Friday, September 16, 2005

'Identifying Class, Classifying Difference'

I looked through some of my old essays and reports stored on my computer last night. A lot of them I'd almost completely forgotten about. Funny how you can forget something you've written so quickly. Anyway I found a summary and criticism of an essay by John Saul in the Socialist Register (2003 )* called 'Identifying Class, Classifying Difference'. I remember now, it's quite an interesting essay in which Saul argues that Marxist analysis can accommodate the viewpoints and political demands of a range of social groups centred around different kinds of collective identity and is not limited to an exclusive focus on class. It manages to take on board some of the criticisms directed at socialists by postmodernists in particular, without itself collapsing into postmodern or pluralist mush. The thing that most stuck me, on re-reading, however, was what Saul has to say about socialist analysis and ethics. He adapts and advances Hugh Stretton's notion that socialism is, necessarily, a 'moralising science'. Now this, I remember, this struck me as absolutely right at the time I first read the article - and it still does.

I recently saw someone argue that Marxism has no ethical or moral dimension. It's a common argument, but one which I think is clearly mistaken. Of course, Marx is roughly dismissive of 'moralising' and utopian forms of socialism grounded in the sense that humans need to have a some kind of moral 'change of heart' in order to make the world better. What Marx shows is that the possibility of socialism is implicit in the material conditions generated by capitalism. It is grounded in material, scientific analysis. But it still must and does have a normative dimension. If it doesn't then all it does is simply describe social conditions and the process of history - as if describing, in some absolutely neutral and disinterested fashion, the workings of a machine or the social interaction of a type of insect. It's clear that Marx intends his analysis to provide a tool for social change and human liberation - something which is not inevitable, or programmed into the process or structures of 'history' (although certain material tendencies towards socialist organisation are created, in some sense beyond the conscious control of humanity) but which must be chosen by human subjects. Why should they choose it? Why should it interest us what other human beings choose? Why should we want them to choose socialism and not some other form of social organisation? There is clearly a normative dimension here - and for normative read moral.

This is something which extreme anti-moralist forms of Marxism just do not grasp. The whole thing, then, becomes rather pointless, bloodless and mechanical - inhuman in fact. There is much more to say here, but I'm running out of space if I'm going to cut and paste this essay in below. Just let me point out that I think that we should make a distinction between 'bourgeois moralising' (what Steven Lukes calls the 'morality of Recht') and socialist morality (which Lukes calls the 'morality of emancipation'). That is, Marxism is pitted against forms of morality (individualistic, private, atomised) which we could argue are generated and informed by bourgeois relations of production, but builds upon an implicit moral sense of its own. I am always horrified when I hear certain Marxists dismiss any idea of morality, or who claim that we cannot believe that, say, all violence against humans is inherently regrettable. Don't get me wrong, sometimes violence is necessary (as indeed any liberal bomber would tell you) but I think we can and must still argue that hurting other people is wrong. What we must say, is that sometimes the wrong of not doing violence over-rides the inherent wrongness of violence itself. If we lose our horror of violence (no matter who suffers from it) then I think that's a terrible thing. There's more to say, here and perhaps I'll come back to it.

‘Identifying Class, Classifying Difference’ by John S. Saul, published in the Socialist Register 2003
In recent times Marxist theory has suffered from a series of withering attacks by postmodernists, pluralists and proponents of forms of ‘identity politics’ who claim, amongst other things, that Marxism is reductionist and simplistic, focusing merely on class and political economy in its analysis of social forces and human identity. These critics claim that other forms of social identity are just as (if not more) valid - identities centred around gender, race, nation, sexuality and so on - and that Marxism effectively excludes these social forces from its frame of analysis, regarding them as ephemeral and ultimately unimportant phenomena. It is undeniable, of course, that (orthodox) Marxist analysis has tended, in the past, to regard these types of social identity either as instances of ‘false consciousness’ stemming from bourgeois ideology or at least, in the case of feminist identity especially, as a kind of identity which is subordinate to that of class - women’s oppression, for example, is often presented as something which will be overcome with the creation of new socialist relations of production. However, John Saul claims that there is no inevitable incompatibility or essential contradiction between an analysis of class struggle and an acceptance of other forms of resistance to oppression based on other conceptions of collective identity. Saul aims to suggest the circumstances in which class struggle can be combined with other forms of struggle and to contribute towards striking an ‘analytical balance between political economy (focused principally on the structures of capitalist exploitation that frame our world) and the parallel examination of other structures and other discourses that help define the realities of oppression’ (348)

