Bromma is the author of Exodus and Reconstruction: Working-Class Women at the Heart of Globalization, The Worker Elite: Notes on the “Labor Aristocracy”, and a contributor to Full Body Scan: Imperialism Today and Ctrl-Alt-Delete: An Antifascist Report on the Alternative Right. More of his writings on kersplebedeb.com are available here. This interview was conducted in October 2020.
Can you give a short introduction of yourself? Who are you and how did you end up becoming that person?
I became a radical in 1970. I was a middle-class college student, influenced by the rebellious youth culture back then: like they say, sex, drugs and rock and roll. I’d been studying social theory, including Marxism. At the same time, I was drawn into the intense ferment of Left-led movements in the streets and on campuses—especially the mass movement opposing the US war against Vietnam. A powerful anti-colonial wave was sweeping the world, and there were active, evolving national liberation movements inside the US as well. Women’s movements were on the rise all over the world. “Which side are you on?” was a real question for a lot of people like me.
I ended up becoming part of the New Communist Movement, which was influenced by Maoism. Most groups in the NCM took the position that white supremacist national oppression was the main form of capitalist rule in the US. But also, following Mao, we thought that revolution in the US required a fusion of the national liberation movements and working class struggles. We were inspired by organizing that seemed to embody this strategy, like the Revolutionary Union Movements in Detroit.
Along with thousands of other middle class activists, I made the decision to become a “class traitor,” leaving my sheltered life behind to become a communist organizer in the working class. So from the mid-70s until recently, I worked in a variety of blue-collar industrial jobs. I was involved in lots of rank and file labor battles, anti-racist organizing and anti-imperialist struggles, mixed in with all kinds of other activism. I was in some good fights, experienced some defeats, and even helped win a few things.
Needless to say, the revolution I hoped for in the 70s didn’t happen. But I always felt like I was learning a lot, and I really had no desire to return to the bubble of the intelligentsia. My life has been rich with a wide variety of human connections, experiences, and collective struggles; these have helped me to continue to evolve politically. So even if my becoming a class traitor didn’t do all that much to help the proletariat, it was a good decision for me.
One of the things I learned along the way is that the white working class in the US is actually, from an internationalist point of view, a privileged middle class. When I read J. Sakai’s Settlers, it really rang true to me. Being a white factory worker in the US wasn’t the same thing as being an intellectual, by any means. On the other hand, my life as a white worker wasn’t anything like being a garment worker in Bangladesh, or a Filipina immigrant domestic worker in New York. When I went from being a white college student to being a white factory worker, it was in some ways a lateral move, or maybe a diagonal move, from one middle class to another.
There’s a whole opportunist mythology on the white Left about this stuff. A settleristic version of “class analysis” pretends that white workers are proletarians, and downplays the deep complicity of those workers in the creation and maintenance of the settler state, slavery, land theft, colonialism and genocide. I’m not saying white workers can’t be revolutionaries. In fact, I know white workers who are. But based on my experience and political education, it’s a major mistake for leftists to rely on the white working class as a key social base for revolution.
In your short 2014 book The Worker Elite: Notes on the “Labor Aristocracy” you break the working-class into three distinct classes: the proletariat (“heavily exploited workers who generate almost all of capitalism’s profits… the ‘lower and deeper’ part…the overwhelming majority”), the lumpen (“a parasitic class made up of people who live outside the web of ‘legal,’ above-ground production and distribution… a significant minority”), and the worker elite (aka the labor aristocracy, “hundreds of millions of middle class workers around the world whose institutionalized privileges set them decisively apart from the proletariat”). J. Sakai’s The “Dangerous Class” and Revolutionary Theory (2017) argues that revolutionaries need to take the lumpen seriously as a class. Many people see a trend of more and more people falling out of the institutional privileges of the worker elite and into the instability of the lumpen. What do you see as the place of the lumpen in today’s class structure? Is it expanding (in size or significance)? Is the worker elite shrinking? Is this all exaggeration, overemphasis, or misunderstanding of current trends?
World capitalism has gone through a huge change—partly in response to the anti-colonial struggles of the 60s and 70s. The whole class structure is changing as a result of neoliberal globalization. Trying to understand that is obviously complicated; it involves looking at all the changing classes, at neocolonialism, at transnational capitalism, at new industries and technologies, at a new enclosure of the commons.
