J. Sakai Comments On “Looking At The White Working Class Historically

Since David Gilbert has rightfully started off a re-evaluation of the entire question of the white working class, i would like to throw a few points into the discussion. First off, i think the value of Looking At The White Working Class Historically is in what it attempts. Examining a class by historical materialism is something that is seldom done by revolutionaries in the u.s.

Usually class is treated in an objectified way, as a statistical category that is accepted uncritically from u.s. census reports. Which is one reason why Movement discussions of class are so ritualistic and – in truth – useless. It’s when we confront a class as a living development, now and historically, that we can catch the flow of it’s evolution into the political future.

Gilbert puts his investigation in the right framework by moving W.E.B. DuBois’ Black Reconstruction to the center. DuBois’ massive study of what happened to that brief period of Black bourgeois democracy after the Civil War in the South – known as Black Reconstruction – was written by DuBois as a defense of his anti-integrationist views. Already being iced by the Black Elite because of his break with amerikanism, and moving toward his call for “A Negro Nation Within The Nation”, DuBois aimed his history at the present. To think of Black Reconstruction as just about some old 19th century events is to miss DuBois’ crosscourt pass.

Looking At The White Working Class Historically gets right to the question: if Class, as scientific revolutionaries believe, is the primary shaper of political consciousness, then why in amerika’s 400 years has the white working class always been loyal to its capitalists (and thus its Race) not its Class? At a time when the u.s.s.r. has evaporated and national movements in the Third World are moving towards capitalism, people all over the world are rightfully questioning the value of communist ideas.

As Gilbert notes, to DuBois Black Reconstruction from 1866 to 1877 was such a telling test because it was the best chance amerika would ever have for a democratic alliance of Black & White working people. New Afrikan-led State and local governments in the ex-Confederate states lifted the poor whites up, gave him political rights, public education and protective labor legislation (women were, of course, excluded from this democracy). Still, the poor whites of the South remained loyal to their defeated slavemaster nation (and still cherish the “stars and bars” and “dixie” in their hearts today). As Gilbert so correctly writes:

In the South, the poor whites became the shock troops for the mass terror that destroyed the gains of Black Reconstruction. DuBois explains that the overthrow of Reconstruction was a property – not a Race – war. Still, the poor whites involved were not simply tools of property. They perceived their own interests in attacking the Black advances…

In the century since Black Reconstruction the white working class has congealed, solidified, grown old actually. A white working class which has always been opposed to any real democracy is hardly a bet for Class war and revolution. Let’s get real: after 400 years of waiting for the bus, this isn’t even a question but a fact of life like gravity and taxes. So how does the equation end up? What’s the bottom line?Paradoxically, i believe this only proves again how “Class is everything”, the primary division in the struggle between oppressor and oppressed. And the white working class is unfortunately no question at all.

Settlers is often misread to the effect that there’s no white working class. Probably because it wasn’t written more clearly. David Gilbert says:

Thus, for Sakai, there is an oppressor nation but it doesn’t have a working class, at least not in any politically meaningful sense of the term… In my view, there is definitely a white working class. It is closely tied to imperialism, the labor aristocracy the dominant sector, the class as a whole has been corrupted by white supremacy; but, the class within the oppressor nation that lives by the sale of their labor power has not disappeared… under certain historical conditions it can have important meaning.

Of course, there’s a white working class in amerika. Settlers reminds readers of Engels’ point that “there are many working classes” (my emphasis). In world history, a great variety of working classes. The idea that there’s only one kind of working class – exploited, noble, urban and industrial, male-centered, politically class-conscious – is a cardboard abstraction. That’s why Walter Rodney didn’t like the term, wanted to use “producers” instead. The white working class is a particular kind of working class: one that is an oppressor class, by its very nature wedded to capitalism, and not a proletariat (the proletariat is the lowest, most oppressed class in society).A working class isn’t primarily determined or shaped by the fact of working for wages. The prison warden works for a wage, after all, while the Afrikan slaves who built amerika on their backs never were wage-laborers. What is determining is the extraction of surplus value. Technically, when we say a class is exploited what we mean is that capitalism extracts surplus value (what becomes profits in the level of the marketplace) from its labor.

For example, no one can deny that there is a Boer white working class in South Africa (at least there is at this writing in 1992 – this is only an example). They exist in the millions, in mines and offices and factories. They are wage-laborers. Yet, as a whole, they produce no (as in zero) surplus value. Economic studies show that all the surplus value created in South Africa is created by Afrikan labor. The Boer white workers’ wage-labor is merely an indirect mechanism for them to share in the exploiting of Afrikans. That’s why Afrikan workers live in dusty Soweto and the white working class lives in ranch-style homes with cars, appliances, .357 magnums, swimming pools and cheap Afrikan servants. They are a working class, alright, but a parasitic one with no real class consciousness and no contribution to make to the liberating of the world.

