Remember the Worker

Brass Tacks

WORKSHIRTS were very common at Harvard when the Class of 1973 arrived here in the fall of '69. The worker was very much the person to emulate then, and even the Rolling Stones sang a song commemorating the working class as the salt of the earth. The political winds were all blowing leftward, in general as a reaction to the Vietnam War, and at Harvard in particular in response to the University Hall bust.

Leftist moods have traditionally given rise to expressions of solidarity with working people on the parts of students and intellectuals. But these feelings were not quite the same in 1969 (or later) as they had been before. Throughout its short life, the love affair of the 1960's and '70's between left-leaning students and workers was much more of a love/hate relationship than anything else.

The affair seems to be over now, but it is worth looking at again because so many of the changes it brought about and so many of the impulses involved were, at root, sound. The relationship is also worth reexamining because in the end, the rise of student radicalism seems to have created a larger gap than ever between students and working people. The same workers whom the students had counted on for support had moved rightward politically -- in part as a reaction to the student movement itself!

THE MOVEMENT which developed involved far more than that minority of students who belonged to radical organizations, for the questions it raised hit close to home. The issue was not just who had a right to power in the country, but also who should have power in the University; not just what is a reasonable foreign policy for the United States, but why should I die in Vietnam? Asking the "simpler" questions led many, probably most, to ask the more complex questions.

The long run effect of this questioning was positive and remains so despite the apparent retreat of students into a new conservatism. Perhaps the most important contribution of this search for values and the concommitant glorification of the worker was the introduction of the word "elitism" into common usage. Certainly the concept itself was not new; what was new was the notion that being an elitist could be bad, that the natural order of things should not involve one group dictating to everyone else what their goals and interests should be. That students at elite colleges should reject that notion -- even for just a short period -- is particularly exciting. Nor has the attack on elitism ended. One of the most remarkable aspects of this change in perception is that conservatives--who above all others should be defending the elites and the idea of elitism--began leveling charges of elitism at their opponents.

WHAT IS MOST disturbing about conservative attacks on the student left is that many of the charges were right on the mark. The student left often did come to be characterized by its own forms of elitism and intellectual arrogance. For example, the affluent student who rejected the goal of a comfortable house with a car, a dishwasher and a television set could not understand why a worker should seek after such material goods. Often, of course, a much more sophisticated analysis was developed around the idea of "alienated consumption," which meant that the average worker was sacrificing the possibility of an intrinsically interesting worklife in order to attain material well-being. Now, workers -- in offices as well as on assembly lines -- are beginning to demand more control over their workplace, and increased opportunities to engage in rewarding work. Nonetheless, the thrust of rhetoric of the student left was too often directed against the worker's perfectly sensible desires for material security.

Even more pernicious and divisive were race issues. It is clear, of course, that black demands for political and economic equality are justified; most public opinion polls show white workers agree that measures should be taken to secure these rights. The way these issues developed, however, served to estrange the working class white from the movement for equality. White workers rebelled because they felt they were being forced to pay an inequitable share of the costs of equality.

The way in which the federal tax laws are written meant that working and middle-class whites were made to pay the economic costs of equality, while the way in which political power is distributed meant that most of the children bussed to achieve racial balance were the sons and daughters of the working class, and most of the neighborhoods integrated were those inhabited by working people.

Sadly, whites who protested against being singled out were too often attacked as racists. To be sure, some working class (and non-working class) whites are racists, and these impulses have been aggravated by the efforts of politicians like Frank Rizzo and Richard Nixon to win white votes for conservative programs. But this situation was further worsened by those on the left who cried "racist" far too quickly, thus encouraging disenchanted workers to seek refuge on the Right. In the end, the losers were those who had the greatest stake in social reform -- white workers, blacks and the student left.

OTHER FACTORS served to widen the gap between students and working people. Suffice it to say that the union between the blue collars and the student left was based on too many misperceptions to succeed.

But the impetus behind the movement was certainly correct. Indeed, its major problems stem from frequent failures to apply anti-elitist standards against itself. It would be fortunate if this alone proved to be enough to kill the movement.

This is so for two sets of reasons. The first concerns the effect which the push for democratization has had on life in the University and at Harvard in particular. While the governing structure of Harvard has certainly not changed radically, social interactions here have become far more open. They are less characterized than ever before by the petty discrimination which fettered previous generations of Harvard men and Radcliffe women.

Most importantly, the political vision of the movement was correct. In the final analysis, the social hatreds which bred the movement and of which it became a part will be eased only through further extensions of political democracy, through redistribution of wealth, and through increased democratic control over the economy and especially the workplace. Somehow, the 82 million Americans who struggle to get by on $5,000 to $10,000 a year must be brought together with the very poor who have to make do with even less, in a movement for democratization which will benefit us all.

We can only hope that after four years of thinking and acting, we learned enough about the hard working people of whom we sang and spoke so much to help effect this alliance.