50 years of theorising class

Issue: 144

Xanthe Rose

Leo Panitch, Greg Albo and Vivek Chibber (eds), Socialist Register 2014: Registering Class (Merlin Press, 2013), £16.95

Discussion of classes, how they form, their composition and how they can act consciously have featured on the left since the time of Karl Marx. Such debates were among those leading to the formation in 1964 of the journal Socialist Register, which has been published annually since. This, the 50th edition, returns to an examination of class in the light of changing capitalist productive and social relations.

There is much within this year’s issue that is worth reading and engaging with. Many of the discussions touch on debates taking place not just within left academia, but also among those involved in organising against crisis and austerity. Arun Gupta has contributed a very readable piece on unionisation drives within the US retailer Walmart, detailing the scale of this corporate giant and the consequences for the labour market in general of its strategy of turning labour into what he calls “another just in time commodity”. He provides an overview of campaigns such as the Service Employees International Union’s “Campaign for 15”, which has successfully organised fast food workers and gave the impetus for a $15 an hour wage campaign that continues to gather pace across the US.

A number of contributions engage with theoretical approaches to class. Ursula Huws revisits classical Marxist categories in the light of challenges she sees as posed by digital labour. She identifies some key concerns about the commodification of everyday life, and “consumptive” and reproductive labour, in a critical engagement with the widely used but highly problematic concept of “immaterial labour”. She is particularly interested in integrating these changes into a new labour theory of value.

Bryan Palmer’s excellent discussion of precariousness challenges the notion that this condition constitutes a separate class formation. Palmer rejects the idea that precarious labour requires an entirely novel approach to a Marxist understanding of class, or the notion that class necessarily involves complete uniformity of experience.

Postcolonial theory, together with feminist theory, has offered some of the most consistent challenges to the centrality of class in Marxist theory. Vivek Chibber attempts to revitalise a Marxist conception of universalism in response to postcolonialist charges that universalising concepts are themselves part of the colonial project. He aims his critique at Dipesh Chakrabarty, author of Provincializing Europe, but his target is the trajectory of postcolonial theory more generally, whose fragmentary approach he views as inhibiting and weakening the radical left.

A hefty central section of the Register examines the ruling classes, with four contributions exploring similar questions: the existence of a transnational capitalist class, consolidation of its political power, whether it acts as a class “for itself”, the relationship between productive and finance capital, and the implications for states of transnational capitalism. There is broad agreement within these analyses that transnational capital is embedded in particular territories and continues to rely on the backing of state institutions and power. Claude Serfarti’s piece draws out most effectively the implications for those who wish to challenge capitalist rule and is clear about the continuing need to challenge national ruling classes.

In a short essay Alfredo Saad-Filho and Lecio Morais analyse the events of June 2013, in which mass protests erupted throughout the major cities of Brazil in response to transport fare hikes. They discuss the confusion and disorientation created within a movement not given clear direction by the left, leaving it open to co-option by the middle class and even forces of the far-right. This essay would have benefitted from a longer discussion of the lessons for the left. The alignment of the landless peasants’ movement and the support most parties of the Brazilian radical left have given to Dilma Rousseff’s administration, as well as the attempt by sections of the far left to establish a left alternative to Rousseff’s Workers’ Party, are buried in the footnotes.

The piece that most directly grapples with the contemporary political strategy is by Andrew Murray, an official in the Unite union. He outlines the problems faced by attempts to build electoral projects to the left of the Labour Party. This leads to a harsh, but at times persuasive, critique of the Left Unity project, focusing on the disconnect between its political aspirations and its limited roots within the working class or any mass workers’ movement, and on the relative resilience of Labour at a time when many will vote to get the Tories out.

Murray tends to counterpose to building a left electoral challenge the projects he is involved in: the People’s Assembly and attempts to reclaim Labour. His contribution is pessimistic about the state of workers’ organisation generally, arguing for a painstaking attempt to rebuild effective union organisation before any left challenge to Labour can be conceived. But he entirely evades the role played by the trade union bureaucracy and its potential to limit working class activity, a serious error given that struggle has historically proved the most effective way of building or rebuilding rank and file union organisation. He also downplays the way that the political aspirations of sections of the class who are increasingly disconnected from Labour could potentially feed into revived struggle.

Considering the preoccupation in Socialist Register with analysing neoliberalism and crisis, it is curious that this edition carries so little careful dissection of the overall composition and shape of the working class and its organisations, beyond the more theoretical contributions of Huws and Palmer. This may be a result of the previous edition being themed around strategy, but it leaves the 2014 Register feeling light in terms of addressing strategic questions, aside from Murray’s very one-sided intervention. Nonetheless, it is welcome that the editors have chosen to focus on the question of class, about which there is such disorientation on the left today.