Marxist Theory and the Workers' Movement: The Concept of Class

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eating poultices's picture
eating poultices
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Oct 31 2009 03:51
Marxist Theory and the Workers' Movement: The Concept of Class

Marxism is incapable of theorizing total social practice (including the most radical form of Marxism) except to reflect it in the mirror of the mode of production. It cannot lead to the dimensions of a revolutionary "politics." From our current position, Marxist analysis, in its revolutionary rationality, no longer illuminates either modern societies or primitive societies.
Retrospectively, moreover, it is necessary to ask if it has not always been thus, if already in Marx's time the theory of the mode of production did not effect an extraordinary simplification of social practice. If it no longer accounts for the present mode of revolution, did it, at least for a given moment of history (the "classical" capitalist phase) account for fundamental contradictions? Did the mode of production (and with it class and class struggle) have its hour of truth?
The sacrilegious hypothesis is here imposed that the conjuncture in the 19th century of Marxist theory and the workers' movement perhaps had not been the miracle of history -- the greatest event in history, says Althusser -- but a process of reciprocal reduction and neutralization. The objective historical result was the choking of both in the Leninist political mixture, later in the Stalinist bureaucracy, and today in the most vulgar reformist empiricism. These are the stages of a long decline that it would be too simple to impute to a few distortions along the way. The deep logic of this decline forces us to return beyond Stalin, beyond Lenin, etc., back to the crucial point of the thought of Marx himself, back to the original event, which is always conceived as irrevocably revolutionary, of the dialectical conjuncture of his theory and the objective social practice of a class called the proletariat. We have so lived in the providential shadow of this event that the idea that this fusion was not necessary, nor necessarily the best, has never truly been formulated. Social revolt and the movement of the theory, each indexing themselves on the other, each verifying themselves in the thread of history, were universalized as historical reason, under the sign of the dialectical revolution. But they were lost as society's radical difference. In effect, the fusion was not made between a radical revolt and a radical theory, both of them "primitive" and non-determined (as was the case in the insurrectional movements of the 19th century up to the Commune of 1871 and again in May, 1968) but between two terms that were already distinct and slanted by each other. If you wish, this is dialectical but it is necessary to see that what is dialecticized, that upon which Marxist theory hinges, is a social reality "specified" as a class, as an objective and conscious organization, as a proletariat. What is grasped in theory as proletarian organization is a well-determined social critique in terms of a mode of production, relations of production and class. On one side there is an "objective" and organized class and on the other side there is a rational and structured theory (as much in its materialist content as in its dialectical form) -- it is between these two terms, each rationalized in the image of the other, that the dialectic of revolution has been short-circuited.
It is difficult to evaluate all that has been repressed and eliminated in this operation which brings out once and forever, under the sign of materialism, history, and the dialectic, the revolutionary reality principle. Let us say that everything that a "pleasure principle" and a radicality of revolt would reveal and can still be read in the insurrectionists of the 19th century, in the destruction of machines, in pre-Marxist utopian and libertarian discourse, in the cursed poets or in the sexual revolt, and that aimed, well beyond material production, at a total symbolic configuration of life and social relations is destroyed by the abstract configuration of political economy -- that it is this whole primitive and radical movement that Marxist theory and socialist organization, in their miraculous conjunction, have dialecticized by treating it, under a class status and a "historical" content, as the development of productive forces. They rationalized it into a relation of antagonistic forces at the interior of a single social field, magnetized by political economy.
But this revolt implied something different from a dialectic of forces. It implied the irruption of a radical difference, something far different from surplus value and the exploitation of labor power which is the corruption of all social relations by the unilateral rationality of production and universal socialization under the law of value. And the operation, if one looks at it closely, consisted in a "dialectical" rehabilitation of the status of the producer, towards which the revolt aimed, and of which Marxist theory itself made the point of departure of the social revolution. Marxism makes a revolutionary detour and a promise of liberation out of a process of destructuring and repression.(Nietzsche is right: the workers have elevated into a cardinal value the very sign of their slavery, just as the Christians did with suffering.) And this revolution is no longer for the here and now: it becomes a historical finality. Positivized under the sign of progress by the bourgeoisie, or dialecticized under the sign of revolution by Marxism, it is always the case of an imposition of a meaning, the rational projection of an objective finality opposing itself to the radicality of desire which, in its non-meaning, cuts through all finality.
In relation to the situation created by massive industrialization, concentration-camp discipline, the rigid training of generations of artisans and peasants beginning in the 19th century, in relation to the situation of destructuring and revolt, Marxist theory and workers' organization have achieved overall a labor of historical rationalization, a certain kind of secondary elaboration: the valorization of labor as the source of social wealth, the valorization of the process of the rational development of productive forces, a process that was confused with the revolutionary project (surely through a "dialectical" negativity, but behind which was hidden irrevocably the confusion of this same class with labor as the social ethic of class).
