(D)evolutionary Socialism and the Containment of Class: For a Red Theory of Class

Deborah Kelsh


Orthodox Marxism and the Contemporary

What is Orthodox Marxism?
Stephen Tumino

Corporate Transnationalism and Red Internationalism
Amrohini Sahay

Class, Labor and the "Cyber": A Red Critique of the "Post-Work" Ideologies
Rob Wilkie

Eclipsing Exploitation: Transnational Feminism, Sex Work and the State
Jennifer Cotter

Haven't you realized that workers have it pretty good today
Brian Ganter

Revolution as Seduction, Pedagogy as Therapy and The Subject is Always Me
The Red Collective

Marxist Interventions


The growing contradictions of the contemporary situation in which the increase of wealth simply intensifies social inequality instead of bringing about economic and cultural equality have shown not simply the inadequacy, but the frivolousness of the explanations of the daily offered by the dominant cultural and social theory. Frivolous explanations—by which I mean various "post" theories—obscure the logic that relates culture to capital and are unable to explain the actual, material practices that produce people as subjects. By "subject," I mean individuals not as they appear in their own or other people's imaginations, as Zizek and other left theorists have mapped subjectivity. Rather, I mean individuals, as Marx and Engels have written, as they "produce materially and hence as they work under definite material limits, presuppositions and conditions independent of their will." "Frivolous theory" cannot explain, without "any mystification and speculation" as Marx and Engels emphasize, "the connection of the social and political structure with production" (The German Ideology 46-7).

The logic of the "frivolous" is the dominant Derridean mode of understanding cultural practices. Derrida, in his 1973 (1980) book The Archeology of the Frivolous, does what he does in every text: he textualizes all practices as effects of the slippage of signifiers and thereby foregrounds the gap between the sign and its referent as both the gap that needs to be explained and as one that is immanent, an effect of the laws of motion of any symbolic system. He thus both displaces onto the plane of the epistemological the gap between the classes, and he treats language transhistorically, displacing Volosinov's argument that the "sign" is "an arena of class struggle" (23). By arguing further that "philosophical style congenitally leads to frivolity" (125), Derrida defers explanation itself onto the plane of the rhetorical and semiotic. This series of deferrals, disguised as epistemological relays, of course also defers explanation of the relation between culture and production. Because the frivolous posits the limits of knowledge as transhistorical, unrelated to the limits imposed on it by history understood as the struggle of antagonistic classes over ownership of the means of production, it also posits that no class or social movement can ever produce knowledge that is reliable enough to guide emancipatory action. The unreliability of knowledge is simply "the way things are." Political struggle itself is thus transformed into the frivolous: an endless and excessive quest driven by desire for the ineluctable signified, where the best one can hope for is a little more of "what is." The frivolous, then, is an idealist and rather hollow mode of reading whose privileging of the semiotic for its ambiguity represents the interests of the bourgeoisie in blocking the development of revolutionary consciousness, and at the moment when the global divide between the haves and the have-nots is increasing. The gap that needs to be explored is the gap between the classes, not the gap between the sign and its referent that is privileged and reified by frivolous theory.

What is necessary now, if one is serious about changing the material conditions of the everyday for all, is a materialist explanation: one that can lay bare the logic of cultural practices and explain the crisis of explanation through dialectical understanding of the relation between productive practices and culture. Materialist explanation de-isolates culture, treating it not (as "post" theories have done) as a series of autonomous localities, but as an aspect of the totality of practices in which subjects engage as they produce the means of their reproduction as an aggregate. The contemporary return to the concept of class marks the exhaustion of textual logic and is supposed to signal a turn away from frivolous "post" explanations that are complicit with capitalism. But class, in its new rearticulation, is simply a repetition of the frivolous.

