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There can be no meaningful change without the active participation of the majority of the population: working people. Yet much activism ignores this obvious reality, while the organized labour union movement has put much of its reliance on ‘professionals’ who see organizing as a top-down technique rather than a grassroots movement.
Working Class Organizing

Radical Road – Photo by Ulli Diemer

Preface to
Martin Glaberman's
Four Essays on the Working Class

By Ulli Diemer

The question of the working class, as Martin Glaberman notes in this pamphlet, is an old and honoured one on the left. But actual class analysis, as opposed to its mere invocation, one might add, is a practice that has tended to be more honoured in the breach than in the observance. It is therefore a welcome sign that the question is being looked at with renewed critical interest by at least parts of a socialist movement which needs to seriously re-examine traditional assumptions and ways of looking at society, Welcome, also, because it is unfortunately true that many of the conceptions of the left have hardened into dogmas that now function more as barriers to creative thought than as flexible guides for developing radical analysis and strategy.

For some, the process of questioning traditional formulations has led to pessimism or to reformism, or to the dismissal of the working class as allegedly "bought off" by affluence, while various marginal social groups are promoted as the new standard-bearers of revolution, their purity presumably guaranteed by their poverty or by their marginality. (Indeed, one form of this argument asserts that nothing can be done in the advanced capitalist countries except to wait – and cheer – for the liberation armies of the third world as they ready themselves to engulf the heart of the imperialist system.)

But those who are unwilling to accept any of these different ways of abandoning the Marxist revolutionary project find themselves being inevitably led back to the centrality of the question of the working class: the central class of capitalist society. To this discussion, Martin Glaberman makes a valuable contribution. His experience of more than 40 years in the socialist movement, and more than 20 years as a production worker in auto plants gives him solid roots in a Marxist tradition which unabashedly insists that a socialist revolution must be a working-class revolution, and that the predominant, although not only, force in any working class revolution must be, precisely, the working class. This "traditional" view, however, does not fetter him to a version of Marxism that is blind to social developments. On the contrary, Glaberman insists that there can be no revolutionary analysis that ignores the fact that capitalism, and the working class’ forms of struggle have changed significantly in the century since Marx. It is his ability to use the Marxist method to analyze new developments and draw lessons from them that make Glaberman’s essays creative contributions to a living Marxism. One need not agree with his every word to appreciate that his way of posing and examining such seemingly simple questions as "what is the working class?", "who is in the working class?", and "what is the role of the working class in social change?" comes from a much richer tradition than ‘scientific ’ sociology, yielding results more fruitful than any number of learned treatises.

One of the first concerns is accordingly to define the working class (a much more complex and politically significant question than it might appear at first glance.) He then sets out to examine some of the key components of working class reality – first and foremost work – and the formation and transformation of working class consciousness and methods of struggle. Especially noteworthy in this context is his argument that workers’ interests are now separate from and indeed contrary to those of the unions. That this is true in general, although not in each and every individual instance, is the central theme of especially the second essay of the pamphlet.

This is followed by two essays in which he discusses the views of two American writers who have made important recent contributions to the theory and history of the working class, Stanley Aronowitz and Jeremy Brecher.

Glaberman finds much to praise in Aronowitz’s False Promises, but he argues that the book fails to overcome a traditional view of the working class which essentially sees workers only as victims rather than active participants in their own history. He also maintains that Aronowitz tends at times to understand consciousness in too narrow a way, as being simply equivalent to verbalizations.

Glaberman similarly considers Brecher’s Strike a valuable work which "helps considerably to counteract the almost universally bureaucratic attitudes of labor historians" but he argues that in some ways it poses working class reality in terms of an overly simplified workers-versus-organizations dichotomy which fails to fully consider the role of workers themselves in creating bureaucratic organizations like unions.

He sees both books as important contributions to a fruitful ongoing discussion on the working class under capitalism. His own essays help to carry that debate forward as well.

The first essay, "Marxist Views of the Working Class", was given as a lecture in Toronto in the fall of 1974, as a part of a series on "The Working Class in Canada". The second, "Unions vs. Workers in the Seventies: The Rise of Militancy in the Auto Industry" first appeared in Society magazine in November-December 1972. The review of Stanley Aronowitz’s False Promises first appeared in Liberation magazine in February 1974, while the final essay was part of a symposium of Jeremy Brecher’s Strike which appeared in Radical America Vol. 7, No. 6. The versions of the essays which appear in this pamphlet are all slightly different from the originals.

Four Essays on the Working Class, by Martin Glaberman, was published by New Hogtown Press.

Related Reading:
Martin Glaberman and Seymour Faber: Back To The Future: The Continuing Relevance of Marx
Martin Glaberman: A Different Sort of Democracy
Martin Glaberman: Revolutionary Optimist: An interview with Martin Glaberman
Martin Glaberman: “Workers have to deal with their own reality and that transforms them”
Martin Glaberman and Seymour Faber: Working For Wages: The Roots of Insurgency
Marxists’ Internet Archive Martin Glaberman Index

Subject Headings:
Class Consciousness - Dual Consciousness - Labour Unions - Marxism - Unions - Wages - Workers’ History - Working Class