[This article first appeared in the Movement newspaper in January 1969.]
At least since the time that Stokely Carmichael told white SNCC workers to “go and organize THEIR people”, the movement has been vaguely burdened by the realization that it should be relating to poor and working class whites. That however, was the last thing that movement people were either inclined, or thought themselves capable to do. The more actively political people today are student-intellectuals and a majority of these are from petty -bourgeois, usually professional families. Many are appalled that the working class people, even its youth, have not learned the things about American society that they have learned in the last few years. In any event, the radical student community suspects that it would be difficult to communicate politically with these people. Much theorizing has been done on the backwardness of the blue collar working class, based on negligible experience. Drawing the conclusion that much more must be known before the Left can BEGIN to move in that direction, they believe the greenest pastures are, after all, just where they are at – joined together with other radicals in T-groups and shot gun associations. The sarcasm is directed at a tendency of the left, not at affinity groups, per se.
About a year ago several of us moved to a w0rking class community to see what we could do. It’s far too early yet to weigh accomplishments, and we’re hesitant to generalize from our limited experiences. We realize that much harm can be done by generalizing on such a broad subject when so little is known. At this point, however, some things can be learned from the experience that exists in this area. We will relate, therefore, some of our experiences, our views on orientation for working class organizing and some implications that we see for the left.
Richmond, California is an industrial city with a population of 85,000. Located just ten miles north of Berkeley, it is surprisingly insulated from the cultural and political milieu of the Bay Area. When someone from Berkeley or San Francisco visits Richmond, they experience a step back into the Fifties. There is only one theater in Richmond and it shows only girlie movies. On Friday night both guys and chicks cruise the “main” and meet at the Doggie Diner. In this age of “cultural revolution,” the character of the high school hasn’t changed much, except for the chicanos who vaguely identify with the Brown Berets and some middle class kids from the hills who hitch-hike into Berkeley on weekends.
Richmond and the adjoining city to the north, San Pablo, were built up almost overnight during World War II when it’s port became the center of shipbuilding and repairs on the West Coast. Eighty thousand workers were employed by the Richmond shipyards and drydocks. Most of the work was unskilled and it was plentiful. Many worked two shifts, walking from one shipyard to another between shifts, sleeping in the barracks provided on their off-shift. Around that time Standard Oil was located in Richmond along with related industries and machine shops. The “dust bowl refugees” provided Richmond with a large portion of its work force – the people from Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska who came out to California in search of the jobs that were no longer available back home. They settled in Los Angeles, Fresno, Tulare and In Northern California in Richmond and San Pablo. The people who live here now are the same people and their children.
Richmond is fairly typical, then, of concentrations of less skilled, lower paid working class people, usually of Southern descent. They are the most effected by unemployment and by those hard times when the bills amount to more than they’re making. They probably reflect to the greatest degree both the positive and negative characteristics of the American working class: There is racism, patriotism, male chauvinism--the tried and true methods of a ruling class keeping the energies of the poorest people misdirected--and at the same time there are few bourgeois illusions about who has power. Poor people don’t have any power, they know that, and the factories where they work aren’t in business to give them a livelihood. Not too many would disagree that “the country would be better off if it was run by poor people like us instead of by big business.” To that most would nod in agreement, but rule it out of the realm possibility. They did anyway until George Wallace came along.
They’re not afraid to fight. They have been doing that all their lives. They don’t have to be persuaded to take up a gun if their enemy has one. The question is, of course, whether the left or someone like George Wallace will be able to define the enemy to their satisfaction as the contradictions grow more intense.
I’ve been speaking only of white Richmond: 30% of the population is black, concentrated in a section bounded by the railroad tracks known as the Iron Triangle and bordering on North Richmond, an unincorporated Black area. This is one of the largest and poorest concentration of blacks in the Bay Area. Black people came here during the War, for the same reason that whites came. They were lured out of the south by industrial and government recruiters with promises of prosperity. The Blacks who were able to get steady work usually worked in the same places and at the same skill level as the whites from the adjoining neighborhoods. Some of the poorest sections are now integrated and the schools are relatively integrated.
Bob Avakian and Harry Pollitt moved to San Pablo in the fall of ’67. They had no clear idea of what could be done, but were quite sure that if the Left didn’t begin to relate to the working class it would soon be all over but the shouting. Harry got a job, Bob remained active in Bay Area Peace and Freedom, and they did nothing the first few months but get acquainted with the community and a few of its people. I moved out in December when Stop the Draft Week was over.
