Clenched Fists, Empty Pockets is a pamphlet recently published by Kersplebedeb, comprised of texts by Swedish working-class activists detailing their experiences in their country’s middle-class left. This edition also includes an introduction by Michael Ryan, presenting his own experiences in the North American left.
I’ve Learned to Dissimulate
Introduction to the North American Edition of Clenched Fists, Empty Pockets, by Michael Ryan
What interest could a pamphlet cataloguing the personal experiences of a series of Swedish working-class activists with the middle-class left of their country have for a North American public? In his introduction to the German-language edition, Gabriel Kuhn describes Sweden’s working-class movement as the “most institutionally successful in Europe,” pointing out that the Swedish Social Democratic Party has only lost four elections since 1920, that the CP (and its successor, the Left Party) has held seats in parliament almost without interruption since 1917 and that the anarcho-syndicalist-oriented Swedish Workers Central Organization has been active since 1910.
Certainly, these are conditions that are not even superficially similar to those that reign in North America. In the U.S., there is no institutional workers’ party – people call the Democratic Party the left for fuck’s sake – the CP plays no noticeable role and anarcho-syndicalism exists, to the degree that it does at all, in a mist of nostalgic romanticism.
In Canada, the situation isn’t much better. The social democratic New Democratic Party has never broken out of opposition at a federal level and is widely discredited at the provincial level, and there is little organized working-class left to speak of beyond that.
However, the significance of this pamphlet does not lie in comparing European and North American societies. Rather, what is important here is the skill with which the authors in this pamphlet elucidate the complexities of what they call a “class journey.” By “class journey” the authors mean more than simply clawing one’s way up the economic food chain. In his essay included here, co-editor Fredric Carlsson-Andersson addresses this issue directly: “It isn’t only your job that determines your class, nor is it the amount of money you’re paid. Among other things, it’s a question of values and cultural preferences.” It is from these aspects that the concept of “class journey” derives its poignancy. As Atilla Pi?kin points out in his piece, when people from the working class choose to act on middle-class terrain – and the alternative left is certainly such a terrain – “They land on unfamiliar territory. Once there, they have to establish themselves anew.”
When Carlsson-Andersson recounts once attending a Marxist-Leninist reading group, but not returning because he “didn’t understand the language they were speaking” or when Kakan Hermansson speaks of middle-class activists “steamrolling over workers with Marx quotes,” it’s immediately familiar. Many years ago, I (like Carlsson-Andersson, only once) attended a Maoist study group. I was shocked to hear people praising Stalin. When I asked for clarification, I was instructed to prepare a self-criticism and handed a reading list to help me do so – paternalism and a sense of superiority meant to make me feel small.
I was done with Maoism, but I was far from done with the left. I may never have done that “self-criticism,” but I had learned an important lesson: the cornerstone of middle-class leftism is the manipulation of words, the use of words as weapons – not so much against the class enemy as in an endless competition for ideological hegemony on their own terrain. I could not possibly estimate the number of hours I spent in smoky bars and trendy cafés discussing the working class, oppression, exploitation, alienation, sexism, racism, and so on and so forth. I mastered the basics of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao. I dabbled in Rosa Luxemburg and Che Guevara. I lapped up the European intellectuals: the Frankfurt School, Lukács, Korsch, Gramsci … I got my requisite Fanon, Nkrumah, Lumumba. I encountered intellectual feminism in the form of Kate Millet, Germaine Greer, Simone de Beauvoir, Shulamith Firestone … Thusly armed, I entered the game that Carlsson-Andersson succinctly portrays in the following way: “I watched how others made their moves: first this side, then the other side – just like a board game.”
Indeed, I could counter your Marx quote with my Luxemburg quote, trump your Engels with my Adorno, silence you with a snippet of Fanon, blast you with a bit of de Beauvoir. What did any of that have to do with the liberation of the working class (or anyone else)? Nothing, actually. The real objective is quite accurately characterized by Atilla Pi?kin: “Shining brightly in conversations has no goal beyond shining brightly in conversations. It is part of ensuring one’s status.”
As Fredric Carlsson-Andersson and Atilla Pi?kin explain in their introduction, “one can come from the working class and learn the rules of the middle class. … Even if you manage that … you will never feel like you completely belong.” And that’s the rub: the so-called “class journey” is not a smooth transition from one class to another – at least that hasn’t been my experience – it is to some degree a betrayal. When reading Carlsson-Andersson’s account of Ronny Ambjörnsson giving “childhood friends a phony address when he met them for the first time in ten years, to prevent them from visiting him,” I had to cringe, recalling an occasion on which I pretended to be unavailable when a childhood friend was passing through town – I was afraid he would embarrass me in front of my middle-class leftist friends with his lack of sophistication.
