Marxism without revolution: Class

I’ve mentioned Erik Olin Wright’s Envisaging Real Utopias a couple of times, and I’ve also been reading David Harvey’s Enigma of Capital and Jerry Cohen’s if You’re an Egalitarian How Come you’re so Rich. In different ways, all these books raise the question: what becomes of Marxism if you abandon belief in the likelihood or desirability of revolution[1]? To give the shorter JQ upfront, there are lots of valuable insights, but there’s a high risk of political paralysis.

I plan alliteratively, to organise my points under three headings: Class, Capital and Crisis, and in this post I’ll talk about class

The analysis of economics and history in terms of class struggle is the central distinguishing feature of Marxism, and remains essential to any proper understanding. That said, the specifically Marxist class analysis in which the industrial working class, brought together in large factories, and increasingly homogenized and immiserised, serves as the inevitable agent of revolution, clearly hasn’t worked and isn’t going to. In the standard path of capitalist development, the stage when industrial workers (defined broadly to include all kinds of non-agricultural manual workers) constitute even a plurality of the workforce turns out to be quite short-lived. In today’s developed economies, such workers are a small minority of the population, even if you throw in the 100 million or so in China. And the working class considered more generally, as people who earn their living from labour is too heterogeneous to form a self-conscious class-for-itself. In one way or another, Wright, Harvey and Cohen all make or at least acknowledge this point.

As Cohen puts it, the revolutionary working class postulated by Marx had to satisfy four conditions:

1) They constitute the majority of society;
2) they produce the wealth of society;
3) they are the exploited people in society;
4) they are the needy people in society.
To quote this summary from the Directionless Bones blog, 1. and 2. give the proletariat the capacity to revolutionise society, and 3. and 4. give them the reason to do so.

It seems clear, as Cohen says, that no sensible definition of the working class is going to satisfy all four conditions.

On the other hand, there clearly is a self-conscious and generally dominant class, centred on control of capital, but including plenty of people whose source of power and wealth is derived from their job rather than from capital income. On a narrow definition, it includes the top 1 per cent of US households which now receive 25 per cent of all income and hold around 35 per cent of all wealth. More broadly, the top 20 per cent of the population has, in broad terms, increased or maintained its share of national income as the top 1 per cent have become richer. This broader group controls more than half of all income and wealth.

Most of the political elite in developed countries, but particularly in the US, consists of members of the top 1 per cent, or aspirants to rise to this group from the top 20 per cent. Moreover as well as controlling much of the political process through direct participation or political donations, this class exercises power directly through ownership of capital and particularly through control of the financial system. Anyone who attempts to understand policy and politics without taking account of the central role of this class is doomed to failure.

Coming back to Cohen’s conditions, the case to be made against the top 1 per cent is that:

1) They constitute a tiny minority of society
2) they consume far more of the wealth of society than they actually contribute
3) they exploit their control over capital for their own benefit
4) they are the primary obstacle to meeting a wide range of social needs

In a Marxist analysis, it would be natural at this point to use the term “ruling class”, and to stress, even more than I have done, the point that much of what passes for political debate consists of little more than rearrangements of an executive committee derived from, and largely driven by this class. There is a lot to be said for this analysis, but in the absence of any prospect of revolutionary overthrow of the ruling class, it doesn’t seem to lead anywhere, except perhaps to defeatism.

And, in some parts of the academic left, defeatism seems to be seen as positively desirable. Once a critical analysis has been performed, demonstrating the hopelessness of any particular attempt to change existing structures without a revolution, the necessary work has been done, and it’s time for a well-earned cafe latte.

More commonly, perhaps, leftists continue to work on projects of reform and resistance with an implicit assumption that no fundamental change is going to take place, while maintaining a non-operational faith in the ultimate possibility or even inevitability of revolution.

If defeatism were obviously justified, this would just be a regrettable fact about the world. In reality, however, the dominant class suffered a series of historic defeats over the century or so between Marx’s own writing and the resurgence of market liberalism in the 1970s. The creation of a democratic welfare state, funded primarily by progressive taxation, produced societies with a more equal distribution of economic and political power than any seen since the emergence of agriculture, and with better standards of living for virtually everyone in the developed world.

