The Problems With Class Reductionism

From the always excellent M-L-M Mayhem blog.

Apparently J. Sakai’s Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat is again making the rounds in activist circles and, as usual, is again provoking an uncritical dismissal that I critiqued, months ago, in a review of problematic reviews of the book.  What makes these snide dismissals rather sad (and entirely predictable) is that they often come from people who have not read, and even refuse to read, Sakai’s book.  These uncritical rejections sometimes emerge from elements of the left that see themselves, or maybe their families, as part of “the white proletariat” that Sakai is critiquing.  Then, while openly refusing to read the book beyond the title, they tend to assert that the book is not for them.  One dismissal a good comrade passed on to me, for example, even went so far as to argue that Sakai was an arrogant “academic” who clearly had no understanding of the reality of the white working class.  The fact that the person who made this dismissal, regardless of family background, was actually embedded in academia, whereas Sakai is actually not an academic (and even critiques left academics) is yet another example of an unwillingness to actually read what was being written.

The uncritical nature of these spurious critiques is troublesome.  The comrade who passed along the aforementioned dismissal spoke of another “white backlash” amongst certain sectors of the left––the dismissal of Sakai being a symptom of a broader malaise.  It appears that in response to the culturalism of post-modern identity politics––where there is an inability to provide either concrete analyses or viable political projects––certain leftists have responded by embracing the crudest form of class reductionism.  In an earlier entry I critiqued this problem but I think it needs to be discussed again, but from a different angle.  (There will definitely be overlap, so I apologize ahead of time for being boring.)

1. Class Essentialism

Those promoting this crude class reductionism tend to ascribe to a dubious notion of class that emerged from Trotskyist theory.  Although I do not like bashing Trotsky or Trotskyism (something that can easily become, and has become, dogmatically sectarian), I do think it is very important to ask why the most vociferous class reductionists ascribe to Trotskyism (though a few are arguably Stalinist), and reduce their understanding of class struggle to Trotsky’s (and other Trotskyist’s) theorization of marxist philosophy.  Of course the problem is much larger than Trotskyism, connecting to ideology and class consciousness, but it is the theory that emerged from Trotskyist analyses of class and class struggle that permit a very crude, and ultimately very idealist, conceptualization of class.

This crude conceptualization imagines that class is an essence, something that is given rather than made, and that class consciousness is a direct product of this essence.  Thus, according to this argument, if someone works in a factory they are intrinsically revolutionary.  This position has typically led to a denial of other material factors, especially in colonial and semi-colonial concrete contexts, resulting in more than one Trotskyist group arguing that the colonizing industrial “proletariat” will lead the revolution in settler-colonial states.  If the factory worker is always and essentially the revolutionary subject, after all, then it is impossible for them to be authentically invested in colonialism.

According to this position, the colonizing working class simply needs to realize its vocation as the leader of the revolution and, upon realizing this fact, act to abolish oppression on the part of the colonized.  If anything, racism is just something that “comes from outside” to split the working class.  Hence the crude dismissals of Lenin’s theory of the labour aristocracy; hence the imperial “marxist” dogma that world revolution will be led by the workers at the centres of capitalism who, because of their advanced status as essentially and properly proletariat, will liberate the entire globe.

And yet colonizing and imperial workers, as anticolonial marxists have emphasized, are often dependent on the labour of others.  Marx tells us that the slaves make history, that world revolution comes from below on the part of those who have nothing to lose but their chains, not from a privileged strata dependent upon exploitation.  Class essentialism, however, denies this argument because, due to its philosophical commitments, can only understand class outside of history and society.  ”Proletarian” thus becomes a magical formula: it is always and only this––often meaning white, male, trade-unionized.

But class is a social relation, something that is made rather than found, and this was one of Marx and Engels’ great insights.  Prior to the emergence of capitalism, class position was understood differently: if you were born a peasant that was your identity ordained by God, the heavens, etc.  A supernatural order defines social hierarchy, your class position is in your blood.  The rise of capitalism revealed the inaccuracy of this way of seeing the world by demystifying these relations, often violently, and by reducing everything to its crude economic logic: class could be made because our destiny was not an essence defined by some natural order.  And yet today’s crude class reductionism clings to a pre-capitalist notion of class.

This class essentialism, where a specific class position operates like a Platonic form, can also lead class reductionists to claim that, regardless of their current class position, if they were born into a working class family then they are still intrinsically proletariat.  Again, this ignores the very meaning of class by transforming it into a cultural essence rather than understanding it as a social relation.

2.  Class Culturalism

Here I need to qualify my position so that it is not misunderstood.  As another good comrade recently pointed out, being born into an immigrant working class family, for example, does influence one’s understanding of and relationship to class.  Class position does produce culture; the children of the privileged classes have an easier time becoming privileged themselves, as well as navigating their class, then someone from a lower-classed background.  Class, though not itself a cultural essence, is always clothed in culture.

But because class is always clothed in culture, then it is impossible to speak of a single and hegemonic proletarian or bourgeois culture.  It is also impossible, as I know the comrade mentioned above would agree, to imagine that class is not raced or gendered.  If we take the cultural aspect of class seriously in a concrete and materialist manner, then we cannot be selective when it suits us: we have to also engage with the entire cultural sphere which is not limited to the culture of whiteness, maleness, etc.  Reducing class to a singular cultural essence, therefore, actually prevents us from understanding the cultural dimension of class: class becomes misunderstood as nothing more than one set of clothes it wears; when it changes its wardrobe, or is stripped naked, we become confused.

Confusion over a concrete historical materialist understanding of class actually (as I mentioned in the prior post, cited above, about this issue) results in the very identity politics that class reductionism claims to resist.  Once class is a singular cultural essence, after all, then it becomes an identitarian position.  This is why Sakai’s Settlers is often denounced: “How dare Sakai question my understanding of my class identity!”

And those responsible for this class reductionism––those who attack anti-racists for engaging in “identity politics”––also engage in the most banal identity politics whenever they are accused of racism and pro-imperialism.  For example, when a political line is critiqued as expressing a pro-colonial politics, the class reductionist can argue that, since someone from a third world background supports this political line then the line is not colonial.  Clearly this argument flows from class reductionist identity politics: if someone was born in a context of oppression, and experienced oppression, then their consciousness must automatically be one that supports anti-oppressive politics.  The actual political content of any position can therefore be ignored because an essential identity can always and only produce revolutionary politics.  Thus “identity politics” ultimately finds its most bankrupt expression at the nadir of class reductionism.

Posted on April 4, 2011, in Communist Theory, Imperialism & Colonialism, Revolution, Revolutionary Theory, Socialism and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.

Leave a Reply! (Please Read the Comments Policy First Though!)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

Gravatar Logo

Please log in to to post a comment to your blog.

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s