But the really key underlying question I’m always trying to clarify is: on a global scale, what is the social base for socialist revolution today? I think that a transformed, modernized proletariat, centered around women, is beginning to take the stage as capitalism’s direct antagonist. This is partly a result of the destruction of traditional rural patriarchy by neoliberal capitalism. Large numbers of women are being pushed and busted out of private family life, and channeled by the tens of millions into very large scale, highly exploitative global industries, including globalized manufacturing, transnational service industries and factory farming. They are crossing borders, meeting lots of other proletarian women, becoming skilled with technology and participating in cosmopolitan world culture. I think we should orient our politics to this reality. Which requires decisively breaking with both worker elite mythology and male leftism.
All the classes are changing, including the worker elite. But contrary to what many assume, the worker elite hasn’t shrunk on a global level—at least not so far. The worker elite has in fact grown over the last several decades, while being redistributed geographically. For instance, China’s worker elite is a much smaller percentage of its population than its counterpart class in the US. But numerically, China’s worker elite is larger than the US’s. New worker elites have emerged in many former colonies, at the same time as worker elites are getting weaker in the declining imperial centers. This is just one part of how the global class structure has changed.
It’s true that some people in this country are falling out of the worker elite as a result of the US’s decline, and as a result of neoliberal globalization. Usually they fall into the lumpen, but small numbers of oppressed nationality worker elites—which only formed in the last fifty years or so—do end up in back in the proletariat. That’s not generally the case for white people. White workers in the US are still overwhelmingly part of the worker elite, even if some of their privileges have diminished.
Resentment about these diminished privilege, in fact, is a major source of the reactionary white populism we see on the rise today in the US. Not many white workers are making the decision to throw their lot in with the proletariat politically, that’s for sure. Maybe that will change some day, but given US history and recent events, I have my doubts. For white workers to join the proletariat probably requires the destruction of the US settler state.
Meanwhile, the lumpen has grown to be a giant class around the world, both in size and social importance. As Sakai demonstrates, this part of the working class is often politically explosive, and can play a pivotal role at key historical junctures. Sakai emphasizes that the proletariat and the lumpen live side by side and interact on a daily basis in their communities, their cultures, and within their families. Inside mass political movements, too. Revolutionaries certainly have to be able to function in the same spaces as the lumpen, and engage with them. And we need to take into account both positive and negative features of specific lumpen forces. We already know that people from lumpen backgrounds can become revolutionaries, including revolutionary leaders. On the other hand, the lumpen, like the worker elite, is a basically male class, and it normally lives by preying on proletarians, especially women. Macho glamorization of the lumpen is destructive socially and politically.
2020 has seen a level of urban insurrection in response to state violence unseen since the 1960s. Some leftists and revolutionaries have emphasized the Black-led nature of the rebellions, others have criticized Black leadership (both as particular individuals and as a political concept) as a middle-class counter-insurgency effort aimed at a multiracial rebellion. As someone who’s thought and written about these topics for decades, how do you see race and class playing out in these risings? What do these risings tell us about the racialized class structure in 2020?
Rebellion is always a mixture of elements, and it doesn’t necessarily escalate directly to revolution. But it’s often a step on the road to revolution. I think that the intense Black-led struggle in the streets today is forging new leaders and generating new strategies and tactics. It’s also re-surfacing some older, longstanding issues for the movement, under new conditions, for a new generation. Since there doesn’t seem to be a consensus within the Black/New Afrikan movement about some fundamental issues of strategy, rebellious experimentation is probably valuable today, even if it doesn’t lead to immediate success. And even if it sometimes seems to reinvent the wheel.
I’m aware of that narrative about the uprising that you referenced in your question: Shemon and other activists claim that the fight against murderous cop violence started as a multiracial proletarian insurrection. But now, they say, the uprising has been undermined and brought to a halt by Black middle-class counter-insurgency. I think this argument is wrong. [Here and below, Bromma is referring to a series of articles that appeared on illwilleditions.com: Theses on the George Floyd Rebellion, The Rise of Black Counter-Insurgency, and The Return of John Brown: White Race-Traitors in the 2020 Uprising. -ed.]