In the heyday of the frivolous, class was of course the absent term. But in the early 1990s, when the frivolous began to show signs of explanatory fatigue even to its practitioners, class returned to the humanities. The contradictions, conflicts and antagonisms of the "two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat" (Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto 80) could no longer be explained by the frivolous, which therefore began to look overtly frivolous and had to be repaired. Thus, Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin's Critical Terms for Literary Study, whose first edition pointedly excluded class, now includes an entry on class. However, the essay "Class," written by Daniel T. O'Hara, engages in one of the more common of frivolous tactics used to marginalize class and exclude it from the scene of the daily: the use of irony, pastiche, joke, wordplay. O'Hara treats class as an orphan trope and then adopts it so it can be used "strategically, pragmatically, with a certain ironic, even (self-) parodic lightness" (418). This tactic is in actuality the popular device for unleashing violence on revolutionaries from behind a smiling face. It is repeated in the "Rethinking Marxism" poster we all received: in the slogan "The party's not over," "party" is not a concept but a puncept whose undecidability blocks the necessary reliable knowledge for revolution.

Even theorists whose work has been primarily in poststructuralism are now forced to recognize the frivolity of their post-explanations and mend them with "class." Wai Chee Dimock and Michael T. Gilmore, for example, in introducing their anthology Rethinking Class, revise class under the trope of "rethinking" and transform it into yet another cultural difference exchangeable with any other. In doing so, they engage in crisis management for the knowledge industry by deploying the tactic, as Donald Morton has theorized it, of "set[ting] the limits of the horizon surveyed in such a way as to occlude the 'troublesome,' while claiming to open up issues to the full spectrum of 'reasonable' views" ("Texts of Limits" 57). By returning to class from within the framework of the ludic logic of "disruption," "questions of cause and effect, of figure and ground, . . . become matters of interpretation, matters of uncertain conjecture" (3). The ideological services of the two to the bourgeois knowledge industry might be seen in their conclusion in which, to the relief of the bourgeoisie, they declare that class might "turn out to be as much an effect as it is a cause. . . . If this weakens the explanatory power accorded class in orthodox Marxism, what is gained is a broader spectrum of permissible questions" (3). The "troublesome" they occlude in this move is the red theory of class theorized by Marx as an objective and therefore knowable and transformable position in relation to private property. Yet reading their text, highly praised by Cora Kaplan in her Introduction to the "Rereading Class" issue of PMLA, one is struck by the contradictions of such performative rethinking and must ask: if class struggle is over, then why, as they propose, revive "class"? And what can it mean, if such struggle is over, to revive the term so it can be used, as they say, "with . . . political efficacy" and "analytic authority" (1)? The un-said of their revisionist practice is, of course, that not only is class not dead and class struggle not over—but that class is so active under the surface that it needs containment, and it needs it quickly, efficiently.

Frivolous practices continue in dominant cultural theory, albeit in less overtly frivolous form, in the many texts undertaking exploration of the gap between the representation of "class" and "class being" such as Peter Hitchcock's recent essay in the special "Rereading Class" issue of PMLA. Hitchcock argues that what "haunts the current epoch, when workers exist but apparently have no representational hold on a political machinery that would transform their existence," is "the difference of the objective conditions of class formation from the political forms of its expression" (22). In his attempt, however, to "expand. . . a lexicon of labor" (20) "in cultural critique that. . . might just militate against the tendency to build barricades around workers through representation" (23), he repeatedly argues that "the nature of class as a relation denies. . . representation" (29), basically because "one cannot easily represent it in culture without making the representation itself an example of the object of critique" (24). This return to representation rehearses the paradoxy of Horkheimer and Adorno's "Enlightenment as Mass Deception" by substituting a formalist understanding of representation that displaces theory as that which, as Marx puts it, "represents a class" (Afterword to the Second German Edition of Capital 1: 17). By displacing theory as such, Hitchcock opens a space for an argument that presupposes class relations are mere matter for processes of representation rather than material relations which decisively determine processes of representation themselves. As Hitchcock himself states, "class relations. . . are a precipitate in the moment and context of representation" (27). Following from the presupposition that class relations are mere matter for representation that will always exceed representation—which repeats the ludic logic of the frivolous in which the signifier and signified always stand in a relation of excess to one another—neither class relations nor classes can be apprehended in any reliable way. Thus transformative praxis cannot occur. Workers can engage only in rhetorical socialist activism in which they constitute and reconstitute themselves as various cultural classes in competition over local interests such that they merely "oscillate wildly" within the frame of "what is" rather than contest "what is" to produce "what can be." The reduction of class to mere matter for representation, which displaces class as a determinate relationship to the means of production, establishes redistributive reform as the horizon of worker praxis. Indeed, when Hitchcock notes that workers have "no obvious space or place to seek redress from" capitalist violences (27), he accepts capitalism as a given and suggests that the work of the left is to engage in merely reformist practices. While in a footnote he rejects the theorizations found in the Dimock and Gilmore volume because they "reduce class to primarily a series of effects or epiphenomena" (30 n2), in fact he repeats this reduction.

