Image by Lia Kantrowitz

How a Real Class War, Like with Guns, Could Actually Happen

Democrats seem increasingly comfortable with "incivility," while Republicans are more shameless than ever about helping the rich. Where is this going?

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Nov 26 2018, 5:00am

Image by Lia Kantrowitz

“Anarchist, Marxist, Gramscian, Communist, Leninist, Trotskyite, Maoist, worker were quickly becoming obsolete labels or, worse, a mark of brutality. The exploitation of man by man and the logic of maximum profit, which before had been considered an abomination, had returned to become the linchpins of freedom and democracy everywhere.”
—from The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

Most Americans, even the ones who work every day to earn crappy wages, don't consider themselves locked in an eternal struggle against the one percent. But times change. In Italy during the mid-20th century, class warfare was a fact of life. It was normal—expected, even—for average Joe Six Packs to be communists, and for there to be clashes between fascists and what we now like to call "Antifa." Only much later, as the Cold War came to a close and the neoliberal world order set in, did capitalism come to be more universally regarded as the fundamental building block for a modern democratic society. Still, vast changes in societal attitudes about wealth and work can happen quickly: In America, robust communist flirtations among the working class in the 1930s and 40s gave way fairly quickly to the Red Scare of Joe McCarthy—and that was just the more famous of two major national freak-outs over communism.

So class dynamics can shift wildly in a relatively modest amount of time. Does that mean there will be a tectonic shift in the United States soon? Is some sort of violent American class war around the corner?



Despite what Republicans seem to be marketing as a crisis of "uncivil" Democrats, the fact is that even under Donald Trump, the opposition continues to work relatively closely with the GOP, and leftist "mobs" are rare. These days, you do occasionally see fists getting thrown around by anti-fascist demonstrators at far-right demonstrations. Some artists are using guillotines as imagery. And yes, some commentators on the left have increasingly taken to calling for all-out class war, though they don't usually mean a violent one.

But even with an undercurrent of roiling class resentment, the occasional outburst of angry words or droplets of chocolate milk maliciously hurled at a Republican, and no fewer than two neo-Nazis being cold-cocked inside the span of two calendar years, things are pretty stable and subdued here in the USA.

Still, to find out just how far from a class-based civil war we really are, I spoke to some experts: Anna Geifman, a Russian-born American scholar of Bolshevism and political extremism and professor emerita at Boston University; Charles Post, a sociologist and historian of class conflict in the US at Manhattan Community College; and Marc Scarcelli, a political scientist at Cal Poly-Pomona whose research focuses on modern civil wars and matters of extreme poverty. With their help, I broke down the steps that would be necessary to get us from today's "extreme" red-faced finger-wagging to an actual working-class uprising.

Some will inevitably argue in bad faith that as the author of this piece, I must be calling for war. I'm not. What's more, none of my experts even thought a class war in the US was likely to happen—Scarcelli in particular wanted me to emphasize how impossible he considered such an outcome. Consider yourself warned.

1: The return of "working class" as an identity

First of all, if you picture white, male coal-miners when I say "working class," you've got it all wrong. The working class in the US was 46 percent female as of 2015, predominantly made up of service-sector workers—as opposed to industrial workers—and disproportionately non-white, as compared to the population as a whole. Whites are actually expected to become a minority of the US working class within the next 14 years, by one estimate.

Meanwhile, if nothing else, the concept of class war has surged back to prominence recently. On both the left and the right, the terms "class war" and "class warfare" get used almost interchangeably with the Marxist concept of "class struggle," which was just Karl Marx's way of talking about the eternal political fight facing workers under capitalism. According to Post, "The capitalist class in the United States, and globally, have been on the offensive against working-people pretty steadily since the late 1970s." You don't have to be on the far left to acknowledge this—according to Vox, a bastion of fairly moderate thinking, the great American class war had already been waged to completion as of 2014, ending in complete victory for the rich. Vox was rehashing the case made at the time by economists like Thomas Piketty, who argued in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century that investments' marked tendency to grow faster than new income from work was causing—and would continue to cause—inequality to skyrocket.

But despite what far-right figures might claim about working-class resentment of elites, or what liberals might argue about "economic anxiety" giving rise to Donald Trump's presidency, such concerns weren't necessarily the primary cause of the recent far-right swing in the US. True, some voters in black neighborhoods in the Rust Belt may have rejected Hillary Clinton after their communities' wealth was sapped under Barack Obama. And increased trends toward Republicans in white, rural America may stem in part from rage over powerful monopolies shaping the modern economy. But many white Trump voters who switched from Obama to Trump did so over racial and immigration-related fears, according to one major 2018 study. And Trump voters, particularly whites, men, and Christians, were likely motivated at least in part by a perceived loss of their group's elevated status in America, which was only indirectly related to wealth.

