Programme Investigation

Exploring the Proletariat in L.A.

"I feel like the bourgeois glasses have been ripped off my eyes!"

Revolutionary Worker #1064, July 30, 2000

We are youth around the Party and we've been involved in doing both the book research and the social investigation to update the Party's Programme. It has been a new and rich experience because a lot of us don't have much experience going out to the masses and applying a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist outlook and method to analyzing society.

To kick off the process the RCYB called a city-wide meeting to discuss the announcement and call that was in the RW and invited the youth to be part of producing the new Programme. We felt, wow, the Party's asking us? We really wanted to help, but we thought there are a lot of other people who know a lot more MLM theory than we do -- what could we contribute? We felt we needed to understand some fundamental principles of MLM to be able to contribute as much as we could to the investigation.

The Party said they wanted us to accomplish two things through the research and investigation: 1) answer the question "Is there a proletariat in this country and what does it look like?"; and 2) become a new generation of revolutionary leaders trained in MLM principles and know how to apply them to understanding society. The '60s generation forged the Party. They took MLM and applied it to the world at that time. We also need to be part of a process like that--we have to answer these questions for ourselves and learn how to apply MLM to today's world.

The Youth Kit that was published in the RW to help train youth in MLM methods says: "A crucial part of the Party's Programme is its analysis of U.S. society and the forces for revolution. The Programme has to answer the question that Mao Tsetung said was of life-and-death importance for revolution: 'Who are our enemies? Who are our friends?' How do you tell real friends apart from real enemies? You need to understand the position of various classes in society and their specific attitudes towards change and revolution." And, "A correct class analysis is the foundation for being able to apply the RCP's strategy for revolution and building socialism--the United Front under the Leadership of the Proletariat--to unite all who can be united against the common enemy."

We needed some education about what classes are and how to do class analysis. We had a lot of different views on how society was divided up. Some thought we should analyze what class people belonged to by looking at their income. In that view there were rich people, middle class people and poor people. We didn't understand yet that the relation people have to the means of production -- what group (or class) of people owns and controls the factories and machinery, the land and raw materials that produce practically everything in society and, on the other hand, what class has no machinery, wealth or control--is at the heart of how society is organized. And that what class people belong to determines to a large degree what they think about revolution--do they welcome it or do they hate it?.

For instance, one youth asked, "What difference does it make if there's a proletariat? We're still going to make revolution, aren't we?"

So with the help of some veteran Party supporters we decided to dig into this question of class analysis and get some training in Marxist political economy. We went on a tour of the garment district in downtown L.A. We stopped at different points and got short explanations of what we were seeing. We went to an alley where we could hear the sound of sewing machines whirring in the buildings above. We talked about what the workers were doing--producing these garments collectively. One worker sews the collar, another the sleeve, a third the buttons and so on. One youth remarked, "There's a lot of people in that shirt."

We went to an intersection where a bank stands on one corner, the Fashion Mart (where the designers work) stands on another, and a retail store is on a third. Our tour guide asked,"Where does wealth come from?"

Most of us think that things come from stores and that how much they cost is determined solely by supply and demand. Most people don't even think about where wealth comes from. Right in the middle of the garment district all that got broken down and we got to see for the first time the "Dirty Little Secret" of capitalism. We looked at a drawing of a shirt like the ones being sewn in the shops around us and tried to figure out how the value of the shirt got determined.

We figured the cost of the materials (the cloth, the buttons, the thread) that went into the shirt; the cost of overhead (rent for the shop, the sewing machines, etc); and what the workers got paid. But when we added it all up we saw that the shirt was selling for a lot more. Where did that extra value come from? We discovered that there is unpaid labor in that shirt. That's the Dirty Secret! Profit comes from the unpaid labor of the workers. It works that way because workers are commodities themselves. What they sell is their labor power. And what is their labor power worth? Only what it takes to produce a worker, only what it takes to get her to come back to work the next day and sometimes not even that much. We learned the meaning of the word "exploitation" that day.

The tour was an eye-opener. We will never look at a shirt the same way again!

In the weeks after the tour we did a series of "educationals." So far, we've had sessions on historical materialism; the solid core and the united front under the leadership of the proletariat; a second discussion on the united front with a focus on the middle strata; and a session on the Party. We have two more sessions planned -- one to cover the dictatorship of the proletariat and the second on internationalism and nationalism.

We were given readings which we studied ahead of time. We wanted to learn as much as we could. And, you know, once something gets clear to you, you want everyone to understand it. So we'd go out and talk to and try to organize our friends.

At the same time we were doing the educationals, some of us formed into two teams to do library research. One team focused on industry and occupations. We were supposed to find out "What industries are moving out, closing down, and which ones are becoming more important? What occupations are growing, both for the middle classes and the proletariat?" The other team focused on the population to learn: "Is the population of the city declining relative to the surrounding suburbs? Is the city becoming more middle-class? Are poor people being pushed out of traditional concentrations? How has the national composition of the city changed over the last 20 years? Is segregation more acute -- in terms of neighborhoods and schools?"

Those of us who took up the library research learned a lot. We were seeing things in the city that we never saw before -- like how many poor people live here. One study said L.A. is the poverty capital of the United States. And a newspaper article talked about how 72 percent! of the 700,000 students in the city's school district come from families in poverty. When we looked at a map that showed where the poor are concentrated, there was a huge swath running through the center of the city.

