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Thinking Clearly about the White Working Class

Michael D. Yates is the associate editor of MR and the author of Can the Working Class Change the World?, forthcoming from Monthly Review Press.
David Gilbert, Looking at the U.S. White Working Class Historically (Montreal: Kersplebedeb, 2017), 97 pages, $10.00, paperback.

David Gilbert is a worthy heir to Antonio Gramsci. Like the Sardinian radical, he has kept abreast, from a prison cell, of world events and written about them with considerable clarity. He has been an activist among his fellow prisoners and has maintained a lively correspondence with militants beyond the walls. In this timely book, a new edition of his 1984 volume Looking at the White Working Class Historically, Gilbert addresses a subject that could not be more relevant—the white working class in the United States. Conventional wisdom has it that white workers propelled Donald Trump into the Oval Office, and liberals and even some leftists seem to think that the only hope for a resurrection of progressive politics is to bring white workers back into the fold of the Democratic Party. What has been missing from these accounts is a historical perspective, one that looks at things from the standpoint of material reality.

Gilbert sets the stage for his analysis in the preface to the 1984 edition, reprinted in the new volume. Obviously, the phrase “white working class” indicates that the workers in question are part of the working class, and, as such, of a much larger class worldwide, a mass of potential agents for the overthrow of the capitalism that oppresses them. However, they are also “white,” and, given the racist history of the United States, part of an oppressor nation that has subjugated, tortured, and murdered black, indigenous, and other nonwhite people for centuries. Gilbert states forcefully that “Historically, we must admit that the identity with the oppressor nation has been primary” (1). There have been exceptions, mainly in interracial efforts to improve wages and conditions in the workplace. Unfortunately, some scholars, such as Adolph Reed Jr., in an effort to deny that race remains a factor that cannot be subsumed by class, sometimes overstate the class solidarity of black and white workers.1 We could go back to the eighteenth century and note, as have historians Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh, that there were numerous multiracial uprisings in North America, the Caribbean, and the United Kingdom (particularly London).2 However, the Irish and other ethnic groups who allied themselves with free blacks and slaves, soon enough became “white” as they were assimilated into the dominant white culture, and were often satisfied with the small blandishments given them by merchants and capitalists.

Gilbert goes on to delineate the responses of white leftists to this reality. Some have simply failed to address white racism. (Once, I met some members of a left-wing party who had taken employment in a Pennsylvania coal mine, presumably to help radicalize the miners. Given the blatant racism in the area, I asked them if they had ever confronted, in a comradely manner, any racist remark made by a fellow miner. They said, oh no, we could not do that—and had no response when I wondered how racism could ever be combated if no one made an issue of it, even in a union setting.)

Other white radicals have recognized the leading role played by black radicals in the labor and national liberation movements and stood in solidarity with these, but, by the same token, they have too often “fallen into an elitist or perhaps defeatist view that dismisses the possibility of organizing significant numbers of white people, particularly working-class whites” (2).

From these initial remarks, further developed in the book’s introduction, Gilbert launches into his own analysis of the white working class. He begins with a brief examination of the remarkable rise of Donald Trump to president of the United States. Here too, history is his focus. Besides noting that most voters with annual income below $30,000, a group that is disproportionately nonwhite, cast ballots against Trump, while poorer whites voted for Trump, he points to the racist, sexist, and imperialist history of the United States as deciding underlying factors in the rise of Trump. All of this is true, though he misses the votes of the petit and rich bourgeoisie as key to Trump’s victory. Class was important, too.

Here and throughout the book, Gilbert stresses the power and interrelation of imperialism, racism, and patriarchy in shaping both history and consciousness, pointing to the effects of systemic crisis in determining historical events: “A stable imperialism prefers to rule by keeping the population passive, with large sectors at home placated by relative prosperity. But when the system is in crisis, those running the economy often resort to diverting anger by scapegoating the racial ‘other.’ The sectors of the population who buy into that get the ‘satisfaction’ of stomping on their ‘inferiors,’ which is a lot easier than confronting the mega-powerful ruling class” (11).

Gilbert’s analysis deepens in the next chapter, in which he interrogates three significant texts on the racial history of the United States: Theodore Allen’s “White Supremacy,” W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, and J. Sakai’s Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat. He offers interesting commentary on each work. The authors all demonstrate that the “white working class” as a collective identity was constructed by ruling elites to divide workers and make “whiteness” a felt “reality,” shaping and limiting their consciousness and actions.

