the modern left is simply alien to the world occupied by the existing working class

From an awesome article that should be read in full (link at bottom)

In my mind, a stunning shift has happened within left wing political organizing in the past century which seems to have been largely forgotten: the left has gone from a movement mostly by the working class, for the working class, to a movement led by a highly educated middle to upper-middle class the actual working class is repulsed by. Most of us are familiar with this status quo, but rarely do we reflect on how different it is from past iterations of the left (and present iterations outside the US).

No doubt this was always a long-time dynamic on the left-a founding father of anarchism like Mikhail Bakunin could never escape his aristocratic roots, and while Karl Marx was never wealthy, he did live off of the income of his buddy Friedrich Engels, the son of a factory owner, and arguably the forerunner of the long leftist tradition of using the profits of capitalist exploitation to fund a life of critiquing and revolting against capitalist exploitation.

But nevertheless, perhaps largely owing to the communication means of the time, these political philosophies took on real working class roots. Bakunin’s anarchism blossomed into the Spanish Anarchist movement, a quite indigenous product of largely uneducated Spanish peasants and industrial workers alike, allowed to develop relatively without outside influence for the better part of a century. By the early 20th century, a simplistic sort of Marxism was spread on street corners by union organizers and self-styled orators, proffering revolutionary ideas to their own neighborhoods. This period of left wing organizing is typified by figures like “Big Bill” Haywood, who started coal mining at age 15; Eugene Debs, a railroad worker from the age of 14; or A. Philip Randolph, who despite a prosperous background found his way to political organizing both due to the difficulties of finding good work as a black man, and the demands placed on his conscience, being raised by a Methodist pastor.

The point of this is not to say that being poor makes you a better leftist, or that these forms of leftism were markedly better than what came after (like most political philosophies, they had their shortcomings), but only to point out a meaningful historical shift. The idea of being politically sophisticated had no obvious separation from that of being working class-to this generation of leftists, political education was taken not to college students, but directly to the workers themselves. What changed? For a host of reasons, the modern left (from the New Left of the 1960s to today) moved from the streetcorner to the university lecture hall, carried on by tenured professors, typically from upper-middle class to upper class backgrounds, who held cushy positions in the academy and frankly had basically no idea what life was actually like for the “common people” (increasingly a fractured array of disparate and often antagonistic identity groups) they claimed to represent.


The broad shift on the left has been one of emphasis: from economic exploitation to cultural hierarchies; from classes to identities-compare the class consciousness emphasized by A. Philip Randolph in 1919, to the uneasy acknowledgement of class in the SDS’s Port Huron Statement, to the nearly explicit erasure of class analysis in the Combahee River Statement (how can you care about the working class, when so much of it is white, male, and heterosexual?). Proponents of these ideologies will argue, quite reasonably, that the Old Left was guilty of a kind of class reductionism, not giving adequate attention to kinds of oppression and domination Orthodox Marxism was not particularly sensitive to: misogyny, racism, homophobia, environmental degradation, etc.

But this preoccupation with cultural identity belies the uneasiness of a petty-bourgeois, overeducated left, and as Marxist political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. has argued for years, this preoccupation has become not only pathological, but readily accomodating to the neoliberal consensus-giving middle-class whites a way to demonstrate their virtuosity, and the small strata of advantaged minorities a way to hold on to an oppressed status for personal benefit. In the unacknowledged void, there is the yawning chasm of life as it is actually experienced by the majority of people of color, not to mention openly despised working class whites.

To a non-college educated leftist like myself, the ideology I see embraced by groups like the DSA, Sunrise Movement, the somewhat thawed-but-ineffectual IWW, or Black Lives Matter, seems bizarre and irreconcilable with the experience of the real, muti-ethnic working class. The Onion skit about a Trump-supporting coal miner who saw the light when he finally sat down and read 800 pages of queer feminist theory rings true for us because we all know, on some level, that the modern left is simply alien to the world occupied by the existing working class. We all know, on some level, that we will never live in a world where union carpenters or Guatemalan landscapers perform a land acknowledgement and report their pronouns to each other before starting work on a new job site-and I for one am deeply grateful for that fact. The difficulty with being a leftist in an academic setting is the need to locate oneself in a class war which you find yourself oddly outside of (operating in a political economy utterly alien to the one Marx and Engels laid out in the 19th century). What you turn to instead-and what increasingly seems to be the whole of what the left is concerned with-is not class, but culture; not communism, but equity within the neoliberal order.

I bring all this up because the experience of being on the left in 2022 is simply so bizarre. Go to a meeting in any leftist organization right now, and you will find paralegals, software engineers, HR people, administrative staff, data analysts, nurses, maybe a few baristas and service workers, and apparently the odd dog walker. What you will not find (at least in any significant number) is farm workers, truck drivers, warehouse workers, uber drivers, railroad workers, line cooks, construction workers, fishermen, miners, or landscapers.

This is not to denigrate any of the professions mentioned-we all have to make a living one way or another, and I don’t have a problem with someone who doesn’t do manual labor-actually, I envy them. For Jesse Watters to laugh at Doreen Ford when she described herself as a dog walker is emblematic of capitalist hypocrisy. She’s meeting a demand in the marketplace to make a living-isn’t that what she’s supposed to do?

But the self-evident problem is obvious: the working class is not interested in what the left has to say, and there is a reason. That left looks like Doreen Ford, fodder for “SJW Gets Destroyed by Facts and Logic” compilations on Youtube, and (to use a blunt phrase) normal people don’t see themselves anywhere in that image. When people like Ford talk about how work should be abolished, they look ridiculous, because quite frankly, most working people would kill for their ease of life.


  1. What a shame. It was just starting to get interesting. I can only conclude the author has never read the Combahee River statement.

    I quote ““We might use our position at the bottom, however, to make a clear leap into revolutionary action. If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”

    The collective’s members were Working Class Black women who had been active in Civil Rights, the Black Panthers and radical feminism. Within such liberation movements, they found themselves confronted by white or male supremacy and homophobia, as in the wider society.

    Tactically they had no option but to organise exclusively with others who shared their perspective, to tackle their own specific oppression as no-one else was going to do it. The thrust of their politics however was to analyse how the methodology of oppression in different systems informed and reinforced one another, and were ultimately used to prop up capitalism. Class was at the centre of this analysis.

    The document goes on to list practical autonomous projects the group initiated or participated in within their areas of concern, A world away from today’s ideological hair-splitting that frequently ends by calling for established institutions to do something.

    The idea that none may be free until all are free is central to anarchism and was articulated by Bakunin among others, substitution of a section of the class for the whole was the lamentable failure of 20th century politics.

    As for the abolition of ‘work’, if the author does not understand the difference between socially useful activity and alienated wage labour they should stop writing and do some reading – or some socially useful activity.

    • What a shame. Your contribution shows very well your alienation from the working class. Your defence of identity politics, your dismissal of white working class people shows just why they dismiss you. Seeking to divide the class into layers of privilege or oppression is exactly what is leading to the death of collective action. Look to what we have in common, not what can be exploited to divide us. Just the same old divide and rule.

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