Class Struggle in America: Done or Never Started?

As we know, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were not Americans. They were very European. While true that the bulk of America’s population (except slaves) came from Europe, our country was different. Flight from the class-centered societies of England, Germany, France was easier for American immigrants than staying in their home countries and fighting. That was their choice.

Notwithstanding slaves, America was the escape from class struggle. For slaves, there was no choice. Marx and Engels were acutely aware of the slavery situation in the United States – Marx was a regular columnist for the New York Tribune from the early 1850s, and strident abolitionist. He also corresponded with Abraham Lincoln, who was a fan of the German’s writings, including the Communist Manifesto of 1848. But the class struggle Marx and Engels saw in England, France, or Germany between workers and owners was a more advanced condition of labor than slavery in the United States. Marx didn’t see race as the controlling variable. He saw slavery as a continuation of an earlier mercantilist economy, absent from Europe for at least a hundred years, except for Russia.

Slaves on southern plantations were, however, workers – as much as the wage slaves in northern factories. Neither owned anything. Capital belonged to the “bosses” only. The terrible American Civil War vindicated the abolitionists, like Marx, with the end of legal chattel slavery, but did little to change the dynamic between freed slaves and their former slaveholders’ capital. They still owned nothing. Likewise, workers in northern factories gained nothing from the war.

Workers of America, Unite!

Later, those northern workers did gain something, though. They organized unions. And they were quick to exclude Blacks from membership, even when they dared come north looking for a more receptive social milieu. Much to the chagrin of some Black writers, like W.E.B. DuBois, worker solidarity seemed all too elusive in the United States. Marx was, indeed, dead.

Solidarity. Besides race, there was another factor in American society stretching back to colonial days. The “independent” small farmer, who spent the 18th and 19th centuries populating the western states, may have shared the urban factory worker and freed slave’s disdain for capitalists – the rich bankers who controlled all wealth – but, otherwise, had little in common with them.  Those small land holders were, themselves, capitalists of a sort – they owned their farms. Marx would call them petit bourgeois. Entrepreneurship was well beyond most workers’ aspirations. And Blacks in either north or south were often legally constrained from establishing businesses of their own.

William Jennings Bryan, a Congressman from Nebraska, is credited with starting the “populist” movement in the 1890s. It drew its adherents from among those western rural landholders, not from southerners or urban workers, never soliciting them. Yet, it was seen by both Republicans and more conservative southern Democrats as a radical threat to the status quo. It wasn’t.

Normative Co-optation

So, how does the Revolution come to America? Free public education blossomed in the late 19th century as well. First high schools, then land-grant colleges (to encourage agriculture mostly), and finally community colleges in the 20th century. The intended strategic effect of all this explosion in education was to enable the working class to move up! It was correctly assumed that a more educated labor force meant economic growth. Hence, growth of capital and wealth for the ruling class! Education, and access to it, was perhaps the single most important component of the new 20th century social norm – otherwise called “co-optation.” It enabled the working class to aspire to something better. It miraculously transformed itself from a proletariat into a middle class. Worse yet, it now saw itself as having common interests with the bourgeoisie – urban workers (if they were white) could acquire the same view of “freedom” formerly reserved for the wealthy, or those independent western farmers.

Only in the late 20th century, as America began transitioning away from its industrial, urban proletarian, economy did the growing army of white-collar workers begin to see themselves as members of a new proletariat. Service workers and public sector workers began to unionize, but under labor laws that restricted inter-sector collective bargaining. Manufacturing, such as it was, moved away from union-heavy cultures in the north to traditionally anti-union South (right-to-work states all). Racial inclusiveness of labor was another co-optation tactic. Bringing more people into the labor force increased its supply, thus driving down costs.

Tribes ‘R Us

Solidarity, however, was further constrained by the cultural divides inherited from earlier times, urban/rural and regional. The racial divide was never solved, either. All these things have contributed to a 21st century American social environment best called tribalism.

Much like loyalty to a local sports team, dedication to one’s tribe runs deeper in much of America (especially the less-educated cohort) than any resentment toward the capitalist ruling class that Marx and Engels envisioned. There is much resentment of “elites,” but seen as the culture leaders in mass media, or the higher education establishment, not the owners of vast billions in capital. It’s possible to see this shift as a “triumph” of the middle class, the ultimate fruits of a century or more of ruling class co-optation strategy. It also may be the culmination of exponential growth in inequality, such that any hope for better economic position is too frustrating, upward mobility having become a bad joke in our time.

When is the Revolution coming to America? Perhaps when the gig workers and “precariat,” regardless of race, creed, or gender cast aside their tribal loyalties, and instead grasp that it is the greed of the Wall Street capitalist class that has reduced them to their current state of despair. That this was not accidental, but by design. A feature, not a bug. Not their own fault, but the fault of forces far more powerful than they. They must organize around a common purpose. They should expect opposition, planned and coordinated much as their own struggle. That opposition will include members of their own tribes, who may use violence — an insurrectionist mob, for instance.

Class struggle has never been a defining characteristic of American history. We’ve always been divided by region, by race, by tribe. Marx described an abstract system of class stratification, real in Europe but not meant to apply to the United States — although potentially applicable here. Lincoln found the abstraction interesting but didn’t believe it to be especially relevant to America. It seems we never really embraced it. Are we too complex a society? Some would say that’s true of most societies, even in Europe. Still, who can argue against worker solidarity? Maybe it was always intended to be aspirational, anyway? Do we need a timeline?

– William Sundwick

One thought on “Class Struggle in America: Done or Never Started?

  1. Very good, Bill. Marx got a lot wrong , but he was correct in pointing out that society involved a struggle among various groups. He saw everything through the prism of class, and missed other groupings.


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