Nonetheless, if we assume some voters who pulled the lever for Trump were angry at the Democratic Party over its economic policies, that doesn't mean they hated leftist ideas. On the contrary, thanks to Bill Clinton's "Third Way" approach, which moved his party to the center, Democrats have left "the actual center-left just high and dry with no real representation," Scarcelli told me. So if any of this class war stuff is going to happen, picture some of that notorious, Trump-supporting "white working class" blob actually being into leftism. That's not as crazy as you might think.

2: That united working class tries to change stuff

As it stands now, the working class is a bunch of people just trying to scratch out a living, and they're not, for the most part, itching to wage a war against the rich. According to a 2015 working paper by the sociologist Michael Krauss, many working-class people don't give much, if any, thought to politics, because "lower rank in the social class hierarchy reflects an individual’s relative lack of perceived social and economic worth in society." And what data is available suggests this trend might be getting even more pronounced in the electoral sphere: CNN exit polling found that voters with an annual income under $50,000 made up 41 percent of the total electorate in the 2012 election, and only 36 percent in 2016.

...most workers wouldn't suddenly clock out from their jobs at Target and march into the streets to overthrow capitalism.

But political engagement is about more than voting, and class struggle is becoming less one-sided all the time. "What we haven't seen, until I'd say very recently, is a sustained response by working people," Post told me. By 2015, the labor movement seemed to be in free-fall. But it looks at least somewhat rejuvenated these days. In addition to a very unusual run of sometimes illegal teacher's strikes, 2018 has seen an equally unusual vote by UPS workers to reject a conciliatory contract (it was ratified anyway), along with an ongoing Marriott workers' strike that has spread to other hotels—as well as a vote to reject anti-union policies in deep-red Missouri. "I think what's driving this at the present moment is 40 years of declining real incomes, growing inequality, and 40 years of austerity to the public sector, which has essentially gutted most public services," Post said.

In the midterm elections, populist ballot initiatives on issues like raising the minimum wage and expanding Medicaid passed easily in states as conservative as Arkansas, Utah, and Idaho. The Arizona teacher's strike involved many self-identified Republicans, while recent polls have shown that socialist policies can be surprisingly popular among Trump supporters. What's more, Bernie Sanders, America's Democratic Socialist grandpa, frequently leads popularity polls for politicians, and the pat conservative response to socialism, "Yeah, but Stalin!" doesn't work like it once did, as kids these days may be less prone to associate socialism with the drab, joyless Soviet Union and its bastard stepchildren.

In fact, it's safe to say working-class millennials are actually into socialism.

Still, as Geifman pointed out to me, most workers wouldn't suddenly clock out from their jobs at Target and march into the streets to overthrow capitalism. Historically, she said, "people who joined the movement are those who have leisure, and who don't have to feed ten kids—otherwise, they'll die. And those who have to feed the kids don't have the time or the money or the energy to go to those radical meetings.” So the recipe for a politically active left involves a mix of working-class schlubs and ivory-tower intellectuals.

And those groups have to get along. According to Post, there are sometimes problems on the left when activists interfere with business, and the workers aren't having it. Imagine, if you will, some workers at a major port who aren't ready to walk off their jobs. "They arrive at work one day and there's ten or fifteen thousand unemployed students, graduate students, etcetera, blocking their way to work," Post offered. "They're going to look at these people as their enemy," he told me.

If these folks don't work out their differences, they probably can't form a unified front.

3: The left becomes militant

Tankie is a pejorative term used mostly by young Democratic Socialists (and other leftists) to describe people who—as you might expect—like tanks. Specifically, tankies are said to admire some of the more bellicose leftist luminaries like, well, Joseph Stalin. In so doing, they give some form of a thumbs-up to the Soviet Union's vast war machine (hey, that war machine defeated the Nazis after all!). Or they may go so far as to deny, or rationalize, the enormous death toll caused by The Great Purge, which kept the USSR ideologically pure at the cost of millions of lives. Perhaps needless to say, most American socialists aren't ready to take this plunge, and probably never will be.

It's worth noting here that taking up arms on behalf of a leftist ideology doesn't always involve massacring the rich. In fact, Kurdish revolutionaries in parts of Syria took up secular socialism as their ideology as they asserted independence from Bashar al-Assad's iron-fisted regime and went to war against ISIS. Despite their militancy, their efforts are pretty hard to condemn purely as "terrorism," though many have made that claim.