I will note only briefly that the repetition of the frivolous at the site of class is not without precedent. Dominant versions of cultural studies, central to which is the work of Stuart Hall, long ago revised "class" beyond recognition. For example, in the 1976 essay, "The 'Political' and 'Economic' in Marx's Theory of Classes," Hall rejects classical Marxism and argues that the contradictions of material life are neither determinate nor explanatory, but simply consist of "matter" to represent: "a process of 'representation'," he argues, "must have something to represent" (50). Hall's turn to representation entails the reduction of classes articulated at the level of production to mere "matter" for representation which, once they pass from the "economic" to the political, "cannot," Hall claims, "be translated back into [the] original terms" (47 original emphasis). In reducing class to matter—a move Hitchcock has repeated—Hall inserts the frivolous into cultural studies, and thus in the dominant cultural studies, the semiotic laws of motion of language are determinate: desire (for "closure")—not labor—is the motive force of history, and therefore the "disclosure" of representation is privileged. What this privileging of the "disclosure" of representation means in practice, however, is that the proletariat as articulated by the social relations of production cannot constitute itself as a class at the level of culture. Hall's "re-reading" of Marx suppresses class politics by privileging the politics of difference.

The ludic "rereading" of class exemplified by Dimock and Gilmore and celebrated in the special January 2000 PMLA issue on class has opened up a thread in "class studies" in which "class" becomes collapsed into the Weberian notion of "status" as "an effective claim to social esteem in terms of positive or negative privileges" (Economy and Society 1: 305). "Class" is reduced to a relation involving the respect one can command from others, displacing the classical Marxist understanding of class as relationship to the means of production. Exemplary of this thread is Rita Felski's PMLA essay, "Nothing to Declare: Identity, Shame, and the Lower Middle Classes." Having rejected the classical Marxist theory of class as a binary (34), she regards class as "being, in one sense, nothing more than the sum of its material manifestations: the Anne Klein suits and goat-cheese soufflés, the high-definition TV and laptop computer, the postmodern novels and the holidays in Tuscany" (38). For her, then, class "has a contingency not shared by other forms of identity. . . . if we think of class in purely economic and sociological terms" (38-9). Yet she "complicates" the contingency of class identity, suggesting it is not so contingent—not, however, because it involves relationship to production but because she, following the example of other revisionists such as Richard Hoggart, E.P. Thompson, and Raymond Williams, believes it is rooted in "structures of feeling" not so easily left behind. The identity of the "lower middle classes"—an identity she adopts in the essay—is rooted in "shame," which makes it a "negative identity" that is hidden behind the claim to middle class "status" (41). Here, class is ultimately reduced further: to "trauma" over one's "status," where "status" is the Zizekian "real" which, while it momentarily intrudes and tears the "fragile, symbolic cobweb" Zizek imagines "social reality" to be (17), is nevertheless unknowable. Felski's essay is little more than a call for others to recognize—to identify in a positive way, or "respect"—the "lower middle class" which she argues contemporary cultural theory (the work of Stuart Hall in particular) ignores (43-4).