I understand the frustration of people involved in militant fighting in the uprising who want to go further, who are upset that rebellion isn’t leading directly to revolution; who are angry that it has so far led only to tepid reforms. And I think Shemon makes some good points about how Black middle class politics and NGO money can function as conservative forces. But demonizing the entire Black middle class, which itself routinely experiences racist cop violence and other forms of oppression, and which includes many supporters of revolution, isn’t helpful on any level. Shemon’s argument seems to be based on a misunderstanding of the class nature of both the Black freedom struggle and its white self-declared allies.
The Black/New Afrikan freedom movement is fundamentally a national liberation movement. The enemy of this movement is the US settler state, a prison-house of oppressed nations and nationalities. So class struggle here can’t be oversimplified into a struggle between proletarians and capitalists. That’s class reductionism—trying to simplify everything down to “class against class” in a country defined by centuries of national oppression. In fact, in this country, as in other settler states, the class structure is based on and shaped by a highly racialized form of colonialism.
African and Native slaves were conscripted as the original proletariat of the US while European workers were established as overseers and privileged worker elites. Ever since then, proletarian politics has been carried forward in large part by the Black freedom movement. The key thing is that this movement isn’t just a struggle against racism or anti-Blackness. It’s not just about “racial capitalism,” either. It’s also a struggle for Black self-determination; the struggle of a colonized people. Self-determination is what Malcolm X and the Black Panthers fought for, as well as most of today’s Black revolutionaries. Black self-determination means choosing the Nation’s own government and relationship to the US, including the possibility of seceding. It poses an existential threat to the white ruling class and the settler state, and therefore its victory would represent a major victory for proletarian politics in this country. But self-determination for Black people is not an exclusively proletarian demand.
Shemon asserts that “by the 1960s…the Black Panther Party and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers were already convinced that the Black middle class and the Black proletariat had parted company.” This assertion contains a grain of truth, but it doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. Black revolutionaries, including the Panthers, the LRBW, and Malcolm X, spoke often about problems caused by Black middle class forces, whose political agendas they sometimes thought were objectively holding back the fight for national liberation or sending it down the wrong path. But these Black revolutionaries still considered the Black middle class to be part of the colonized Black nation—part of the same multi-class freedom struggle that they were part of. The Panthers, in their 10 Point Program, demanded a plebiscite among all Black people on the question of seceding from the US. This was a common demand among Black revolutionaries (and their allies) at that time, and it’s still the position of many Black revolutionaries today.
In the context of a national liberation struggle, disagreements among the popular classes, even sharp disagreements, are usually viewed as contradictions among the people, not antagonistic contradictions. They are ultimately disagreements over which class or political trend leads the struggle, in what direction. They’re not over who is the enemy; not about “settling accounts.”
Nobody would deny that there are middle class Black conservatives and Black misleaders of various kinds active in Black politics. And Black cops, too, along with other gangsters. And Black capitalists, for that matter. Is this a surprise? The Black Nation encompass many material interests, tendencies and forces. Any national liberation movement contains a multitude of differences: differences along class lines, differences about ideology, strategy, and tactics, problems with state agents and traitors who have to be dealt with. Black people discuss these contradictions all the time; they are matters for Black people to resolve, hopefully under the influence of Black proletarian politics.
There are many middle-class Black people who, largely because they themselves experience national oppression, are an active part of the struggle for Black self-determination and revolution. Many of the Panther leadership and rank and file came from the Black middle class, for instance. Black intellectuals have made, and continue to make, valuable contributions to the Black/New Afrikan liberation movement. (Shemon says that there’s no such thing as a revolutionary intellectual, but that’s just rhetoric.) Overall, I would estimate that there are a lot more revolutionaries in the Black middle class than there are white revolutionaries—in any class.
I think it’s crucial for radicals to grasp that the national oppression of Black people is a defining feature of US politics. That oppression includes the ongoing process of genocide—the process of elimination as a people—that Black people have been facing for some time. But much of the US Left, especially the white Left, avoids the whole question of national oppression. It assumes that the goal is to achieve immediate, pragmatic, multiracial working class unity against the capitalists—meaning, in my opinion, unity on white workers’ assimilationist terms. It fails to make a clear commitment to Black self-determination, which is the only principled basis for solid long-term multinational unity.
