Labouring under no illusions

Issue: 160

Joseph Choonara

A review of Raju J Das, Marxist Class Theory for a Skeptical World (Haymarket, 2018), £43.99

This book, by Raju Das, is among the most important works on Marxist class theory to appear in recent decades.1 As the title suggests, Das offers a defence of one of the most unfashionable propositions on the left: that the working class is a potentially emancipatory subject that can challenge capitalism by virtue of its distinct position within the social relations of the system.

Furthermore, this is a classical Marxist work—basing itself on the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, along with those authors who continued and developed the revolutionary tradition they inaugurated. Lenin and Leon Trotsky are among those extensively cited here; indeed, unusually for a book on class, Das argues that “a Marxism without the Lenin legacy is an utterly impoverished Marxism”.2 It is, in other words, a work that, with a few exceptions discussed below, stands in a tradition close to that of this journal.

But for all its great strengths, and even though it tends to avoid needlessly obscure language, this is not always the most approachable book. It weighs in at 684 pages and it is tenacious, at times encyclopaedic, in exploring the issues it tackles. It also begins, rather than with a statement of Das’s own position, with a number of valuable but fairly tough chapters setting out and criticising two post-Marxist approaches to class. The first is analytical Marxist class theory and here Das focuses almost exclusively on Erik Olin Wright’s work.3 Wright offers an account of class that borrows elements of Marx’s account but dismisses his distinctive method of analysis, preferring the techniques of mainstream social science. Rather than focussing on the process of exploitation in the workplace, Wright ends up offering a series of different bases for exploitation depending on the ownership of different kinds of asset by different groups—not simply capitalist property, but also skills and “organisational” assets possessed by managers. The result is a criss-crossing series of class divisions, in which the price of a more concrete exploration of class is to lose the classical Marxist conception of exploitation of wage labour as a central relationship of the capitalist system.

The second challenge to the classical approach is what Das calls anti-essentialist Marxism, and here he focuses on the work of J K Gibson-Graham,4 along with Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff. These approaches adopt a post-structuralist account in which class is just one of a number of equally relevant power relationships shaping people’s lives. These authors took up the concept of “over-determination”, initially imported into Marxism by the French philosopher Louis Althusser to downplay the notion that there was a fundamental contradiction within capitalist society that could explain social change. Within anti-essentialist Marxism, Das argues, this is taken further, with class theory seen simply as a discourse competing with other, equally valid, ways of conceiving society. As Gibson-Graham put it:

We “think” the existence of class and of particular class processes by initially presuming over-determination rather than by positing a necessary or privileged association between exploitation and some set of social processes (such as control over the labour process or consciousness or struggle or ownership, to rename the familiar few).5

This approach, like that of analytical Marxism, has political consequences. By making class just one of a series of competing explanations for how society is constituted and how it can be changed, the possibility of a social revolution, in which workers liberate themselves from exploitation and thereby overturn capitalism and class society as a whole, is sidelined. The result is effectively a preference for social democratic solutions—in the case of Wright, a pragmatic search for “less classness” rather than “classlessness”, in that of Gibson-Graham, the creation of localised spaces free of capitalist domination that can “coexist” with capitalism.

Despite the fact that there has been something of an intellectual retreat from the crassest forms of both analytical Marxism and post-structuralism in recent years, the continued influence of Wright in particular on discussions of class shows the persistence of these frameworks—and the way elements of these theories have permeated through the wider radical left. Indeed, as Das points out, it is easy to see the traces of these views in the work of David Harvey, perhaps the most prominent Marxist thinker today. Harvey writes that it is necessary to “broaden somewhat the conventional Marxist definition of ‘class’…under capitalism to mean positionality in relation to capital circulation and accumulation”, Marx’s own definitions being “too narrow to capture the content even of Marx’s own analyses”. What is needed, according to Harvey, is a view that can “articulate the internal contradictions of multiple positionalities within which human beings operate. The labourer as person is a worker, consumer, saver, lover and bearer of culture…whereas the labourer as an economic role—the category Marx analyses in Capital—is singular”.6

