The phrase in this diary's title - "self-activity" - often elicits confused looks, and not only among non-lefties, sad to say. Yet the concept of self-activity is absolutely central to any radical politics that purports to be "of the people and by the people" and not merely "for the people." This Labor Day is a good time to reflect on American working class self-activity, because over the course of American history, through its self-activity the American working class has led the nation in realizing the promise of the Declaration of Independence that the U.S. would be a nation where all are created equal.
Diary cross-posted at Voices on the Square
The concept of self-activity was introduced to me by my first intellectual mentor, labor historian George P. Rawick, a lifelong left activist who edited The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, a definitive, 41-volume collection of oral history interviews with former slaves taken during the 1930s under the auspices of the WPA. In his book on slavery, From Sundown to Sunup: The World the Slaves Made, Rawick emphasized the self-activity of American slaves, which he defined as that which exploited people do in coping with and resisting the conditions of their exploitation. He was especially interested in their strategies to (1) undermine the system of exploitation (e.g., tool-breaking) and (2) assert their human dignity in the face of a system that denies it (e.g., slave family life).
As my study of Marxian socialism has progressed, I've come to understand that self-activity is central to the humanist core of Marx's thinking, and that it represents nothing less than the active, creative aspect of humanity. Creative human activity, aka work or labor, is how we express our deepest selves and how we ensure our survival, but under capitalism labor becomes an activity alien to ourselves, directed and controlled by another, something that degrades us rather than exalting us.
Most Americans, especially those whose politics are even a little bit left of center, are aware of the central role played by workers in achieving social-economic advances like shorter working hours, higher wages, unemployment benefits, pensions, Social Security and a host of others. Many also recognize that even when a given labor union or other grouping of workers is fighting for some change at a single workplace or industry, the benefits of their success (or the costs of their failure) will be felt far beyond that single social locus. Simply put, when one group of workers wins higher pay or shorter hours, they make it easier for the next group to win as well.
Less well known but equally important has been the role of the working class in leading the American nation away from oligarchy and toward democracy. Of course, the advances mentioned in the previous paragraph are crucial to that as well, but here I'd like to focus on progress toward political democracy and equality.
The leadership of the American working class has been exemplary and longstanding:
• From the 1760s to the 1780s, artisan workers in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, etc., organized themselves into groups called the "Sons of Liberty" and constituted the left-wing of the American Revolution. In Boston, they initiated the Boston Tea Party protest, while elsewhere they led "bread riots," which were really protests against the high prices of food. Along with small farmers in the rural back country, urban workers pressed for and achieved--against the opposition of their wealthy pro-Revolution allies--the most democratic constitutions the world had ever seen, even including universal manhood suffrage, for example in Pennsylvania. When it came to the U.S. Constitution, urban workers were important advocates for adding the Bill of Rights.
• From about 1814 to the late 1820s, the U.S. was a one-party country, as different factions of the Democratic-Republican Party vied for power. Starting in 1828, urban workers created "Working Men's Parties" in over 70 cities and towns, which were the first modern political parties. The Jacksonian Democrats quickly copied their methods and co-opted some of their key demands, becoming the Democratic Party we know today. In the late 1830s and early 1840s, workers led movements to abolish property qualifications for voting in those states that did not yet have universal manhood suffrage. In Rhode Island, workers were at the forefront of the Dorr Rebellion against the oligarchy that ran the state.
• During the Civil War, enslaved black workers in the South engaged in stepped up efforts to undermine the slave system, culminating in what historian W.E.B. Du Bois aptly called a "General Strike" in 1863-65. As these strikers left their plantations and headed toward Union Army positions wherever they could find them, they were freed and put to good use, first as laborers and then as soldiers fighting for their own freedom. The slaves freed themselves, proved their military value to the Union Army, and forced not only their formal emancipation, but the adoption of the 13th, 14th & 15th Amendments, which still today form the legal underpinnings of many of the constitutional rights that make political democracy potentially workable.
• From the 1840s on, workers fought for the right to organize themselves into unions and then for the right to engage in collective action like strikes and boycotts. Along the way, they established important precedents upholding the First Amendment rights of free speech, assembly and association.
• In the 20th Century, in addition to supporting New Deal and Great Society reforms like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and even Obamacare, which are intended to create a more socially democratic society, workers and their organizations provided critical support to struggles for civil rights and against the militarization of the economy. Labor support was critical, for example, in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
To the extent we have political democracy in the United States, it is largely thanks to the self-activity of the American working class. Fighting the economic power of capital, American workers struggled for democratic rights out of necessity, as these were essential to its ability to act effectively for itself. Out of its own resources and on its own account, while often fiercely and violently opposed by the propertied classes and other reactionary elements, the American working class has struggled for and achieved great democratic reforms--not only for itself, but for all.
On this Labor Day, even as retrograde developments like the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision threaten to undermine and even overthrow American democracy, our thanks and our solidarity belong with the working class. There is, as always, more work to be done.