Class and Democratic Struggle via Historic Blocs
Class struggle in the U.S., then, has rarely taken any pure form of ‘class against class.’ Instead, we find it often taking the form of ‘historic bloc vs. historic bloc’ in wide varieties. The use of this ‘bloc’ terminology was first deployed by Antonio Gramsci, who had borrowed it from the French syndicalist Georges Sorel and reworked it to understand Italy. Gramsci’s initial concern was giving birth to an alliance of Northern Italian workers with the ‘subaltern’ peasants of southern Italy, Sicily, and Sardinia. (Of course, the working class is also a subaltern in relation to the capitalist class).
In our context, the blocs of subalterns can include or exclude any of the ‘Four E’s’ or several or all of them in various combinations. Enslaved people rising against enslavers is a class struggle, even when European-American wage workers fight on the wrong side. Likewise, Native peoples found themselves aligned with Black labor, free and enslaved, against the settler colonialists. Nor do these blocs lose their class character when they are joined by small farmers, other middle-class elements, or even, at times, sectors of the bourgeoisie.
Any given worker or set of workers in this setting rarely exhibited anything like ‘true’ class consciousness. Because we find this ‘true’ qualifier objectionable, as we also reject the flip side of the term, ‘false consciousness.’ Marx never used this concept, the use of which puts one on a slippery path to elitism and metaphysics. Again, one divides into two. Our consciousness is best seen as conflicted, as a social self that starts with a tension, at a very early age, between the ‘I’ and the ‘me’ (tipping our hat here to George Herbert Mead, who founded social psychology in the 1930s by developing these concepts). The ‘I’ is a dynamic psychic element, reflecting on one’s experience and making efforts at change. The ‘me’ is the more passive ‘generalized other,’ which is first a long and ever-changing narrative reflecting on the ways we perceive how others may be perceiving us. The’ me’ includes all the stories we learn growing up—our family histories, our religious practices (or lack thereof), and the national folklore learned in schools and churches.
In short, our self-consciousness is a hologram of all the conflicted and contentious identities and narratives of the old order, or as Karl Marx called it in ‘The German Ideology,’ ‘all the old muck.’ But in addition to identity and narrative, our consciousness is also shaped by social structures. Most important is our relation to production—as a purchaser of labor, as purchased labor, or as labor trying to purchase itself. In the world of work, we also learn skills for effective production, we learn to work cooperatively, and we learn many new ideas about science and history.
‘All the old muck’ in our divided consciousness is what Gramsci called our ‘common sense,’ meaning ‘ideas widely held,’ not our American meaning of practicality. What we learn in science and the workplace, Gramsci calls our ‘good sense.’ The work of revolutionary pedagogy aiming for social change toward a new order, then, requires the development of ‘good sense’ as a means to engage and subdue ‘common sense.’ It entails mobilizing any positive factors to reflect upon practice and change, isolate, or discard negative factors. Herein lies the method of developing revolutionary class consciousness on a micro level.
Why does this matter? Simply put, without understanding our consciousness as conflicted, we can make little sense of our history’s full and deep dimensions. To change their world at different times, the ‘Four E’s’ needed to know who they were and where they stood in relation to potential allies and adversaries. (‘Who are our friends, who are our enemies,’ is how Mao Zedong posed the first question of strategy (‘Analysis of Classes in Chinese Society,‘ 1926). They also needed a vision of who and what they might become. ‘All the old muck’ was used to hold everyone down. Learning its flaws thus enabled them to throw off old and backward ideas and emancipate their minds.
The Subalterns in Power
The early and pivotal example of an insurgent bloc of subalterns in contention for state power was the Reconstruction governments in some 10 Southern states from 1865 to 1877 (None lasted the whole period). These were best seen as democratic republics of working people with Black freedmen at the core, but closely allied were more than a few pro-Union Southern ‘scalawags’ or ‘poor whites.’ The emerging political consciousness of this insurgency was that of radical democracy and more, especially the demands for breaking up or taking over old plantations in favor of independent Black ownership, Black-owned collectives, or black-and-white cooperative farms. Not many of these got off the ground or lasted long. But Blacks went on through the ‘Jim Crow’ era to form a wide variety of ‘survival coops’ lasting from the First Reconstruction all the way to today’s ‘solidarity economy’ projects in Jackson, MS, and elsewhere.
In our time, the most recent insurgent bloc was the massive elemental rising against the white supremacist injustice inflicted on George Floyd in Minneapolis. It was a class struggle at its heart, even though some sectors of other classes than the rainbow working class joined it, while some sectors of the workers abstained or opposed it. We can argue that these upheavals were, in various ways, both class and national-democratic struggles. But consciously or not, they were taking up Marx and Engel’s concluding instruction to us in The Communist Manifesto, that the path to socialism for the working classes comprised engaging and winning all the battles for democracy. Next Page