Martin Glaberman

False Promises:
A Review

(February 1974)

First published in Liberation, February 1974.
Republished in Martin Glaberman, The Working Class and Social Change (pamphlet), 1975.
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False Promises: The Shaping of American Working Class Consciousness
by Stanley Aronowitz McGraw Hill, 1973 465 pp., $10.00


Aronowitz’s book is a substantial departure from the usual intellectual view of working class consciousness. In the first place, he does not equate workers with the unions that claim to represent them. “The unions,” says Aronowitz, “have all but abandoned the fight for decent working conditions, and, insofar as they are perceived as staunch defenders of the status quo in terms of the organization of work, they are increasingly looked upon as enemies.” (p.409) Although I have certain minor reservations with respect to his analysis, the fact that he sees unions as inherently or institutionally conservative is a substantial advance over the usual wisdom of the left.

Many years ago I was hired in at the Detroit Transmission Division of General Motors. On the last day of my probationary period, I was called in by the foreman to be told that I was fired. I asked for my committeeman (whom I had never seen in 89 days of work) and then became witness to a remarkable exchange. I tried to tell the committeeman my side of the story, but he dismissed it cavalierly and simply assumed that all of the foreman’s charges were valid. Yet, when they had finished their bargaining (most of it not in my presence), the committeeman informed me that if I promised not to violate the rules anymore, the foreman would not fire me. This, seemingly, was the union at its best – probationary employees have no rights whatever that either the company or the union is bound to respect; and simply by reporting to work the next day I achieved a new status that protected me from such haphazard firing.

But what most impressed me about this experience was the fundamental argument used by the committeeman to win my case. He charged the foreman with being unwilling to share responsibility with the union for discipline in the plant. He told him that the time to call the committeemen was not after he had fired a worker and left the committeeman no alternative but to defend him, but when he first saw the worker “going wrong.” Then the committeeman could come over and tell the worker that what he was doing was not the way things were done around here, whether it was washing up early, taking an extra break, or whatever. That way the worker was reformed (disciplined), the foreman was content and the committeeman did not have to write a grievance. This incident gave me some insight into my own earlier experience as a steward and as a committeeman. Assuming that I was a militant union representative and not concerned with maintaining discipline, suppose I entered the toilet and found a worker asleep. I could ignore him, or I could tap him on the shoulder and tell him that if he were caught there was no way I could protect his job. How was this fundamentally different from the role of a conservative union representative?

It is always nicer, I suppose, to have pure motives than to have reprehensible motives. But fundamentally the function of the union representative is to enforce the contract. And, while the contract spells out certain rights of workers (mostly in terms of dollars and cents), it also spells out certain rights of management. It is these rights of management which workers are not prepared to accept, and the union’s enforcement of these rights, often enough, gives them their view of the union as enemy, as “them,” as opposed to “us.” A second sense in which Aronowitz’s book is a departure is that it grasps much of the totality and complexity of working-class consciousness. “We must examine daily life,” he says, “for it is in the structures of everyday existence that the social structure is reproduced in the minds of its participants.” (p.xi) In the opening section of the book Aronowitz combines a very astute description of the new reality of work at the Lordstown, Ohio, GM plant (he scoops the New York Times which only last December discovered the Lordstown practice of “doubling up” – workers covering for each other and performing two jobs so that unauthorized breaks can be taken) with an extensive review of working-class social reality outside of work as embodied in education, play, sports, entertainment, film, and so on. The interplay of his own personal experience, attention to historical development, and familiarity with major intellectual figures makes for a richness of and perception, although sometimes at the expense of rather arbitrary judgments. The main emphasis, not only in this earlier section, but throughout the book, tends to be the socialization of the working class into capitalist society.

The central section of False Promises, The Formation of the American Working Class, continues this richness of treatment but concentrates on those factors which divide the working class and limit its development: ethnic divisions above all, but also divisions along sexual, religious or racial lines; craft divisions; and the influence of workers’ European peasant origins. There is a kind of climax to this development in his treatment of trade unionism and its limitations. His critical perceptions are especially unusual (and difficult) for someone who has experienced union activism in the direct way that Aronowitz has.

There are some chapters on the changes in the middle class in the direction of a “professional servant class,” and the creation of white-collar proletarians, which seem less relevant to the main theme of the book. The conclusions are prefaced by an interesting study of the “unsilent fifties,” a combination of Aronowitz’s personal experiences in and out of the labor movement, the problems of McCarthyism, and the changes in the labor movement during this period.

But, while Aronowitz goes far beyond most other commentators on the labor scene, there are some fundamental weaknesses which distort his analysis. To begin with, he asks the wrong question: “The fundamental question to be explored in this book is why the working class in America remains a dependent force in society and what the conditions are that may reverse this situation.” I do not mean to imply that it is an unreasonable question. But, taken by itself, it is a limited question and will inevitably bring distorted answers. The problem is that the worker is viewed essentially as victim. Whether Aronowitz is discussing the important spheres of popular culture and entertainment or industrial militancy, the worker is everywhere the victim, unable to exercise significant influence on his or her own social reality.

