Ukrainian photographer Vladimir Shipotilnikov explores the fate of Soviet mosaics in the contemporary city, which are slowly disappearing behind graffiti and advertising banners. … “These works narrate the story of the great expectations of the Soviet era. Such expectations are no longer of concern to people today,” writes Shipotilnikov. “The pictures documented here will help to bring back into existence a layer of the utopian past.”
This was was written as a response to “The Worst of Marx: The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon”. It may seem gratuitous to criticize what I believe is an undergraduate paper at such length, and I certainly wouldn’t have done so if not prompted by a comrade who was uncomfortable taking for granted the weakness of this reading of Marx. Nonetheless, the paper is well written and effectively captures some pervasive interpretative distortions pertaining to Marx, and so I thought it worth the time.
Why is this a weak criticism? The author, in the brief prefatory remarks, says the Brumaire “exhibits some of the worst of Marx – class essentialism, economic determinism, the fetishisation of the urban proletariat”. That is to say, this author takes the Brumaire to exemplify elements of Marx’s theoretical outlook that have already been identified and judged “the worst”. Interestingly enough, the author nonetheless takes this reading to be “true to the text”.
Before even treating the content of the essay, it should be easy for any careful reader of Marx to see why this involves importing a substantial interpretative framework. The defects the author sees in Marx are actually defects of this interpretation, and such is not necessary to understand Marx. This framework derives from an attempt to make sense of Marxism as the relationship between Marx’s works and the political movement they inspired. This was an effort to, depending on one’s affinities, either condemn Marx or justify Stalinism by seeing them as intrinsically connected. By contrast, a distinctive (not anti-Marxist, but anti-Leninist) interpretative framework would either deny Marx’s work had these sorts of elements despite appearances, or admit that it had them but claim it did not need them, and that it has more to offer, whether this required unearthing a more authentic Marx or salvaging the enticing flotsam from a wrecked theoretical system. This latter framework is parasitic upon the former, trying to rescue Marx from what it sees as the former’s plausible interpretation. The author of this piece gestures toward acceptance of the latter framework (specifically the second variant, that Marx’s work really had such elements but didn’t need them), but here only really employs the former.
The irony is that there is a sense in which Marx’s work does involve “class essentialism”, “economic determinism”, and “the fetishization of the urban proletariat”, but the author of this essay, like the interpretative paradigm they parrot, doesn’t take Marx seriously enough to understand these elements as they actually function in Marx’s theoretical and political judgments.
The author begins by revealing their understanding of class to rely on props from the subsequent history, rather than Marx himself. An immanent reading, something the author claims to have produced, would by contrast try to make sense of the concept class solely within the text. Rejecting such an approach, one could still rely on Marx’s works more broadly, or even those of his contemporaries or predecessors. The fact that they draw on Therborn and Thompson is telling – both, however Marxian or Marxist they may have been, were firmly situated within a context suffused by the sorts of interpretative relations to Marx I outlined above, and the cited remarks reveal as much. Therborn’s definition of class bears little resemblance to anything one would find in Marx, as it deals wholly in the realm of appearances, so-called “distributive inequalities”, rather than understanding relationships within distribution as functionally subordinate to the dynamic of the social totality, which is the level at which all social phenomena, but class especially, should be grasped.
The Thompson quote is a bit better, though obscure. One can make more sense of Thompson by reading him through Marx than one can of Marx by reading him through Thompson. Thompson is getting at the subjective dimension of class, whereas, assumedly, Therborn is cited (misleadingly, or confusedly) as providing a sense of the objective dimension.
The author contrasts the “objective” “taxonomic” definition provided by Therborn with the “relational” and “dynamic” (and implicitly, subjective) definition of Thompson. Yet for Marx, the objective as well as the subjective are relational and dynamic, grasped as perspectives on the social totality – in the former this perspective is only grasped “implicitly” as “in itself”, whereas in the latter it is grasped “explicitly” as “for itself”.
Because the author doesn’t understand this, they take the very un-Marxian definition furnished by Therborn as equivalent to the objective pole of Marx’s dialectical conception of class, and thus confuses a dialectical movement with the “equivocation” of incompatible definitions.