Felski's essay is symptomatic of the larger reactionary tendency in the knowledge industry today to return class to its bourgeois, Weberian schematization. Against Marx who argues that persons are articulated into classes on the basis of their objective relation to private property, Weber claims that articulation into classes occurs in relation to consumption: "always," Weber argues, "this is the generic connotation of the concept of class: that the kind of chance in the market is the decisive moment which presents a common condition for the individual's fate. 'Class situation' is . . . ultimately 'market situation'" (Economy and Society 2: 928, original emphasis). Weberian theory is the classical matrix of bourgeois sociological theory because by positing class as constituted at the level of circulation and consumption (the market), it institutes a conceptual pluralism in which power involves not the labor-power that has been appropriated and congealed in the means of production and used to appropriate more labor-power for profit. Rather, "power" in Weberian theory involves anything one could be said to "own"—from land, to commodities, to knowledge. This is a "matterist" understanding of power which extends to personal qualities—for example, the facility or "style" with which one engages in various modalities of consumption or "ways of using," which stand in for production. This latter substitution for ownership of the means of production of a quality one could be said to own—a substitution repeated by Michel de Certeau who proclaims "consumption" to be another form of "production" (31)—displaces the determining centrality of labor and exploitation in thinking the social, and opens the door to desire and excitation as the motive forces behind historic social change.

The philosophical basis of such a conceptual pluralism which substitutes desire for labor is the neo-Kantian project of the "empirio-criticists" (or "Machists," as Lenin refers to them). That project arose at the same time as Weber wrote. Lenin, following Engels (in Socialism, 14-15), critiqued it in Materialism and Empirio-criticism as agnosticism.

Agnosticism attempts to carve out a "middle-ground" position between idealism and materialism. As Lenin explains, "for the materialist the 'factually given' is the outer world, the image of which is our sensations. For the idealist the 'factually given' is sensation, and the outer world is declared to be a 'complex of sensations'. For the agnostic the 'immediately given' is also sensation, but the agnostic does not go on either to the materialist recognition of the reality of the outer world, or to the idealist recognition of the world as our sensation" (98). The agnostic stops at "'sense-perceptions,' impressions and ideas of man" (98), and thus while he denies both idealist and materialist premises, he is "inevitably condemn[ed] . . . to idealist conclusions of one kind or another" (Lenin Materialism 151). The agnostic, in other words, is the frivolous. The Weberian theory of class is a form of agnosticism in that by pluralizing property as anything anyone might be said to own, it accords "sense-perception" a foundational status and in this way denies objective reality that is given through sensation. Reality, in the Weberian theory of class, is instead "conditional" on sense-perception—that is, what is "class," what is "property" . . . what is "real" is a matter of one's ideas and impressions. This position is quite useful to the bourgeoisie, because at the level of politics, it produces stalemate. Without any objective measure or model, no theory can be accorded priority, and nothing historically decisive can be done. One is subject to the "waiting without horizon of expectation" privileged by Derrida in his frivolity, Specters of Marx (168).

Through such conceptual pluralism, class in Weberian theory is reduced to a matter of "having," in and of itself, unrelated to the "not having" of others, such that there is no way to think an objective, causal relation between the fact that Bill Gates has a half billion dollars while those who produce microchips for Microsoft have only enough income to survive on, if that. Like "post" theories of class, Weberian versions treat the social as an infinitely expanding alea comprised of a series of autonomous localities whose collisions at unforeseeable conjunctural moments produce effects, which themselves become undecidable factors in future conjunctural collisions. Indeed, it is precisely because Weberian class rejects the understanding of the social as a totality that John R. Hall argues for a neo-Weberian understanding of class in his introduction to the Reworking Class volume: "once it is acknowledged that market capacities, class interests, and organizational exploitation become structured in diverse ways within capitalism, the theoretical gaps between Marxian and Weberian approaches are largely erased, and the Weberian analysis of structurations within capitalism becomes ever more salient" (31).

Underlying both the frivolous and the Weberian is the understanding of change in terms of "increase or decrease," the "more or less" of the same that Lenin critiqued as opposing dialectics, which understands the social as a split unity whose antagonistic opposites exist in a contradictory relation of reciprocity. Dialectics explains why an entity so split can become transformed, on its own contradictory laws of motion, into a new entity. The other understanding of change, Lenin argues, "leaves cause in the shade" ("On the Question of Dialectics" 131). Both the frivolous and the Weberian leave cause in the shade: change in the former is the outcome of semiotic slippage, and in the latter, agnosticist shifts in sense. Both are useful in suppressing proletariat struggle to transform the objective cause of inequity—private ownership of the means of production—and in simultaneously advancing the "popular" understanding that there is a vast plurality of differences that need to form coalitions for the advancement of "popular" interests. The logic of change as "increase or decrease" is that which informed the evolutionary socialism of Eduard Bernstein and now underwrites the contemporary "Third Way" or "Progressive Governance" reformist initiative, which I call (d)evolutionary socialism.