Gilbert concludes that white workers have benefited from their whiteness, economically and socially. I think this is true. There have been coherent arguments to the contrary, including by Allen and Du Bois, trying to show that black-white worker unity would have helped all workers. These are, however, like all counterfactuals, impossible to prove, whereas the facts show clearly the many advantages white workers have enjoyed compared to black workers. Consider the work of John Smith in his recent book, Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century, which shows that workers in the global South are super-exploited, paid wages less than that necessary for subsistence. The super profits that arise from this are then used in part to subsidize both the workers and the states of the global North.3 How big a leap is it from this to surmise that the super-exploitation of black labor, which is reflected in any social statistic we care to name—income, wealth, education, health—redounds to the benefit of white labor?4

My two criticisms of Gilbert’s glosses on these authors are, first, that his discussion of the Allen essay would have benefited from a reading of the rest of Allen’s writing, which is deeper and more extensive than the “White Supremacy” pamphlet. Allen did not ignore the theft of the native peoples’ lands or the genocidal wars waged against them, as Gilbert asserts. A perusal of his two-volume masterwork, The Invention of the White Race, makes this clear.

Second, his reading of the Sakai book is too generous. Sakai argues (both in Settlers and in his comments in the appendix to Gilbert’s book) that there has never been a white working class in the United States, in the sense of a class that sees its interests as diametrically opposed to capital and is intent on its overthrow. Sakai claims that white workers have historically defined themselves as allies of capital and full participants in its exploitation of people of color. For him, all the gains made by white laborers have come at the expense of the super-exploited underclasses, both here and abroad. Even during the 1930s, when industrial workers organized their unions and faced down the largest capitals in the world, and even though whites and blacks were sometimes allies, white workers proved themselves subservient to capital. They remained loyal foot soldiers of U.S. imperialism, in effect becoming fully “white” in the process. The organization of black workers in the unions of the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) was, in Sakai’s view, purely tactical: the unions needed those black workers who were critical to the operation of the factories.

Sakai, and Gilbert too, in his overall agreement with him, overstate their case. Sakai believes that most whites are not real workers at all but bourgeois, middle-class, and a labor aristocracy. They live in suburbs, with nice cars and large houses. They are not exploited, but instead the recipients of part of the surplus value extracted from the labor of people of color around the world. This is preposterous on its face, as any clear look at the data would indicate: a large and growing minority of white workers are poor, and all face stagnant or declining wages and diminishing life prospects. Besides, if white workers generated no profits from their labor, they would all be unemployed. Such a view is an insult to those whites who have suffered the grossest exploitation and still do. When my grandmother was unloading dynamite at the face of the coal mine in her mining village, trying to support two children while living in a shack shingled with tarpaper, she was exploited beyond any doubt. Gilbert himself downplays the motives of at least some CIO organizers, especially in industries like meatpacking, where radical white organizers and white workers too not only helped to build a multiracial union, but with their black brothers and sisters forcibly integrated neighborhoods and businesses in working-class neighborhoods.5

It is also worth noting that while black and other nonwhite workers have more often than whites been radical opponents of capitalism, they are not yet, at least in the United States, a revolutionary force. Minority workers are not immune to the forces that habituate us to capitalism and make us the workers capitalism needs. And within the white working class, there were and are “organic” intellectuals, well aware of capital’s depredations and keen on building a multiracial working-class movement. They agree that people of color and women must be leading voices in such struggles.6

The fact that not all whites are allied with capital shows that “whiteness” can be deconstructed, irrespective of Sakai’s assertions to the contrary. Indeed, the remainder of Gilbert’s book is devoted to this deconstruction. It consists of two essays: “Some Lessons from the Sixties” and “After the Sixties: Reaction and Restructuring.” In the first, he reflects on his experiences as a 1960s radical and the lessons he has taken take from those years. Several things struck me as I read this piece. First, while the period’s anticapitalist and anti-imperialist rebellions began among middle- and upper-middle-class college students, they eventually encompassed many working-class students and workers, including those who were white. The New Left became increasingly radical and developed plans “for the extension of what had started as a primarily elite student base to a broader, particularly working-class, youth base by doing more work around the draft, with G.I.s, in community colleges, and among youth in working-class neighborhoods.” Second, the discovery of black culture—including its music, emotional power, and sense of community—by large numbers of whites, helped at least some of them to confront the damage done by white supremacy.