The author singles out a particular passage in which Marx’s sees the political lines as drawn between an “an absurdly heterogeneous rag-bag of sub-classes” on one side and the proletariat as the “necessarily and uniquely the revolutionary force in any given political conflict” on the other. Interestingly enough, this critique does not involve an historiographical challenge, but rests on the author’s intuition that such a gesture seems “absurd”. Of course, this seeming is a result of the author’s own inability to grasp what Marx means when employing class concepts, as I’ve already begun to demonstrate.
The author in particular singles out Marx’s use of the concept “lumpenproletariat” to “explain away parts of the proletariat which failed to behave in a proper revolutionary fashion” (a quote from Cowling, one of a “rag-bag” of modern interpreters the author brings to bear on the text to which they claim to be “true”). Yet this gets at the crux of the matter, because for Marx, being proletarian is not a condition with which one can live; it is a position that one must necessarily struggle to escape, one way or the other. It is for this reason that class belonging has more to do with subjective “identification” (this isn’t really the right word) than objective situation, with the latter merely amounting to the implicit basis for the former.
Being part of the proletariat is not a matter of how much income one makes but of how one makes that income, which is to say, how one copes with the situation of being a wage-laborer in a post-Industrial Revolution context. In general, there were three options available. One was to “fall out” of the proletariat into the lumpenproletariat, that is, to find a manner of subsisting that did not involve direct dependence either on sale of labor power or ownership of capital.
As Engels noted in “The Condition of the Working Class in England”, this could manifest as “crime”, which he described as the “earliest, crudest, and least fruitful form of [the] rebellion” against the proletarian condition. Presumably, although I’m unaware of any analysis to this effect, one could interpret the genesis of “organized crime” as a kind of concentration and centralization of the “capital” of the negative “petit-bourgeoisie” made up of lumpenproletarian criminals.
A somewhat more fundamental condition is that of the “beggar”, and we might say that the criminal stands to the beggar as the petit-bourgeois does to the proletarian. As such, both are generated as negative effects (from the perspective of bourgeois society) of the proletarianization of the English peasantry as described in part 8 of Capital Vol. 1, especially chs 27 and 28. In the latter, Marx writes,
“The proletariat created by the breaking up of the bands of feudal retainers and by the forcible expropriation of the people from the soil, this “free” proletariat could not possibly be absorbed by the nascent manufactures as fast as it was thrown upon the world. On the other hand, these men, suddenly dragged from their wonted mode of life, could not as suddenly adapt themselves to the discipline of their new condition. They were turned en masse into beggars, robbers, vagabonds, partly from inclination, in most cases from stress of circumstances.”
It took a tremendous and brutal effort of the English government to convert the better part of this lumpenproletarian product of the enclosures into proletarians in the labor market; but proletarianization (as a lack of opportunity and to some extent motivation to become “absorbed into the nascent manufactures”) was the original condition. Becoming beggars or vagabonds might have had a more immediate appeal, objectively if not necessarily subjectively, because it fell back upon the long-established “humanitarian” role of the Catholic monasteries, which were not coincidentally suppressed.
That lumpenproletarians are essentially beggars, and that crime can be interpreted as a kind of non-consensual begging, is what leads Marx to claim their “conditions of life…prepare [them] far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue” [Manifesto], an interpretation that is carried forward in the Brumaire, in which Marx accuses Bonaparte of offering “donations and loans” as a means of winning loyalty of the “masses”. He tellingly says – in a formulation the author overlooks, that “the financial science of the lumpen proletariat, whether of high degree or low, is restricted to this.” So apparently Marx thought lumpenproletarians could be recruited from among the “noncommisioned officers” and “workers”, as those who would trade political loyalty for financial assistance – this begins to blur the lines between begging and crime, especially when such loyalties become militarized. (Police thus fundamentally straddle the line between petit-bourgeois and the “higher degree” of the lumpenproletariat – they are as much the “supervisors” of the social division of labor as a gang on the state’s payroll.)
The second option for coping with proletarianization was to seek “penetration into the middle strata”, or in other words, to become (or remain) petit-bourgeois. While in one sense the latter term could be taken to refer to owners of small amounts of capital, it also has a more general sense of workers who depend in part upon wages (even a wage they pay themselves) and in part upon profit. In the case of the small capitalist who works for his own enterprise, this is rather straightforward. Yet Marx (and later Marxists) also retain a broader sense of this term for wage workers who are in some sense privileged over the wider proletariat (Lenin’s “labor aristocracy” is thus not the innovation many take it to be, but is simply the application of Marx’s framework to the role of the trade union bureaucracy).