Apart from a civil war or some kind of foreign invasion, it's not at all clear what would have to happen for a militant form of revolutionary socialism to take hold in America. But according to Geifman, this tends to happen when people experience "historical dislocation." That's a term she borrowed from the work of psychologist Robert Jay Lifton; it refers to the breakdown of social norms that comes from a drastic and sudden change in the fabric of society.

In the case of the Bolsheviks in Russia, she explained, radicalism spread just a few decades after changes brought about by the shift away from serfdom. People were leaving traditional village communities and moving to the rapidly industrializing cities, looking for jobs. This created a sort of identity crisis, since the serfs were accustomed to being cogs with no individuality. “Each is alone. Each has to decide what the right values are, who his friends are, who their enemies are, who's right, who is wrong, how he needs to live his life,” she said. This gave way, she continued, to feelings of depression, and despair, and addiction—particularly morphine-addiction among World War I veterans. According to Geifman, militant leftist recruiters would ask the simple question, “’How do you feel?’ And, just [because of] the fact that somebody's interested in him, 50 percent of the job is done.”

Is this about to happen in America? Probably not, although for what it's worth, the US appears to be changing for the worse in countless ways—from unprecedented opiate addiction, to job losses due to automation, to some kind of revolution in disregarding the truth, to climate change now playing out in real time. As these problems on the ground compound worsening inequality, Americans, Geifman opined, “are susceptible [to to radicalization] because it's hard to be the individual” and to "know that you're required to be outstanding, and maybe you're not.” But even if some radical ideology—whether it be heroic, toxic, or a little of both—were seeping into the addled minds of America's despairing workers, a class war would still be a long way off.

4. The US starts looking like a much poorer country

According to Scarcelli's research, the dominant pattern for civil wars since World War II is that they tend to happen in the poorest countries. "Statistically, the best predictor of the country's risk of civil war in today's world is GDP per capita," he told me. In explaining the relationship between wealth and insurrection, he noted that "some interpret it as [being] conducive to rebel recruitments [to have] large numbers of unemployed people." Another potential cause, he said, is that poor countries in today's world also generally have "much larger youth populations."

There is no academic consensus on how, why, and when poor, unemployed, young people in areas where the state doesn't exert much control are most likely to take up arms and form a fighting force. But, Scarcelli insisted, the link to poverty is fairly cut-and-dried.

If that holds true, that means—knock on wood—the US is probably pretty safe for the time being. America may be seeing levels of inequality not seen since the early 20th century, but it's probably not on the verge of becoming as poor as, say, civil-war-ravaged Angola. Then again, according to a 2015 Stanford study, there was already a 12 percent chance climate change would reduce the world's total GDP by 50 percent by 2100, and a 71 percent chance GDP would decrease to some extent. And on Friday, 13 federal agencies released a joint report suggesting climate change could chop off as much as a tenth of US GDP by 2100. So while it would be overstating things (by a lot) to imply that the US is on the verge of becoming a poor country, decline is not an absurd prospect to start talking about.

5. Escalating conflict between the haves and have-nots

Assuming the socioeconomic status quo did undergo some kind of seismic decline, however, radical leftists would almost certainly rise to positions of power. Meanwhile, politicians who advocated for the existing institutions, especially the ones working for the interests of private companies, might move to cleanse leftists from government. They could crack down on strikes or protests, and generally seize power from the workers—banning some forms of activism, or at least policing them more heavily. This could go on for years, and a left-vs.-right struggle might become part of the scenery in the US. Imagine the left overplays its hand, and there's a poorly-timed general strike. Or, from the right wing, there's an overreaching crackdown (or massacre), and that in turn prompts a big, violent reaction.

This isn't pure speculation. It's based on history. For our example here, let's look at the Spanish Civil War. (And in case you're wondering, I got my Spanish history from Antony Beevor's riveting 1989 volume, The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.) All of the following happened without a full-fledged civil war in Spain:

At the beginning of the 20th century, Spain was brutally divided between extreme wealth and extreme poverty. Life expectancy was 35, and a well-known old saying went, "One half of Spain eats but does not work, while the other half works but does not eat." Spain had an intrenched conservative orthodoxy, always pushing for good old monarchy and Catholicism. The poor, meanwhile, consumed leftist ideology like the libertarian socialism of Mikhail Bakunin. Leftism took hold among the working classes, and there were general strikes. The resulted in the King being nonviolently deposed. A republic was established, much-needed agrarian reforms were enacted, and women were given the right to vote.

And then, in the mid-1930s, everything got worse.

