organize a union in a workplace when they are able to articulate the
specific nature of the exploitation they face. Maybe they want higher
pay. Maybe they want better healthcare. Maybe they want to be treated
with dignity by their supervisor. When those demands are articulated and
brought together in a common agenda workers join the struggle. When
there is a clear path to building the necessary alliances to create the
possibility for victory, workers, more often then not, will sign a union
Modern struggles to advance the condition and power of the working class
cannot be "workers-only" clubs. Think about the struggle for the
Employee Free Choice Act. In its effort to build broad support for this
crucial reform, the labor movement has sought and has won allies in the
small business community, in the environmental and civil rights
movements, and even among some capitalists. Undoubtedly some people on
the far left (especially some who refuse to support the Employee Free
Choice Act) will say this tactic is an indication that the labor
movement needs to "move to the left."
The truth, however, is that such necessary alliances make victory more
possible. In such political contests, Lenin argued the refusal "to
maneuver, to utilize the conflict of interests (even though temporary)
among one's enemies, to refuse to temporize and compromise with possible
(even though transitory, unstable, vacillating and conditional) allies
is this not ridiculous in the extreme?" Lenin helped formulate what
would become a basic policy of the communist movement: the united front.
In 1921, in a speech before the Third Congress of the Communist
International, he argued that even small communist parties should join
with other forces on single-issue, reform-oriented immediate demands.
The goal was "to win the majority of the working class to communism"
not just a tiny fragment. This kind of activity must also include
meaningful alliances with other groups, not always narrowly
working-class, but those which are always exploited by capital:
intellectuals and professionals, small business owners, farmers, the
racially and nationally oppressed, women and so on. Lenin insisted that
the most politically advanced sections of the working class could
"defend the interests of the whole class with success" only if the
majority, or if tens of millions of people in all their diversity, could
be drawn in the mass "proletarian united front" struggle.
The term "mass," Lenin said, "implies the majority, and not simply a
majority of the workers alone, but the majority of all the exploited."
Such a broad vision became the foundational philosophy though often
contested from the left of the communist movement.
What does it have to with us?
Lenin spoke from a different time and place. So what does
pre-revolutionary Russia, a reactionary social system ruled by an
autocrat and mired in corruption and exploitation, or even the early
Soviet Union with few democratic institutions and very little economic
development, have to do with the 21st century working-class movement in
the United States? On the most general level, the answer to this
question can be found by answering a more specific historical question:
Why, even as productive forces in the US advanced in the mid and
late-20th century, didn't the US working-class movement develop an
The quick answer is that the assumption embedded in the second question
is wrong. The US working class did develop an anti-capitalist class
consciousness. We've just forgotten about it. One reason for this
amnesia is the major, persistent flaw in much socialist analysis: linear
thinking, that is history must necessarily progresses in straight
lines. According to this reasoning, if US workers today are only
minimally class-conscious, then this must have also been so in the past.
Human history, however, has repeatedly failed to follow such rigorous
timelines or to stay on such narrow paths. Progress made in one era has
frequently been negated and deleted from memory in another.
(against fascism, for civil rights and working-class power), communists
in the US pursued coalition-building as the best tactic for building
In her study of radical labor activists in St. Louis affiliated with the
Communist Party, labor historian and activist Rosemary Feurer recently
noted that these radicals adopted the concept of "civic unionism."
Called "social unionism" by others, this vision of class organizing and
consciousness building expanded the notion of struggle beyond any
particular workplace (although part of the struggle would certainly be
there) to the political and cultural dimensions. Labor leaders found
ways to build alliances (even though they were sometimes unreliable or
shifting) with other social forces to build the power of the working
class in a given particular city or town.
These workers were not just up against the capitalists who owned the
factories. They were up against a "political economy of control," Feurer
writes, that dominated the region. Her description calls to mind the
complex analysis provided by Gramsci: that capitalist hegemony relies on
a multi-class coalition and sway over ideological and cultural
formations. To win a victory in a factory, workers realized they had to
counter the political forces and media that sided with their bosses. The
only way to do that was to build a working-class idea machine and
political pressure on the other side of the scale. To effectively
counter the economy of control workers needed to build an "equal and
opposite force." In this way, the movement soon became something bigger
than a fight for a good union contract, something bigger than simply
desegregating the lunch counter at Woolworth's. It became something that
united the community and the workplace in a struggle to gain a voice
It was this theory in action that frightened capitalists the most. Think
about the struggle for the union at the Ford Motor Company, which
finally succeeded in 1941. Union leaders, many of whom had affiliations
with the Communist Party, built worker and community coalitions to unite
Black and white workers in the plant and in the greater Detroit area.
This involved outreach to ministers and civil rights organizations, who
had been previously suspicious of the union because a good portion of
the white workers had been influenced by the racist ideology promoted by
Henry Ford himself.
When white union leaders and community leaders convinced the white
workers that their best interests lay in interracial unity, and when
Black leaders in the community and in the plant convinced Black workers
about where their best interests lay, the strike for union recognition
worked. But more than that, when the struggle for UAW recognition became
a cause of the whole people, who waged a public opinion campaign
against Ford and supported the strikers with their material and moral
resources, the struggle was won, and the cause of the workers moved from
the workplace to the political, cultural and ideological dimensions.
This is what was most radical about the that movement, and this is what
frightened people like Henry Ford and his cronies the most.
From Birmingham, Alabama to Youngstown, Ohio, from Grand Rapids,
Michigan to Seattle, Washington examples can be found where coalitions
forged links between the workplace and communities and linked politics
and culture with the economic side of life. Unfortunately, this time
period, which lasted through the 1930s and the late 1940s, is often
disparaged as not very radical, even by some communists. The Popular
Front, some insist, was little more than a period of dilution of
struggle and a time when the movement "moved to the right."
This attitude should be rethought in light of the historical facts.
The radical nature of this time period can be measured by the swift and
heavy reaction to it led by right-wing, anti-democratic forces. Those
forces were the most reactionary, the most racist, anti-communist,
anti-worker, anti-woman forces the capitalist class could muster. They
surrounded Joseph McCarthy in the US Senate, and they slithered out of
corporate board rooms. With the powerful tools of legal authority, and
media fear-mongering, they influenced the basically democratic forces to
break former their alliances with the working class. They even
convinced historians to erase or distort the true meaning of this
alliance. These were the ideological and political precursors of the
ultra-right that wrested power and dominance in the capitalist class
from the socially-minded centrist leadership that held sway in the 1960s
The general defeat of the advanced working-class forces cannot be
separated from the global setting in those days. McCarthyite attacks on
workers and civil rights organizations were the domestic tactics
utilized by the capitalist class in the global Cold War. The
effectiveness of such attacks reflected not the weakness of coalition
tactics or the Popular Front strategic policy. but rather the power of
global capital based on its cultural and ideological hegemony.