “fairer and regulated” capitalism.

Socialism will be established globally by a world working class majority or not at all. Socialism will be the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society. Socialism will be “from each according to their ability to each according to their need". And Socialism will be the abolition of the wages system, the abolition of buying and selling of labour power, and the abolition of the labour market, employers and wage slavery.

And it should be remembered too, in the face of the antisemitism and anti-immigration encouraged by the Tories at the start of the 20th century, the Socialist Party of Great Britain set out in Clause 4 of its OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES, the following statement:

That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

It is through class politics as a lever that the working class can achieve control over the machinery of government and so put an end to class exploitation and the other social problem that afflict workers, no matter who they are.

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