What Are The Origins Of The Term 'Class Warfare'?

Lynn Neary speaks with Julian Zelizer, Princeton professor of history and public affairs, about the origins of the term "class warfare" — and how it has evolved over the years.

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LYNN NEARY, host: Even before President Obama officially unveiled his plan yesterday to reduce the deficit, Republicans lambasted both the president and his proposal. In the chorus of criticism that followed, two words stood out.

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Representative PAUL RYAN: Class warfare, Chris, may make for really good politics, but it makes for rotten economics.

Representative JOHN FLEMING: Again, class warfare has never created a job.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM: Well, that's class warfare.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER: I don't think I would describe class warfare as leadership.

President BARACK OBAMA: This is not class warfare. It's math.

NEARY: That's President Obama and his Republican critics, House Speaker John Boehner, Senator Lindsey Graham and Congressmen John Fleming and Paul Ryan.

All of this got us wondering, when did this idea of using class warfare as an accusation and as a weapon itself first take hold in American politics? To help us answer that question, we're joined by Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.

Welcome to the program. Good to have you with us.

JULIAN ZELIZER: Thanks for having me.

NEARY: So where did this idea of class warfare begin?

ZELIZER: Well, we've seen the concept of class warfare circulated in American politics since the late 19th century and early 20th century. During that time, the influence of Karl Marx and socialism was very strong. You found emerging unions here in the United States who were thinking and talking about how the battles between capital and the wealthy and labor was going to be central to the kind of country that we had going into the 20th century.

But the term starts to be used less frequently during the Cold War through today. Many liberals feel defensive and they are worried that if they start to use the term class and they talk about class warfare they will be tagged in the Cold War as communists and, more recently, as far left wing extremists.

NEARY: Well, was there ever a time in the beginning of 20th century and in the 21st century where anyone politically was comfortable with the whole idea of using the word just class itself, dealing with the idea of class?

ZELIZER: Well, conservatives have been very comfortable using it throughout much of the 20th century as a way to attack Democrats. During the 1930s, for example, the American Liberty League said that the dragon teeth of class warfare are being sewn with a vengeance, talking about President Roosevelt.

And since then, you've often heard this charge that we now hear against President Obama that secretly any effort to enact a liberal program is really an effort to divide the classes.

NEARY: Well, did liberals start backing away from it in the 1950s because of the intense anticommunism at that time?

ZELIZER: That's exactly what happened. Many on the right would attack liberalism, even if it was, you know, mainstream liberalism that respected capitalism as being a form of socialism. Many liberals backed off. They didn't want to talk about economic classes. They talked about other issues and they talked about it in different ways.

NEARY: You know, this aversion that Americans have to the idea of class warfare, is that, in a sense, part of the reason why almost everybody seems to define themselves as middle class?

ZELIZER: Americans often and historically like to think of themselves as a classless society. There were even polls during the height of the Great Depression which famously showed that many Americans thought of themselves as being in the middle class, even those who were struggling with unemployment and who had nothing to subsist on.

There is a belief in this country that someone who doesn't have a lot of money, one day, has the opportunity to have a lot of money. And because of this, it's often been very hard for those on the left to use the notion of class conflict as a rallying cry as a way to organize social protest.

NEARY: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. Thanks so much. It was good talking to you.

ZELIZER: Thanks for having me.

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