In dealing with education, for example, the book is quite perceptive, except for its view of the historical origins of compulsory popular education: “The movement for reforms such as child and female labor restrictions, factory laws that required a minimum standard of health and safety to be maintained by employers, and free compulsory schooling were motivated by both the short-term and long-term interests of the rising capitalist classes.” (p.72) This view is also applied to the origin of unions; it is false in most respects and is not helped by the relative ambiguity of a term like “motivated.” The fact of the matter is that workers formed unions, workers fought for factory reform, and workers fought for compulsory, free, popular education. They were assisted by rather small numbers of middle-class reformers. They were opposed by capitalists essentially because it was not in their short-term interest.

What is involved is a relatively simple contradiction. All reforms that stop short of overthrowing the capitalist system become co-opted by that system and turned to its advantage (but not necessarily to the advantage of any particular capitalists). All that says is that if the system isn’t overthrown it continues to function. But that is a far cry from viewing massive social movements as capitalist manipulations. That schools or unions today are institutions for the socialization of children and workers into this system does not mean that they were created by the capitalists to fool the workers. That conspiratorial theory of history lies just beneath the surface of Aronowitz’s book.

Something more important than historical credit is involved in this. if the working class has been nothing but a victim (except for narrow questions of hours and wages, etc.) then it is hard to see what possible sources of radicalization exist. But if the working class has’ continually attempted to transform society, and has succeeded in transforming capitalist society, then it is that continuous struggle which transforms the working class itself and makes it capable of ultimately overthrowing capitalism. But here another problem is posed. Aronowitz cannot finally abandon the intellectual conception of conscious ness as verbalization and throughout the book, in discussing massive social struggles, he ultimately dismisses them because they weren’t “conscious” or “self-conscious.”

The workers’ growing resistance to work, their attempts to control the workplace, are minimized: because they seek “only” to control the workplace, they are not revolutionary. It is startling that a radical intellectual like Aronowitz should have a more conservative view of working-class activity than Establishment sociologists. In Work in America, a report of a special Task Force to the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, published by M.I.T. Press in 1973, workers’ alienation is seen as a direct source of political radicalization: “The result of alienation is often the withdrawal of the worker from community or political activity or the displacement of his frustrations through participation in radical social or political movements.” (p.22) According to this report, “there is now convincing evidence that some blue-collar workers are carrying their work frustrations home and displacing them in extremist social or political movements or in hostility toward the government.” (p.30)

The same problem appears in the discussion of mass culture. Aronowitz comes very close to a traditional elitist view of culture, although he modifies it by defending a presumably older “popular” culture (implying popular participation) as opposed to “mass” culture. The distinction between popular culture and mass culture, however, is artificial and is not a matter of “participation.” The audience did not “participate” in the production of Shakespeare’s plays or those of Aeschylus. But the audience, consciously or unconsciously, was constantly in the mind of the artist who had to depend on the vote of the Athenian citizen or the thruppence of the Elizabethan English for acceptance of his work. Great art has, often enough, been produced in response to an audience. Is it too much to think in terms of the same relationship in the movie (Chaplin, Eisenstein, etc., etc.)? Is the audience, whether of a motion picture, a football game, or a television show, purely passive victim? Or does it exercise its own influence-always and obviously within the framework of the existing social system? If Aronowitz thinks, as he seems to, that the music of the young is somehow anti-capitalist, or at least more revolutionary, than a film such as Viva Zapata or The Wild Ones, then he hasn’t noticed some of the racist rock and folk music or the sentimental pie-in-the-sky songs of good feeling which seek to opt out of this society and all political activity. It is not a matter of quality. Most entertainment that is produced for profit (as well as most amateur entertainment) is junk. What is involved is the perception that changes in the popular media, changes in sports, are at least in part responses to the pressure of the audience. Radicals need to explore that element in popular culture along with the bureaucratic, profit-making, manipulative forces which control the production of entertainment. How else to understand how the black community used the Muhammed Ali-Patterson fight for its own ends?

Seeing the worker only as victim leads to a very strange conclusion. The answer to the question originally asked, “what the conditions are that may reverse this situation of the working class as a dependent force, is-none. Aronowitz sees the American working class as overwhelmingly fragmented by divisions of sex, ethnicity, and race, and, most important, by the division of labor in the factory itself. In this I believe he too easily confuses multiplicity of job classifications with the hierarchy of management. As a matter of fact, one of the characteristics of the American factory which often surprises Europeans is the limited range of wage differentials among production workers. But Aronowitz’s conclusion is a total reversal of the role of the working class. Two passages illustrate this: “I believe that [Lenin] and Marx were too optimistic and underestimated the alienation of workers from one another embedded in the division of labor and the factory system,” (p.417) and “The redundancy of, large portions of the labor force, especially women and children, created by labor-saving technologies has led to the increased importance of institutions whose central role in society is the transmission of values and ideologies that reproduce capitalism within the consciousness of the working class in the absence of experiences in the workplace that formerly performed this function.” (pp.420-1)

This last is hard to believe. Aronowitz is not modifying or adjusting Marx’s and Lenin’s “optimism.” He is directly contradicting them. He is not saying that the work experience does not lead to sufficient class or revolutionary consciousness. He is saying that the work experience leads to the exact opposite, to the acceptance of capitalist society.