It is only having dispensed with these various theories that Das sets out his own position. He first offers an account of the philosophical foundations of class theory, rooted in Marx’s historical materialism. He then sets out the Marxist theory of class at a “trans-historical scale”, in other words, Marx’s general account of class in a range of class societies, of which capitalism is the latest iteration. Following this, the class relations specific to capitalist society are explored. For Das, correctly in my view, these depend on a dialectical interaction between property relations (who owns and controls the means of production), exchange relations (the sale and purchase of labour power that results) and value relations (the appropriation of unpaid labour time by capitalists in the course of production). The consequence is an exploitative relation between capital and labour, which is simultaneously a source of collective working class power by virtue of the dependence of capital on workers’ labour.7 As Marx puts it: “The worker perishes if capital does not keep him busy. Capital perishes if it does not exploit labour power, which, in order to exploit, it must buy”.8

This is, in many ways, the strongest section of the book, stressing the importance of the polarisation of capitalism around the two main classes of capitalists and workers. That said, there is a danger in oversimplifying the class structure of capitalism. Das writes, “over a long period of time, the tendencies towards simplification will prevail over the counter-tendencies, even though there will always be a middle stratum between the basic classes”.9 Yet the emergence, from the late 19th century, of a considerable layer of managers and supervisors, who do not fit neatly into the categories of capitalists or workers, and who constitute around 15 percent of the labour force in countries such as Britain or the United States, is a persistent barrier to the simplification of the class structure, and I am surprised that Das does not discuss how best to analyse this group in more detail.10

Following the elaboration of the class structure of capitalism, the book explores different aspects of this approach: the development of class relations on an international scale; the role of the state, which is seen as integral to class relations; class consciousness; trade union struggle; and so on.

It should by now be clear that Das is one of us, by which I mean an advocate of revolutionary change centred on the self-activity of the working class. There are, however, issues posed by his work—as might be anticipated in a book of this scope, scale and ambition. The first is a limitation that Das himself sets out. Class theory can be advanced at various levels of abstraction. Das, drawing on the work of Bertell Ollman, identifies five: “human society” in general, “class society”, “capitalism in general as a form of class society”, “a historically specific form of capitalism” and “capitalist society in a given time and place”. Das deals with the middle three levels of abstraction, “keeping in the background both level five and one”.11 This is perfectly reasonable given his objective—to construct a Marxist class theory. However, in the absence of the least abstract level of analysis, it leaves open the huge task of analysing class as it plays out concretely in, say, Britain or the US or China or Somalia in 2018.

Then there are a number of approaches and judgements in the book about which I am more critical. Three in particular stand out. The first is the way that Das conceptualises imperialism. Here the emphasis he places on class is an obstacle to comprehension, not because class is irrelevant to imperialism—quite the contrary—but because Das relies too exclusively on the categories of class theory to understand the structure of the imperialist system. Das deploys the categories of “formal subsumption” and “real subsumption”, developed by Marx in his 1861-1863 Manuscripts, which were composed as part of the process of writing Capital, and another text, “Results of the Immediate Process of Production”, which is today included as an appendix to the most widely read English edition of Capital.12 Marx uses these categories to explore different phases of capitalist development. Prior to capitalism taking hold of production, there are a number of “hybrid forms”, such as the putting-out system, where merchants would provide raw materials such as cotton to be worked up by independent producers, before selling the resulting goods for profit. Formal subsumption involves capitalists taking the step of directly employing producers, for instance in early manufactories, without any substantive change to the production process. This is associated with the production of increasing “absolute surplus value” (the value produced in excess of the costs of production, in the form of both wages and the material means of production) through, in particular, the extension of the working day. Faced with the limits to the expansion of absolute surplus value, capitalists can turn to increasing relative surplus value—seeking competitive advantage over their rivals by revolutionising the techniques of production (although this does not mean an end to efforts to increase absolute surplus value, as anyone who has been forced to work through their lunchbreak will recognise). It is this latter process of transformation of productive techniques that Marx dubs “real subsumption”.13

Das argues that in the Global North, where the limits to absolute surplus value are eventually reached due to workers’ resistance, capitalists turn to real subsumption. They are able to do so, in part, by harnessing the fruits of imperialist plunder to fund this transformation. But in the Global South real subsumption does not fully take hold. Here, capitalists, according to Das “do not generally have to resort to real subsumption of labour” because of “the difficulty on the part of labour in launching class struggle against formal subsumption owing to a massive reserve army (among other factors)”.14 Capitalists in the South primarily rely on formal subsumption and hybrid forms of capitalist development, and base themselves on expanding absolute surplus value by increasing the length and intensity of the working day.

