Despite all the claims to fight for the working class, a lot of American leftists don’t know how to talk to or about your average working-class person. (This probably applies to other countries that were on the left side of the Iron Curtain too, though I can’t be 100% sure.) And no, this has nothing to do with identity politics—that’s for later. Right now, I’m focusing on the struggles of daily life.
I grew up working class. I knew very few adults, other than teachers and medical professionals (and a single relative), who had bachelor’s degrees, much less master’s degrees and PhDs. Having a degree was a big deal; most of these people finished high school and went straight into the workforce if they didn’t do a stint at a community college first. People do not throw around terms like “bourgeoisie,” “proletariat,” and “material conditions.” Instead, they’ll say “the little guy” and “the bosses.” People talk plainly and clearly; they don’t go in circles using management-speak and Marxist jargon.
When working-class people talk about their material conditions, they give concrete examples, not turgid treatises on Engels and Žižek:
“When I was growing up in the 1960s, you could get a burger for 16 cents. Now you’ll be lucky to get one for $6.”
“They closed down the factory 20 years ago because they outsourced all the work to China. Dad had a hard time getting a job after that and needed to go on benefits.”
“I broke my hip and couldn’t do my job any more, but unemployment couldn’t cover my rent. I got evicted and had to stay in a shelter just to stay alive.”
“They’ve got us under surveillance all the time. You can’t even get up to go to the bathroom without logging it on a time sheet.”
“I’m getting early and late shifts stacked together at Amazon and can’t get any sleep.”
“I need to see the doctor, but my job doesn’t give me benefits, my state didn’t expand Medicaid, and I can’t afford an Obamacare plan.”
Despite their purported focus on material conditions, many leftists (especially Marxists) spend more time spouting academic-sounding jargon rather than listening to the people they want to defend. I’ve lived in the professional middle-class world for just over a decade now. But I’ve tried not to forget where I came from or what my values were. I still detest jargon and doublespeak and piles of abstractions that sound pretty on paper but mean nothing in practice.
Want to support the working class? Then listen. Don’t call them the “proletariat.” Say “you and me,” “your average person,” “the little guy.” Don’t talk about the “bourgeoisie.” Say “the bosses,” “the big guys,” or give names: Donald Trump, Elon Musk, Warren Buffett. It’s a lot easier to grasp it if you talk about specific people rather than a nebulous “bourgeoisie.” Put down Das Kapital and the Communist Manifesto. Talk plainly. Speak from the heart. Make it easy for people to imagine a better world. If you want to talk about material conditions, then fucking describe them. If you want to talk about how companies exploit their employees, then give examples. Some leftists do this, but it’s typically covered in a pile of jargon.
And your average working-class American isn’t going to be thrilled to talk about communism or socialism, either, especially if they’re older. The same people who want the government to provide them with healthcare and housing, or their unions to protect their rights, are the same ones who will turn around and denounce communism. “The country’s becoming more communist every minute,” someone—a sixtyish woman working in a unionised job—said to me recently. Communism isn’t a concrete set of political demands; it’s an abstract evil force that they associate with the Soviet Union (though they’ll usually call it “Russia”) and the Cold War. Like it or not, Marx’s better ideas have been tainted by association with the terrors inflicted by Stalin and his imitators. “Dictatorship of the proletariat” is going to make people think of Stalin, not workers’ taking control over what they produce, as they do in worker-owned cooperatives. When you ask them to think of a socialist country, they’ll think about dictatorial regimes like the USSR and North Korea.
This isn’t to say that working-class people are stupid because they think of Stalin and Kim Jong Un when you mention socialism. Quite the contrary. They may not have read a word of Marx, but they can tell you exactly how alienated they are from their job, how exploited they feel by their bosses, how much they want to put food on the table without accounting for every penny, how frustrated they are when they talk and no one listens.
If you want workers to rise up against unfair conditions, if you want to spur a mass movement, you need to be able to meet people where they are. You can’t just wait for everything to suck so much that people will join the Socialist Equity Party of Liberation instead of voting for the tried-and-true Republicans and Democrats who actually know how to win an election. They’re just going to pull the lever for Biden or Trump. It’s impossible to have a mass movement if you don’t know how to reach the masses, but a lot of “materialist” leftists don’t seem to get that—they’re trapped in the ivory tower as much as their “pseudo-leftist” progressive counterparts are.
Talk plainly. Speak from the heart. Ditch the jargon. And then you’ll have a movement.