Educational meeting of International Ladies Garment Workers Union Local 60, Harlem, New York, April 1934. The ILGWU was a founding member of the CIO. Kheel Center, Cornell University Library , licensed CC BY 2.0
In “The White Republic and The Struggle for Racial Justice,” Bob Wing contended that the U.S. state is racist to the core, and this has specific implications for our movements’ work going forward, especially the need to replace this racist state with an anti-racist state. Barry Eidlin argues that organizing against the white republic must be anchored to an understanding of the material basis of white supremacy, and powered by interracial working-class solidarity – rather than a cross-class alliance. OrgUp has published a number of other responses to Bob Wing’s article as well; we encourage readers to add your voice, and to check out the contributions from Bill Fletcher, Jr., Gerald Horne, Erin Heaney, Peter Olney & Rand Wilson, and Van Gosse. This discussion then wraps up with some concluding thoughts by Bob Wing.
Look to Class Struggle to Beat the White Republic
By Barry Eidlin
Thank you to Bob Wing for writing this sharp, energetic game plan for defending democracy, and to Organizing Upgrade for inviting me to respond to it.
There’s a lot to agree with here. Clearly any movement for social and economic justice in the U.S. must place the struggle against racism and white supremacy at its core. More specifically, it’s hard to find fault with his assessment that “race is the pivot of U.S. politics” and that the contemporary Republican Party has doubled down on naked, overt racism as its fundamental appeal. Likewise, his call to strengthen the labor movement is vitally important.
My core concern with Wing’s analysis is that capitalism does not figure prominently enough in his analysis of racial capitalism. This leads him to misread the historical dynamics of U.S. racism and struggles for racial justice. But perhaps more importantly for readers of Organizing Upgrade, it leads him to advocate organizing strategies and alliances for today that do not adequately confront the power structures underlying the white republic.
For our purposes, it is not necessary to delve into what Cedric Robinson did or did not mean by “racial capitalism.” For simplicity’s sake, we will take it to mean, as Wing puts it, that “U.S. capitalism and racism are inseparable.”
This insight is a fundamental starting point for any analysis of U.S. society and politics. But it’s vital not to lose sight of both aspects of that inseparable whole.
Wing is far too seasoned an activist and far too insightful a thinker not to know this. However, as he develops his argument rightly placing racism at the heart of his analysis of the U.S. political terrain, capitalism fades into the distance.
We see this from the outset when he states that “the U.S. government was, from the very beginning, built by and for whites and as a dictatorship over Black and Native peoples.” This is descriptively accurate as far as it goes, but what’s missing is any explanation for why the U.S. state was built this way.
NAME THE MATERIAL BASE
Perhaps it is too obvious for Wing to be worth mentioning, but it’s important to keep in mind that the atrocities committed against Native peoples were aimed at territorial dispossession to gain access to land and natural resources. Likewise, the political dictatorship over Black people was a necessary component of maintaining and reproducing a slave system of economic production.
Does this mean that racist domination of Black and indigenous peoples was and is simply an instrument of economic exploitation? Far from it. Ideologies often take on a life and logic of their own once established. But just as it is impossible to understand capitalism without integrating racism into the explanation, the reverse is equally true.
Without accounting for the role that indigenous dispossession and racialized chattel slavery played in the development of U.S. capitalism, we risk falling into an understanding of racism and white supremacy that views it as an atavistic, sui generis phenomenon, perhaps drawing on something inherent in the human psyche. It’s as if, as Barbara Fields put it, “the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy rather than cotton, sugar, rice, and tobacco.” (One could say something similar about indigenous dispossession).
How we conceptualize the origins of the white republic matters for strategizing about how to dismantle it today. If the white republic is ideologically based, a system perpetuated by a ruling class alliance “united by and for the system of white privilege and racist oppression,” then the solution is an ideological counter-alliance united against the system of white privilege and racist oppression. This is the “cross-class front against the white republic” for which Wing advocates.
If on the other hand the white republic has a material base in systems of economic appropriation and exploitation, then “broad-front” alliances based on a minimum of ideological agreement may be too broad.
WHO’S IN THE FRONT?
I mean “too broad” in two senses. First, from a purely mobilizational standpoint, the minimal basis of political agreement for the broad fronts Wing describes is almost entirely negative. Wing’s own shorthand for the broad front is an “anti-Right alliance.” This negative basis of agreement may be sufficient for defensive actions like denying Trump a second term in office. But it is entirely inadequate for constructing the kind of transformative politics that can actually confront and defeat the white republic.
A basic tenet of organizing is that you do not move people to action by telling them about everything that is bad in their lives. They already know that. Organizing requires providing people with a positive vision of how their lives could be different, and a realistic plan for achieving that vision. A purely negative vision based on a shallow shared opposition to a set of ideas and policies provides neither of those.
