Two Key Points for 21st Century Marxism

1) Planning for “after the revolution”.

Systemic change is by no means certain, although the twin spectres of war and global environmental damage make it seem more necessary than ever.

It is clear that after any social revolution, as indeed after any great societal upheaval, that it would be vital to maintain, so far as possible, the mean standard of living; food, necessities, material goods, infrastructure, and especially the electronic devices and infrastructure that allow us to communicate and maintain, systemically, access to those others.

Often, particularly in theory-heavy circles, the question is then asked: how do we plan in order to be able to do this?

This question casts a hard light on what we mean by revolution.

If we mean either Marx’s dictum, that is, permanent seizure of the means of production by the proletariat, or that influenced by anarchism and feminism, viaz the dissolving of oppressions which are reproduced globally and through violence through the structure of social relations itself – with particular attention to racism and sexism.

If we mean either of these things, then planning for any future structure of social relations – one not shaped by exchange value and/or one which acts to dissolve oppressions – is fraught by the utmost difficulty.

Which utopian vision would we plan around? The dystopias of Plato or More? The more recent science-fictional visions of Banks, Le Guin, Delany? Frankly, what social relations would look like outside current circumstances is indeterminate. There are too many heterogeneous possibilities to ever account for.

Above all we must keep in mind the words of Marx: all that is solid shall melt into air.

Only then might we think then of what after a revolution might entail – and even so, through a glass, darkly. Organising ourselves after a revolution is a problem which we do not yet have the social tools to solve.

First, we must develop these tools, together.


2) The meaning of social class.

Class at present is used in two, mutually contradictory ways.

The former is that used both by big-name, crepuscular newspaper columnists and by some on the “left” to vilify people they don’t like. By this usage, and in approximate order of importance, “working class” means manner of speech, accent, origins, bearing, clothing, and lifestyle. It rarely means precisely manner or amount of income, it usually doesn’t account for any other factors whatsoever, and it is increasingly often used as a stick to beat anyone queer on the “left” who doesn’t behave like a character in a “chav porn” film.

This is why we can see supposed feminist columnists berating women with revolutionary politics who do survival sex work as “bourgeois”, while boasting of their consumption of lobsters and champagne.

This is why we see men and women of the “left” in expensive suits damn revolutionary feminists, as liars and “slaves to bourgeois morality” and overly educated – particularly if they are black – sometimes all in the same breath.

What people are referring to here is sociological class. It is sociological class that people look at when determining how to treat one another. It is the endless gradiations of middle-classness that half of England is obsessed with – the hilarious linguistic divide between those who say lounge, living room and, in the upper-middle class fashion, sitting room is only one example. The issue of professional aspiration is another, as is type of car, and so on, and so on.

For a long time – for over a century in the UK – “working class” meant not only this. It was an identity based around disparate working ways of life: mining, hauling, dockworking, and so on, with solidarity organised not only through trade unions but through shared language, lives, and struggle. It was aspirational, as in it aspired to knowledge and art, leaving philistinism to the lower-middle classes.

Indeed, for a long time “working class” solidly overlapped with the second definition of “class”, that by Marx, who looked on humanity as broadly divisible into two classes – the proletariat, those who have to exchange their labour for the means of subsistence, and the bourgeoisie, who own the means of production.

For a long time “working class” meant “proletariat” and there was a great deal of overlap between those sociologically middle-class and economically bourgeois. The division between proletariat and bourgeois was not something thought up out of air by nineteenth century socialists. It was something that you could see in the street, and feel in every social interaction.

Now, in the early 21st century, under post-Fordism and connected by the internet, this correspondence no longer holds true. A university lecturer is as likely to be proletarian – having no control over their labour or redeemable credit for their work – as a factory worker.

Gone with the 20th century, too, is the plainly perceptible hard physical toil of the working class, and the ample leisure time of the bourgeoisie. Now those at the top, in the City or in politics, must work long hours, or be seen to do so. Margaret Thatcher’s claim to have survived on four hours sleep is exemplary of this. Those at the bottom must be “flexible”, and are simultaneously damned for being lazy. Many kinds of proletarian work are hidden: coping with stress of precarity, gendered labour, the stress of being damned as failures under a supposed “meritocracy”.