This privilege has two dimensions. The first is when workers earn higher than the average wage rate due to the relative scarcity of the particular kind of “useful labor” they perform in the labor market and consequently its higher market-rate. Maintaining such scarcities was the function of the guild-system, which inhibited the socialization of the labor process. The guild strategy was nonetheless in some measure reappropriated within bourgeois society by “skilled laborers” organized into “craft unions” for the sake of protecting themselves from proletarianization – their becoming “unskilled” not in sense of losing their skills, but to some extent due to their skills becoming redundant within a more developed labor process, and to some extent due to the growth of the labor supply within their specialization driving down the wage rate.
It’s important not to retroject the familiar critique of craft-unionism, however. For Marx, the effort to preserve the value of one’s labor power had potentially progressive political content, but this was only potential and ultimately ambivalent. If this effort was combined with the wider effort of proletarians to preserve – or obtain at all – the value equivalent of their labor power through a political coordination, it could be progressive. If it became a means for one segment of the working class to struggle against the rest, it became regressive. So modern-day “professional” labor, with its credential-mediated restriction of the labor market (often with some degree of state involvement) for particular forms of useful labor (doctors and lawyers being only the most obvious, but the same logic applies to varying extents to a whole host of particular forms of useful labor), is a well-established form of such privilege.
The second dimension is when workers earn a higher wage rate than the average market-rate for their particular kind of useful labor. This can, of course, be the result of simple stochasticity, but it can also express a particular kind of relationship of the worker to capital within the labor process: loyalty. This can, in theory, extend all the way down to the lowest level of employees, but more generally progressively targets the managerial and administrative strata, to ensure they function as “representatives of capital within the labor process”. In this sense, managers and administrators, even executives, have a dual role: a technical function of managing the labor process, which in any given situation involves a certain set of particular “useful” skills; and the function of enforcing the interests of capital as against those of the workers. That these functions can be disambiguated at least some of the time is evinced, for Marx, in the fact that worker cooperatives have no difficulty selecting managerial staff.
In Capital Vol 3, especially parts 5 and 7 (and especially chs 23, 27, and 48), Marx lays the groundwork of a sadly incomplete analysis of the nature of the relationship between managerial and simple labor. The essence is that because profit can be broken down into two parts, the part that is owed (or would be owed) as interest to money-capitalists (determined by the general rate of interest), and the part appropriated by the “active capitalist” as “profit of enterprise”, one can grasp the distinction between capital and labor within the total profit, interest being that portion of profit owed purely to capital as such and profit of enterprise as the part spent on the “labor of supervision”. For example, Marx says:
“The conception of profit of enterprise as the wages of supervising labour, arising from the antithesis of profit of enterprise to interest, is further strengthened by the fact that a portion of profit may, indeed, be separated, and is separated in reality, as wages, or rather the reverse, that a portion of wages appears under capitalist production as integral part of profit. This portion, as Adam Smith correctly deduced, presents itself in pure form, independently and wholly separated from profit (as the sum of interest and profit of enterprise), on the one hand, and on the other, from that portion of profit which remains, after interest is deducted, as profit of enterprise in the salary of management of those branches of business whose size, etc., permits of a sufficient division of labour to justify a special salary for a manager.”
In this, we can distinguish between the genuine (“useful”) managerial function, which might earn a higher wage rate for the same reason as the “professions”, and the “supervising” function, which earns a higher wage rate specifically to incentivize loyalty to the interests of capital on the manager’s part. One can think, for example, of cases in which low-level supervisors earn little more, or even no more, than their subordinates, and in which under the right conditions they might prefer to participate in a strike than to engage in intimidation. Nonetheless, in general, the form “disloyalty” would take among the broader managerial stratum is not joining with the lower ranks, but throwing oneself back into a labor market in which one has favorable chances of obtaining a higher wage. Loyalty is thus a matter of retaining talent, it is loyalty to this capital against others, although that also therefore can involve loyalty to this capital against its workers.
This being said, while there are genuine reasons to restrict credentials for certain kinds of skilled labor (e.g. doctors), the manner in which professionalized labor has been propped up by the capitalist state undoubtedly reveals a certain “loyalty” dimension there as well. So these things become difficult to distinguish in reality, which is why the “force of abstraction” is needed. That higher wage rates earned by managers and professionals are not merely a question of market scarcities, but reflect a special reproductive function of capital, indicates the sense in which these “intermediate” strata are “petit-bourgeois” in the above-mentioned sense of earning what are in one sense wages, in another sense, portions of profit.