We agreed with the JOIN people that in order to relate to people politically you have to share the same life style, face the same kinds of problems (like keeping a job), and relate to people as friends, not just political organizers. For those willing to try, realizing they don’t have all the answers and willing to learn from the people, it’s really not so difficult. After a while in fact, we began to feel alienated from the ingrown character of movement culture.
So you don’t have to be superman, but most would have to go through some changes – we have. But this kind of struggle is nothing new. For example, when the Chinese Communist Party sent its cadres, many from intellectual backgrounds, into the countryside to organize the peasants they had a problem in that the “peasants tended to fall asleep while the cadre were speaking”. We’ve found generally that the principle that Mao emphasizes: “learn from the people”, “serve the people”, “become one with the people”, are good to constantly keep in mind. And when applied to the experiences and attitudes of the American Left, they are not truisms at all. Mao once said that the main criteria for judging whether a youth is a revolutionary is whether or not he is willing to join with the people.
We got acquainted mainly with young guys, married and single. We “did a little drinking” (a too frequently used expression of mine), helped people we knew and gave them advice with legal hassles or tangles with the pigs. We were very open about our politics. We had a big poster of Huey over our mantle, and joined with some of the guys in some retaliatory harassment of local enemies of the people, and in midnight poster hanging expeditions (“Liberty and Justice for All” was the most popular, with the cops raping the statues of “Liberty” and “Justice”).
After being evicted from our first place, we moved into a larger place with a few other full time and part time residents. The City of Richmond had its first “peoples’ house”, where the picture of Huey overlooked the scene of Richmond’s wildest social life.
As people became sympathetic with our politics, they identified very quickly with the militant anti-pig posture of Huey and the Panthers. “Free Huey” became the slogan, much to the astonishment and displeasure of the Richmond and San Pablo pigs.
During this time the guys and a few girls gave us some help in distributing leaflets we produced on political issues, started spreading the word themselves, generally kept the pigs uptight, and started to point out to us that we needed an organization that could “serve the people” (meaning to help get guys out of jail, finding lawyers, helping with draft, unemployment and welfare problems, etc.), and explain to people where it’s at with the war, racism and the pig cops, politicians and businessmen who mess us over.
There has been a lot of talk about generational differences in the working class which we believe to be essentially correct, but somewhat exaggerated to fit the “cultural revolution” analysis. Many working class young people can become sympathetic to the rebellion of middle class youth, especially when they see them getting serious and being willing to stand up against cops, because they also don’t share the exact values as their fathers.
Older people have had to fight hard enough just to earn a decent living in their time and regardless of how they feel toward the bosses, the government and local big shots, they feel fortunate if they now have a steady job. A job is always important for a working man’s self identity, unless he feels strongly enough that he is being made a chump. Many young guys feel the same way that the black guys they’re working with feel toward their jobs; it’s a “slave”. Black friends, an occasional contact with an underground newspaper, pot, soul music – all serve to create some sympathy with blacks and students in rebellion. But then, just as the blacks, they cannot be expected to react in the same way as a student might. They don’t have the options that students do and when they get a family (most guys marry by twenty; girls by seventeen), credit and bills become a daily reality and their problems qualitatively much more like those of their fathers’ than those of students. The discontent is nevertheless there and growing and when they begin defining their own cultural and political alienation, their fathers should understand what they’re talking about. This is when class alienation will add political substance to the present cultural alienation.
Now I’ll run through some of our attempts to relate to the community on political issues. This brings up an area that I haven’t dealt with yet– the job of trying to educate the broader community as issues arise, especially in relation to racism--which must be part of a strategy for working class organizing. From these experiences we will draw conclusions on how people feel about these issues and how the Left, even the campus Left, can relate.
We tried working initially within an OEO community organization in San Pablo. The project had been initiated by some local hot shots, megalomaniacs, who hoped to gain a little standing and a steady income at the expense of the people. Together with a local Catholic priest and some good people who had been turned off by the organization, we put out a leaflet attacking their do-nothing approach. In response they put out a leaflet red-baiting us, based on information they obtained from our landlady and the San Pablo police. (We are particularly vulnerable to red-baiting and we don’t hide the fact that we are communists. It’s just not always the best way to start a conversation.)
Since we were clearly in the right, nobody took the latter leaflet too seriously. Though the people won the battle temporarily, we saw no way to rise above the bureaucracy and turn the organization into a real community union. We decided that if our community activity was to have any real value, we had to relate to issues within a radical perspective. This meant radical leadership and politics no matter how small the beginning. Some could relate to that, and those were the people with whom we would be working.