Second, the “broad-front” alliance that Wing proposes is too broad in that it explicitly calls for a “cross-class antiracist alliance.” It is unclear exactly from the text, which talks of uniting “the progressive people” with “the oppressed,” which classes should come together in such an alliance. Wing is clear that the alliance should be “the broadest possible,” and equally clear that “numerous issues divide this broad front.” He provides a long list of such axes of division, but aside from mentioning a class division specifically among people of color, there is no mention of general class cleavages within the alliance.
At the same time, Wing argues that “the primary form that broad unity against racist authoritarianism takes is…voting Democratic to defeat…a Republican Party that is all in for white tyranny.” He characterizes the Democratic Party as “a vital terrain of both unity and struggle between progressives and the ruling class and elitist forces.” Later on, he describes the “corporate class” as “an unstable opponent of racism and authoritarianism.”
Should we read this to mean that the cross-class antiracist alliance includes segments of the ruling class? If so, what are the ground rules for such an alliance? Given that, as Wing says, this same ruling class uses its power “to fashion the society as a whole in its image and interest,” what strategies and safeguards are in place to ensure that the broad front is not commandeered to serve ruling class interests?
This is not to say that alliances with ruling class elements should never be established under any conditions, especially when it comes to the tortured terrain of U.S. electoral politics. But the rules of engagement must be clear. And clarity starts with specifying who the ruling class is and how they exercise their power.
IDENTIFY THE RULING CLASS
Unfortunately, Wing leaves the ruling class strangely underspecified on both counts. He asserts that “the ‘state’… is the most potent form that ruling class power takes.” But without diminishing the power of the state, who is this ruling class, and where do they get the power to exert control over the state? If there is a ruling class that is independent of the state, does that not necessarily imply that they possess and exercise a separate power that is at least as powerful as that of the state, if not more?
I suspect that if asked directly, Wing would identify the ruling class as the capitalist class, which gains its power over state and society through its control over economic production. But despite many mentions of ruling classes, class fractions, class forces, and class alliances, this fundamental statement about who the ruling class is and how it derives its power is nowhere to be found in the text itself. And yet this is an essential starting point for understanding the power structure underlying the white republic. Absent this, is it difficult to understand who is building the U.S. state, and why they are building it for whites. You can’t understand capitalism without racism, but you also can’t understand racism without capitalism.
By extension, without clearly identifying the actors involved in building the white republic, it is hard to develop an adequate strategy for dismantling it. Wing characterizes the current U.S. political polarization as being between an “overtly racist alliance” and a “broad and diverse anti-right alliance.” While there are particular features that distinguish the current racist alliance, Wing sees it as merely the latest iteration of an alliance that has been “united by and for the system of white privilege and racist oppression throughout its history.”
While it would be unfair to expect Wing to spell out an entire strategy for dismantling white supremacy and establishing “a systemic racial justice democracy” in such a short piece, the core of the strategy appears to be: 1) electorally defeating the political expression of the racist alliance, namely the Republican Party; and 2) “building the independent strength of the most determined racial, social, climate, and economic justice constituencies.”
These are both important tasks for the Left. But by themselves they are insufficient for accomplishing the strategic goals that Wing articulates. The first is at most a defensive maneuver, since in practice it involves supporting and voting for a corporate-dominated Democratic Party. The second amounts to a general call for strengthening the Left’s fighting capacity.
In both cases, the basic assumption is that we take the existing political terrain and alliances for granted, and just fight harder. Through savvier tactics, more and better organizing, we keep fighting until we win a systemic racial justice democracy.
CHANGE THE TERMS OF ENGAGEMENT
What this misses is a well-known insight among organizers: when faced with a structurally more powerful opponent, you win by changing the terms of engagement. This can involve changing the arena of struggle (i.e. moving the conflict from boardroom negotiations out into the street) or changing the size and shape of the opposing sides. This includes bringing new constituencies into the fight on your side, as when striking teachers ally with parents, or peeling off components of your opponent’s alliance, as when environmental groups pressure pension funds to divest from fossil fuel companies.
Wing himself hints at this idea towards the beginning of his piece when he states that “no ruling class can gain the broad social base needed for stability without forming fairly durable but still changing alliances with other social forces.” Later he gets more specific, identifying the durable “racist white cross-class alliance of those who support white power and privilege” that is “central to the U.S. ruling alliance and U.S. state.”
Building on these insights, we can see that one of the central tasks of any movement for racial and economic justice must be to break up the racist white cross-class alliance. The question is how.
Here the key is understanding the conditions under which political alliances can change. Looking at the key inflection points in Wing’s historical narrative, from the first Reconstruction, to its defeat, to the New Deal, to the Second Reconstruction of the Civil Rights Movement, each of these involved a major reconfiguration of political alliances.
While we can identify these reconfigurations in hindsight, what is crucial to keep in mind for our purposes is that none of them was preordained. Each was the product of social and political struggles, where specific groups and organizations faced off against each other: parties, unions, social movements, armies, firms, state bureaucracies.
Wing is right that throughout most of this history, a racist white cross-class ruling alliance persisted in some form. But there were also moments when the alliance frayed. These can provide clues for how the alliance might be dissolved entirely.