And even after decades in which the upper 1 per cent has steadily gained ground, they remain far from omnipotent. Despite continuous attack, the basic structures of the welfare state remain intact, and there have even been some important extensions[2].

The existence of those structures mean that a relatively simple set of feasible political demands, primarily involving reversal of the losses of the past few decades, could form a basis for political opposition to the rule of the top 1 per cent. The key elements are fairly obvious, and include
* reimposition of control over the financial system
* restoration of a progressive tax structure, combined with a more vigorous assault on international tax evasion/avoidance
* shifting the burden of ‘austerity’ back to those responsible for the crisis, and rejection of cuts to the welfare state
* repeal of anti-union laws and measures to make union organization easier

Of course, setting out a policy program is one thing – the political movement needed to bring it into being is another. And for now, the ruling 1 per cent has managed to turn the anger generated by their failures to their own political advantage. But, far more than in the 1980s and 1990s, or even the first decade of the 2000s, the opening is there for a radical alternative. Even within the dominant class, faith in the beneficience of markets in general and financial markets in particular, has largely dissipated. What remains is a grimly determined class view that “what we have we hold”.

An effective political movement would mobilise the direct interests of the 80 per cent or so of the population who are losing ground in relative terms (and in the US in absolute terms) combined with the broader interest of those in the top 20 per cent of the population in a juster and more stable social order – unlike the top 1 per cent, this group can’t easily insulate themselves from society as a whole or count on passing on their own social position to their children.

There is no obvious political vehicle for such a movement. The social democratic parties (not to mention the US Democratic Party) seem either hopelessly compromised or ineffective, while the Greens seem to be stuck as a permanent minority. But there have been plenty of radical realignments of political party structures in the past, and they often happen just when they seem least likely.

That’s more than enough for a blog post. As always, I’m putting my thoughts out for discussion rather than claiming any finality for them.

fn1. I argued my position on this here. If people want to dispute this, please don’t derail discussion on this thread. Just write something to indicate you’d like it, and I’ll open a separate thread for this topic.

fn2. Most notable are the Bush prescription drug benefit and Obama’s health plan. Although these measures were riddled with gifts to powerful interest, they nevertheless represent a very significant extension of the role and responsibility of the state to protect its citizens against the risks associated with ill-health..

48 thoughts on “Marxism without revolution: Class

  1. The meme that “revolutions never solve anything” or “revolutions make people worse off” only very variably corresponds to the facts. Some revolutions have made lots of people much better off than any realistic alternative – and have been fiercely defended by those people. The people who defended Tula, Moscow,Leningrad and Stalingrad with a ferocity that awed the Germans (and was very different from the response of the same people in 1914-17) was because they were fighting for what they had gained.

    The people who often suffer most in revolutions are the intellectuals and the upper classes – who get the most sympathy from writers. Plus there seems to be a general attitude that suffering, so long as it’s part of the system, does not really count. So The Irish famines, and the previous century of deepening immiseration, is not seen as reprehensible in the way that, say, the Terror is. Never mind that more people died.

    It remains true that revolutions are a gamble, and that they do kill people. I have lived through one, and I don’t recommend them.

  2. Raising Walter Korpi reminded me of something I read in my studies recently. With regard to ‘Power Resources’ theory; and the idea that violent and ruptural struggle is against both the interests of capital and labour because of the costs of such struggle. I think for the labour movement, and for socialists, this also resonates with the issue of globalisation; the threat of isolation, autarky and economic disintegration should any thorough revolutionisation of property relations be attempted…. One response is to say we need a disciplined global movement again; the task which the (Second) ‘Socialist International’ has failed with regards for so long. But more immediately I think the task is to build an alliance of social movements, including labour, which is mobilised to such an extent that it can force favourable compromises; where it is in capital’s interest to compromise. I’m not necessarily talking about some insipid minimalist compromise either; but one of a democratic mixed economy; a substantial welfare state and progressive tax system, a substantial public sector, even willing to invest directly in crucial, profitable and strategic areas such as mining and renewable energy, and with the restoration of natural monopolies and GBEs competing and countering the logic of oligopoly and collusion; restoration of the rights of labour; and finally other forms of economic democracy, with tax breaks and subsidies for co-operative enterprise, and democratic forms of collective capital mobilisation – though not necessarily as radical as the original Meidner plan (for the capitalists that might be a ‘bridge too far’) What I’m imagining is to force such a compromise through mobilisation – where it’s in the interests of the capitalists to compromise; leaving a significant role for local and global corporations – as the basis for continued integration with the global economy; and the reason I believe it is possible is because I’m a voluntarist who believe in the potential power of some ‘collective progressive will’; And also because I believe new technologies will ‘level the cultural playing field’; I suppose and hope it could be a real ‘game changer’;

