Monday, August 23, 2010

The Working Class

The real bind was that this [white male] Left assured us they spoke in the name of Marxism. They threatened that if we broke from them, organizationally or politically, we were breaking with Marx and scientific socialism. What gave us the boldness to break, fearless of the consequences, was the power of the Black movement. We found that redefining class went hand-in-hand with rediscovering a Marx the Left would never understand...

...Our identity, our social roles, the way we are seen, appears to be disconnected from our capitalist functions. To be liberated from them (or through them) appears to be independent from our liberation from capitalist wage slavery. In my view, identity-caste-is the very substance of class.

Here is the “strange place” where we found the key to the relation of class to caste written down most succinctly. Here is where the international division of labour is posed as power relationships within the working class. It is Volume I of Marx’s Capital:

Manufacture . . . develops a hierarchy of labour powers, to which there corresponds a scale of wages. If, on the one hand, the individual labourers are appropriated and annexed for life by a limited function; on the other hand, the various operations of the hierarchy are parceled out among the labourers according to both their natural and their acquired capabilities. (Moscow 1958, p. 349)

In two sentences is laid out the deep material connection between racism, sexism, national chauvinism and the chauvinism of the generations who are working for wages against children and old age pensioners who are wageless, who are dependents.

A hierarchy of labour powers and scale of wages to correspond. Racism and sexism training us to develop and acquire certain capabilities at the expense of all others. Then these acquired capabilities are taken to be our nature and fix our functions for life, and fix also the quality of our mutual relations. So planting cane or tea is not a job for white people and changing nappies is not a job for men and beating children is not violence. Race, sex, age, nation, each an indispensable element of the international division of labour. Our feminism bases itself on a hitherto invisible stratum of the hierarchy of labour powers - the housewife - to which there corresponds no wage at all....

....Let me quote finally from a letter written against one of the organizations of the Italian extra-parliamentary Left [Autonomia Operaia] who, when we had a feminist symposium in Rome last year and excluded men, called us fascists and attacked us physically.

. . . The traditional attack on the immigrant worker, especially but not exclusively if he or she is Black (or Southern Italian), is that her presence threatens the gains of the native working class. Exactly the same is said about women in relation to men. The anti-racist (i.e., anti-nationalist and anti-sexist) point of view -- the point of view, that is, of struggle -- is to discover the organizational weakness which permits the most powerful sections of the class to be divided from the less powerful, thereby allowing capital to play on this division, defeating us. The question is, in fact, one of the basic questions which the class faces today. Where Lenin divided the class between the advanced and the backward, a subjective division, we see the division along the lines of capitalist organization, the more powerful and the less powerful. It is the experience of the less powerful that when workers in a stronger position (that is, men with a wage in relation to women without one, or whites with a higher wage than Blacks) gain a “victory,” it may not be a victory for the weaker and even may represent a defeat for both. For in the disparity of power within the class is precisely the strength of capital.4

How the working class will ultimately unite organizationally, we don’t know. We do know that up to now many of us have been told to forget our own needs in some wider interest which was never wide enough to include us. And so we have learnt by bitter experience that nothing unified and revolutionary will be formed until each section of the exploited will have made its own autonomous power felt.

4. From a letter by Lotta Femminista and the International Feminist Collective, reprinted in L’Offensiva, Musolini, Turin, 1972 (pp. 18-19). I wrote the paragraph quoted here.

-Selma James, (PDF)Sex Race and Class(PDF)


  1. Lenin also, and more famously, analyzed a division within the working class between the labor aristocracy and the rest of the proletarian. The labor aristocracy existed in Europe and the U.S. It identified with bourgeois interests. It differed from the rest of the class by level of its wages. The high wages it received resulted from exploitation of colonies and semi-colonies.
    Lenin’s analysis includes, after its own fashion, most of the elements James says he ignored and which she claims to introduce.
    Her feminist analysis introduces a lot. But the perspective on Lenin is not it’s best moment.

  2. I was taken by the passage in the pamphlet on the segregation and social exclusion of the old and the young.
    The next day I read this passage in Wilhelm Weitling’s “Guarantees of Harmony and Freedom,” written in 1849. In Chapter 11 Weitling critiques fatherland, borders and language as practices inimical to the interests of the working class. To the bourgeois rallying cry of “The fatherland is in danger!” Weitling counterposes the proletarian claim that their wages are in danger and their health. He then proclaims these dangers:
    The life of our little children, whom we cannot care for suitably because we do not have the means for it, is in danger.
    The life of our old fathers and mothers, who no longer work and whom we cannot help sufficiently, is in danger.
    The future of our youth, whom we cannot enlighten enough because we do not have time and means, is in danger.
    Everything, in a word, is in danger, everything to which you direct your basilisk gaze, toward which you extend your insatiable hand.
    Weitling takes as evident universal interests of the working class those domestic relations whose disappearance from socialist politics James addresses.
    At the time of transition from artisan production to capitalist production the relations between men and women are, as much they could be at least, whole. What relations exist behind the ‘we’ are open to question, but the alienation James elucidates has only just begun.

  3. I thought her point that Lenin was basically viewing intraclass divisions from the pov of vanguard party leadership, versus feminists and what she calls "the black movement" acting from the perspective of workers in struggle was a fair point. No?

    Thanks for the is I think indispensible, now more than ever, to know history and to know what is not new - the "newness" of perceptions is a bourgeois myth glorifying intellectuals and misrepresenting them as producers rather than appropriators of knowledge and "ideas" in order to defame anonymous humanity.

  4. she doesn't recognise here lenin's analysis of caste divisions within the int'l working class in his analysis of national liberation and antiimperialism, but that's just this pamphlet, which is answering a review. She does see anti-racism and feminism through a leninist take on imperialism and caste.