On class reductionism

Times like these we live in leave their mark on everyone. Throughout the world, we’ve seen the rise of fascism and racist right wing populism. All sort of problems are blamed on the most vulnerable in our societies – a lot of the time people fleeing from conflicts created, fueled and supplied by western interests.

It’s hard to avoid being affected, even for people who consider themselves as socialists. Horseshoe theory is of course an absurd centrist myth, but there is no denying that certain more cynical and opportunistic elements of “the left” have always historically had a tendency to slip into red-brown alliances.

To a lesser degree, we have also seen socialists call for immigration control and strong border protection, and putting unreasonable blame on migrant workers instead of on capitalist enterprises and governments that try to stage a race to the bottom in terms of working conditions and wages across the world.

But going even further, I’ve noticed a worrying tendency among socialists which I think partially might explain the drift of some anti-capitalists towards more or less racist approaches to politics and analysis. It is a tendency that’s always existed in socialist theory, and which I think easily lends itself to sliding down this type of slope. It is the tendency to fall into class reductionism.

First, I am not talking about the vulgar type of class reductionism here, that disregards racism, patriarchy or state exploitation altogether. I am talking about people that are anti-racist, feminist and anti-state, but whose analysis, in the last instance, boils down to the primacy of class.

But isn’t this proper materialism? The material “base”, the mode of production, determines the ideological and political “superstructure”. As the productive forces develop, the mode of production becomes a fetter, it changes, and the superstructure follows. This is the standard story of orthodox materialism.

From it, it is easy to draw the conclusion that class society is the exploitative “base”, and other “forms of oppression” are helpful auxiliaries used by capital to perpetuate it’s domination. In it’s most mechanistic version, what this theory simply proposes is that technological development drives social change.

The problem with this “materialist” line is that, at its core, it is based on historical and anthropological data from the 19th century, used in a highly modernist context. This data is used to develop an over-simplified and stagist model of how societies develop, a model which at best only partially explains what is going on.

What we know today, is that the process of state or class formation is much more complex and nuanced. Military, religious, ethnic, state, patriarchal or economic power played different roles in different places, and almost any combination could at times be considered be the “base” of class formation.

Thus class was neither temporally “first”, nor always the primary determining factor for the rest of the social relations. To take an example from the industrial revolution, handloom weavers were often concentrated in factories before centralizing technologies were developed, as David Dickinson points out in his 1975 book The Politics of Alternative Technology.

The entire concept of so called historical materialism could be put in question, as for instance Alan Carter does in his book Marx, a Radical Critique. However, there are of course more recent and less mechanistic interpretations of so-called historical materialism, so let us briefly turn to one of them for a moment.

Autonomist marxism protests such mechanistic accounts by positioning the working class as an active subject in history, through the means of class struggle. Yes, forces of production tend to develop, but *how* they develop and are applied is influenced by class struggle. The subjective actions of the working class are shaping history, productive forces, and the mode of production – and not only the other way around.

What I am proposing is to extend this notion of “historical subjectivity” to other power dynamics and their subjects as well; racism, patriarchy, the state, the domination of humans over nature. None of these power dynamics is reducible to any other. They all co-constitute each other, and they all also contain within them their own dynamics, their own incentives for reproduction, their own struggling subjects, and their own seeds for a potential class society.

Thus we should neither expect racism to disappear automatically if class is abolished, nor expect the state to simply “wither away” on its own. We have to struggle against all such power dynamics here and now. The process of liberation is a struggle against all of these power dynamics simultaneously. But there are even more important insights at stake.

First, by erasing the driving forces and subjects of these power dynamics and reducing them to class, we will be unable to explain how society develops and the causality of social forces. It’s like looking for a key you lost under a street light, instead of where you lost it.

Secondly, this form of class reductionism very easily lends itself to instrumentalizing struggles. Thus even well-meaning people can come into struggles against racism, the state, or patriarchy with a mindset of this at best being a tool to further class struggle.

This obviously will alienate people for whom these struggles might be of existential proportions, and also simply leads to bad tactics. It’s not enough to fight racism on a class basis, you also have to fight class on an anti-racist basis, and so on.

Ironically, class reductionism can also lead to instrumentalizing the class struggle itself. Without a broad concern for all co-constituting power dynamics, even genuine class struggle can end up being used as a tool to gain power over people.

And lastly, maybe the most important point of all. I think all our political projects are doomed if we don’t ground them in a sort of ethics of empathy, solidarity and mutual aid. The primary reason we should fight racism, sexism, the state and capitalism is because all these power dynamics cause people great harm.

Whether all this is called materialist, intersectionalist, or something else is beside the point, but it is worth noting that intersectional analysis is often attacked on the basis of that it “demotes” class analysis to a shallow liberal framework of “classism”, and views all forms of oppression as simply reflections of certain identities.

This does not have to be the case though, and instead the proposition is to promote other power dynamics to the level of class analysis, and consider them all part of a connected web of social hierarchies producing different outcomes at different times, places and intersections. Identities are always a part of politics, the problem only arises when the former is mistaken for the latter.