Times Change, but the Left’s Task Remains the Same: Organize the Working Class

The task of socialists in 2022 is the same as it’s always been, says sociologist Vivek Chibber: to build working-class organization. That requires clarity about the central political role of the working class and organizers who are firmly rooted in it.


Democratic Socialists of America members gather outside a Trump-owned building in New York City, May 1, 2019. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

The capitalism of 2022 hardly looks like it did in 1848, the year of The Communist Manifesto, or in 1936, the year of the autoworkers’ strike in Flint, Michigan. It’s digitized, globalized, financialized, and tightly linked with a climate crisis that Marx could only hazily foresee. Some critics use these shifts in the workings of capital to argue that Marxism, with its emphasis on the organized working class as the group best suited to radically transform society, is outdated and overly dogmatic.

Vivek Chibber, professor of sociology at New York University, has spent several decades arguing how the working class is still central to the socialist project. He is the author of The ABCs of Capitalism, a series of political education pamphlets, and several books, including The Class Matrix: Social Theory after the Cultural Turn.

This June in Berlin, Germany, leading voices on the US and European left gathered for Socialism in Our Time, a conference put on by Jacobin and Transform! Europe. On a panel called “Contemporary Capitalism and Its Gravediggers,” Chibber laid out what the working class looks like today, and how it can build power on new terrain. Jacobin’s Ella Teevan sat down with him to discuss the task of socialists in 2022, the working-class Donald Trump voter, and the role of intellectuals in mass politics.


Ella Teevan

What are the biggest projects the Left should be taking on right now? And what are its biggest challenges?

Vivek Chibber

I think the Left’s project is always the same. We try to build a working-class movement and working-class organizations. That doesn’t mean that’s the sole focus of what you’re doing, but whatever you’re doing, it should feed into that. All the little eddies should be feeding into the labor movement. But that means that gender organizing should be around working-class women, and race organizing should be around working-class black and brown men and women. You try to follow the energy and go to where you can have the most impact toward that end, which is the end of building the power of labor.

Ella Teevan

Do you think there’s merit to the critique that Marxists focus too much on the white or male or blue-collar worker?

Vivek Chibber

It’s a complete myth. Marxists, in their heyday, organized blue-collar workers because, as I said in my talk, that was where employment was growing the fastest, and it was where you saw more spontaneous generation of militancy and organizing among the workers themselves. But one of the biggest movements in the ’30s that the Communist Party organized was a movement of the unemployed. And, yes, it was mainly white, but that’s because, in the Northern cities, the population was mainly white.

In the ’20s, communists in the US were also organizing black sharecroppers in the South. Not in the same numbers, but that’s because the South was a terrorist regime, where the risks were a lot higher, and it was harder to get people to go down there. In the ’30s and ’40s, British communists were in India organizing the Indian working class. And communists were always at the forefront of gender struggles. So the idea that Marxists are focused on a narrow type of worker is a myth that the New Left created in order to justify its own movement away from class politics.

Ella Teevan

When workers vote for right-wing candidates like Donald Trump, political scientists often reduce their behavior to cultural and racial attitudes. But you argue that most workers are actually aiming to vote in their own material self-interest — which isn’t to say they’re succeeding, but that’s their motivation. Can you say more about that?

Vivek Chibber

I think, in fact, that not just workers but everyone tries to vote in line with their own material interests. Now, there are two dimensions to this for workers. One is that they’re not overly ideological. They will oftentimes vote for what we see as a right-wing party, but that’s because the right-wing party is making them promises around their material interests in a way that’s appealing to them.

The second is that workers can be misled by information. It’s hard to mislead workers about their daily experiences. But it’s not so hard to mislead them about policies that have an impact on those daily experiences. Say a right-wing candidate says to them, “I feel your pain. You lost your jobs, and I’ll tell you why — it’s because the government spends too much.” They don’t have any direct experience of the connection between fiscal policy and unemployment, but this guy’s telling them he feels their pain, and now he’s telling them there’s a solution to it, so they’ll say, “Okay, well, maybe that’s the solution.” So they’re very much pursuing their material interests in voting for this guy, but they have been misled as to what the consequences of the policies will be. Why? Because they don’t have any expertise in that issue. So it’s perfectly consistent with a materialist understanding.

Ella Teevan

Academia tends to be isolated from the working class, and sociology has a habit of downplaying material explanations in favor of cultural ones. How do you balance the imperatives of being an academic sociologist with the broader goal of building working-class organization?

Vivek Chibber

Well, it’s actually not that hard, because you have job security as a tenured academic. The question is, why isn’t every academic doing this? There’s no real risk for me, and there’s no real punishment for me. There’s what I call a “moral tax” that you have to pay: there’s only so much advancement you’ll make as an academic once you’re identified as a Marxist. It’s a very small price to pay. To me, the relevant question is, why would I not be doing this once I understand that capitalism is the way it is? There’s no moral justification for not just following my career and doing the best I can.

Ella Teevan

That tracks with what I’ve heard from early-career academics who are less inclined to rock the boat, and then tenured professors who say, “I can essentially say what I want.”

Vivek Chibber

And they still don’t.

Ella Teevan

Or, what they have to say is not particularly —

Vivek Chibber

Is garbage, yeah.

Ella Teevan

In my Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapter, we use your political education materials all the time. We read The ABCs of Capitalism; when I do one-on-one meetings with new members, we listen to your series of lectures on the state. So we’re introducing people to the fundamentals of Marxism.

On the other hand, if socialists are doing our jobs right, we want to be in the working class, and the working class doesn’t necessarily have the time or inclination to read a lot of Marxist theory. What’s the balance here, between reading and learning enough to be an effective socialist, and putting down a book and going out and organizing?

Vivek Chibber

These education pamphlets are really for what we call the “cadre,” the people that do the organizing. And that isn’t synonymous with students — ideally, it should be the more confident, active, and respected members of a workplace, whom you then draw in and educate as a way of sharpening their organizing skills. The goal is not to get all the other workers necessarily to join a reading group. If you can do it, fine. But, as you say, most other workers are going to be just getting through the day, and it’s a hard time for them.

So there’s a kind of a conveyor belt that leads from the academic intellectuals down to the worker, and it’s one where the theoretical education is inevitably going to be concentrated in the first three or four layers, not all the way down. But then you use that as a way of building an internal culture inside the organization and an orientation toward the class. And that helps you become a better organizer, because you have a broader perspective on how the system is working, how you are located within that system, and what you’re trying to do as a strategic orientation.

Ella Teevan

Is there one piece of strategic advice that you would give to the average DSA member right now?

Vivek Chibber

Already, there’s a current within DSA that believes this, and I would just reinforce it: DSA right now is not a political party or political organization, nor is it a labor party or working-class organization, and those are the two things that it needs to be. So first, DSA needs to have a much stronger presence within the class. And second, it needs to bring its internal resources together to the point where, instead of being buffeted by events, you can have a strong caucus of five or eight thousand labor organizers within DSA that develops a strategic perspective collectively, so that everyone knows what everyone else is doing.

Instead of salting one, two, three people at a time, you need to do it the way it ought to be done, which is that you send in ten or twenty people at a time. That way they’re supporting each other and their morale is high. And then you tell them, “Your job is to bring fifty other people into the union.” Not into DSA — right now there’s a lot of push to get people to join DSA. That’s not the object. The object should be to get them to join unions and build militant unions.