  3. @Peter T

    You seem to have a very romaticised and one-dimensional view of revolution.

    Universal suffrage was a revolution, as was the advent of the scientific method. Atheism is also a revolutionary advance on various modes of personified Gods. There is no reason why our economic arrangements should not go through the same process without be cobbled with all the nonsense about Tula, Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad.

    Its the counter-revolution you really have to worry about.

  4. John, this is an interesting critique but I’m not sure of what. A critique of Marx it certainly isn’t. Using late Gerry Cohen as a yardstick of “Marxism” only reconfirms Marx’s own complaint that with the behaviour of his epigones he was “no Marxist”.

    Most importantly, the straw man of Marx’s theory of class that you cut down here is so far from what the man wrote (and seems to be the product of some kind of sociological approach to the question) that it’s impossible to even start a debate on the value of your strategic proposals relative to your central critique.

    As in our short debate at Left Flank, your dismissal of revolution seems to be the a priori assumption and your engagement with revolutionary variants of Marxism unexpectedly minimal in light of how strongly you think Marx either got it wrong or no longer applies.

    Most surprising is your pessimistic view of the Arab Spring, which has shaken the idea that revolution was a thing of the past and has clearly fed into an emerging “European Spring”. It’s early and provisional, but you seem to be writing it off already.

  5. Tad; Though in none of these revolutions in the Arab world are they attempting to break free of the context of the global capitalist economy; so these are liberal democratic revolutions; or largely Islamic revolutions – in the case of Egypt against a repressive but secular regime. Attempting socialist revolution we would face the global reaction; and gain – possible isolation and autarky; But I think it’s also notable that revolution and insurrection are not the same thing; The Austro-Marxists, for instance, believed in ‘slow revolution’; But what comprises a revolution? If we recalibrate property relations and expand democratic forms of ownership – including the rise of participatory media and accompanying empowerment of ‘the polity’ – to the point where there can no longer be said to be a national capitalist ‘ruling class’; is this revolution? But more to the point – is it a revolution in a context where citizens and workers are so empowered, but there is still integration with a global capitalist economy, with local and global corporations participating in the local capitalist economy; Where those corporations maintain significant economic power; but are consistently ‘forced to the table’ by the mobilised power of the organised working class; and organised social democracy? Let’s say we had a ‘democratic’ sector comprising 50% of the natinal economy…. IF this is not ‘revolution’ – and I accept it might not be – perhaps it is nonetheless the best we can do in the coming decades….

  6. Tristan, I’d like to take issue with 2 things you raise here:

    (1) The way you foreclose on the potentials inherent in what is clearly a continuing revolutionary process (which has also clearly had massive impact across national borders and not just within them) actually leads to a dangerous set of conclusions — that we must somehow expect the very same states which have repressed these peoples and attacked the uprisings to suddenly change spots and perform a function counter to the interests they have so assiduously served.

    Yet, as we debate, Trotsky’s definition of revolution is in play in a way we haven’t seen globally since the late 1960s: “The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events.” And it’s not just in Arab world — there are green shoots of mass democracy in action in the city squares of Spain and Greece. For the latter, this piece in the Guardian is worth reading. For more on what’s been happening lately in Egypt, this is a detailed and quite sober account.

    Shouldn’t we on the Left first be concerned with deepening this process politically rather than immediately assuming it will stall at the liberal democratic stage (which is what its enemies want, anyhow)? In this context your use of the word “we” is ambiguous: Who or what is this “we”? Do you mean, for example, the state should empower the polity or should they be empowering themselves. Fuzziness over the “we” can well lead to being unhappy with the self-empowerment going on because it doesn’t easily fit into a more cautious program.