The third option for coping with proletarianization, besides those of the “lumpenproletarian” and the “petit-bourgeois”, is of course that of the proletarian proper. This involves proletarians combining or organizing to exploit their collective monopoly over the commodity labor-power to influence the terms of employment contracts. At first this takes the form of geographically and qualitatively specific labor pools, but as competition between capitals leads to geographical expansion and qualitative leveling of useful labor (de-skilling), proletarian organizations must respond in kind.
The union movement (as well as the cooperative movement, which while less prominent nonetheless had its own significant valences, as Marx recognized) has long faced criticism of being “bourgeois”, workers forgoing revolutionary struggle in favor of the struggle to integrate themselves into the bourgeois world. In this sense, unions can be understood as trying to extract wage-increases in exchange for loyalty in the above mentioned sense, precisely as an incentive against striking, and ultimately to cement this into a higher market rate by creating a stable credential-like artificial scarcity. This indicates the fundamental risk of unionized labor becoming “petit-bourgeois”, compromised by opportunism. Yet whether or not it is susceptible to this risk depends upon the broader political and ultimately historical horizons of the organizationally-constituted self-consciousness of the proletarian movement.
In this sense, the highest manner of integrating oneself into the bourgeois world is politically through participation in (or, where unavailable, militation for) the democratic political process. The “bourgeois” character of the labor movement is thus exactly the source of its potentially revolutionary force: democratic politics is not opposed to Blanquist conspiracy and insurrection, but seen as the means of introducing the social principles of capital – mass cooperation, division of labor, and machinery (primarily in the form of mass communication technology like the newspaper) – into the revolutionary struggle. Blanqui thus stands to Marx as the small commodity producer does to the titan of large-scale industry.
Yet if the horizon of the political struggle of the working class is limited to winning democratic reforms, it remains merely “petit-bourgeois” for not grasping democracy itself as a means to the political end of expressing the class interests of the “immense majority” – the proletariat – as against those of the minoritarian classes. Proletarians, who as such own no capital and do not benefit from capital but only their collective power to struggle against it, thus have a unique interest in abolishing capital, something not shared by the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois. Democracy, as a means of expressing this distinctive interest, would thus be the political form of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. It is this ambition, to use democracy as a means to the end of the independent and exclusive class interests of the proletariat, that distinguishes proletarian socialism from petit-bourgeois democratic radicalism.
The point of all of this is to show that the author’s criticism of “Marx’s particular taxonomy of classes” suffers from an inability to grasp that the distinctions Marx draws between classes is not a matter of “categorisation of individuals on the basis of socio-economic inequalities, most likely distributive, whose problematic is social stratification”, but rather, on the basis of practical organizational (and at least implicitly political) strategies for coping with (or avoiding) proletarianization, whose outcome yields a particular distributive contour.
The following quote from the Brumaire, cited by the author as evidence of Marx’s economic determinism, takes on a very different light in this context:
“Upon the different forms of property, upon the social conditions of existence, rises an entire superstructure of distinct and peculiarly formed sentiments, illusions, modes of thought and views of life. The entire class creates and forms them out of its material foundations and out of the corresponding social relations. The single individual, who derives them through tradition and upbringing, may imagine that they form the real motives and the starting point of his activity… And as in private life one differentiates between what a man thinks and says of himself and what he really is and does, so in historical struggles one must distinguish still more the phrases and fancies of parties from their real organism and their real interests, their conception of themselves, from their reality. (Ibid, p.47)”
This passage, as well as the similar passage in the preface to the Critique of Political Economy,
“seem to suggest that, ontologically, economic relations are both in some sense separate from and prior to politics, culture and subjectivity. Moreover, there is, from the perspective of Marx’s methodological materialism a problematic conflation of the material with the economic, and a concomitant denial of the materiality of culture. However, in reality, no such distinctions can be made.”
Once again, this seeming says more about the author’s presuppositions than about Marx. The author flattens out what Marx calls “the social conditions of existence” to fit the “taxonomic” sense of class Marx is wrongly presumed to employ. This interpretation is belied in the very passage itself, when Marx says “The entire class creates and forms them out of its material foundations and out of the corresponding social relations.” Marx means this quite literally: the collective practices (their “real life process”) through which the classes stabilize the personal reproduction of their individual constituents are the bases in and through which “forms of culture and modes of subjectification” arise as functional components.