It isn’t so hard to see that the same thing is true with the white working class in settler amerika (the only working classes anywhere in the world with lifestyles like the Boer workers in South Africa are those here in north amerika). David Gilbert and other white anti-imperialists certainly understand this. And as he warns: “We must guard against the mechanical notion that economic decline will in itself lessen racism… The white workers closest to the level of Third World workers can be the most virulent and violent in fighting for white supremacy.” These are apt words for the 1990s, when new reformist illusions are being spread at the same time as David Duke and racist skinheads show the renewed appeal of the white Right.

Gilbert then raises his main question of what dissenting class forces can be seen arising out of “peoples relationship to the mode of production.” Even privileged whites “who live by the sale of labor power” have, in Gilbert’s view, different ultimate interests from “those who own or control the means of production”. In amerika’s future, he believes, “those who aren’t in control have a basic interest in a transformation of society”.

This may be true as a generalization, but what does it mean? Specifically, what is the mode of production now for white people? What is the white settler class structure really like? Without this foundation Gilbert has a seeming bind: old theory says that white wage employees (it’s hard to keep calling them workers since so many don’t do any work or are professionals) will be for “a transformation of society”, while immediate reality tells us that for many of the poorest whites the “transformation” they want is Black Genocide.

We’re trying to understand an expressway-gang-banging-import-export culture of neo-colonialism with the Class analysis and Race concepts of 100 years ago. i doubt it’s true that the white working class, shrinking and ever less-important, will ever be progressive in our lifetime. Already, a class grown old, they’re backward-looking, nostalgic, literally reactionary and recoiling from the future (like some Third World movements in amerika). I’m sorry for them, but not all that sorry.

To me, the main point is that in seeing Classes as they really are, in their historical materialist development and in their daily lives, we learn that truly change oriented classes are new classes. Young, being born in the contradictions of social structures. Young classes that are self-consciously creating themselves as much as they are being created by anonymous social-economic forces. The young euro-bourgeoisie was once such a class: bold, adventurous, reshaping the world through a revolution in the arts and sciences as much as the cannon. In a much lesser way, for example, the impact of the new class of New Afrikan islamic male vendors, artisans and merchants today is due to a similarly bold outlook.

Naturally, i don’t agree with all of David Gilbert’s thoughts about the present, but appreciate how he closes Looking At The White Working Class Historically by connecting his examination of Class to the 1960’s New Left, when some white working class youth searching for a different way of life were stirred into joining the “Jailbreak”. Although the stereotype is of student radicals from wealthy or very suburban backgrounds, a number of the most radical collectives and armed struggle groups of the 1960’s were disproportionately working class in their composition. The George Jackson Brigade or the semi-underground G.I. organizations, for instance. But then, these weren’t folks trying to reform the white union at the Ajax chrome toilet factory – they wanted out, of their dead culture with its racist and repressive rules and loyalties, out of their sick nation, the whole thing. They were a small minority, of course (although still many thousands, then).

When the “Ohio 7”, for example, began armed action, they were a small Boston-area collective from mostly working class backgrounds, forced underground for fighting u.s. backing of the Apartheid regime in South Africa. It would be ironic if they become the last anti-Apartheid fighters left in prison anywhere in the world.

May 1992

P.S. Reading David Gilbert’s Looking At the White Working Class Historically reminds me of C.L.R. James’ insistence that “There is no Black history, there is only history.” By which he meant that there is only one journey of human history and we are all in it: mixing, influencing and gate-crashing on each other’s stories. Although Gilbert’s paper only deal with the question of the white working class (and is obviously intended mainly for other white anti-imperialists) the question of Class that he pursues is just as important – and unanswered – for Third World comrades, although we’ve been avoiding it.

The question of Class is hardest to deal with not for white but for Third World movements here, who have ambiguously straddled the question by embracing a unity that says we’re entitled to everything the white man gets (“equality”). But no matter who lives them, those middle-class and upper working-class lifestyles (private houses, cars, appliances, credit card cultural life) come from the super-exploitation of Afrika, Asia and Latin America. Which is why Third World movements here have both hated Amerika and have been pulled towards loving Amerika – as so many Black leaders have pointed out – “even more” than white people do.

Can you have it both ways? A revolutionary future built on us sharing the exceptional wealth from super-exploiting the Third World.

Bluntly, the oppressed world majority can’t afford and doesn’t need $35,000 a year civil service office workers, $50,000 a year autoworkers, or $75,000 a year computer programmers. No matter what their Race is or what continent they want to be centric about. Revolutionary change requires us to discover a new communal class culture, a different daily life.



J. SakaiJ. SakaiJ. Sakai

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.