Later, we applied the same principle to trade union work. Union leaders aren’t about to let their unions become revolutionary organizations, and we can’t hope to win a majority of workers on most political issues at this point. We can relate to workers who are ready to listen much better as an independent movement, even through an organization like Peace and Freedom, If the right approach is taken.
Our next involvement was in a union struggle. I had been working at the Rheem plant for a few weeks when the contract with the Machinists Local 824 expired. Wages were relatively low, the company was as chickenshit as any other when dealing with grievances, and the men were ready for a strike. The older men were more anxious to strike than the younger ones, and I found the same thing to be true at another place I worked that went on strike. The older workers had been there for years and planned to be there in the future. A week previous to the contract date, the word was passed around that everybody should refuse overtime so the company couldn’t build up extra stock in preparation for the strike. When one young guy who had a family reluctantly agreed to work overtime, an old timer said, “Yeah, I used to fuck myself to get ahead when I was young”. They went out and stayed out for six weeks.
Another former student began working with us, particularly in the area of research. He wrote up, and we printed, a leaflet picturing a board meeting of the First National City Bank of New York, with one of the board members circled and titled “Who Is This Man?” The man was R.W. Dowling, owner of a controlling interest in Rheem. The leaflet noted Dowling and Rheem’s massive world-wide interests, increased profits and Rheem’s partnership with Charles W. Englehard, the real life model for “Goldfinger”, who as head of the “Witwaterstrand Native Labor Association” impressed blacks from the backlands of South Africa to work in mines and factories for practically nothing. It was a leaflet on monopoly capitalism and imperialism and everybody dug it. The business agent of the Local passed it out to the guys as they came in to sign up for picket duty.
The company decided to start bringing trucks in. Management drove the trucks, led by a wedge of county cops. The workers on the line resisted and were maced and beaten. Seven guys were arrested, four of whom were black. The union members retaliated by chaining the gates during the night.
The Rheem plant is located on the edge of the ghetto. On the same day that the confrontation occurred, a fifteen year old youth was shot in the ghetto on suspicion of being in a stolen car. The Black community went out on the streets, the National Guard was called, stores were looted and the biggest furniture store in town was burned down. A curfew was imposed and a line of troops encircled the ghetto, standing shoulder to shoulder with raised bayonettes.
We put out another flyer divided down the middle. On one side, with a picture of the Rheem plant, was the story of the union busting cop attack. On the other side the story of the shooting with a picture of cops with shotguns standing guard on a street corner. We called for a rally before the City Council meeting with two sets of demands: l) that the City Council pass an ordinance forbidding strike-breaking, forbid the use of mace, drop the charges against the Machinists, and fire the police who attacked the workers; and 2) that they order the five hundred police out of the ghetto, release all black people arrested in connection with the uprising, make it illegal for police to use their guns on fleeing suspects, and indict the reserve cop who shot the black youth for murder.
We passed the flyer out on the picket line, at other factories and at shopping centers. Although this got us into some good heated discussions, the response from white workers, including Rheem workers, was not good. They didn’t like cops when it was a matter of their own lives or their union struggles, but they would support the cops in the black community. When the emotional confrontation subsided, however, we could gain some agreement that black people were discriminated against by white cops and that, perhaps, they should then have the right to police themselves.
Patient work has to be done, making white workers face up to racism. The militant rhetoric of the black movement is for blacks; we have to learn how to relate these same issues and demands to whites. We felt that we were definitely right in attempting to link up the issues.
The rally was attended by our own friends, some blacks and Peace and Freedom people with a few new people added. The City Council, under pressure from blacks and liberals at the meeting passed a resolution requiring cops to shoot only in self defense.
The following week the Richmond merchants organized a campaign to repeal the resolution. Two thousand people attended the next City Council meeting to “defend the cops”, with the merchants being the most vocal and the most racist. The resolution was repealed. Following this a black boycott of Richmond merchants was launched by the black community. We put out a leaflet aimed at whites explaining that racist actions, like those of the merchants, were attempts by the people who profited from the ghetto – merchants, landlords, and factory owners – to maintain their profits, at gunpoint if necessary; that these conditions could not exist for long and that it was in the interest of white people to support justice for blacks. We passed the leaflet out in front of the stores under the auspices of Peace and Freedom, which created even more discussion because most people knew something about Peace and Freedom and its alliance with the Panthers. Peace and Freedom is a small group of dedicated people in Richmond who have worked on issues like this and have been of help to the black community, not hung up on electoral politics. On these issues we identified with and worked with Peace and Freedom, but still put out our own leaflets with a white working class perspective.