    (2) Why would the complex and interdependent networks of state and corporate actors allow even a 50 percent level of nationalisation to occur without first unleashing vicious reaction anyway? And what is nationalisation in this context? Nasser took large sections of Egyptian capital into state hands, but he built a thoroughly undemocratic regime out of this capture, one that could later quite easily shift towards privatisation and free markets under Sadat and Mubarak. Indeed, Nasser’s victory was in the context of the exhaustion of a powerful workers’ movement in the years before, allowing him to minimise virtually any direct (democratic) pressure from below on his state-centric regime.

    I think it is interesting that JQ raises class, capital and crisis, but not the nature of the state. But maybe it’ll be in there somewhere.

  7. I think, to step outside the traditional liberal-conservative democratic view of the world centered on the individual, that an anaysis of Michael Walzer’s ‘Sphere’s of Justice’ would add to this discussion. The basic tenant of communitarianism is that the ideally just state be constructed from the standpoint of how to realize an ideal COMMUNITY (as opposed to the liberal-conservative standpoint of how to foster the well-being of INDIVIDUALS in that society). Traditional political moral philosophy tends to reject communitarianism on the grounds that such a standpoint does not allow “critical moral distance.” However, in the ‘real world’ of ordinary citizens and non-philosophers, such criticisms are neither applicable or relevant and don’t hold the same weight that they do in academic consideration.

    Without going into the thesis of communitarianism at length, from the societal perspective (as agaist an individualistic one) political legitimacy requires a shared form of life. Furthermore, atomistic individuals will not feel committed enough to the public good to undertake the sacrifices required for the maintenance of a just social order. All the goods with which distributive justice are concerned are social goods, (Walzer, p. 7). They are not natural or individual, but acquire their meanings and values through conception, creation, and interpretation. The meanings of goods determine how they shall be distributed.

    Neoliberalism, as understood as a dominant ideology based around individualism and a strong belief in capitalistic individualism, is unlikely to survive a deep sovereign debt crisis. IMHO, Walzer’s idea of “complex equality” or some variation of such would be most likely to replace neoliberalism as a guiding ideology of distributive justice and social organisation.

  8. I’d take issue with the statement “The Greens seem stuck as a permanent minority”. Over the last two years we’ve seen several instances of the Greens, in very diverse places, getting votes substantially higher than had ever been achieved before: Iceland, Tasmania, Brazil, Columbia and now in a couple of (large) German lander.

    It’s true the Greens were not anywhere near a majority in any of these cases, but where previously it was questioned if the Greens could ever go above 20%, that’s now been achieve a series of times. It’s possible there is actually a ceiling at 25%, or 30% or 40%, but I don’t think we’ll know that for a while.

    Of course the Greens have often failed when provided with opportunities to grow, and the fact that we can break through in some places doesn’t mean we’ll be able to do it everywhere, but I’m disagree that globally speaking, we’re stuck.

  9. I think we can do without vainglorious citations from Trotsky. Silly romantic notions such as:

    “The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events.”

    merely dissolve and blunt historical initiative that would otherwise arise from objective circumstances.

    I think we can also do without all these gratuitous linkages into our needs of plastic insights from whatever overseas events hits our TV screens.

    In my experience, the grouplets who proudly call for such things as “deepening the process politically” are usually the ones who are splitting it into so many fragments that they simply become a waste of time.

    You can only deepen a movement you actually are a part of.

  10. Tad; again I think the example of Sweden is instructive re: the ability of a strong and mobilised labour and social democratic movement to achieve a favourable compromise. Sweden maintains one of the most extensive welfare states in the world. And both labour and capital have an interest in not letting confrontation go too far. (loss of markets and wasted investments for capitalists, possibility economic of isolation/autarky for social democratic movements)

    Though perhaps any kind of initiative similar to ‘wage earner funds’ could rather be reconceived as ‘citizens funds’; including a broader range of people, and thus holding broader appeal. But as in the model ultimately attempted in Sweden, a ‘cap’ on such funds (again, let’s say 20% of the stock exchange) may be necessary to avoid an all out employer backlash.

