Class, Social Movements and the Return of Marxism

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In this article, the Argentinian Marxist Juan Dal Maso discusses the post-Marxist currents in Latin America and poses the challenges socialists face to articulate the class struggle and the resistance of social movements against capital.

Image credit: "A good old fashioned protest," by Julie Jeanne Viard
In an interview published in July 2018 [1], sociologist Razmig Keucheyan affirmed that Marxism has in recent years gained authority as a framework for explaining and interpreting capitalist crisis. This is so because other critical theories have little to say about capitalism and nothing to add regarding economic crisis. As Keucheyan pointed out, however, Marxism’s growing influence has so far not been accompanied by a corresponding recomposition of Marxism as a political force. Taking up these issues, we will try to raise some questions about Marxist political strategy  today and some of the challenges that it faces.

Dispersion, Autonomism, Post-Marxism

There were three departures from Marxism that arose after the seventies’ anti-system movements were defeated: (1) social movements oriented toward defending one-off demands instead of socialism, postulating agents of change other than the working class; (2) autonomism, which was nourished by these movements, encompassed them within the “multitude,” and upheld a “communism of the here and now”; and (3) the “post-Marxism” of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, which defended the idea of different “subject positions” in a politics of “radical democracy,” and which called this hegemony and opposed it to a class perspective.
These three examples are a simplification of a much more complex scenario that is nonetheless constituted by a multiplicity of agents and a crisis or mutation of the traditional workers’ movement and theories of political action. I will argue that transformations in the working class in the last decades and post-Marxist theories about political action have led to relegate the question of class and the revolutionary transformation of society to the background. The crisis of so-calledactually existing socialismand the fall of the USSR directly affected the principal ideas of these currents.

The Spirit of the Times

In line with the defeats of the working class and the retreat of the discourse of class in both “critical theory” and the majority of the left, a “common sense” took hold within progressivism and the left, one that can be summarized as “in favor of all minorities except Marxists.” Even though we have seen multiple processes of working-class recomposition since the French general strike of 1995, the displacement of the question of class has not been reversed. We have an activism permeated with a kind of “leftist postmodernism,” which raises the banners of specific struggles and at times even tries to foreshadow a more or less comprehensive change to the system. But, it does not intend to end capitalist exploitation, and therefore these activists do not think it necessary to unite the different movements with the working class in defense of a revolutionary program.
The currents of the far left have, in their vast majority, adapted to this climate. Defending just and progressive causes, which is an obligation for a Marxist current, tends to become an end in itself, yielding to the political leaderships of the movements in question. This has two easily identifiable effects: First, it creates the illusion  that any timely demand that denounces any oppression is in fact anticapitalist, which then dispenses with the necessary revolutionary political mediations; second, the idea of the centrality of the working class is lost, as a function of a kind of “populism of the active factor” i.e., the idea that the “subject” is the one who struggles at each conjuncture. With these two premises, the search for confluence with active and emerging movements is separated from a strategy that aims to build a revolutionary organization within the workers’ movement, among the youth, the women’s movement, and so on.
This practice goes back a long way to what Lenin considered a hegemonic policy—that is, a policy that denounces the abuses committed against all oppressed groups in society, linking them to a political struggle against the state. In “What Is to Be Done?,” Lenin advocated a democratic revolution against czarism. While we will not discuss all of Lenin’s later modifications to this theory here, it is sufficient to understand that the Marxist conception of hegemony is not only to denounce oppression but to unite this denunciation with a policy and strategy to defeat the common enemy of the working class and all sectors of the oppressed.
The same principle animates Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, which holds that the social, democratic, popular and anti-imperialist struggles that do not develop in the direction of a struggle for the power of the working class and the people will be interrupted, diverted, contained, and ultimately defeated.

The Current Form of Hegemony

The response to “leftist postmodernism” should not be a retreat into the “corporatism” of the traditional workers’ movement. That is to say, it is not about endorsing the corporate form in which the unions work, but about finding a bridge between the struggles and the interests of the unionized workers and the social movements. This involves challenging that corporatism and the union bureaucracy, but also challenging the bureaucracies that lead the social movements. To a large extent, it is these bureaucracies that keep these struggles divided.
A revolutionary strategy must first consider the current reality of the working class, which is increasingly feminized and reconfigured by the phenomenon of international migration, leading a significant portion of workers to live in precarious conditions all around the world. Moreover, proletarianization is accompanied by other forms of identification based on certain specific oppressions (e.g. gender, race, religious or cultural substrata), leading to a paradox: The working class has never been so widespread [2], yet this does not translate directly into class consciousness.
This coexistence of working-class positioning and multiple forms of identification makes the relations between class demands and those of other antioppression movements more porous. That is, when we defend the demands of the women’s movement, for example, we are also defending the demands of the working class, because women make up about 40 percent of the workforce. The challenge is how to make this relationship evident and, above all, how to articulate a strategic policy that separate, seeks to unite the women’s movement and the workers’ movement by going beyond the logic of separate demands within capitalism.
In this context, there is a significant difference between the hegemonic politics of today and the politics historically proposed by Marxism. In the past, there was a labor movement more or less identified with Marxism at the international level, more or less homogeneous, from which to build ties with other movements of oppressed sectors (from peasant movements to the women’s movements). Today, the working class needs at the same time to establish its unity and to build bridges with movements organized around forms of identification that are not based on class. In this sense, a policy of working-class unity is intrinsic to a policy of uniting the class with the movements in an expansive hegemony that reaffirms the centrality of class without reducing it to the economic struggle. From the point of view of a political practice for the left, the synthesis would be to fight within the movements for a policy of unity with the working class, tackle the logic of dividing the demands head on, and fight in the unions for a program that considers the demands of the other movements, thus colliding with union corporatism. This policy does not necessarily have to be the politics of the whole of the class, but could instead begin to materialize from an active sector. To give an example, we can consider the alliance between workers’ management at Zanon, an Argentine factory, and the Mapuche people of Chile.

