It feels like a lifetime ago that Bernie Sanders said, “If there’s going to be class warfare in this country, it’s time the working class won that war.”
Bernie’s presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020 captured the basic class instincts of millions of working-class and poor Americans in a way few other politicians have. First time voters, first time in a long time voters, and even some usually-Republican voters flocked to Bernie’s camp. Why? Because his slogans spoke to their natural understanding that workers are at war with the super rich.
“Billionaires should not exist.”
“We need a political revolution against the billionaire class.”
His campaigns allowed us to envision a future where we had high-quality, free healthcare. Where our wages provided us a decent life, where we could afford to retire, and where we could go to college without a life sentence of debt. And Bernie’s ideas weren’t just inspiring in the abstract, he told us that to win these things we’d have to fight in our own interests. He said he’d be the “organizer in chief.” He sent people to picket lines and organized mass rallies.
Bernie’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns were the last good example of a high-profile left leader really speaking to the working class.
Throughout 2020, a year when working-class people were discovering our essential role in running society, the left and labor movement leadership had very little to say to us. Rather than organizing strikes to demand COVID safety on the job and a permanent extension of hazard pay, the labor leadership broadly echoed the bosses hollow applause for our “essential” work without putting up a fight. Rather than using a public health crisis to fight for Medicare for All, or holding up the halls of power until extremely popular COVID aid was made permanent, Bernie dropped out of the race for President and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore a “Tax the Rich” dress to the Met Gala and then didn’t fight to tax the rich.
The danger in all this isn’t just the simple fact that workers didn’t win much – it’s that if this trend continues, the left will start hemorrhaging working-class people to the right.
The left and labor leadership need to drop their reliance on empty “woke” sloganeering and passive partnerships with the bosses and corporate politicians and instead adopt a militant, class-struggle approach. Only an approach like this can win the confidence and support of the multi-racial, multi-gender American working class.
What Are Class Politics?
At its core, the class politics needed on the left and in the labor movement are based on an acknowledgement that the fundamental division in society is that which exists between the masses of working-class people who keep society running and the super rich elite who make billions off our work.
It is based on a sober awareness that despite all of the things that make us different, working people have worlds more in common with one another than any of us do with the bosses.
Working-class politics means being crystal clear on who is on our side, and who is not.
There is an ocean that separates genuine class politics from the “stand up for the little guy” sloganeering of Democrats like Joe Biden or the “we’re a family” language of the bosses. No matter how sincerely they boast about the hard-working American, all corporate politicians and big business executives will stand in the way of any reform that will meaningfully benefit working people.
The leadership of the left and labor movement cannot afford to muddy this point. We have to urgently abandon the practice of writing blank checks to politicians who cosplay as working-class advocates on the campaign trail but relentlessly sabotage our interests the second they take office. We need to call bluff on any idea that the bosses are our friends. If workers are on strike, or fighting for a union, they will find nothing but brutality from the boss. If we’re serious about winning, we have to be clear on these points.
Our real “allies” are to be found within the ranks of the broad working class and as such our politics must ferociously fight divisions that have been consciously maintained by the bosses. A working-class political program should fight for nothing less than living wages scaled to inflation, democratically determined safety protocols on the job, single payer healthcare, universal rent control and permanently affordable high-quality housing, and free child care. Beyond necessary economic demands, our program cannot leave untouched racist and sexist laws, structures, and attitudes. Winning the confidence of the entire working class means fighting for a unifying economic program alongside demands to end racist police brutality, segregationist housing and education policies, restrictions on reproductive rights, and reactionary anti-trans laws.
The populist right is becoming increasingly clear about who the enemies are. In his campaign video, Adam Laxalt – Trump-endorsed Senate candidate in Nevada – names them as: “the radical left, rich elites, woke corporations, academia, Hollywood, and the media.” His video ends, “we’re David, they’re Goliath.”
Working-class people are buckling under the weight of low wages, rising prices, and mounting debt. To those people, right populists are saying, “we’ll end workplace mandates to protect your freedom, we’ll lower your taxes, we’ll get tough on immigration to save your job, we’ll fight for school choice so you have a say in the education your kids get.” And they will fight viciously for those things.
By virtue of its captivity in the Democratic Party, the existing left and labor leadership has not fought nearly hard enough for the things working people need. They have blindly followed abstract rules about how to fight, and when to fight, without disrupting decorum.
Building a meaningful, fighting counterweight to right populism will mean the left and labor movement making a jailbreak from the thoroughly pro-corporate, lifeless Democratic Party. It will mean building a political home outside the two major parties where working-class people can democratically determine what we most need, and how we can leverage our collective power to win it. It is only on this basis, a left and labor movement built on working-class struggle, that we can undercut the growth in right wing ideas and win a life worth living.