    On top of this there could be encouragement for co-operative and mutualist enterprise, and a broadened public sector. In Australia perhaps there should be direct public investment in resources. (a response to the mining industry’s scuttling of the resources tax meant to address the ‘two speed economy’.)

    But ultimately success rests upon the strength and mobilisation of the social democratic and labour movements; Radical change can’t be achieved without real bargaining power backed by mobilisation.

  11. Shorter Chris Warren: I’m sorry about all those centuries of blood and anguish. It was all really just a misunderstanding.

  12. In essence, I read Prof. Quiggin’s piece as a call for a return to a past Golden Age of Enlightened Capitalism, roughly corresponding to the immediate post-WWII and up to the mid 1970s.

    I understand and sympathize with Prof. Quiggin’s call: “a relatively simple set of feasible political demands, primarily involving reversal of the losses of the past few decades, [that] could form a basis for political opposition to the rule of the top 1 per cent.”

    Leaving aside the question of how enlightened that Enlightened Capitalism really was, I still agree that such a simple set of political demands would be a step in the right direction.

    What I believe Prof. Quiggin has not considered is that the same forces acting over society during the original Golden Age, could easily result in a renewed Golden Age (if it was attainable, that is) going off track, just as the original one did.

    To put this in terms used in economics jargon: a Golden Age of Enlightened Capitalism is probably an unstable equilibrium. If the same causes are not treated, similar effects could follow.

    In any case, I would applaud Prof. Quiggin (and his regular readers) for giving this matter some thought and I would urge them to continue in this path: I do find some of the points raised interesting and worth considering.

  13. DR Tad:

    “Shouldn’t we on the Left first be concerned with deepening this process politically rather than immediately assuming it will stall at the liberal democratic stage …”

    I think the Coptic Christians, who are being raped, murdered, bashed and having their Churches burnt by the Muslim majority, including working class elements, would count themselves very lucky if Egypt was to stall at liberal democracy.

    The only viable alternative to liberal democracy is an autocratic Muslim chauvinist dictatorship (see Iran) or military rule.

    On second thoughts military rule might be a blessing for minorities. At least Mubarak gave some small measure of protection to religious minorities from a rabidly hostile majority.

    If you seriously believe that the largest Trotskyist group in Egypt, which I understand is the Popular Peoples Front for the Grand Caliphate Sheikh Marx, membership 17, is likely to be the vanguard of a workers’ revolution expedited through a “deepening process” consequent to Comrade Tad’s keyboard activism then I think you need some time away from your patients.

  14. “More commonly, perhaps, leftists continue to work on projects of reform and resistance with an implicit assumption that no fundamental change is going to take place, while maintaining a non-operational faith in the ultimate possibility or even inevitability of revolution.”

    The scary thing is the realisation that this amorphous heaving mass of trouble and strife we call the global economy is out of anyone’s control and everyone believes that because of its incredible complexity. However it depends for its existance on the maintenance of a certain attitude amongst it adherents. Julian Assange put it as an allegiance and agreement by everyone towards a kind of selfishness.

    I think it an edifice largely constructed from so-much bullshit and it wouldn’t take too many doses of truth to see shrivel in a great heap of mortification and embarrassment.

    I quite liked this:

    “Rand’s Objectivism, we’re told, has given birth to a culture of selfishness among the world’s most powerful. For the uninitiated it discourages altruism and pushes for every man and woman to become solely selfish beings, driving their own interests to the bitter end. There is no time for weakness, religion or irrationality and each person should make their priority their own happiness. Rand set out this belief in her two best-selling novels, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957). Generally, critics hated her but she amassed a cult following nonetheless.”

    Which came from a review of Adam Curtis’ latest, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace”.

  15. Peter T :Shorter Chris Warren: I’m sorry about all those centuries of blood and anguish. It was all really just a misunderstanding.

    That is the Tory response. The associated thought is “the end of history” canard.

    But to normal folks, the romantic notion referenced eg:

    The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events.”

    is not necessarily attached to “blood and anguish”.

    Nor is “deepening the process politically”.

