Editorial: The Mistaken Universalism

by R.L. Stephens

DSA National Political Committee & Editor-in-Chief of DSA Weekly

Melissa Naschek’s much-discussed Jacobin article The Identity Mistake has been a useful touchstone for clarifying various political lines in DSA. One such responsive offering, Race, Class, and Socialist Strategy by Jeremy Gong & Eric Blanc, is an important attempt at staking out political lines on the race/class question.

Gong & Blanc are right to take the initiative and frame their understanding of class struggle, and they should be commended for thinking seriously about how to build socialist power. The Naschek piece to which they respond should also be celebrated for surfacing political lines. Gong & Blanc, by attempting to criticize Naschek’s argument, are demonstrating the democratic method of political struggle. A democratic struggle is a debate over a political line, not an attack on a person or group. It’s not a callout, it’s not dunking, and it’s not personal. What I offer here is a discussion not of Gong & Blanc’s entire argument, but of the political line underpinning both their argument and proposed program.

The Politics of Reduction

The very first sentence of the Gong & Blanc piece argues “Marxists have long understood that the workplace is the primary strategic site of class struggle.” This sentence is a line. A political line is an ideological axiom or truth which underpins a political program/strategy/faction. If you believe the line, then it leads you to believe and do other things on the basis of that line.

Many Marxists have made significant line errors over these questions of class and class struggle. Harry Cleaver noted the problem in 1979, with his text Reading Capital Politically. Cleaver criticized any reading of Marxism which in effect restricted “itself to the ‘economic’ sphere or ‘base,’” and  made “political economy the theory of the capitalist factory and its waged workers alone.” On the surface, Gong & Blanc’s article is a rejection of the restrictive Marxism that Cleaver is criticizing, reflected in their use of the term “primary” rather than only in their emphasis on the workplace. However, their claim that “Marxists have long understood” the notion of the workplace as primary is simply not true; Marxists have been debating this line and continue to take different sides on the question. The text’s opening maneuver presents the authors’ line on class as a settled truth, a rhetorical move that revises the meaning of class struggle.

After positioning the workplace as the primary strategic site of class struggle, and therefore a socialist concern, the authors say, “At the same time, Marxists recognize our moral responsibility to oppose — and the strategic necessity to fight — all forms of exploitation and oppression.” Gong & Blanc emphasize a general moral and strategic imperative to fight against “all forms of exploitation and oppression.” For them, the workplace is not merely moral or of a general strategic pragmatism; their political line situates the workplace as the fundamental material basis of class. There’s a tacit separation, one which becomes all the more clear when Gong & Blanc later use the term “social oppressions” to describe these other “forms of exploitation and oppression,” thus reinforcing the idea that these moral and strategic “social oppressions” are not manifestations of the material basis of class. Ultimately, these struggles end up residing either subordinate to or outside of class struggle itself.

This political line is textbook reductionism. Analytical reductionism is to take a concept and simplify it to the point of distorting its meaning and utility. However, we should not call this maneuver class reductionism, because that would cede too much power to narrow conceptions of class. It’s not that Gong & Blanc are reducing matters to class, what we have instead is a reduction of class. This distinction makes all the difference.

Returning to Cleaver, he argues that the reductive, economistic reading of Marx excludes “the rest of society from the analysis — not only the state and party politics but also the unemployed, the family, the school, health care, the media, art, and so on.” Cleaver notes that the reductive understanding of class had harmful effects for its Marxist adherents, claiming, “The inadequacy of both orthodox and neo-Marxist theories became abundantly clear in the late 1960s. Both were unequipped to explain the revolts of the unwaged and were forced to appeal to ad hoc solutions.” Cleaver observes that although the neo-Marxism of the New Left centered these struggles, it was no more successful  than the orthodoxy of old because “it accepted orthodoxy’s exclusion of these groups from the working class.”

Reductionism & Women

Political lines are related to fundamental social questions. The reductive political line on class struggle is inadequate on a number of fronts. Thus far the Mistaken Identity conversation has mostly focused on the race question, but this line’s limitations are also revealed on the question of women’s subjugation.

Maria Mies’ 1986 book Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale takes on the woman question and attempts to give us a materialist analysis. Her text fundamentally rejects the reductive analysis and provides a theoretical and historical framework for making sense of just how the oppression of women is a material foundational of social life. This review of her book offers a good summary of the text.

Mies, drawing upon a number of Marxists before her, directly challenges the workplace reductionism that she identifies in some Marxist traditions. She asserts that the division between housework and wage-work is a capitalist distinction, and that women’s emancipation would necessitate confronting that accepted division. She writes, “Whereas the old movement and the orthodox left had accepted the capitalist division between private housework or – in Marxist terminology – reproductive work, and public and productive work – or wage-work, the only sphere from which they expected revolution as well as women’s emancipation – the feminists not only challenged this division of labour but also the very definitions of ‘work’ and ‘non-work’.” For Mies, this division between work and non-work was an expression of another crude “dualistic division” to be broken, namely the false separation “between politics and economics.”

Using Mies’ work, we can see the full range of “areas of non-wage work which are tapped by capital in its process of accumulation,” and particularly “all the work performed by subsistence peasants, petty commodity producers, marginalized people, most of whom are women, in the underdeveloped countries.” Such a view allows us to “transcend theoretically the various artificial divisions of labour created by capital, particularly the sexual division of labour and the international division of labour by which precisely those areas are made invisible which are to be exploited in non-wage labour relations and where the rules and regulations governing wage-labour are suspended.”