Where, then, is the basis for a revolutionary perspective? “The infection of democratic ideology and the social legitimation of erotic needs by mass culture among this generation of young workers constitutes the permanent roots of the revolt. These impulses are the material basis for hope that a new working class strategy can transcend both trade unionism and particularistic demands.” (p.423) We will leave aside the problem of a generation of the young providing the permanent roots of anything. The only thing permanent about a younger generation is their inevitable replacement by another generation. We will also leave aside the problem of how ideology and culture can be the material basis for anything. What we cannot put aside is the fact that the word “workers” after “young” is purely gratuitous. We are not talking about workers at all. We are simply talking about the young. After all, the only thing that distinguishes young workers from their peers is that their potential class consciousness is fragmented by their work experience. So that we are not even talking about class consciousness; we are talking about youth consciousness. And that brings us to another problem: what is the nature of the revolution? Does it require workers at all?

But first, a digression. Aronowitz does not deal extensively with Marx – there are relatively few references to Marx in his book. But I think it is necessary to note that his reading of Marx tends to be superficial and, therefore, deceptive. Most references to Marx are rather general and have no specific citations. There is one exception, and it is instructive. Aronowitz says, “Marx’s belief that large-scale industry provided the social political basis for the working class to be the first exploited class in human history to take control of society was expressed in his analogy of ‘the power of the industrial workers to the ‘offensive power of a squadron of cavalry’.” (p.416) Marx says; “Just as the offensive power of a squadron of cavalry, or the defensive power of a regiment of infantry, is essentially different from the sum of the offensive or defensive powers of the individual cavalry or infantry soldiers taken separately, so the sum of the total of the mechanical forces exerted by isolated workmen differs from the social force that is developed, when many hands take part simultaneously in one and the same undivided operation, such as raising a heavy weight, turning a winch, or removing an obstacle... . Not only have we here an increase in the productive power of the individual, by means of cooperation, but the creation of a new power, namely, the collective power of masses.” (Capital, 1, pp.357-8, Modern Library edition) Not only is Marx not talking of anything more than mechanical or productive power, he is not even talking about heavy industry. This section appears in the chapter on Cooperation, two chapters prior to the one in which he begins his discussion of Machinery and Modern Industry.

To return to the problem. The working class is crucial to the socialist revolution for essentially two reasons. One is that the process of production, the production and transportation of food, clothing, shelter, etc., is fundamental to any society and the section of society which can gain control of that process can gain control of the society as a whole. For example, a strike of students, of teachers, or of bank tellers, may have considerable political impact but it brings nothing but the immediate activities to a halt. But workers in a steel mill, on a railroad, in an auto plant, can affect the economy far beyond their own specific workplace.

Moreover, they are aware of that reality and that awareness is an integral part of working-class consciousness.

The second reason for the centrality of the working class is that the socialist revolution must involve the transformation of work and the workplace or it is not a social revolution at all. What transformed the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 from street demonstrations and guerrilla fighting to a social revolution was that the working class took over the means of production and formed workers’ councils. What transformed France in 1968 was that several weeks of student battles with the police gave way to the occupation of the factories. if that does not happen there is no social revolution. Whatever else may happen-and a revolution is a vast, complex totality-if the workers do not gain possession of the means of production, then governments may have been overthrown, but society has not been transformed. What is amazing is that Aronowitz documents that capacity and that reality but refuses to accept it for what it is.

“In both America and Britain,” he writes, “recent experience has demonstrated clearly that the sheer social power of workers within the factories or the offices to transform production or to challenge the rule of capital is beyond question.” What more could one want? Well, Aronowitz wants culture. “American workers have perfected the strike weapon to a degree unknown in European countries, but it is their cultural level that prevents them from transcending corporate domination.” (p.428)

Writing about the struggles of the Thirties and earlier, Aronowitz says, “The employers in Minneapolis, Seattle and Detroit were well aware of the spontaneous and dangerous quality of the strikes of the thirties, and of their further implications. They demanded that all legal machinery of the state be mobilized to prevent the seizure of factories and transportation systems by the workers and that the strikes be suppressed by arms if necessary.” (p.424) (One might interject – what “further implications,” known to the employers but kept safely concealed by Aronowitz?) But how does Aronowitz sum up the experience of the Thirties?, “the Great Depression of 1929 prevented the emergence of mass working class consciousness until the postwar era.” (p.402)

False Promises is a strange book. Despite a certain carelessness of presentation, I recommend it to all concerned with the working class for its extensive documentation of the working-class experience, at work, in the larger society, and in the unions. It is imbued with the conception that freedom is the fundamental quality of revolutionary change and it rejects the strangling doctrines and structures of the union movement and of the vanguard parties. Yet it cannot overcome a conception of working-class consciousness which reduces workers to victims and consciousness to verbalizations.


Last updated on 9.7.2004