    In general those who invoke “blood and anguish” are paddling their own private canoe.

    If you want to know about “blood and anguish” just read Colonial histories.

  16. Chris

    We have a misunderstanding. I do not think you can understand revolutions unless you take the commitment of the ordinary people who make revolutions seriously. And that includes the people who defend what obviously seem to them major gains (like the workers who fought for the Soviet Union). The “end of history” is nonsense – history is not teleological. It does move on, and if what was seen as worth fighting for in 1941 no longer inspires the same commitment in 1989, that does not devalue the sacrifices made in 1941.

    Whether you can get there peacefully is another matter. One hopes so, but the experience of history is that the rich and powerful rarely surrender without a fight – and almost never unless confronted with the possibility of a fight.

  17. @Peter T

    OK, you can reasonably associate ‘blood and anguish’ with a counter revolution.

    But as Marx said, there is no reason why a revolution in economic structures cannot be entirely peaceful. He noted that this depended on the nature of democratic institutions.

    Lenin also implied the same thought, but his condition was different. His condition was that the middle class supported the changes so that such an overwhelming majority was achieved that a “dictatorship by the proletariat” was not necessary.

    All the sacrifices and travails in the past were under completerly different political and social institutional circumstances.

  18. @Peter T

    Whether you can get there peacefully is another matter. One hopes so, but the experience of history is that the rich and powerful rarely surrender without a fight – and almost never unless confronted with the possibility of a fight.

    That’s very much the case, and one need only cast one’s eye in the direction of the proposed reforms attaching to decarbonising — a change far less swingeing than anything one might fairly revolution — to see how the ruling classes of the world react. large sections of them see Garnaut and Gore — fully paid up members of the boss class if ever there were such — as some sort of subversives — as c*mmunists even and to be fought in this way. A look at the latest offering in Quadrant on climate change, in which they reproduce Carter and Kininmoth is introduced with the culture war claim of Vaclav Klaus about the incipiently subversive agenda of mitigation proponents. All though their argumentation, the claim of “wealth redistribution” is never far from the surface.

    Revolution need not be violent, but in practice, we ought not to proceed assuming that it will be peaceful. That would be folly.

  19. @Fran Barlow

    Revolution need not be violent, but in practice, we ought not to proceed assuming that it will be peaceful. That would be folly.

    Stock up on guns and ammo?

    We seem about a million miles from any kind of a revolution (except perhaps the appearance of some totally new type of iPhone application:) so the point is moot.

  20. While I would agree with Jim that we do not seem to be close to revolution, political revolutions are the result of a radical mismatch between the expectations of the governed and those governing. As such, they are hard to predict (who predicted Tunisia, Egypt or 1989?).

    As for violence – it mostly seems to come after the revolution, in the form of counter-revolution or civil war. I would not recommend stocking up on guns – amateurs versus professionals almost always ends badly for the amateurs. A full pantry and a good network are better options.

  21. I suppose everything in the civilian world is a kind of arms race just as it in the military world. For example, take cyber crime, we know that there is an electronic and counter-measures race going on in that sphere. The battle between capital and labour shows this same feature and each side keeps coming up with measures and counter-measures in the on-going battle between the two classes. Even when there is not outright rebellion, revolution or counter-revolution, there are always open and clandestine steps and measures continually being taken by each side.

    People are very fed up with the dishonesty and spin of virtually all politicians. We need to agitate for a number of measures to be taken. I would suggest a number of constitutional amendments are required;

    1. To give a bill of rights for all citizens.
    2. To limit corporate power and remove the fiction that a corporation is an individual.
    3. To prevent a former minister of the crown from working or lobbying in any area where he/she was involved as minister(s) for a period of 5 years after leaving parliament.
    4. To enable only individual private citizens to donate to political parties and preventing corporations and companies form making donations to political parties.
    5. To limit these donations to $100 per person over 18 per year.
    6. To add a carefully worded constitutional charge of “misleading the people on important matters of state, civil or economic life” which can lead to impeachment and/or imprisonment or any representative or minister. This charge would have certain national security exemptions and contain a high test of proof and a high test of the significance of the misleading statements or behaviour.

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