When friends come to our house for dinner or if we go to theirs, it is customary for the guests to bring a token of appreciation. It can be a bottle of wine or a box of candy, but it is something to supplement the dinner. Not to bring anything is the same as someone coming to a meal and leaving without saying “thank you.”

The question arises, what can Communists and other left folks bring to the huge coalition table that is dedicated to improving reforms and defeating the ultra-right?

The one item that might be helpful to bring is some clarity on some of the ideas and terms that are being bandied about.

Take, for example, the idea of the middle class. This idea assumes that we define class by the amount of income people earn. This is a very unstable concept. It leads to a sense of individualism in the people who are supposed to be part of this class, and they are inundated with the idea that any success or failure is all an individual’s fault. This was vividly expressed in the play “Death of a Salesman.” In contrast, a more stable social scientific concept might be the thought that one defines class, or the membership thereof, by the individual’s production relations: if one is working (no matter what the job) and has only meager savings to protect him or her self from old age or sickness, and is in the main dependent on this job either with a private company or the public sector, one could confidently say that they are part of the working class. This in turn can lead to ideas such as collective action to improve their lot, rather than individual ideas of everyone for themselves.

Such an approach might immediately bring up the argument that the so-called working class is rapidly disappearing in the United States. Some talk about the vanishing middle class. While it is true that the organized sector of the working class has shrunk dramatically from the early years of the 1950s through the 1990s, at the same time that U.S. production has decreased and foreign production increased, the rate of profit of these corporations has dramatically increased. Millions of workers are not organized, and are working for low pay without benefits. They could become a fertile field for unionization and improvement of their conditions if they could only find the tools to do so.

Defining class by individuals’ relation to production would be something “new” that we could bring to the broad discussion table. It might be challenged, but the truism holds – as long as you work for a living, you’re part of the working class. Whether you have a high or low paying job, if you’re out of work, you’re in trouble. This “novel” idea could make people think about what we have to do to improve the unemployment situation – not individualism, but rather collective action. Benefits like unemployment compensation along with health care are a right of workers who have over the years labored to make the corporations wealthy, and it’s only collective action by this class that can win these and more.

Such an infusion of more fundamental concepts than some that are prevalent today might help activists in the broad democratic coalition rediscover long-time social truths that could help in organizing for a better life. We should not simply come to the political table and say “hurrah” for the work being done. If we bring something new or not thought of for a long time, our coalition partners will respect us and listen.



Emil Shaw
Emil Shaw

Emil Shaw was an activist on labor, social justice and retiree issues in New Mexico. He wrote many columns for the People's World and its predecessors and was a staunch supporter of this newspaper and websites. Emil died on Sept. 12, 2010, and will be sorely missed.