Shemon’s argument is in line with that flawed Left tradition. It seems unaware of how settler colonialism has distorted the class structure, so that class is often expressed or modulated through race and nationality. It doesn’t recognize Black nationhood or support Black self-determination. Instead, Shemon embraces a class-reductionist fever dream where revolution is an immediate throwdown between an imagined “multiracial proletariat” and the capitalists.
One unfortunate by-product of this kind of class-reductionist politics is that it justifies treating white allies as indispensable partners of the Black struggle. In service to this theory, Shemon and Arturo recycle a worn out, defeatist numbers game. Whites outnumber Black people, so “obviously” Black people “have to” give a key partnership role to white people if they want revolution. This is a mechanical and ultimately settleristic view of politics. I sometimes wonder how Indigenous people, who are even more outnumbered than New Afrikan people, are supposed to think about this kind of “revolutionary” math.
It’s not at all unusual for oppressed nations to be outnumbered and outgunned, but they still make revolutions happen. More to the point, white people, including white leftists, have been consistently unreliable as allies to Black people for hundreds of years. (Anybody who thinks that Bacon’s Rebellion was a great example of multiracial unity needs to do more research.) The Black Nation has always had to rely first of all on itself, and second of all on its alliances with other oppressed peoples. When the Black movement is strong and independent, it has proven its ability to shake the foundations of the US more than once—without relying on white people.
Personally, l think white activists should reject the idea that we are indispensable to the Black freedom struggle. We should emulate John Brown’s courage in fighting white supremacy, without pretending that he was a leader of the Black movement or was essential to it. We should specifically reject the proposition that white activists should be involved in a fight against the Black middle class. Telling ourselves we’re doing it to help the Black proletariat is no excuse. Attacking the Black middle class is a bad idea to begin with, and in any case it’s not white people’s role to “settle accounts” among Black people. If we’re looking to be helpful, there’s plenty of white counterinsurgency around for us to fight.
Speaking of white activists, I’d like to know who these “white proletarians” are that Shemon keeps referring to. All of the white protesters in the uprisings? Just a few of the most militant ones? Is “proletarian” being used to describe heavily-exploited, survival-level working class people on a world scale? (Like Amazon workers in India making $186 a month with virtually no benefits or social safety net?) Or is the term “white proletarian” being wielded as a rhetorical device to promote small groups of voluntaristic white leftists? I would say that in actual global class terms, most of the white people involved in the rebellions are middle class, or in some cases what Sakai has called lumpen petit-bourgeois. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, but it’s not the same thing as being proletarian.
Some radicals argue that a real white proletariat is now emerging because of globalization or the ongoing diminishment of white privileges. But then they’d better bring the receipts. After forty-odd years as a white worker, I don’t see it. In fact, “white proletarian” still seems like pretty much a contradiction in terms to me.
I’d never argue that we should give up on all white workers. People from any class can become radicals. But revolutionaries can’t afford to keep mythologizing the white labor elite. We also shouldn’t assume that economic austerity will cause white workers to become proletarianized. That transformation didn’t happen in previous economic hard times. And in fact, it’s easy to see that current white resentment over a partial loss of privilege is actually pulling tens of millions of white workers in a reactionary direction. Again.
Anybody who’s read my scribblings knows that I’m a strong advocate of class analysis and proletarian politics. But I’m opposed to mechanical models of class, and white mythologies about class; these have been employed far too many times to erase the struggles for self-determination and national liberation being waged by oppressed nations and nationalities in the US.
Outside the US, too. I remember that in the 1970’s, in the middle of the US war against Vietnam, there were some class reductionist marxists who opposed the National Liberation Front, because they thought it was too hung up on nationalism, and not proletarian enough. To them, Ho Chi Minh was just a middle class intellectual leading a bunch of peasants. They couldn’t grasp the reality that the Vietnamese national liberation struggle was dealing powerful blows against imperialism, which happened to be the proletariat’s direct deadly enemy. They didn’t understand that the national liberation struggle was exactly where the Vietnamese proletariat and Vietnamese communists wanted and needed to be, fighting to lead their people’s revolution.
