Class war, not race war: “What’s Left?” September 2013, MRR #364

I wanna war, between the rich and the poor
I wanna fight and know what I’m fighting for
In a class war, class war, class war, class war
This war, that war, class war, last war

The Dils, “Class War”

I’m a twenty-first-century New Yorker and therefore have little time to contemplate race. It’s not that racism doesn’t exist. Lots of people in New York, and elsewhere, hate because of color and gender, religion and national origin. It’s just that I rarely worry about those things because there’s a real world underneath all that nonsense; a world that demands my attention almost every moment of every day.
Racism is a luxury in a world where resources are scarce, where economic competition is an armed sport, in a world where even the atmosphere is plotting against you. In an arena like that racism is more a halftime entertainment, a favorite sitcom when the day is done.

Leonid McGill, lead character
Walter Mosley, All I Did was Shoot My Man

Who knew, in 1979, when I was pogo-ing to “Class War” by the Dils, that the Kinman brothers would go on to front a drowsy little cowpunk band called Rank and File. An oft-quoted criticism of that latter effort was that it was “music to fall asleep in the saddle by.” It was even rumored that one of the Kinmans (Tony or Chip) had, horror of horrors, become a Republican.

As an aside, can anyone remember the pogo?

I’m unable to authenticate the turn to the conservative side by either of the Kinmans. Not that conservative punks are non-existent, but they are rather a rare breed. Johnny Ramone and Lee Ving come immediately to mind, followed by Bobby Steele, Dave Smalley, and Joe Escalante. There’s a prominent right-wing libertarian streak to some punk rock, as can be seen in the band Antiseen. And, for fuck’s sake, Iggy Pop once voted for Ronald Reagan.

Left-wing punks are more numerous by far. Just look through the pages of this magazine over the years for the umpteen bands proclaiming anarchism, and the somewhat fewer ones who claim socialist or communist politics. To list all the leftist punk bands would be daunting indeed, but this is not to say that punk as such is left-wing by nature. Punk is overwhelmingly apolitical, invested in nothing more than sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. A time-worn mantra by now, repeated for some sixty years by generation after generation, youth counterculture after counterculture, iteration after iteration of rock musicians and their fans. Generalize this understanding of rock music to society at large, however, and the analogy quickly breaks down.

America has a halfway decent history of class struggle, given the relative youth of this country. Objective circumstances have driven the American people, large parts of it, onto the proletarian side of genuine, protracted class struggles until recently. Such was the case, off and on, during the Great Depression and thereafter, from 1929 up through 1950. Much more rarely, subjective consciousness within the American people reached the stage of what could be called “class consciousness,” when folks believed that “a better world is possible.” There were a few general strikes—St. Louis 1877; New Orleans 1892; Seattle and Winnipeg 1919; San Francisco and Minneapolis 1934; Lancaster, Stamford, Rochester, Oakland 1946—during which the working class, very briefly, moved beyond class struggle into open class warfare, and ultimately, into potential proletarian revolution. But class struggle of any sort has become almost non-existent since the 1970s.

To my mind, the American public has become a passive lot since then. Political pundits like to claim that the American public is innately predisposed to their particular political point of view. Glenn Beck has argued that the American people are basically conservative, unless they’re bamboozled by the liberal mainstream media and that socialistic Democratic Party. Michael Moore has contended that the American people are essentially progressive, except when they’re being tricked by the fascistic GOP and their Wall Street overlords. I’m of the opinion that Americans, most Americans these days, are just trying to get by. When they’re not busy surviving, folks in this country are interested in being entertained, by what the ancient Romans called “bread and circuses,” which is the very old school equivalent of “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.” Both objective and subjective experiences of class struggle are the exception, rather than the rule today. For the most part, as Americans, we just want to be entertained.

That leaves politics in this country in a very sorry state indeed. The official mythology is well known. There are two official political parties; the Democratic and the Republican Parties. The Democratic Party stands for American workers, women, and racial and ethnic minorities; promotes big government when it comes to regulating business and certain types of social engineering; defends civil liberties and individual morality; seeks to tax the rich and expand the welfare state for those less fortunate; and crusades for a strong military. The Republican Party represents those of middle income as well as big business; advocates limited government through economic and social deregulation; supports traditional civic and moral values; pushes to reduce taxes on the wealthy and to dismantle the welfare state; and demands a strong national defense. But, as former Alabama governor George Wallace was fond of saying, “[t]here’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Republicans and the Democrats.” Whether we consider the Democrats and Republicans as two parties each representing the interests of capital, or in fact just a single party of the capitalist ruling class, the Democrats representing its left face and the Republicans representing its right; the reality is that this country is really, really fucked up.

This final point is particularly salient with the virtual demise of American labor struggles after 1980, and the rise of neoliberalism across the political spectrum after that date. Class struggle, let alone class war, has all but dropped out of the American political lexicon, if not its social reality. Democrats are circumspect about using the terms class, let alone class war, when talking about taxing the rich or aiding the poor, preferring euphemisms such as fairness and compassion. Republicans accuse Democrats of class warfare if they so much as hint at increasing taxes on the wealthy or opposing cuts to so-called entitlements, all the while engaging in actual class war against America’s poor, workers and its middle classes at the behest of society’s wealthy. Yet increasingly, both Democrats and Republicans share a common politics of downsizing government, dismantling the welfare state, demolishing what unions that are left, deregulating the corporate economy, privatizing anything that is public or social, and globalizing the influence of capitalism and America’s military. Truth be told, the class war in this country is all but over. The American ruling class has won. We, the rest of us, have lost.

Little wonder then that we, in this country, are obsessed with race, not with class. Even when America’s class war was going full force historically, race was a particularly pernicious problem. These days, in the wake of the Zimmerman trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin, the American people, and the Democratic and Republican Parties, are both fascinated with, and in denial of the importance of race in this country. This preoccupation with race wreaks havoc on the fringes of society and politics. On the far right, white supremacists look forward to racial holy war, all the while talking vaguely of America’s working people. And an “angry white male” who is a regularly featured columnist for TakiMag extolls the working class nature of such terms as “redneck,” all the while claiming that every black person he knows is as dumb as a bag of rocks.

The befuddlement on the American left over class and race is even more profound. The fossil Communist Party which believes that all issues—race, sex, gender—must be subsumed to that of class, and those anarchos who proclaim “no war but the class war,” have all been relegated to the dustbin of history. But what analysis to replace class with? Those Trotskyist and Maoist remnants of Marxism-Leninism that try to jostle race with class into some sort of new configuration are playing second fiddle to those anarchos who seek to give equal weight to class, race, sex, and gender, who consider being working class as just another form of identity politics, or who tend to elevate the problem of white skin privilege over everything else. That is, of course, when those anarchos aren’t fucking shit up for the sake of it, in nihilistic insurrection über alles.

Myself, I tend to favor a class struggle analysis, whether its hardcore as in the Dils lyrics, or more nuanced, as in the Walter Mosley passage quoted above. Unfortunately, my uncertainty only grows as I grow older. That’s the case not just regarding class struggle, or the relationship between class and race, but with virtually everything else.

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1 Comment

  1. Speaking of this, what’s your organization Lefty? PLP?


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