This does not involve an “undialectical model of linear causation between base and superstructure” – it’s hard to even imagine what this could mean – but grasping the practical reproduction of social life, which is, but does not have to be, “economic”, as the overarching systematic context that both conditions and requires, but also constrains, everything grouped as “superstructural”. It is not for nothing that in the preface to the CPE, Marx says that it is precisely within such “ideological forms” that “men become conscious of this conflict” – that is, the deep potentially revolutionary changes at the level of the reproductive totality – “and fight it out.”
The author ironically says, citing Judith Butler, that “The appearance of the economic and the cultural as separate spheres is an effect of an operation of abstraction specific to capitalist production.” Yet it is the author, and not Marx, who relies on such an abstract distinction. Marx does not treat the “economic” as a distinct and restricted sub-domain of the social totality opposed to, and determining of, the “cultural” and “subjective”, but as itself (a historically distinctive determination of) the social totality within which “cultural” and “subjective” dimensions develop and fulfill necessary functional roles.
The author takes Marx to conflate the “material” and the “economic”, thus denying the “materiality of culture”. Thus, Marx attributes to the economic dimension of society an explanatory priority akin to that which reductive materialism ascribes to physical laws. Yet it is precisely the functional supervenience of “culture” on the reproductive practical infrastructure of social life that constitutes its materiality, providing it with a continuous material instantiation over time. In this sense, the “economic” in Marx is simply the fact that the practical expressions of social life must involve some fundamental reproductive dimension with which other dimensions cannot substantially interfere without undermining their own perpetuity.
The author then tries to turn Lukacs’s analysis of reification against Marx himself, claiming that Marx reifies the economy, and thus the proletariat. He invokes Lukacs’s distinction between empirical and imputed class consciousness, which for Lukacs of course pointed to the distinctive political function of the political party, but only to muck it up with John Holloway’s revisionist argument that “no individual nor party is capable of fully transcending the reified world and fully apprehending the social totality”, and that “it is the fact that proletarian consciousness may “aspire towards totality” which gives it its revolutionary potential.” Of course, for Lukacs, neither an individual nor the party is “capable of fully transcending the reified world” – only the proletariat as a class is so capable. What the party is capable of doing is giving the proletarian struggle a political orientation toward this possible transcendence through the agitation for revolution. As Luxemburg famously put it,
“the final goal of socialism constitutes the only decisive factor distinguishing the Social-Democratic movement from bourgeois democracy and from bourgeois radicalism, the only factor transforming the entire labour movement from a vain effort to repair the capitalist order into a class struggle against this order, for the suppression of this order”.
The author is nonetheless onto something in suggesting that
“it is this immanent contradiction of proletarian consciousness – the tension between fetishising and de-fetishising tendencies – together with the heterogeneity of lived experience within the social world, rather than the insufficiency of organised forms of political mediation…which explains the contradictory roles played by sections of the proletariat in situations of political struggle.”
This contradiction is precisely that between the implicit political implications of the different strategies for coping with proletarianization. Yet this means that the “existence of the lumpenproletariat”, and the petit bourgeoisie, evince this contradiction, rather than distract from it. Moreover, the entire purpose of the party is to organize the dynamic between “fetishising and de-fetishising tendencies”, which I would parse as the dynamic between the labor movement’s “petit-bourgeois” integrative function and its revolutionary potential, by giving a consistent and unified political articulation to and coordinating context for the concrete forms of working class organization, and thereby to give practical consistency to the “heterogeneity of lived experience within the social world”.
While proletarian consciousness is ambivalent in potentially reifying its integration into bourgeois society as a “constituted class”, and thus exhibiting “an economic determinism which would reduce political subjectivity to a merely superstructural effect of economic relations”, this ambivalence can be overcome through the self-conscious grasp of the proletarian class position in terms of its historical horizon, the struggle for socialism, which is thus also the struggle to dissolve “constituted class” identity into the free development of social life in classless society. This is the “essence” of the proletariat as a class, which, following Hegel, Marx does not understand as timeless and fixed but as bound up in an historical process of development whose inner tendencies point toward the possibility of transcending its limitations on its own basis.
So, while the criticism is weak, the influence of Lukacs does seem to have had a modicum of positive influence, which may be recoverable from Stalinophobic dogmatization. The author may become a Marxist yet.