Many of us have come together tonight, some no doubt interested to see how this idea of “class warfare” suits Harvard. Since we announced this event, I have heard and seen people remarking with surprise and irony that Harvard should be the site of anything to do with a class war. But I assure you, Harvard has always played a key role in the class war.
Perhaps you have read an article from one of our panelists, Meagan Day. “Defend Your Class,” which ran in Jacobin last April, is named for the slogan that Harvard deployed to inspire its students to leave the classroom in 1912 and take up arms with the National Guard to break the Lawrence, Massachusetts “Bread and Roses” textile workers’ strike.
What was the threat from which Harvard elites needed defense? It was a movement of the working class, men, women, and children, of thirty countries of origin, speaking forty-five languages, demanding freedom from the daily threats to their lives posed by underpaid and dangerous jobs — and, even more radically, the freedom to exist beyond the value assigned to their labor by the capitalist bosses.
What was the value of those three words, “Defend your class,” to the Harvard undergraduate militiamen? Perhaps you know that hundreds of strikers were beaten and thrown in jail by the strikebreakers, and two were murdered. For demonstrating their allegiance to their class, the Harvard students received course credit.
The Harvard brand has expanded fabulously in its prestige and in its power since that strike. And above all, it has expanded its capacity to defend its class. About a mile from where we are gathered here, a new engineering school complex is being built, described by our President Lawrence Bacow as “a jewel of a building.” To Bacow, Allston has long been “just an idea, a vision of the future,” but with the construction of the engineering school, a billion-dollar project, “that future is rapidly coming into focus.” It’s a bleak “future” for one of the last affordable neighborhoods in Boston, while hundreds of our neighbors sleep on the streets every night and a minimum-wage worker must work 210 hours to make rent on a one-bedroom apartment in Cambridge.
President Bacow’s praise for the new Allston campus is just pretty talk for a class war. Harvard’s progress is not our progress.
Has anyone, watching our teaching fellows and course assistants strike for fair pay and decent health care, taken comfort in the fact that sixty-two of the world’s current billionaires are Harvard men and women? Who among us reads that the Harvard endowment has reached $40 billion in fiscal year 2019 and celebrates, knowing that those dollars rebound from investments in private prisons and the global destruction of fossil fuels?
We do not, because Harvard’s progress is not our progress. This institution stands shoulder to shoulder with the National Guard of 1912, the Henry Kissingers of 1969, and the war-mongering presidents of the 2000s, Republican and Democrat. In these 384 years, it has not missed a single step.
My task is not to build up a pile of evidence against Harvard out of hatred or spite. I want to illustrate that the war-making, strike-breaking impulses of this institution are not random; they are not unrelated. Harvard is a case study in the unified power of the elite in pursuit of the almighty profit motive, the power of the next dollar and the dollar after that.
That is what we all are worth to it. But every single one of you is worth the world to me. And I hope that you feel that way about one another, because our shared future depends upon it. We can comfort, rally, mourn, and transform the face of the earth with this knowledge.
At the heart of that approach to each other is the indispensable ethic of solidarity. In the words of St Augustine, “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.” When our homeless brothers and sisters walk into an apartment and call it home, we will say: this is justice, and not charity. When working-class children enroll in free college instead of the army in order to build a better life, we will say: this is justice, not charity. When we realize and honor Fred Hampton’s vision for a rainbow coalition against a racist police and incarceration system, against the starvation of children, and against the commodification of health care, we will say: this is not charity, this is not generosity, this is justice.
Behind the idea of charity is the sense that we do not deserve the things we need for our own survival. In our time, in which class warfare is reaching a great crescendo, something tells me that the powerful institutions of this world will continue to become ever less charitable. Let us take the matter of our survival out of their hands and into our own. Let us have justice, a justice made possible by solidarity. There is no substitute on earth for that.
I am a literature student, so I am thinking of a verse written by W. B. Yeats in praise of a friend “bred to a harder thing than Triumph.” As a volunteer for the Bernie Sanders campaign, I have knocked hundreds of doors in Iowa and in New Hampshire. I will not forget the Iowans that I met shortly before the New Year. I spoke to a woman who was on leave from her low-wage job because a physical disability made the work too painful. But what decided her vote was the idea of a world in which she could afford mental health care.
She told me about the struggle she faces every day to get out of her bed, and then told me that on February 3, she would get out of bed, get into her car, and drive to a caucus site to caucus for Bernie Sanders. She planned to do all of these things in the name of a harder thing than triumph.
Here in Massachusetts, the great antiwar activist Al Johnson canvassed among us in Nashua every weekend. Al passed away on January 1, 2020. From his deathbed on December 31, 2019, Johnson made two hundred phone calls for Bernie Sanders. Born to a Kentucky coal miner, raised in Massachusetts public housing, he was imprisoned as a conscientious objector of the Vietnam War. He spent a year in that military prison for loving peace. So great was Johnson’s love for peace that it led him not only to work alongside the Black Panthers and the Poor People’s Movement, but ultimately to join Bernie Sanders’s movement for an end to war and poverty across the globe.
Al Johnson was bred to a harder thing than triumph. Al Johnson was bred to solidarity his entire life.
Let us be bred to a harder thing than triumph: the thing that makes triumph possible. Let it be solidarity. For then our work can never come to nothing.
In the last day of his life, Al Johnson placed two hundred calls in the name of a world he would not live to see. What great certainty he had in those final hours — not a certainty in victory, but a certainty in the value of your life and mine. Let us be so certain in our shared purpose and certain in our shared way forward.
With every undocumented family, with every climate refugee, with every community devastated by the “war on drugs,” with every unionized worker, we are more certain that the world must change, because we belong in it. The day will come when the working class lives in the housing it has built and benefits from the labor it has exerted. We must work for that day together in solidarity, and we must accept no substitute. We must vote for solidarity in 2020 — but this is only the beginning.