So what about the trajectory of the current anti-cop uprisings? For many generations, rebellions against racist cop violence in the US have tended to be cyclical, reaching heights of militance and gradually fading. I was in LA during the massive 1992 rebellion following the Rodney King verdict. In my estimation, that was bigger than any of the current uprisings. That rebellion left deep marks on the city, and left lasting impressions on local activists, affecting their politics ever since. But it too eventually receded. That happens a lot with rebellions—they are often outbursts of anger that can’t be sustained. Though they reflect deep anger, they only rarely offer a direct path to revolution. Even under the most favorable conditions, turning rebellions into revolution generally requires high levels of political clarity and unity, preparation, leadership and organization. It isn’t a matter of just turning up the level of militance.
With an issue is as critical as racist cop violence, we have to keep fighting—during rebellions and in between rebellions. We should be critical, like Shemon is, of the pathetic reforms that are being implemented so far. We should continue to talk about the real nature of the cops, and propose various practical ways to make them answer to Black communities for their gangsterish, racist behavior. We should lay the foundations for future uprisings, knowing that they will certainly come.
My suggestion is that instead of declaring war on the Black middle class because things aren’t working out the way we hoped they would, maybe activists should be asking ourselves if there might be some weaknesses in our own politics, strategy, tactics and leadership. Are expectations for indefinite continuation of street battles realistic today? Is this a time for consolidating our ranks and sinking deeper roots in our communities and workplaces? Is it possible that Black people, including Black proletarians, don’t have confidence in riots and fights with cops as a sufficient long-term sustainable strategy for revolution? Or that the uprising hasn’t generated leaders or organizations who are trusted to find a way to take on escalating state repression? Is it possible that the widespread presence of white activists causes some Black people to wonder about the protesters’ own class nature? And about our loyalty to, or even recognition of, the Black liberation struggle?
In the context of the political, economic, social, ecological, and epidemiological crises hitting the US and the rest of the world right now, what changes do you expect to see in the coming months and years? What contradictions do you expect to come to a breaking point? To what extent do you think the US presidential election is significant, in terms of its result and/or in terms of the conflicts that will (and already are) playing out around it?
I think a lot of leftists are underestimating how out of balance the world economy is, and the potential for economic disaster or war arising from that. Right now the global capitalist economy is dependent on totally unsustainable levels of debt and insane levels of financial speculation. These are the signs of a system running on fumes. The pandemic adds more fragility. Central banks can kick the can down the road for a while by printing money and artificially propping up asset values—which results in even more debt, income inequality and speculation. But at some point in the near future, the overall crisis in capitalism is likely to express itself in depression or inter-imperialist war. It already is causing economic crashes in some places.
I realize as I say this that leftists have been talking about the crisis of capitalism and imminent economic depression for decades. The truth is that capitalism can be very adaptable sometimes. Threatened by a worldwide wave of anti-imperialist struggles, it transformed itself. It adopted neocolonial strategies. It got a new lifesaving spurt of energy from neoliberal globalization, extracting enormous profits and carrying out new forms of primitive accumulation, leveraging new technologies.
But even during the period of rapid globalization and neoliberal expansion, economic contradictions and political threats to the capitalist economy were intensifying. For example, there’s been the growth of extreme income inequality and wealth concentration, which the capitalists themselves realize causes political instability and weakens consumer markets. There’s the “hollowing out” of industry in the former First World, which has helped give birth to a new wave of right wing populism and fascism. And at the same time, the crushing of longstanding local and regional capitalist patriarchies by the (equally patriarchal) forces of corporate globalization has fueled right wing fundamentalism in the former Third World. Massive migration has been ratcheting up pressure on existing class arrangements.
The current shift towards “deglobalization”—adopted by parts of the the ruling class, and exemplified by Trump’s trade wars and by Brexit—kind of reminds me of what happened in the period before the First World War and the Great Depression. A period which saw the reversal of decades of globalization, a rise in inter-imperialist competition, trade wars, increased xenophobia and white terror, and attacks on immigrants. And eventually the rise of fascism in state power in a number of countries, plus two deadly world wars.
It’s not clear yet if today’s antiglobalization trend will remain dominant, or if it will be reversed by other powerful sectors of capital that continue to support corporate multinationalism. In either case, I think that economic fundamentals will continue to deteriorate.