THE 1930S: A MISSED CHANCE
The New Deal era of the 1930s is particularly instructive here. In Wing’s account, the period is an exceptional moment in U.S. history “where class was the main animator of a mass fight for social justice.” He contrasts it to the periods before and after, where he sees cross-class movements as the main drivers of social change. The implication is that, save that exceptional period, it takes a cross-class alliance to win in U.S. politics.
The history suggests otherwise. Rather than an exception, the 1930s present us with a missed opportunity. It was a moment when an interracial working-class alliance was a real possibility.
Class emerged as the “main animator” in the fight for social justice precisely because the working-class upsurge of the period challenged the white power structure and reoriented white workers away from the racist ruling-class alliance, while linking principled anti-racism to a broad program for economic justice. As scholars like Manning Marable, Robin D. G. Kelley, and Michael Goldfield have shown, it was an incipient labor-civil rights movement, the defeat of which delayed the onset of the Second Reconstruction by at least a decade, and profoundly shaped the Civil Rights Movement that did emerge.
Concretely, this movement took the form of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) organizing core industries like coal, steel, auto, meatpacking, and textile on an industrial basis, meaning all workers regardless of job classification. By necessity this involved organizing workers across racial lines, as employers stoked racial divisions by creating racial hierarchies among different jobs. Previous organizing attempts had foundered on these job-based racial divisions.
The CIO was aided in these endeavors by the Communist Party (CP) and other radicals, who viewed antiracism as an integral part of the class struggle. In addition to being among the most skilled and dedicated CIO organizers, they also led major racial justice campaigns around lynching and criminal justice, unemployment, housing, and sharecropping.
Did these campaigns turn white workers into thoroughgoing, conscious antiracists? Of course not. What they did do is transform alliances by convincing workers of all races of the strategic imperative of interracial unity to fight the boss. None of the major organizing campaigns of the 1930s could have succeeded without this strategic interracial unity. Those that failed to prioritize interracial unity, like the Operation Dixie drives of the late 1940s, inevitably failed.
This incipient labor-based civil rights movement was ultimately defeated, a victim of internal anticommunist purges, vacillating Popular Front politics within the CP, and a healthy dose of state and employer repression. But the lesson we can draw from it for today is that the goal of today’s antiracist alliance should not be to array one cross-class alliance against another. Rather, it should be to realign the entire conflict along class lines. That is what can erode the white power structure and create conditions for a racial justice democracy.
This does not involve downplaying anti-racist demands to appeal to white workers. Nor is it a call to subsume racial differences under a “universal” white-coded class identity. Indeed, this would be counterproductive, as unity in action requires that all parties involved feel engaged and included. Rather, it involves forging interracial solidarity through common struggles that create a sense of linked fate.
BUILD INTERRACIAL UNITY IN THE STRUGGLE
This is easier said than done, but we can find examples throughout U.S. history. A recent one is the “Red State Revolt,” the wave of illegal teachers’ strikes that swept across conservative bastions like West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma in 2018. Organizing and winning these strikes required not only uniting teachers of color and white teachers, but also uniting teachers with parents and students, who were more likely than the teachers to be black and brown.
Given where the strikes occurred, many of the white teachers were self-identified conservatives, even Trump supporters. This would place them firmly in the racist cross-class ruling alliance. But mobilizing for the strike put white teachers in a position where they had to unite with teachers of color to win. The act of organizing together across racial lines peeled white teachers away from the racist ruling alliance as they challenged Republican governors and legislators.
It would be wrong to claim that these actions eliminated racism among striking teachers. But the collective struggle did dial down the salience of racial divisions enough to allow for an interracial working-class alliance. As a Black teacher in West Virginia recalled,
“I didn’t feel any racism during the strike. You know, my next-door neighbor is a Trump supporter, but she stood right next to me on the picket line. I guess we were able to unite because we had a common goal—if it meant being a little uncomfortable, or being around someone you weren’t used to being around, that was okay.”
In sum, the teachers’ class struggle against capitalist austerity required interracial solidarity to win. The material fact of moving into struggle led large portions of white teachers to question their political alliances, and sometimes to change them.
There are many shortcomings of the Red State Revolt which have been analyzed elsewhere, but it offers a concrete example of how reorienting political conflict along class lines creates possibilities for eroding white racist cross-class alliances. Such examples would have to expand dramatically to shake the foundations of the white republic. Still, it provides a glimpse of what such a process could look like.
Wing has put forth a provocative assessment of the tasks facing today’s Left. Chief among these is figuring out how to confront and dismantle the white republic. The goal is important, but without a clear conception of who comprises it and how they get and wield power, it is hard to develop the right strategy for confronting it.
An analysis of the white republic that starts from an understanding of its material basis in capitalist economic relations is essential for developing such a strategy. This is what allows for a clear assessment of the power underlying the ruling class alliance. And by extension, it allows us to understand what kind of counter-alliance can best overcome that ruling alliance.