It is my conviction that the most effective organising in the Global North involves a partnership of class groups. The partnership is between the working class and what is sometimes called the middle class, mostly meaning a fairly unmoneyed middle class – though moneyed people do join too sometimes. Dan Evans’ new book A Nation of Shopkeepers identifies these latter as ‘The New Petit Bourgousie’. There is much arguing possible over who is working class or middle class. Does it change when you go to university? (No, but this is the most widely used approximation.) Does it change once you have a nice pension and a paid-off mortgage, meaning you live off assets and have assets to leave your children? Or do we stick to a strict workplace-based Marxian definition of those who have to sell their labour to survive? Am I middle class? (Yes! everyone shouts.)
One of the great things about thinking about class partnership is that you don’t have to worry so much about where exactly to draw the line. You’re going to work together anyway. But if you are interested in where the line is, I would suggest that for most situations in today’s complex economies it can’t be found in books, that you will in fact have to uncover it through investigation, perhaps using something like class composition analysis in its most active, self-investigatory incarnation. This can give space to express the multiple positions many people hold, in regard to each other and to capital. This might help us understand the partnerships we are getting into a little more clearly.
Class partnership also has the great benefit that, in my estimation, it is how good organising happens, whether you want it that way or not. Most movements have, and have had, at least some middle class leaders, ranging from Russia to Venezuala. Why not embrace this reality rather than fight it or – and this is very common – feel guilty about it? Of course it’s true that some sections of the middle class are too complacent and comfortable to fight for change. But we should be willing to stand together with anyone who isn’t like that, who sees the need for urgent and deep change in how society works. Am I just trying to justify the leadership of people like myself? Perhaps, but before you judge me too harshly let me explain a bit more.
Clearly I’m proposing class partnership as an alternative to something. That ‘something’ is the idea that good organising must always be led by the most oppressed. I think there’s a double root to this idea. The first stream of thought comes from Marxian thought, which says that it is the working class who will end capitalism and bring liberation. This does not prevent some organisers from getting very angry with the middle class activists for not engaging in struggle correctly (looking at you Angry Workers). If the fight is to be led by the working class, who gives a shit what the middle class activists are up to? The working class is always free to just get on with it, right? But I think the Angry Workers deep down know that the ‘middle class’ might have a useful role to play. Whether your role models are in the Cuban Revolution or in the PAH in Spain, you’ll find middle class people in the thick of it. I don’t have the capacity here to go into the history of Marxian writing about the role of the middle class in revolutions, which is extensive. Rather I want to point at the evidence: the existence and importance of the middle class in every popular movement you care to name.
The other stream of thought comes from intersectional feminism, brought to us by the Combahee River Collective and other feminist writers. This stream of thought has brought much positive self-analysis to social movements and has helped stopped organising from being dominated by mouthy white men. And yet, it has a tendency to degenerate into Oppression Olympics, where what matters about positionality is being the most oppressed person in the room. Those most oppressed have the most right to speak. It is highly doubtful that this is how most of those in the CRC wanted their work to be used. Let’s note something about the women of that collective: while they were black women, and lesbians, and this definitely put them in oppressed groups, they also had quite unusual levels of privilege compared to average black women of the time. They were scholars, academics, writers, they were women with a voice. It was a voice that struggled against the macho white men, but they were also not the most oppressed women in the US, let along in the world. I say this not to discredit them or their work, but rather to point out that if they had intended their work to be used as many have used it, they would have written themselves out of the right to speak or lead.
I say all this because I think something particularly unhelpful happens when certain elements of Marxian thought and intersectional feminism converge. We end up with the notion of the most oppressed as the only true revolutionary agent. The role of everyone else in radical political organising then becomes to develop and uplift the most oppressed, being slightly embarassed by their own position as they do so. Now don’t get me wrong, the most oppressed absolutely should be uplifted, and any organising that stays within middle class circles is going to have a very narrow understanding of the world that will limit its ability to be radical. However this does not mean that the main or only role of the middle class should be to do that uplifting. Those university-educated dilletantes do actually have other useful skills, some of which can be useful in leadership positions. They’re good administrators (which can be useful in any organisation of size), they’re often good writers and speakers, they can provide some (though hopefully not all) of the intellectual muscle of movements. All sorts of people have been revolutionary or radical agents. As I write this I immediately feel I am writing bland nothingness, because I am not saying anything new or prescriptive, I am simply describing what happens in social movements.
Yet there is a persistent idea among many people working for social change that middle class people (or white middle class people) are a corrupting or polluting influence on the true fight for change. Or there is a lesser version of this where middle class people are corrupting or polluting except when they are using their privilege to uplift working class people, or BIPOC, or whoever is the most oppressed in the relevant situation. Where does this idea come from? Again from both streams of thought: in the Marxian stream of thought the middle class are polluted by capitalism and compromised by split class allegiances. In the intersectional line of thought the middle class are polluted by privileged and are congenitally blind to the problems of the oppressed.
I’m going to start by saying that these are profoundly religious ideas of purity and pollution being smuggled into some supposedly quite modern thought. My instinct is to resist them for that reason alone. But we can get more specific: it is profoundly absurd to think that way in the Marxian tradition, where the one writer who is treated as writing gospel was very bourgeous indeed. And I put Che Guevara at the top of this post for a reason: he is one in a long line of committed middle class revolutionaries. Surely we need to consider the evidence over abstractions? Isn’t that praxis? But it is also problematic in the intersectional tradition: it arises from a hidden assumption that the privileged can never understand oppression. I believe this is an assumption that has to be challenged, and is being challenged, by those seeking an end to oppression. It also leads to a strangely patronising deference towards ‘the oppressed’, as outlined by Olufemi Taiwo in his book Elite Capture. As an escape from deference he proposes exactly what I am proposing: partnership.
Again, what does often happen in movements is that working class people are nowhere to be seen. And I know that the work of uplifting working class people needs to happen because they have often been ignored, and are easily ignored. Listening to each other is the foundation of class partnership. The absence of working class people, and working class leaders, in a movement should definitely ring alarm bells, for if the movement is only of the middle class it is likely to also be for the middle class. So I am not saying don’t uplift oppressed peoples, nor am I saying forget about your own privilege. What I am saying is that, having established good foundations of listening to each other and understanding each other, both working class people and middle class people can and should have leadership roles in social movements. They work as partners together, without either feeling like the lesser partner, without either doing the other down. This is what successful social movements have done. This is what successful movements look like. Class partnership is the past and it is the future. In the multiple crises we must face we can work together, we can lead together, we must fight together.