Third, the war in Vietnam and the rise of the Black Panthers helped to forge an alliance among black militants; black and white youth subjected to the draft; and soldiers, including whites as well as black, Latino, and Native American active duty service members and veterans, all of whom began questioning the war and organizing resistance against it. The Panthers argued that the treatment of black people in the United States shared much with the murder and torture of Vietnamese by the U.S. military. By tying these together, they were able to secure allies among draft-age whites and those appalled by the slaughter in Vietnam. Fourth, the war helped whites, including working-class whites, to sympathize with national liberation movements throughout the world, a first step toward developing an anti-imperialist consciousness. Fifth, when consciousness is awakened in terms of one set of oppressions, people will begin to become aware of others, and see the need to struggle against them. Of equal importance is the women’s movement, which burgeoned during the 1960s and 1970s. Sexual liberation was a goal of most ’60s radicals. But it became clear that this would not be possible without the full emancipation of women, in all spheres of life. In addition, the spirit of the ’60s lived on, reflected in militant efforts to combat and de-stigmatize AIDS, to counter homophobia, build what is now called the LGBTQ movement, and prevent the destruction of human life we now face because of multiple ecological catastrophes.

The 1960s radical movement ultimately imploded, Gilbert argues, because it was not prepared to confront the repressive power of the state, which began an all-out war against black liberation. One segment of the New Left retreated into an ideology of a revolutionary white working class, while others went underground and tried to ally with revolutionary black groups, believing themselves to be “special whites,” revolutionary as others were not. The result was the collapse of the movement, which, in any event, was dealt a serious blow by the winding down of the war in Vietnam.

Gilbert’s view on the implosion of the radical ’60s is a bit misleading and contradicts his own arguments earlier in the book. Why would the growing consciousness of at least some working-class whites suddenly fall prey to an ideology of a revolutionary white working class? In addition, many whites within the New Left had participated in the Civil Rights Movement and the programs associated with the Freedom Summer, and were not at all smitten by such an ideology. The same can be said about many who were active in the antiwar protests and actions. Not only that: as Gilbert elsewhere points out, alliances had been built between the antiwar forces and the Black Panthers. There would seem to have been opportunities for deepening and broadening an already existing multiracial radical coalition.

The Panthers and the earlier Freedom Summer had begun a process of engaging in what we might call collective self-help measures, which brought important services such as education and health care to impoverished communities of color.7 This is where radical progress might have been made, had these efforts been fully embraced by white radicals and developed some roots in the white working class, which would have benefited from such measures in their own communities.

Instead, the second segment of the ’60s movement went underground. But was there a compelling reason to do so? The notion that members of the Weather Underground were “special whites” was surely delusional, as was the notion that clandestine bombing campaigns, much as the targeted buildings deserved to be destroyed, were the best hope for bringing revolution to the United States. I wonder what might have happened if this second segment had continued to push the movement to the left and begun to try to mobilize the communities of white workers in the same ways that the Panthers and even the Nation of Islam had mobilized black communities. Given the power of the state, maybe everything would still have fallen apart. But maybe not.

The second essay in this section continues the story from the 1960s into the ’70s. The details of this evolution will be known to many Monthly Review readers, from the collapse of national liberation movements, to the end of the economic “golden age” in the United States, to capital’s assault on the working class that came to be known as neoliberalism, to the rise of a racist carceral state, to the growing attacks on immigrants and the strengthening of the ideology of white supremacy, to the endless war on terror.

Since the political upheavals of the 1960s failed to coalesce into more permanent radical organizations and structures, these developments, which, according to Gilbert, were themselves in large part a consequence of the weakening of U.S. imperial power, proved to be incubators of a renewed white supremacy, culminating in the rise and election of a neofascist, misogynist, and racist demagogue to the presidency. The more stable imperialism of the two or three decades after the Second World War gave way to an unstable imperialism, with potentially disastrous results for all humanity.

Still, Gilbert sees signs of renewed struggle:

We live in a very dangerous time, but fortunately we have had a resurgence of activism in the U.S. over the past ten years, beginning with the massive mobilization for immigrants’ rights in 2006. Occupy Wall Street helped define the real problem as the rule by the 1%. The LGBTQ movement has made impressive advances. Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives are confronting core injustices, and a growing number of anti-racist whites have been joining SURJ [Showing Up for Racial Justice] and other groups. The Native American encampment at Standing Rock to try to stop an oil pipeline that endangers the water supply is a powerful example of how Indigenous sovereignty can lead the struggles for environmental protection. These and other sparkling streams of struggle can be fed by a new torrent of anti-Trump protests to become a mighty and life-nurturing river. (76)

How, then, to deepen these efforts, and especially to engage as much of the white working class as possible in them? Gilbert offers some suggestions. First, all radicals must maintain a principled and steadfast resistance to imperialism, racism, and patriarchy. These are the heart and soul of the capitalist system, and they must be overcome simultaneously. It is the duty of all radicals to do what they can to confront this unholy triumvirate. And it will be necessary above all to realize that the leaders of such attacks will and should be people of color, women, and immigrants.