Two things make me especially concerned about how things will play out. One is the snowballing impact of climate change and environmental destruction, which, added to everything else, is likely to make even provisional economic stability difficult to achieve under capitalism. The pandemic is to some extent a product of this ecological crisis. The second thing is that the Left is feeble in most parts of the world: it’s fragmented and shot through with opportunism. It’s still largely male dominated, for one thing. The global Left doesn’t yet have a developed proletarian response to neocolonialism or neoliberal globalization. In fact, it hasn’t really come to an understanding of what went wrong with the last wave of world revolutionary struggle. This is a perilous condition to be in, given the high level of crisis, conflict and chaos all over the world. Objective conditions today would actually be extremely favorable for a rebuilt Left. But instead the Right has the initiative.
I think we’re in big trouble unless and until the growing global women-centered proletariat takes the field in its own behalf. This, in my view, is the only thing that can power the rise of a new kind of Left. Like I said, I think the objective conditions are already in place for this. So it’s possible that change could happen fast, once it gets underway. I hope to see the growth of a new global revolutionary movement before I die. But who knows?
As far as Trump goes, I think that, yes, leftists and progressives should fight him. He symbolizes, enables and to some extent leads a dangerous wave of settleristic white populism. This populism, which has many facets, is itself an attack on Black people, women, immigrants, and other oppressed, colonized, and discriminated-against people. It’s also the political environment out of which US fascism arises and reproduces. In fact, fascism presents itself as the aspirational vanguard of mass right wing populism.
Some activists criticize the resistance to Trump as merely a corporate-led effort to restabilize neoliberal capitalism. But this could become a self-fulfilling prophesy if radicals abandon the fight against Trump to the Democrats, or to DSA for that matter. Lots of people of all nationalities are trying to figure out how to defeat Trump and the white populism he represents. Many are sick of the Democratic Party and lesser-of-two-evils electoralism, hate racism and income inequality, and are worried about fascism. They are looking around for effective Left leadership, knowing that something more militant and principled is needed. We should try to be there with radical politics and alternatives other than just voting against Trump. If we don’t have those, that’s on us.
Are there any theoretical developments you think are particularly important right now (either examples of things people are doing, or areas that you don’t think are receiving enough attention)?
As I keep saying, I think it’s crucial to develop a new class analysis that reflects global capitalism’s new reality. That’s obviously a long-term effort, requiring work by many people. I also think we need more theoretical work on the contradiction between radical feminism and transgender/queer politics. And I think it’s important to pay more attention to labor battles and political battles carried out by the world proletariat, especially by proletarian women. Right now there are massive struggles involving large numbers of women proletarians going on in Indonesia and Bangladesh, for example.
Are there any organizing efforts you think are particularly important right now (either examples of things people are doing, or areas that you don’t think are receiving enough attention)?
Obviously the Black-led movement against racist police gangsterism continues to be crucial. We need to keep at it, treating it as one of the chronic cutting edge struggles of the Black liberation movement.
I think migrant activism and migrant solidarity work is also very important. For one thing, millions of immigrants excluded from any government aid are literally fighting to survive during the pandemic. The battle against ICE and the Border Patrol is heating up, and hopefully will begin to overlap more with Black-led anti-police activism.
From a broader perspective, the global migration of oppressed people seems to be becoming a major front in the fight against imperialism. Poor people forced out of their homes by neoliberal capitalism are battering at the walls of the wealthy countries, and those walls won’t—and shouldn’t—stand forever. Working class and poor migrants tend to understand a lot about the basic contradictions of imperialism, based on their own experiences. It seems to me that migrant activism—which is already extensive—could become a home for increasingly militant class struggle and revolutionary activism.
Are you working on any writing projects right now?
Well, a while ago, I started to write something about migration and revolution. The world proletariat is on the move, and that’s changed and exposed so many things. But I’m on pause with that project. During this period of apparent de-globalization, I feel like I need to step back for a minute, observe, and re-evaluate. Will corporate-sponsored globalization resume its march? Will long-term patterns of migration continue, or change drastically? On a more general level, will war or fascism or economic depression transform the whole social and political landscape on a global level? Or, will this period of chaos and crisis finally lead to the emergence of a new revolutionary movement, finding partisans among proletarians, including migrant proletarians?
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks for doing this interview. It made me think.