The correspondence between the grubby-faced miner and the working class has gone, just as the correspondence between physically beefy “fat cats” and the lazy bourgeoisie has also vanished.

This has an implication that Marxism as a whole still has not grasped. Material means shape history. Yet the means of production are not all that constitutes Marx’s base. Social relations do, too. Social relations are intertwined with the means of societal production. And both together determine the course of history.

In practice, this means that the means by which underlying economic and structural truth can be exposed is a multifaceted one. Talking about class has a key role. Feminism and anti-racism are indispensable. Talking about and unpicking the social intersections of all of these factors is utterly vital.

Though 21st century capitalism radically splinters our subjectivities we are all “working class” together.


What is to be done?

We must talk about this.

Occupy’s “99%” slogan is plainly not the entire truth. Yet it did not become popular out of thin air, either. Now the vast majority of us on earth are proletarian. As the rentier class hunkers down, as company ownership becomes ever more concentrated, and as fear of falling out of the sociological middle-class grows in Guardian and Daily Mail reading circles alike, Marx’s imperative for change holds stronger than ever.

Let’s put aside illusions that we can have solidarity with the police because they talk like the grandad from Steptoe and Son. Speaking mockney together is not a political program. The police do not act in the interests of the working class, and never have.

Nor shall “Left unity” save us.

All that unites us is that we are proletarian together.

Before we can build a social movement – and this is vital, and crucially roadmapped here  – and before we can make ourselves visible, we must accurately perceive the social reality that two centuries of capitalism have left us.

Let us first see our chains. Only then can we split them asunder.

3 responses to “Two Key Points for 21st Century Marxism

  1. I’m genuinely curious, I often see the left plotting revolution, as you say usually either Marxists or certain feminists. Do you really think though, as in genuinely believe it’ll ever happen? Surely there are several factors that make this highly unlikely 1) the majority of the population aren’t left wing, let alone far left. Let’s for ease of maths say 1/3 of people are Tories and 1/3 of people are centrists or floating voters, what would you do about all those millions of people who objected to the revolution? Even if you factor out the centrists there are several million Tory voters who certainly wouldn’t want to support revolution 2) Apathy – this is probably the biggest one but generally people don’t have anywhere near enough commitment to get to the stage of genuinely revolting, most people barely have the commitment to change bank accounts or move to a new job. 3) Mobilisation/organisation – to revolt in a country such as ours would be incredibly difficult and would require huge planning and strategy, do you really think there’s any left wing organisation capable of anything close to this?

    As I say, genuinely curious as to your thoughts.

    • Look at Greece. Conditions in this country are rapidly heading that way. It’s quite hidden this year, but next year deaths due to benefit cuts and sheer poverty due to unemployment will drive more rioting and upheaval.

      Unless the ongoing crisis is somehow resolved within capitalism, it’s going to work out, sooner or later, to be some sort of social revolution or fascism.

  2. I don’t deny there’s a crisis at all, though I’d argue the Greek crisis is one of their politicians own making. They enlisted the help of Goldman Sachs to cook their books before they entered they Euro, doing so under false pretenses. There was no way Greece even under normal financial conditions could compete on a level playing field with Germany or even France and once in the Euro could no longer devalue their currency. As far as I can see the only obvious solutions for Greece are either stick with the EU imposed austerity and as you say risk the wrath of the people or leave the EU, return to the Drachma and devalue their way out of trouble while they still can. In addition to which they probably also need to actually collect some taxes once in a while.

    This is a crisis of politicians making and nobody is as yet taking bold enough steps to sort it out. I wish them well but I would imagine they will endure this pain until they’re forced from the EU.

    Returning from Greece for a moment though do you really see a revolution in the UK? There is undeniable pain in some parts but there’s still a lot of affluence here also and I don’t imagine those people really want revolution. Also most of the economic data we’re seeing right now is going in the right direction.

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