For the social investigation, we formed three teams. One did social investigation among real proletarians involved in manufacturing; the second did social investigation among service workers (since we learned through our library research that service is the largest sector in the city); and the third did investigation among proletarians who have been kept out of the workforce (like women on welfare, homeless people or brothers who are in and out of work (but mainly out of work) or on general relief.

Each team began by doing 'driving and walking tours,' i.e. observing what the industrial areas, workplaces and neighborhoods looked like; what kinds of people lived or worked there, etc. Then we decided to take the next step of interviewing people. We started out by interviewing each other. We learned things we didn't know before about where we work, where we live and what life is like for the proletarian youth in the YB. Then we went to other people we knew--parents, friends, political contacts. We first explained to them what we were trying to understand and then interviewed them. We found out that we know workers from the different sectors -- industrial, service, retail -- of society. The interviews were very interesting and have contributed a lot to the report which came from this area.

With that experience under our belts, it was time to go out to factories, housing projects and shopping malls. Where we could, we formed 2-in-1 teams, combining those of us who had more experience in talking with people with those who were new to this.

We figured out a mass line which was to approach people with the call for the new Programme. We said: "This Party is the vanguard Party in this country and its purpose is to make revolution. The Party is in the process of updating its Programme, its battle plan for revolution. We are helping in this process by talking to workers in these factories and other places, learning about your working conditions, how you live and what you think, in order to get a full picture of the lives of the people on the bottom of society."

At first we were nervous about going out to the masses. One youth on the 'industry' team thought that people would not want to talk to us. But that wasn't the case at all. At one factory the workers had as many questions for us as we had for them. They wanted to know if we really thought revolution was possible. They thought it would be difficult because Latinos (they were Latinos) could not unite. They felt like they had good jobs because they were making slightly above minimum wage (which is still below poverty level) and told us if we really wanted to find exploited workers we should go to garment. They were very open about their situation and thanked us for coming to talk to them and asking what they thought.

Afterwards, one youth confessed how nervous she was about going out to masses and with this mass line especially. Another said that now he wants to do more social investigation. We learned a lot about the mood of the masses and how much potential there is to do revolutionary work among them. And we were also training ourselves in the Marxist principle of learning from and relying on the masses. We applied (and learned through practice) our MLM methods of investigation, got a practical sense of what we wanted to learn, and figured out how to dig more deeply for the answers.

Mao talks about how there are two ways to do investigation -- "one is to look at flowers on horseback and the other is to get off your horse and look at them." We had finally "gotten down off the horse." It was exciting and inspiring, but we wanted them to make sure we summed all of this up consciously so we could apply these lessons in the future.

We held a sum-up meeting. It started off with a presentation on why we sum up this way, collectively, and then went back to the beginning of the process and what we had set out to do. We drew points from Mao's "Preface to Rural Surveys," which we read before starting the interviews, and talked about our Maoist methods of going out to the people, knowing the people, doing social investigation in order to make a class analysis.

The focus of the investigation had been on our social base and posed the question, "Is there a proletariat in this country and what does it look like?" We summed up that the research and investigation revealed that the proletariat does in fact exist and that in this city there is a widening, deepening, hardening divide between the lowest sections of the proletariat, especially proletarians of the oppressed nationalities and immigrant proletarians, and the rest of society.

We read the quote from Marx that is in the current Programme:

"Owing to the extensive use of machinery and to division of labor, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him. Hence, the cost of production of a workman is restricted, almost entirely, to the means of subsistence that he requires for his maintenance (and to bring up future generations of workers)..."

We asked the question, "Does this quote characterize the proletariat? Does this describe the lives of people?" "Hell, yes!" was the reply. And one person added, "That quote is still true. Things today look exactly like 150 years ago when Marx wrote it."

Then we asked, "Is there a social base for revolution in this country?" People spoke to things they learned from the research and social investigation reports: How they were struck by the furniture factory where the women have to clock out when they make a mistake and fix it on their own time. How people are forced to work at these jobs where they do the same small task over and over all day. How people have no opportunity to advance because the boss won't let them learn anything else. Some youth talked about the work being really menial and deadening. How people have to live on the edge, some don't even make enough to go back to work the next day. How the factory and business owners don't care what condition the workers are in; the owners just want them to work. People talked about how this country looks like the Third World, with so many people working as servants for other people as maids, gardeners, nannies, etc.

We were very angry, and many said, "It makes you want to cry. How do people survive?" People have to live with inferior things, buying stuff at the 99 Cents Store, there's a whole economy for people cause they can't afford anything else.

Some of the youth doing the investigation are very poor. We drew connections between their experience and the experience of the people we interviewed. We began to understand that there are reasons people live this way. It is not an accident, and it's not their fault. We began to grasp that at the bottom of society, there are masses who produce everything yet none of the wealth they produce belongs to them. We are beginning to see this as a collective problem and a problem with the whole set-up. "I've learned so much on the team. It's crazy! It's not just about one person; it's what's going on society-wide."

Towards the end of the meeting, one youth talked about having the bourgeois glasses ripped off his eyes. And how he is beginning to look at everything in a different way. He felt it was good we didn't get bogged down with book research. "In books you don't learn how people feel, how they see things, you only learn this when you go out and talk with people."

At the end we summed up how the potential for revolution has been revealed through this investigation. People's life experience cries out for revolution. And how all that we uncovered will be very valuable for the new Programme. "That's what I really like about Maoist politics. It's not just about learned theories. It's about connecting with the people and figuring out how to change this shit."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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