There are several problems with this. Das is keen to distance himself from approaches such as that of the Marxist Robert Brenner, who, according to Das, sees capitalism as constituted by both exploitation and technological innovation in the context of market competition. For Das this is mistaken because it associates capitalism with industrialised societies able to take advantage of modern technology. It is true that Brenner, and in particular some of his followers in the school of thought known as Political Marxism, have an overly schematic and restrictive view of what constitutes capitalism. There are indeed many different forms through which capitalism can develop in different contexts.15 Marx clearly views capitalism as constituted by certain relations of production, of which the exploitation of wage labour is crucial.

However, Das runs the risk of downplaying the battle of competitive accumulation in shaping capitalist society. Competition creates an intrinsic pressure for capitalists to transform the production process—even if that pressure does not resolve itself into a uniform tendency for technological innovation because of the difficulty in harnessing the necessary resources to introduce the desired changes. It is true that technological innovation can be brought about in consequence of successful working class struggle—either in order to break workers’ resistance through transformation of the labour process or to overcome the limits of increasing absolute surplus value by switching to increases in relative surplus value. But this is not the only, or even necessarily the main, driver of innovation. There is also a pressure on capitalists to maximise their own profits relative to that of their rivals, regardless of the state of class struggle; to fail to do so is to risk being left behind in the struggle to cheapen commodities through further accumulation. In the case of Britain, the ultimate establishment of a 12-hour working day in some industries certainly intensified the search for technological innovations, as Marx makes clear in Capital,16 but the major battles over the working day that took place in the early 19th century were often centred on industries in which real subsumption had already begun; the latter process pre-dated the exhaustion of efforts to extend the working day. The changes enacted by capitalists after the passing of the Factory Acts typically involved speeding up existing machinery or introducing new machines in place of the old.17

At times the differences here seem to be of emphasis. For instance, Das acknowledges that there can be penetration of real subsumption into areas of the Global South (although I’m wary of an account that sees, say, the rise of Chinese industrial production, with all its implications for shifts in the global imperial order, as simply an island of real subsumption in a sea of formal subsumption). Indeed, as he points out, Trotsky’s theory of uneven and combined development suggests that capitalist states can seek to develop modern forms of industry alongside, and amalgamated with, earlier forms, spurred on by wider inter-imperialist rivalries. However, the overall effect of Das’s approach is to de-emphasise these factors, and indeed the role of states and geopolitical rivalries, in the constitution of imperialism.18

There is a second issue with Das’s conception of imperialism. That is his reliance on Lenin’s theory of the “labour aristocracy”, in which sections of the working class, particularly the leaders of the labour movement in the Global North, are considered to be “bribed” by a share of the spoils of imperialism in order to render them more compliant with the needs of capitalism. As Tony Cliff pointed out 60 years ago, this can lead to the fairly disastrous implication that reformism is based on a thin crust of conservativism suppressing the revolutionary instincts of the mass of workers.19 Insomuch as imperialism reduced the pressure on capitalist profit-making, Cliff argues, any benefits tended to be enjoyed by the working class as a whole, not simply a thin layer of labour leaders.20 Furthermore, as Charlie Post has shown, the profits earned by, say, US corporations, on their foreign investments are insufficient to explain the substantial wage differentials within the working class.21 The vacillating and often conservative role of the labour bureaucracy can be explained far more simply by the specific role they play in society, negotiating between capital and labour over the terms of exploitation, and the difference in their social position, in which they are insulated from the pressure of exploitation or fear of redundancy experienced by the mass of ordinary workers.22 Indeed such a layer of officials can develop in countries that are not generally regarded as imperialist powers.23

The third problematic aspect of this book regards the interpretation of Lenin’s comments on spontaneity and conscious organisation in workers’ struggle—a particularly well-worn debate on the radical left these days, including in this journal.24 Das draws on Lenin’s well known criticism of the limits of “spontaneous” trade union struggles. Lenin argued that such movements remained “under the economic, political and moral leadership of the…rich, the bourgeoisie”, by virtue of the strength, pervasiveness and entrenched character of bourgeois ideology.25 Das, following Lenin, insists on the need for conscious, organised groups of Marxists in overcoming this limitation.