When Atilla Pi?kin writes, “I’ve been moving in your circles for such a long time that hardly any of you would guess that I come from the working class. I’ve learned to dissimulate,” he is describing an important part of my experience. What, however, is the cost of this sort of “passing”? One may “land on unfamiliar territory” in the process, but this territory is not unfamiliar simply because it is new: it is in fact a sort of no man’s land between two territories, between two classes, if you will. Should you succeed in mastering the rules of the middle class, learning the language(s), absorbing the appraisal of the arts, learning, as Fredric Carlsson-Andersson puts it, “to drink tea out of expensive Moomin cups” – you will find yourself alienated from your own class roots, from your own community.
But there is more than that to this dissimulation. If you eventually learn to move smoothly among the middle class, if you read their books, watch their films, discuss issues using their language, you will only reinforce their myth of a world where the middle class is the norm – a myth so powerful in North America as to have become a truism of sorts. They may confide in you about their university “salad years” when they were “very poor.” They may tell you about the job they had for a while waiting tables or pumping gas – the genuine working-class experience that gives them the insight that allows them to opine about the solution to the “problems” faced by the working class. You may be exposed to the galling romanticization of the working class that marks so much of left middle-class rhetoric: the purity of spirit that arises from an honest day’s work with one’s hands – they know because they did it one summer. There is no malevolence intended. They aren’t intentionally trivializing the lives of others. Theirs is simply the blindness bred by the certainty that arises from a sense of entitlement that is to all intents and purposes a reflex.
For a working-class individual, a person who must live in the world beyond the abstractions of the left debate, the choices available – remaining in the working class or engaging in the sort of “class journey” this pamphlet explores – are both grim in their own way. I was young, only in my early teens, when I began to gravitate to the alternative left. It was the early 70s and both the student revolt and the socio-cultural youth revolt offered a poignant counterpoint to the life that otherwise lay ahead of me – a life that I explored off and on for the better part of a decade in my late teens and early twenties, when I worked first in an outboard motor factory and subsequently for the railroad. Anyone who romanticizes factory work is an idiot – at least that’s how it appears to me. Factory work is dirty, dangerous and – when non-unionized, as was the case for me – poorly paid. It cost me some of my hearing and damaged my lungs.
The railroad was, however, a much more sobering experience. It was a “good job.” The union was more than a bit yellow, but the pay was generous, the conditions were acceptable, the work was secure and the pension at the end was reasonable – the trade off: long hours and an erratic work schedule. It offered access to the trappings of a middle-class life – a home in the suburbs, a couple of cars, a few weeks a year vacationing in some interchangeable “sun spot,” maybe a small country home with a barbecue in the back yard. I knew it was a “good deal,” and I knew I had an important decision to make: I quit, and my “class journey” began in earnest.
It soon became obvious it would be a one-way journey. The further I drifted into alternative left intellectualism, the further I drifted from the stable Irish Catholic working-class community in which I had grown up. The more I came to see myself as part of the revolutionary working-class left, the more middle-class my milieu became, until, in the end, I was gazing across an unimaginable abyss at the “land” I had come from. When I visited the family I had largely left behind, I felt like a tourist. We no longer shared an experience – in truth, we no longer shared even a language.
Although I had become estranged from my roots, from the very experiences that had first formed my worldview, I had not in the process become a comfortable member of the left to which I had gravitated. I joined that left looking for solutions to the many layers of oppression that make up the fabric of our society. What I found was a milieu where books replaced human exchange, where clever quotes replaced dialogue, where issues were most smoothly dealt with when they were at a significant geographical distance. I found a world where every imaginable oppression was sifted, graded and slotted into a curious and subjective hierarchy – women’s oppression; the oppression of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people; of indigenous peoples; of whites in the First World; of Third World peoples; of animals; of the planet itself – but sometime in the 90s, the idea that the working class no longer existed in the First World began to gain currency.
Kakan Hermansson addresses this issue in her essay included in this pamphlet. She writes, “When I was at secondary school, young conservatives explained to me that there was no longer a working class, because most of the factories and mines had been closed. Today, I hear the same argument from the left.” How is one to understand this glaringly sweeping blind spot, given that it is quite literally impossible to leave one’s home without everywhere seeing the working-class people who maintain the infrastructure of our society? It seems to me that such a distortion could only arise in a situation in which ideology trumps reason and the myth of the middle-class society has been uncritically embraced – in a situation in which the pedantic sifting of the relationship to the means of production becomes more important than experienced oppression. It is a delusion that someone from the working class, regardless of how far she or he may have proceeded on a “class journey,” could only countenance at the cost of self-negation. And it is just that sort of self-negation that makes up the many contours of the journey from the working class to the middle class – and nowhere more so than on the left.
This is not a problem that will be easily addressed and resolved, but it is a problem that must be resolved if the left hopes to constitute something more than a parlour game played with big words and obtuse concepts. I’ve read your books. There’s a lot that’s of value in them. However, something critical is missing – the genuine voices of working-class people. No longer should working-class people be faced with a choice between continued oppression and embracing alienation. It’s time for you to listen. This pamphlet is a good starting point.