Hegemonic Potentials

Having raised in general terms the possible relationship between class and movements from the political point of view, let us address a second no less important issue: the role of different sectors of the working class in carrying out this policy through class struggle actions and the organization of the popular sectors.
We could call it“hegemonic potential,” that is, the ability to create a force greater than that of the isolated sector itself, from a strategic position in the economy whose interruption necessarily affects other sectors, or from a function whose exercise implies the relationship between different popular sectors.
Sectors of the working class, such as oil workers, electricity workers, and telephone workers, affect the supply of oil and gas, electricity and communications. Workers in urban and inter-city public transport systems and airports affect the movement of the workforce. Truck drivers affect the circulation of goods. By cutting gas, electricity, communications, or transportation, these workers could shut down big cities in a few hours. Something similar happens with the collection of waste, even if its effects are less immediate. The strength that can be deployed by the strike action of these sectors opens up the perspective of the metropolitan general strike and is fundamental to any process of revolutionary class struggle. Not coincidentally,  the union bureaucracies are usually the most totalitarian in these sectors of the working class.
The industrial working class has the strength to interrupt the production of goods, and in that sense it affects both capitalist profit and strategic service sectors, but apart from very specific sectors like transportation, communication, and power, industrial conflicts do not in themselves ensure that other sectors of capital reproduction will be affected. In this sense, factory struggles, especially in conditions of economic contraction, need a lot of outside support to achieve victories. What they do have in their favor are the ties that are established more often than not between the factory and the neighborhood, along with the enormous symbolic value that industrial work clothes have when workers step out onto a highway or set themselves up in front of a police cordon.
Education and health workers do not interrupt the production or circulation of goods. But, they do have a day-to-day relationship with the population of large urban centers, especially with the lower layers of the working class and the poor of the city and the country. It is on the basis of this daily bond that these workers could deploy a hegemonic policy, not because of their ability to affect production or circulation, but because of the extension of schools, hospitals, and clinics across each nation and especially in the popular neighborhoods. Politicizing the link that already exists with the community excludes the union bureaucracies from the life of the unions.
Here again, the internal dynamics of the class are related to the dynamics of its relationship to other sectors and movements. If we consider hegemony as leadership that is built as much by taking up the demands of other sectors as it is by fighting very decisively for its own demands, a revolutionary politics needs the combination of the different hegemonic potentials that are internal to the class, the articulation of the demands of class and movements and the confluence between social and political struggles.
The role of the union bureaucracy consists, on the one hand, of subordinating the unions to the state and, on the other, in dividing the different sectors of the class among itself and the class from the social movements. In this sense, the struggle for reclaiming the unions from the bureaucracy is inseparable from a policy that goes beyond union corporatism, that generates instances of much broader organization and coordination, and structures a hegemonic policy that takes into account the heterogeneity that we referred above and what each sector of the class can contribute to the overall struggle.

Parties and Parties

The organization that moves us most toward solving these problems (among others) in practice will be the closest thing to a revolutionary party, one that goes beyond the various ephemeral political formations. In times of virtual politics, parties without members and movements without a party, the challenge is of enormous proportions. A political organization that defends a theory that goes beyond the dispersion of social movements and critical theories, with a program that clearly states the need to overcome capitalism in a revolutionary way and a strategy based on class struggle, is the necessary condition to get out of the dispersion and the struggles that are reconcilable within the capitalist framework. It is not enough to have a generally left politics, which either denounces or intervenes in the movements; what’s required is a party that transforms its presence in each place of work and study into a real “center of gravity,” so that an organization can put forces into motion that are infinitely greater than those of an active but marginal minority.

Footnotes

[1] “Seremos testigos de un retorno del marxismo” [https://www.laizquierdadiario.com/Seremos-testigos-de-un-retorno-del-marxismo] (“We will see a return of Marxism”), Interview with Razmig Keucheyan, July 29, 2018, Ideas de Izquierda (Ideas of the Left). An English-language version is available at the Verso Books blog [https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3919-razmig-keucheyan-you-can-try-very-hard-to-forget-about-the-existence-of-capitalism-but-capitalism-will-not-forget-you].
[2] Aside from managers, the army and security forces, which are part of the bourgeois camp in terms of living conditions and/or function.
This is a translation of “¿En qué sentido vuelve y tiene que volver el marxismo?” [https://www.laizquierdadiario.com/En-que-sentido-vuelve-y-tiene-que-volver-el-marxismo] which was published in Ideas de Izquierda (IdZ—Ideas of the Left) on February 10, 2019.
Translation: Sean Robertson

About author

Juan Dal Maso

Juan Dal Maso

Juan is a Marxist from Neuquén in Argentina and an author of two books about the thought of Antonio Gramsci. He is a member of the Party of Socialist Workers (PTS).