There was an attempted military coup known as the "Sanjurjada." The loyalties of the coup plotters in this event were vague, but monarchists were involved, and leftists were opposed. On January 3, 1934, the newspaper El Socialista ran a story with the headline “Harmony? No! Class War! Hatred of the criminal Bourgeoisie to the Death!” Then there was another attempted right-wing coup, meaning there was a clear case to be made that the legitimate government had no choice but to defend itself, and only then did the civil war really kick off.

6. Two militaries form

Picture, if you will, someone to the left of Bernie Sanders being elected president of the United States. They might find themselves in technical control of the military, but have their legitimacy questioned by a faction of right-wing generals, followed by internal skirmishes on US bases aimed at sapping their power.

As I've previously written, the US is not a place where a military coup d'état would be seen as normal, which actually helps make it less likely. What's more, according to Scarcelli, the US military is widely thought to be set up in such a way that "it's impossible for any actor or group within the military to effectively seize control of any more than just one branch"—the Navy doesn't, for instance, take orders from the Army. But even without a full takeover, members of the military could—as they did in Spain—go kinda nuts and start shooting each other.

"It's almost certain to be an asymmetric conflict. And that means either guerrilla warfare terrorism or some combination of the two."—Marc Scarcelli

On the other hand, anti-Communist paranoia is deeply-rooted in US culture, and law enforcement has a history of taking action against leftists, whether by surveilling Martin Luther King and trying to blackmail him into killing himself, or simply killing Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. In short, here in the US, the effort by the establishment to quash a lower-class movement has sometimes played out with hails of bullets, but it's also taken much more subtle and sophisticated forms.

We're pretty far through the looking glass by this point, so imagine for a moment that a coup is at least partially successful, and competing claims of legitimacy carry over into the civilian world, after which people form gangs and militias under two main flags. They might fight one another, and even carry out atrocities. Scarcelli pointed out that such death squads aren't physically impossible "given that the United States has as many guns as people." Nonetheless, this would probably pit poorer members of the present day political right against members of the upperclass right. From our vantage point here in the present, this does not compute, because it would mean (to speak in stereotypes for a moment) pitting people who wear MAGA hats to their country clubs against people who wear MAGA hats to their NASCAR tailgate parties.

But further down the line, if the capitalist class continued to be overwhelmingly white, a working class uprising several decades from now—when, as we've established, the working class will be predominantly Americans of color—might look an awful lot like a race war.

7. It's war

At its ugliest, a leftist military can wage class war by massacring landowners, and other class enemies, some of whom might be working-class people themselves, as happened in the days of Spain's Red Terror. This was only a few years after the systematic massacres of the "kulaks," who were relatively wealthy peasants of Russia, more than a decade after Russian elites such as the Tsar were killed. Meanwhile, in Indonesia, anti-communist death squads working on behalf of the ruling class massacred about 500,000 people in 1965 and 1966.

In Colombia's civil war, the leftists were mostly guerrillas fighting from encampments in the forest, and, at their worst, engaged in cut-and-dried acts of terrorism against civilians. Indeed, rather than battle lines being drawn between, say, present-day red and blue states, Scarcelli imagined the second US Civil War would primarily be based on terrorism and sneak attacks. "It's almost certain to be an asymmetric conflict. And that means either guerrilla warfare terrorism or some combination of the two," he told me—again emphasizing his doubt that such a thing could ever happen. (He was very adamant!)

Scarcelli told me he found it "almost impossible to even conceive of it being a conventional war."

8. Endgame

I've speculated an awful lot here, but I'm not about to pretend I know how this war would end. In the case of Spain, roughly 200,000 soldiers died in battle, the workers lost (and many civilians were executed or perished in bombings), and a right-wing dictator took power. In the Soviet Union, the communists won under Lenin, but contemporary analysis places the total death toll from his successor Stalin's reign of terror at roughly nine million. Who's at fault? Is it worth the risk? Do your own moral calculus. I can't help you.

But what's important to take away from all this is that left-leaning rebels don't just read a Marx book and then suddenly move against the government with guns—that would be stupid and they would all just die. In Russia and Spain, armed struggle was only viable after a protracted period of organization, agitation, and solidarity-building—including through less-violent forms of escalation, like strike waves. (Read up on the Shanghai massacre of 1927 for an example of what can happen in response to a premature stab at violent revolution.) When the workers start to feel their own power, someone tries to snatch victory away by doing something nasty, and then there's an equally nasty reprisal, and on, and on.

So in other words, "Class struggle" and "class war" are bound up in each other. They're concepts you can't just separate. And most people do not want class war. It's like the Spanish radical Francisco Largo Caballero said: "I want a Republic without class war, but, for that, one class has to disappear."

Admittedly, that line of reasoning does have a little in common with, "You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for." But get a grip, folks: Hillary Clinton is no class warrior.

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