The Case for Class

Within both radical and moderate left circles there is a serious debate about whether or not a politics which deems class struggle as more central than other forms of struggle against oppression is preferable to a politics which sees all forms of oppression as on par. We will call the first model class politics and the second model pluralist politics.

The main line of argument for pluralist politics is typically that class politics undervalues the importance of other forms of oppression. Now this is certainly true about some kinds of class politics, we might even grant, for the sake of argument, that it has historically been true of most kinds of class politics.

Note though two alternate interpretations of the primary claim of class politics that class struggle is more central than other forms of struggle. On the first interpretation, class politics is saying that class struggles have a greater ethical weight, presumably because the wrongs committed against the working class because they are workers are somehow greater than those wrongs committed against women, queers, the disabled and people of colour because they are women, queers, disabled and people of colour. This is the normative interpretation of what is meant by “more central”.

But there is another interpretation of the claim that class is more central than the plurality of oppressions. On this interpretation, which I favour, class is more central in a practical sense, more central because it is a better lever for changing the world than the alternatives. I hold this view for a number of reasons, theoretical and empirical.

1)    Emprically, class and material deprivation has historically been at the forefront of revolutions. Food basket prices are the best empirical indicator of tendency to rebel.

2)    From a theoretical perspective, the working class is in an interesting group insomuch as it both has enormous power (in some sense it already controls the means of production) and enormous disadvantage. Further, it’s in a pretty good position to organise itself, because of the way in which work brings workers into proximity with each other. The working class is given both a grudge and a gun by the bourgeoisie.

Now it’s important to clarify what this thesis means, or perhaps more appositely what this thesis does not mean.

1)    It does not entail the view that sexism, racism, ableism, or queerphobia of various sorts is likely to end come the revolution against capitalism. Now you might then wonder, why would anyone who’s primarily interested in some form of oppression other than class oppression bother to get involved in a movement which regards as its primary target capitalism, and which does not even hold out the promise that, come the fall of capitalism, all other issues will be sorted out.  The answer is that winning victories against capitalism tends to weaken greatly other forms of oppression even if it does not completely destroy them.

2)    Following on from the above point, a class politics focus does not mean that all forms of oppression are reducible to or wholly caused by class oppression, though admittedly some class political theorists some have claimed this to be the case. Rather, a class politics orientation is in my opinion best interpreted as suggesting that class plays an enormous role in aggravating other forms of oppression. If, for example, material inequality did not exist, one of the primary and most painful ways sexism and racism express themselves could also not exist. Also, if for example women did not suffer enormous material resource barriers caused by wage and property ownership inequality, it would become much easier to struggle for feminism.

3)    It does not mean that a revolutionary movement should not participate in and help build for events and struggles concerned with a variety of forms of oppression. Rather the point is to acknowledge that class plays a special strategic role.

4)    This point is probably made by point 3, but is worth reiterating.  In no sense does class politics mean that fighting other forms of oppression should “wait till after the revolution.” Nor will the process of dismantling capitalism only be of use to the various sections of the oppressed once it is complete. Incremental progress on this front weakens the extent to which material inequity can contribute to the reproduction of oppression.

To clarify what all this means it might be useful to think of different models of the interrelations of oppression through a visual metaphor. On the pluralist model, there are many nodes of oppression; each interrelated in a complex web. On the hardline classical Marxist theory, there is one central node of oppression, from which all others go out from. On the kind of view I’m interested in, and the view that I think most sensible advocates of class politics hold, there’s a field of different nodes, all with complex interrelations, but with class politics at the centre. If you were to somehow remove that node, all the others would become much more fragile, similarly, if you were to wobble it, and try and pull it out, all the others would wobble to. Note that nothing in this metaphor makes value judgements about what kinds of oppression are worse.


About timothyscriven

I study philosophy at Sydney University. In the grand scheme, I'm not very important.
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5 Responses to The Case for Class

  1. I’ll reply to a few criticisms before they are made:

    Firstly, while it is certainly true that oppressions intersect, that the majority of the world’s workers are women, that race and class are so intricately intertwined as to be inseparable in many practical senses etc. etc. none of this disproves my thesis.

    Secondly while I may be a white man, I’m also disabled in several ways, queer and working class, so the claim that this is written from a position of privilege that someone will inevitably make is more than a little unfair. Even if it were true, which it isn’t, it wouldn’t disprove my claims.

  2. Pingback: In defence of class struggle | DISCOBEDIENCE

  3. Interesting piece. Significantly more nuanced than most of the defenses of class-centrism out there. However, I have some criticisms.

    I think the central weakness of your argument is that you’re operating with the assumption that centering class struggle is something with a single unambiguous meaning from all subject-positions. The problem with that assumption is that the intersection of oppressions doesn’t just affect the “out there” of objective social structures but is also within us, at the level of subjectivity. Nobody sees the totality of social relations: we’re not chess masters moving pieces around on the board, we’re pieces in the game trying to figure out together what moves to make, and the game looks different from different positions on the board. So when we move from the abstract level on which your piece operates to practical questions of resistance, we’re faced with the problem that the class struggle does not look the same for everyone: that class is lived in different modalities according to race, gender, ability etc.

    If I can quote from something I’ve written:

    “One of the key insights of intersectional theory is that in any resistant politics, questions of race, gender, class etc. are always-already posed. The totality of social relations is composed of interlocking, mutually constructing and supporting systems of oppression, which combine to produce any particular experience of the social world. It is therefore impossible to develop a generic class politics, separated from any analysis of race or gender, which holds in all social locations: the class struggle simply isn’t the same, in either its subjective or objective dimensions for all observers.

    When we conceptualise The Worker as an ideal type around which to build a theory we already have somebody in mind. Even if, like a more radical Rawls, we attempt to produce a “veil of ignorance” in our heads behind which is a disembodied, genderless, raceless, abstract proletarian and attempt to imagine the class struggle from their perspective, we find ourselves in a web from which we cannot untangle ourselves. Gender and race are so embedded in our thought and language that they cannot be overcome: they are preconditions for legible humanity. Our Worker is always-already inflected with racial and gendered meanings whether we are conscious of them or not: if he is not a woman he is by default a man; if he is not of some particular race he is by default white. The dominant category is understood as universal, the subordinate as particular; the post-gender, post-race subject is beyond the limits of our imagination at this moment in history.

    This is not merely a problem of imagination, however. The unity of interests presupposed and embodied by the idealised Worker is a false unity established through the occlusion of real antagonisms within the class… The classic leftist call for unity in a universalist project of class struggle across such divides ignores the reality that the immediate goals of one are not the same as the other, and may in fact contradict. Which set of interests are most likely to win the race to become those of the generic worker?”

    I think the reality we have to face is that we’re not capable of transcending the plane of identity politics, as much as we might recognise its flaws, and that perhaps when we are most sure we have done so, that is when we should be most concerned that we are simply rationalising away the same old exclusionary violence that has always characterised the white male dominated Left.

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