Second, however, we must not fall into sectarianism, believing that there is only one correct way to overthrow capitalism. Gilbert advises that we should participate in all efforts to resist imperialism, patriarchy, and racism, without worrying unduly about the initial class composition of these efforts, but rather working to bring class into the discussions and actions of the group, and to reach out to the white working class whenever possible. In addition, we should look for situations in which the interests of racial minorities intersect with those of white workers. Perhaps the war on terror, which has wreaked havoc on white and black soldiers and their families is one such intersection. Another might be the opioid epidemic. Others could be police repression, given that poor white working-class people are hardly immune from police brutality; modern debt peonage; environmental pollution and the overall destruction of nature; the assault on publicly subsidized medical care, social security, and disability relief. We should encourage labor unions to engage in cross-border organizing and solidarity, such as that done by the United Electrical Workers and a few others. And the white radicals who are teachers can make sure that there is an education component in every organization in which they are involved. For example, we might be able to make inroads into the discourse about immigrants, given that nearly all white U.S. workers are themselves descended from immigrants.

There are many possibilities to do good work, and we must not abandon the white working class as a hopeless case. The future will surely sharpen the contradictions inherent in capitalism, whether in the workplace or in what Nancy Fraser, following Marx, calls the “hidden abodes” of the system, aspects of capitalism that expropriate rather than directly exploit, such as the environment, the reproductive labor of women, or the continuing thefts of land and labor from vulnerable people everywhere.8

While insights abound in this short, readable book, important elements are missing. Gilbert might have spent more time discussing the U.S. labor movement, including new forms of organizing such as workers’ centers, and efforts by reformers to rid themselves of the class collaborators and corrupt officers who now run so many unions. Black workers and immigrants have been at the forefront of the former, but there is no reason to believe that white workers can’t be convinced to participate in and support them. Indeed, some already do.

He might also have provided some details on the kind of society we envision in our dreams of a better world. What political slogans do we need?9 How important is horizontal decision-making, à la Occupy? Is electoral politics worth our time? What about worker cooperatives?10 The book would have profited, for example, from an examination of the remarkable attempt to build an ecosocialist, cooperative society in Jackson, Mississippi. There, radical organizations have acquired land and begun to produce goods and services on it, begun education programs promoting bottom-up democracy, put such democracy into practice, and made plans to use advanced technology to support eco-friendly and sustainable manufacturing and agriculture. The project is called Jackson Rising, and its accomplishments and future goals, strategies, and tactics deserve our attention and support.11

Nevertheless, this is a useful book for study and discussion by all interested in building a movement ultimately able to lead us beyond a system that day by day grows more barbaric.


  1. See, for example, Reed’s otherwise useful discussion of the tearing down of the Confederate monuments in his hometown, New Orleans. Here he claims more than will withstand historical investigation of the 1892 general strike in New Orleans. While black and white workers showed solidarity, this was surely an exception to the white supremacy of most white workers. Adolph Reed Jr., “Monumental Rubbish: With the Statues Torn Down, What Next for New Orleans?” Common Dreams, June 25, 2017,
  2. Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh, “The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, and the Atlantic Working Class in The Eighteenth Century,” Journal of Historical Sociology 3, no. 3 (1990): 225–52.
  3. John Smith, Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century: Globalization, Super-Exploitation, and Capitalism’s Final Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016).
  4. See Michael D. Yates, “It’s Still Slavery by Another Name,” in The Great Inequality (New York: Routledge, 2016), 103–18.
  5. See Roger Horowitz, Negro and White, Unite and Fight! A Social History of Industrial Unionism in Meatpacking, 1930–90 (Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997).
  6. The works of Gregg Shotwell, Jerry Tucker, and others come to mind. See Shotwell, Autoworkers Under the Gun: A Shop-Floor View of the End of the American Dream (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012).
  7. Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr., Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).
  8. Nancy Fraser, “Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode,” New Left Review 86 (2014): 55–72.
  9. See Michael D. Yates, “OWS and the Importance of Political Slogans,” Cheap Motels and a Hotplate blog, February 28, 2013, http://
  10. See Bernard Marszalek, “Stronger Together?” Monthly Review 69, No. 5 (October 2017).
  11. Kali Akuno and Ajamu Nangwaya, Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi (Montreal: Daraja, 2017).
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