The ethic of rational labor, which is of bourgeois origin and which served historically to define the bourgeoisie as a class, is found renewed with fantastic amplitude at the level of the working class, also contributing to define it as a class, that is to circumscribe it in a status of historical representability.
Respect for the machine, protection for work instruments, implying virtual propriety (some kind of human right in opposition to legal right) and the future appropriation of the means of production, institutes the working class in a productivist vocation that takes the place of the historic vocation of the bourgeoisie. The fact that in the revolutionary project these means of production are restored to the disposition of those who produce, under the sign of social appropriation and self-management, only gives an eternal quality to the process of production, beyond all changes in the mode of production. The "class of laborers" is thus confirmed in its idealized status as a productive force even by its revolutionary ideal. It reflects upon itself as "the most precious human capital," as the myth of origin of social wealth.
In the guise of historical materialism, the idealism of production ends by giving a positive definition to the revolutionary class. The class is then defined in the universal, according to the universality of labor power. It falls back upon an essence which in fact it was assigned by the bourgeois class and which defines it, in its historical being, by the universality of capital. Capital and labor power then encounter each other as respective values, equally founded in the universal. In this encounter of classes where each has its objective, historical reference, the bourgeois class always prevails. For this concept of class belongs to it and when it succeeds in trapping the proletariat in it, it has already won the game. The concept of class is a universalist and rationalist concept, born in a society of rational production and of the calculation of productive forces. In a sense, there has always been and there will always be only one class, the bourgeoisie. This capitalist bourgeois class is defined not only by the ownership of the means of production, but by the rational finality of production. To make a class of the proletariat is hence to enclose it in an order of definition (characterized by "class consciousness" as "the subject of history") in which the model remains that of the bourgeoisie. Accession to the status of class is equivalent to a rationalization of the "workers' movement" and its revolt, equivalent to aligning it in the general rationality of the industrial order. Thus "class against class" can well signify antagonism at the level of the relation to the means of production, but this in no way breaks the finality of productivity itself. On the contrary, but dialecticizing it from within, this schema serves only to extend the process of political economy to infinity.
If the class struggle has a meaning, it is not in the encounter of one class with another. (When the structure is reversed and the proletarian class triumphs, as in the East, nothing changes profoundly, as we know, in social relations.) This meaning can only be the radical refusal of letting itself be enclosed in the being and consciousness of class. For the proletariat, it is to negate the bourgeoisie because the latter assigns it a class status. It must not negate itself insofar as it is deprived of the means of production (which is, unfortunately, the "objective" Marxist definition of class); it negates itself insofar as it is defined in terms of production and political economy. Can the proletariat have a meaning if it defines itself in terms of productive forces, labor, historical rationality, etc.? Evidently not. In this framework, the proletariat (or any other possible class) is pledged to enter into the rational dialectic of a form and a content (on the one hand, the structure of classes, on the other, its own class values, when these are not its class "interests"!). It is pledged to a finality of class that perfectly encloses it in the dialectical game of capitalist society.
Better still, by reinforcing itself in its being, in proportion to the development of the class struggle, it reinforces the power of the ruling class, and its degraded opposition serves the reformist impulse of the capitalist system, when it does not reveal itself as even more conservative in the realm of values. This is where we are today.
To what can we impute the historical blockage of the "revolutionary double negation" (the proletariat was well-born from the bourgeoisie, but it has not been born of itself as a class)? Lenin, even Stalin, the demise of the proletariat itself -- are these dialectical accidents? Quite simply, the problem is the conjuncture of a revolutionary theory aiming at the abolition of classes, outlined by Marx, with a revolutionary subject (the real and historical class of salaried workers). One cannot even say that the proletariat has slowly turned against itself. It has logically produced the substantialization of the social revolt in a theoretically untranscendable class, which was soon fixed in its being by the organization. Starting from there, the proletarian class and Marxist theory began mutually to justify one another and hence to neutralize each other. And the project of transforming life, as much the demand of Marx as that of the actual revolt, has placidly become the victory of the proletariat.

eating poultices's picture
eating poultices
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Oct 31 2009 03:53

At the end they perceive that it is their faults, which they have forgiven in themselves, and which thus have become invisible in their plans, but which are exposed in their dealings with others, that prove their undoing.

alphafunction
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Oct 31 2009 12:04

Interesting text - did you write it yourself or does it come from somewhere else?

Dave B
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Oct 31 2009 16:53

Sounds a bit like the stuff ICC produce.

What does it mean?