Das then turns his fire on a range of authors who have questioned the applicability of Lenin’s comments in his 1902 work What is to be Done? and other writings from this period, as a general account of the relationship between the revolutionary party and the working class. A great number of authors are lumped together here, among them Tony Cliff, who is criticised for saying that the Lenin of 1902 “overemphasised ‘the difference between spontaneity and consciousness’”.26 Without repeating the content of the wide-ranging debate on this issue, a few points are worth making. Cliff’s remarks in his biography of Lenin are largely aimed at challenging a simplistic and mechanical account in which the party is the bearer of revolutionary wisdom to a benighted and grateful class.27 There is more to the relationship between party and class than is contained in a few of Lenin’s early formulations.28 Cliff points out that, at other times, Lenin stressed the rudimentary aspects of conscious organisation in even the smallest strikes. Furthermore, Cliff argues, in moments of heightened class struggle, such as the 1905 or 1917 revolutions, Lenin sought to overcome the conservatism in his own organisation by harnessing the “spontaneous” energy of working class revolt and by learning from and generalising the innovations developed by workers. These innovations could be considerable—the Soviet, the democratically elected workers’ organisation that helped to provide the framework for the realisation of workers’ power in Russia, “both in 1905 and 1917…grew out of the movement itself as its natural organisational form” as Trotsky puts it.29

Of course, it is quite true, as Alan Shandro writes in a passage cited by Das, that “such innovations can play no more than an episodic part in the drama of proletarian self-emancipation…unless they are absorbed, and their implications drawn out and clarified by Marxist theory”. However, as Shandro continues to write, in a passage that I dare say Cliff would endorse, “if the theoretical absorption of spontaneous proletarian innovations leads to significant modifications in Marxist theory [then]…the masses of workers and not just the theoreticians take an active, independent and creative part in the elaboration of socialist consciousness”.30 This approach is a useful corrective to the idea that, as Das puts it, for “working class consciousness to become genuine political consciousness it is necessary that workers are systematically trained by the Marxist vanguard to develop such consciousness”.31

However, Cliff was also perfectly well aware of the limitations of pure ­spontaneity—indeed, he devoted his entire adult life to building a ­revolutionary party for just that reason. Cliff did so because of the need to centralise the spontaneous energies of the working class movement in order to direct them at the state and to overcome the unevenness of the working class as it moves into struggle by giving organisational form to the most advanced group of workers who have broken with ruling class ideology.32

Despite these objections, qualifications and unresolved questions, in general Das offers a convincing and compelling antidote to contemporary attitudes to class and class struggle, including those across much of the radical left. He removes many of the obstacles to others trying to understand and develop class analysis in order to get to grips with the current situation in which the working class finds itself. The book deserves to be read, digested, debated and taken as a starting point for a broader revival of the classical Marxist account of class.

Joseph Choonara teaches at King’s College London. He is the author of A Reader’s Guide to Marx’s Capital (Bookmarks, 2017) and Unravelling Capitalism: A Guide to Marxist Political Economy (2nd edition: Bookmarks, 2017).


1 Thanks to Camilla Royle for her comments on an earlier draft of this article.

2 Das, 2018, p15.

3 Many of Das’s criticism of Wright are similar to the ones I offer in Choonara, 2017.

4 This was the pen-name adopted by two authors: Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson.

5 Cited in Das, 2018, p80.

6 Cited in Das, 2018, p170.

7 For my version of this approach, which parallels Das’s, see Choonara, 2018.

8 Cited in Das, 2018, p282.

9 Das, 2018, p289.

10 My own approach, based on the work of Guglielmo Carchedi, is set out in Choonara, 2017. See also Carter, 1985.

11 Das, 2018, p206.

12 Marx, 1990.

13 These categories have been much abused by a range of post-Marxist thinkers. For instance, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri extend the concepts to society at large in their influential work Empire. For Hardt and Negri, Empire, the new system of global domination, seeks to absorb all the creative energies generated outside the sphere of its control through a process of formal subsumption. Having digested much of this non-capitalist “other”, Empire subjects what it has absorbed to a process of real subsumption, radically transforming every aspect of society and nature, including those lying outside of production itself—see Hardt and Negri, 2000, pp271-272 and 386. Das would almost certainly reject this account which displaces workers’ power, based on the role of workers in production, from its central role in struggle against capitalism. For Hardt and Negri, because everything is subsumed, struggle can erupt anywhere at any time, with no central role accorded to workers.