Third Wayism is supported by Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio's highly influential book The Jobless Future. At its core is the logic of "increase or decrease" which informs their plan to create and mobilize coalitions of cultural classes in order to build a power bloc which can presumably provide "more" for "the people" by putting pressure on the state to give "less" to corporations. In doing so, they hope that capitalism can be (d)evolved into a more equitable system. For Aronowitz and DiFazio, what is "central to the constitution of class" is culture (274-5; 296). They "do not accept Weber's view" (231) because for them, Weber is unable to account for the "centrality of culture" they privilege in the "making of" class. They want a more fluid notion of class as produced not only by "market situation" but also by "cultural situation"—the life chances afforded any group by the "conscious community" that is for them synonymous with class (290). Aronowitz and DiFazio, then, reject Weber—but not because Weber pluralizes property. Rather, they reject Weber for being too deterministic! Formulating class as "conscious community," Aronowitz and DiFazio are able to posit that there can be a "relative autonomy of knowledge and culture" within capitalism itself (292). In this "autonomous" space, the "New Class" of knowledge science workers theorized several decades ago by Alvin Gouldner can emerge (294) and "transform" the "workplace" so as to enable "popular politics" (357-8). Fundamentally, Aronowitz and DiFazio are positing a "break" in knowledge society in which the "vanguard" is this "new class" of knowledge science workers. Because these knowledge workers can argue that they "own" as "property" the knowledge which Aronowitz and DiFazio claim is now "central" to production (291), Aronowitz and DiFazio think these workers—themselves among them—can radicalize their autonomy and (d)evolve the social by redistributing power, and without transforming production. On these grounds, Aronowitz and DiFazio renarrate the objective contradictions of capitalism by which capitalism both negates itself and creates the conditions of possibility for a new mode of production in which producers produce for themselves.

At a high level of development, the contradictions of capitalism jettison more and more workers (hence "the jobless future") because the productive forces have been developed through class struggle over the rate of profit such that less socially necessary labor time is required to produce commodities. A society in which all persons are freed from exploitation is objectively possible. Yet as Marx explains and Ernest Mandel has more recently illustrated, because under capitalism labor remains the sole measure and source of value, the capitalist class cannot, much as it may desire to do so, get rid of all workers; that would mean the bourgeoisie could not extract profit—surplus-value. Fundamentally, the capitalist class is trying to prevent the objective self-negation of capitalism, yet it is precisely through these preventative moves that it increasingly brings about that objective self-negation. Aronowitz and DiFazio address this contradictory law of motion of capital—but they do so undialectically, proposing a (d)evolutionary social democratic "solution" through tactics of redistribution: for example, shortening the working day but with no decrease in pay. Rather than transforming the social relations of production which are the determinate condition of possibility of "work," rather than bringing the objective exterior to bear on the inside in order to control the form of production through which humans attempt to meet their needs, Aronowitz and DiFazio try simply to control "work" and "wages." This move attempts to mitigate the effects of the objective contradictions of capitalism so that they do not become the basis of revolutionary change. This is the fundamental project of Third Way reformism, with knowledge workers as the so-called vanguard of a project that "attempts," as Giddens puts it, "to transcend both old-style social democracy and neoliberalism" (26).

In the end, the question is this: does the knowledge-work that is dominant in the academy support capitalism by naturalizing (explaining away) its objective contradictions? Or does it provide historical knowledge of it, and thus participate in the struggle of the proletariat to transform it? It is historically necessary now to break the bourgeois chains of frivolity, at the center of which is the cross of indeterminacy used to ward off revolution and the red critique, whose purpose is "to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat" (Lenin, What 80).

Works Cited

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