Recently we participated with Peace and Freedom and the Panthers in starting a campaign for community control of the police. This coincided with similar campaigns in Berkeley and Oakland, demanding a separate police department for the black community and a program of democratic neighborhood control of the police for both the white and black communities. When enough support is raised in the black community, this could be an important power demand. We want to give it what support we can and use the campaign to talk to whites about the issue of black liberation.
Much of our community propaganda has dealt with racism – not because this is the best issue to approach people on, but because this is an issue that relates to white people right now. If we don’t do some fast talking most whites are going to react negatively as the struggle for black liberation sharpens.
Even without having yet built a significant base it is possible to create political understanding in a white community over a period of time. We can’t always create our own timetable and even when we can, there is no way to avoid the issue of racism. We have to win over any radical base we build in the white community to support for the revolutionary analysis and program that is put forward by blacks and neutralize the great majority in much the same way the left had to find ways of neutralizing the American people in regard to the revolutionary program of the Vietnamese people, so as to get the oppressors off their backs.
People were won over on the basis that the Vietnamese War was no more in their self-interest than in the self-interest of the Vietnamese people. We are both oppressed by the same enemy. The same is true about the war on the black community and the same urgency is required.
Style and methods of organizing must always flow out of ideology and political strategy. If we don’t keep that clearly in mind, we’ll tend toward reformism or mere populism.
We had quite surprising results from our leaflet on the election. It was titled, “Warning! These Men Are Extremely Dangereous!”, above mug shots of Nixon, Humphrey and Wallace. Here are a few quotes from the section on Humphrey to give an idea of the style and approach: HUBERT HORATIO HUMPHREY alias, “HUMPTY-DUMPTY” alias, “THE JACKASS”
Wanted in all 50 states for fraud; grand theft tax; armed robbery and murder. Humphrey heads criminal machine called “Democratic Party”, which last year used racket called “TAXES” to steal over $100 BILLION. Most of this loot spent on purchase of dangerous weapons (tanks, bombs, missiles, etc.) ...many already used in illegal enterprise in Vietnam – killing 30,000 Americans and 500,000 Vietnamese. “Democratic Party” extorts votes from working people and small property owners, but is bankrolled by bigshots. Humphrey machine sent 60 THOUSAND U.S. men into U.S. cities to fight other Americans and protect property of Humphrey’s big business “friends”. Humphrey machine ruined U.S. economy so much that HOUSEHOLD DEBT owed to furniture stores, car dealers, mortgage holders, etc. HAS GONE UP 155 BILLION DOLLARS IN THE PAST 8 YEARS. Because of these policies – that benefit big business, but hurt ordinary taxpayers, Humphrey got almost 10 BILLION DOLLARS from big business tycoons – who also kick in to the major rival syndicate, called the “Republican Party”.
The back side of the leaflet contained an incitement to riot. Entitled “Why Vote For An Evil” it explained that
NONE OF THE TH$EE MAJOR CANDIDATES IS ANY GOOD – and most people know it! No matter how many campaign promises they make, no matter how many times they tell us they’re all for us, ALL of the major candidates are bought and paid for by powerful financial interests, which have some disagreements among themselves, but share a common desire to make money from the sweat, blood, tears and taxes of the majority of people in this country.
the only way we can change this situation for the better is for all of the working people and small property owners – who make up the vast majority of the American people – to get together and take the power over our lives from the big business tyrants who now run the country and ruin all our lives.
We distributed the leaflet for several days before the election at factories and shopping centers. This time we made a point of hitting the three factories where I had worked previously. I knew a lot of the guys at each place and we also had several friends who worked at one of the places. At these places the guys paid more attention to what we were saying.
Many people, including many Wallace supporters, read the entire leaflet and expressed enthusiastic agreement. They were somewhat surprised to find someone saying in such a direct way what they already felt – that American politics, the political machinery and the politicians were disgusting because they related in no way, and had no intention of relating, to the interests of people like themselves. Many were more knowledgeable than we on the various ways that big business screws the public through government spending and tax policies.
As backward as most people are on some questions, particularly on racism, the consciousness of working people does reflect their objective situation – life is getting much harder; prices are going up, wages are not keeping up with prices, and taxes are continually increasing. Having no control over prices, people want to know if increased taxes are necessary; if they are the people to be taxed, and what the taxes are to go for.
Most of their taxes, of course, go for imperialism. Most of the tax dollar is spent on the military machine, foreign aid, war, and space – all justified by the cold war and all providing profits for the largest, most powerful corporate interests. These interests can be narrowed down to almost a handful of people, the same people who are the president makers – those who control the political machinery.
