History, Culture & the Communist Manifesto–Part 1

Against the Current, No. 72, January/February 1998

Staughton Lynd

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

THIS IS A very sweeping statement (the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles). The ATC editors [in correspondence with contributors to this symposium–ed.] have offered a paraphrase: “Class struggle is the central feature of social history.”

Even in paraphrase, the proposition seems to defy empirical testing. How can one determine whether some<->thing is or is not “central”? And what exactly is meant by “social” history? For example, does it include political history?

All I can do in the space provided is to glance at the centrality of class in three contexts: the American Revolution; the Vietnam War; and the emphasis of recent scholarship on race and gender.

The American Revolution

I have examined the Revolutionary era in New York with particular attention to class conflict. I found that the received histories, whether conventional or “progressive,” did not explain how people actually behaved. A given group’s relationship to the means of production–that is, class as Marx and Engels defined it–proved a far more precise tool.

The politics of tenant farmers depended on the politics of their landlords. In southern Dutchess County the landlords were Tories, and the tenant farmers became Whigs. In Columbia County, a few miles to the north, the land was owned by members of the Livingston family who favored independence. The tenants staged a rebellion on behalf of the King. In each instance, the motivation of the tenants was the hope of coming to own their farms.

Artisans were usually ardent Sons of Liberty before the Revolution, but supported the anti-democratic United States Constitution of 1787. Why? The connecting thread was the artisans’ desire to protect their livelihoods against the competition of manufactured goods imported from Great Britain.

Thus, as Sons of Liberty, they favored boycotts and threw imported tea into Boston Harbor. But thus also, in 1787-1788, they supported Alexander Hamilton and his conservative friends in the hope that a stronger national government would impose a protective tariff.

The Vietnam War

Marx expounded his views of class struggle in brilliant analyses of revolutions and quasi-revolutions that occurred in his own lifetime. We have experienced no comparable political upheaval. But we have lived through the Vietnam War.

At the time, the media propounded the image of a hawkish working class. We now know that a survey taken in the same year that the media invented the term “hard-hats” (1970) found that forty-eight percent of the northern white working class was in favor of immediate withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam, while only forty percent of the white middle class took this position.

In 1971, according to a Lou Harris poll, sixty-four percent of labor union members favored an early pullout from Vietnam. These working-class attitudes reflected the reality that poor and working men were drafted in disproportionate numbers to fight the Vietnam War, while middle-class men largely escaped it through student deferments. (A survey of the Harvard class of 1970 found only two men who served in Vietnam.)

And in the end, it was the direct action of Black and white workers at war in Vietnam that brought the nightmare to a close. Hundreds of thousands of servicemen went through the change of heart experienced by Brian Willson.

A self-described “redneck,” Willson was assigned to go to villages after they were bombed to assess the effectiveness of the raids. One day he found himself looking at the face of a young mother, dead on the ground with her three dead children in her arms. “I looked at that mother’s face, what was left of it, and it flashed at that point in my mind that the whole idea of the threat of Communism was ridiculous.”

Blacks, Females, and Workers

It is argued that those who emphasize class have insufficiently attended to the separate oppressions, and special roles, of Blacks and women. I believe this argument has been urged in an exaggerated and divisive manner, reflecting the fragmentation of the Movement itself during the past quarter century.

A better paradigm would recognize the frequent role of Blacks and women in initiating a struggle that could only be brought to a conclusion when other sectors of the working class joined in.

The Vietnam War is one example. The Black student movement took a stand against the war approximately two years before the white student movement (Students for a Democratic Society), reflecting the fact that the poor Blacks who were the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement in the Deep South were drafted and sent to the front lines in Vietnam in disproportionate numbers, especially during the first years of the war.

Yet only when middle-class Blacks (Dr. King in April 1967) and working-class whites joined in opposition could the war be ended.

Another example, involving gender rather than race, comes from the Russian Revolution. On the morning of February 23, 1917, women workers in five large textile factories in St. Petersburg left their plants, and went from factory to factory calling out other workers to demonstrate for peace and bread. They were joined by predominantly-male metal workers.

When the marchers were confronted by mounted troops, according to Leon Trotsky, the women approached the soldiers more boldly than did the men, took hold of the rifles, and beseeched, almost commanded: “Put down your bayonets–join us.” The cossacks refused to ride down the women. And the Czar fell.


The evidence I have sketched above is anecdotal, but such evidence has convinced me that class analysis remains the best way of understanding social change.

The many questions I have not touched on include:

Are there still economic contradictions that will force the working class into radical opposition?

If class conflict exists, is it also true that workers can develop the ideology of a class for itself, a socialist vision? Will resolution of the conflict between the working and capitalist classes effect a transcendence (Aufhebung) of all class struggle and usher in a classless, socialist society?

I leave these questions to other commentators.

—Staughton Lynd’s recent works are Living Inside Our Hope (Ithaca, NY: ILP Press, 1997) and the edited collection “We Are All Leaders:” The Alternative Unions of the Early 1930s (University of Illinois Press, 1996).

ATC 72, January-February 1998