14 Das, 2018, p364.

15 See, for instance, Callinicos, 1990; Davidson, 2013.

16 See, for instance, Das, 2018, p355.

17 See Marx, 1990, chapter 15.

18 Although Das, 2018, p360, resists seeing imperialism as based on unequal relations of exchange or income inequality between rich and poor countries, he sees it primarily as a particular relation of exploitation, in which sections of the ruling class in advanced capitalist countries exploit “proletarians and semi-proletarians in the peripheral capitalist world”. This is certainly an aspect of imperialism. However, I find it more convincing to view imperialism as the drawing together of the logic of inter-state rivalry and capitalist competition on a global scale—see Callinicos, 2009; Harman, 1991, for similar approaches to the relationship between capital and the state, and the constitution of imperialism.

Similarly, Das’s discussion of the class character of the state relative to capital runs the risk of simplifying the relationship between the two by arguing “the state and the capitalist class are two arms of one single thing”—Das, 2018, p393. I think is better to argue, as Chris Harman does in the article cited above, that the “autonomy” of states under capitalism is limited to a degree of freedom over how state managers oversee capitalist accumulation. In this context, intra-capitalist tensions and rivalries—again based on competitive accumulation—can assume an important role.

19 The strength of reformism in the working class generally is perfectly explicable in terms of the contradictory experience of working class people in a capitalist society—in which capital seems to present itself as an immutable, natural force—and the often fragmentary and limited nature of spontaneous struggles. In this context, as Antonio Gramsci points out, working class consciousness can take contradictory forms, torn between a conception of the world uncritically absorbed from a society dominated by ruling class ideas and an alternative based on solidarity and struggle, which can begin to generate elements of a different conception of society. This makes workers receptive to reformism and its offer of incremental change within the framework of capitalism. See Choonara, 2018, pp22-24. Das presents a similar view of the hold of reformist ideas, although I think his account would have been strengthened by engaging with Gramsci’s work.

20 Cliff, 1957. See also Corr and Brown, 1993, who develop this argument, showing that better-paid workers have often been at the forefront of labour struggles and that the relative conservatism of British workers in the late 19th century reflected the stabilisation of capitalism and the defeats of earlier radical movements such as Chartism.

21 Post, 2006.

22 See Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986; Darlington and Upchurch, 2012. The discussion of the trade union bureaucracy in Das is, by contrast, extremely limited—see Das, 2018, pp486 and 512.

23 See, for instance, Alexander and Bassiouny, 2014, on the Egyptian case.

24 The debate re-emerged in the context of Lars Lih, 2008, who offered a reinterpretation of Lenin’s pamphlet What is to be Done? Challenging both what he saw as the “textbook” interpretation and the “activist” interpretation. This was debated in a symposium in Historical Materialism available online: Another recent contribution to this debate is Shandro, 2016. In this journal, see Corr and Jenkins, 2014; Corr, 2017.

25 Lenin, cited by Das, 2018, p441.

26 Das, 2018, p462.

27 The same point is stressed by Hal Draper, 1978, in his monumental study of Marx’s approach to class and class struggle. I was surprised to find that references to Draper’s work in Das’s book were extremely limited.

28 See Harman, 1969, on this.

29 Trotsky, 1937, chapter 8. Again, there is a slightly odd phrase in Das, 2018, p550: “The working class struggle occurs through various political forms, including trade unions, rank and file workplace committees, and neighbourhood committees, soviets, co-ops, reading cells, libraries, etc, all of which must work under the guidance of the party even if they have some relative autonomy. But the party is the supreme vehicle for class struggle”. If this is taken to mean that revolutionaries must fight for hegemony in bodies such as soviets thrown up by revolutionary struggle, fair enough. But the idea, proposed by many of the leading Bolsheviks in 1905 that the soviet had to adopt their party programme or dissolve itself, was a sectarian error that Lenin condemned: “I think it inadvisable to demand that the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies should accept the [party] programme… It seems to me that to lead the political struggle, both the Soviet…and the party are, to an equal degree, absolutely necessary”—cited in Cliff, 1975, chapter 7. Indeed, the legitimacy of the soviet rested, to a large degree, on the fact that it was a body of the revolutionary workers, which ultimately (in autumn 1917) came under Bolshevik leadership, not simply a party body.

30 Cited in Das, 2018, p467.

31 Das, 2018, p447.

32 See, for instance, Cliff, 2000, chapter 2; Choonara, 2014.


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