It’s a commonplace of history, but often forgotten, that while students and intellectuals develop a radical consciousness over moral concern with issues, working class people do when they are alienated from the basic economic part they must play in society; that of creating profit for somebody else. When working people are radicalized it will be on the basis of anti-capitalism.
We grant that their condition will have to deteriorate much farther before that will happen on a large scale, but we must be laying the political groundwork now for that possibility if it is ever to be actualized. The Left must realize that the severe economic and political crises that result in this age of national liberation struggle – which have hardly begun to manifest themselves – will accelerate loss of confidence in corporate liberalism. This trend was evident in the last election and In the rise of Wallace. Either real class consciousness will take its place or the populist sounding deception that is the cover for militarism and fascism will. There are tendencies in both directions, and it would be our fatal mistake to write off the majority of working class people into the latter category.
It will be some time before very many people from student backgrounds go into working class communities. That is to be expected – we are more concerned with the orientation of the Left and what it can do as it is now constituted.
The Left must develop an analysis of the way the system works in regard to working people, of class power and how it operates in determining government policy, because the people are looking for such an analysis. This means uncovering and explaining how policy is made – like the war in Vietnam – and who it profits. It means providing the arguments that can lead to the conclusion that capitalism is not in the interest of working people. Also, we must convince the people that we are fighting for their interests and that will not happen until the Left starts shedding some light on the ways in which working people suspect that they are being messed over.
The analysis must be made in the process of waging campaigns over such issues as safety legislation for factories and mines; union busting and wage freeze legislation (which will come this year); Nixon’s fiscal policies that serve to create unemployment; and Federal, state and local tax measures. The TAX ISSUE is the most basic; it shows most clearly who gets screwed and who profits. The objects of an attack on taxes would also be those things which are the very props of imperialism – military spending and foreign aid.
The organizational vehicle for the implementation of this kind of program could be the formations of radical students that now exist – even those that have existed heretofore on the scanty diet of electoral politics. It would be good for organizations that are linked in the public mind with support for black liberation and a radical anti-war posture, like Peace and Freedom in California, to take up these issues.
The student movement can also relate to this type of program. Students realize that the University is a service center for the ruling class. Rather than just remaining alienated from this process, they should have the view that their own academic work, as well as political involvement, should be just the converse of that–serving the people. The dynamic of the campus movement is now in fact the struggle to force the University to serve the interests of Third World people. That view, which is very healthy, might be expanded to include white working class people when the Left begins to act on some of the issues that relate to the latter.
Research could be done on the reasons behind policy decisions in Washington, on taxes etc. The content of courses and of university policy should be launched by students on issues like taxes, community control of cops or rent control that effect working people as well as students.
This perspective is particularly needed on campuses because the movement on a given campus usually goes through cycles. First a successful action, with the sense of a movement being built, relating to large numbers of students followed by a longer period of liberal co-optation of the majority of students while some of the more radical students become discouraged and despair of the political efficacy of any program altogether. As repression grows sharper, these comedowns will take a greater toll. This situation will continue as long as political leadership on campuses content themselves with interpreting the mood of the time into action, but can offer no long range perspective for relating to the rest of society in a way that makes final victory seem a possibility.
Now I’ll return, in conclusion, to our perspective for a working class community. I dealt in length with how the Left can relate to the working class because that, as well as the work we do in Richmond, amounts to questions of ideology, strategy and class orientation for the entire movement, not just for “community organizers” who are “doing their thing”.
Radical working class formations will emerge with varying organizational forms and relate to the movement in quite different ways. People have learned some things about issues in a community and how to relate to them, much about what not to do; but no one seems to have yet found any really viable organizational forms. Radical caucuses within unions have met with some success. In Richmond we are looking toward a radical community organization made up of people working in local factories, the unemployed, and some local high school and junior college students. It will be organized on the basis of an open radical political perspective and posture, working class identity and with the dual purpose of “serving the people” (helping people with everyday problems), and getting across some political understanding to our people.
A useful tool, we think, would be a newspaper with political articles, information on peoples’ rights and other articles on sports, etc. The newspaper will be clearly linked with the organization and will be a way of making contacts and building a political identity for the group. Campaigns in which we become involved, like community control of the cops or supporting strikes will be of much more value when carried out by a group with a local and radical working class identity.
Midnight poster raids and other things that are fun as well as having political value will definitely play a part in building a fighting spirit and cammeraderie.
We may even win if we keep in mind the words of Comrade Mao: The masses are the real heroes, while we ourselves are often childish and ignorant, and without this understanding it is impossible to acquire even the most rudimentary knowledge.