Political exclusion, to be rendered outside of the governing “rules and regulations,” is to be exposed to regulation by other means–often violence. From this perspective, everything from violence against women to police killings take on a new meaning and the falsity of the division between the political and economic becomes clear.

To reduce class to the workplace or even the wage makes any self-professed socialist movement wholly unable to develop and govern a program for women’s emancipation. 

The Mistaken Universalism

Let’s return to Gong & Blanc’s argument. They say, “First, fights against racial oppression and social oppressions generally — for immigrant rights, abortion rights, an end to police brutality, etc. — are not a distraction from the socialist project. They are essential to it.”

This rhetoric is a positive platitude, yet the question remains here, on what basis are these fights essential? Gong & Blanc offer a familiar refrain, arguing that social welfare programs such as Medicare for All are “in fact essential elements of any program to combat both the effects and the causes of racism.” Without addressing the specificity of the political questions–what Gong & Blanc call “social oppressions”–there can be no resolution of the fundamental contradiction of who counts in the society and is therefore able to make a claim to the social rights and entitlements therein. Political questions–the immigrant question, the police question, the woman question–cut to the essence of class struggle and exist beyond the bounds of the workplace and even the wage itself. That is why they are essential, not merely as moral concerns or pragmatic strategic imperatives but as material manifestations of class struggle itself.  

Instead, what Gong & Blanc present is a sidestepping of the political questions for a one-size-fits-all economic solution. Certainly, these programs will mitigate some of the effects of racism, but to claim that they remedy the causes is a bridge too far, further reflecting the authors’ misunderstanding of what class is and how it functions. We’ve established that Gong & Blanc perform a reduction of class struggle, but now we see what they are reducing it to: economism.

When struggling against the trend which he termed economism, Lenin declared “The conviction that the class struggle must necessarily combine the political and the economic struggle into one integral whole has entered into the flesh and blood of international Social-Democracy.” As we can see, Lenin does not reduce class but instead defines class struggle as having both a political and economic character. On the other hand, Gong & Blanc retreat to a familiar refrain, one which sidesteps the political element of class struggle in order to treat economic demands as the true “universal class demands.” They posit that Medicare for All, a federal jobs guarantee, and fully-funded public education are “universal class demands” which “provide vehicles for building the mass, multiracial working-class movement needed to end both exploitation and oppression.”

Yet, the economic components of class struggle are no more “universal” than the political elements. The political right for every person living in our society to not to be gunned down by the police is no less universal than the economic right to government-funded health insurance.

Upon emancipation, masses of freed Black folk began walking throughout the South. In Eric Foner’s Reconstruction, we find a Henry Adams, who “left his Louisiana plantation in 1865 to ‘see whether I am free by going without a pass.’” For the emancipated slave, the ability to move freely in the society–that is the political right to social life in the polity–was the measure of freedom, not simply the economic right to a wage. Unfortunately for Henry, Foner informs us “A group of whites accosted Adams on the road, asked the name of his owner, and beat him when he replied that he belonged to no one.” As we see in Henry’s tragic life, the political and economic components of class struggle cannot be separated.

Furthermore, a society can have redistributive economic programs, even robust ones, while also subjugating those who are deemed to be beneath the polity. This is an essential and fundamental contradiction of exploitative systems like capitalism. Understanding this dynamic is crucial as we build programs. Lenin argues “The experience of history has, furthermore, incontrovertibly proved that absence of freedom, or restriction of the political rights of the proletariat, always make it necessary to put the political struggle in the forefront.” For Lenin, the struggle for political rights–what Gong & Blanc characterize as “social oppressions”–could supercede the economic questions in significance to the class struggle in a given historical moment, but nonetheless they are each part of the “one integral whole” that is class struggle.  

Rosa Luxemburg’s framing of the political and economic components of class struggle certainly resolves any remaining confusion. Luxemburg argues “every direct mass action of the period of open class struggles would be at the same time both political and economic.” She concludes, “There are not two different class struggles of the working class, an economic and a political one, but only one class struggle, which aims at one and the same time at the limitation of capitalist exploitation within bourgeois society, and at the abolition of exploitation together with bourgeois society itself.”

Luxemburg makes the case that the tendency towards the separation of the political and economic is not an expression of mass politics, but rather a parliamentary approach, arguing, “the separation of the political, and the economic struggle and the independence of each, is nothing but an artificial product of the parliamentarian period.” For Luxemburg, the revolutionary break is to use mass action to lead on the unity of the economic and political components of class struggle, which she sums up with the bold declaration “in a revolutionary mass action the political and economic struggle are one.”

There Is No Both

To avoid the failures of the past, many people today analyze class as one among many types of exploitation and oppression. This approach is a hallmark of intersectionality, for example. Many responded to the proverbial race and class dichotomy of Naschek’s Jacobin article with a resounding call to do both. Yet, similar to Cleaver’s discussion of the limitations of the neo-Marxists, even those who wish to do both and center these other struggles in their analysis and work nonetheless accept the underlying reductive political line that separates the struggles in the first place. Even Gong & Blanc’s response to Naschek is an attempt to articulate a do both position, yet from the very first sentence it continues to reproduce the reductive framework. We reinforce the reduction of class by accepting its terms; instead, we must reject them. There is no both because there is no separation.

We should reject the reduction of class and take up an argument for the unity of the economic and political components of class struggle, similar to the articulations as made by Lenin, Luxemburg, and Mies. The viability of our project depends on what we choose.

Let us at DSA Weekly know what you think; you can submit responses to this debate here.

Photo: the author joins comrades at DSANYC’s Rosa Luxemburg Freitag.(Flickr)