Saul's essay commences with an investigation of the choice of class as ‘entry-point’ - the reasons for, and theoretical ramifications of, its selection. Saul starts with the premise that socialists see ‘capitalism as an inhuman and inegalitarian system that needs to be overthrown’ (348). He suggests that it is this premise, this prior value-judgement, that conditions the choice of class exploitation as the privileged ‘entry-point’ of socialist social analysis. Following E H Carr and Hugh Stretton, Saul argues that it is a mistake to believe that there is an objective and ‘value-neutral’ vantage point from which to analyse society and offer an impartial, scientific investigation of social processes. It is necessary that we consciously embrace what Stretton terms ‘moralising science’ - that is, we must be aware that all theory is conditioned by prior and implicit moral and value judgements. Armed with this awareness we can, carefully, choose and shape a particular theoretical discourse which is most effective in the pursuit of our consciously acknowledged and deliberately affirmed moral stance. Analysis of class, is then one possible focus of analysis amongst many. Marxists choose to focus on class Saul argues because concentration on this provides for the most effective conception and articulation of injustice in capitalist society. Socialists, before they even come to theory, have already made a prior judgement, Saul suggests, that capitalism is unjust and that class analysis is, simply, a useful tool for socialist theory in its development and encouragement of effective struggle against capitalist structures. In this acceptance of class analysis as one mode of discourse amongst many.

In the second main section of his essay, Saul goes on to argue that, having accepted class analysis as a useful ‘entry-point’ for social analysis conceived of as a consciously ‘moralising science’, it is not necessary for socialists to downplay other forms of social identity. We can, Saul asserts, take seriously ‘the concerns of those who wish to highlight, alternatively or simultaneously, the claims to our attention of other nodes of oppression and resistance’ (354). In support of his belief here, Saul claims that Marx was not, as is commonly believed, an economic reductionist - there is no evidence to suggest that Marx thought that all social phenomena were mere expressions of underlying economic phenomena. An allowance of other approaches and focuses for social analysis, then seems to be perfectly compatible with Marxism. However, although we can allow for other ‘entry-points’ to social analysis and understand that other forms of social identity other than class have substance, and are more than ephemeral phenomena, while still remaining within a Marxist mode of thought, this does not mean that these different forms of social identities are wholly unconnected. Saul demonstrates the interconnections between class and other identities. He shows that feminists have shown that gender is not a mere distraction from the real issue of class struggle and that economic inequality and poverty may be manifested ‘on the ground’ in terms of gender inequality and that it is therefore absurd to remove gender from the frame of social analysis. We cannot consider ‘class itself outside the gendering… that so often significantly characterise it in the concrete’ (354). However, Saul goes on to argue, neither can we do the opposite and consider gender inequality without an exploration of class divisions. As Saul comments, sexual inequality cannot be understood in isolation from ‘the realities of wage labour, commodity production and consumption’ (355). There is then, an inextricable link between patriarchy and capitalist exploitation. Social identities of class and gender do not stand in isolation from one another - they intersect and interact with each other.

Saul briefly considers the necessity of developing a moral basis and normative standards for a pluralist emancipatory project - a ‘counter-hegemonic universalism’ (356) - saying that this is something that the Left will have to return to, before he moves on to look at other forms of identity. Saul claims that the same kind of connections between feminism and Marxism also apply in the case of other forms of identity politics. He first considers race and ‘post-colonialism’ - arguing that racial discrimination and global inequality is firmly bound up with capitalism. We can acknowledge cultural diversity, and the ‘quasi-racial structuring of the present global system… while also focusing on the simultaneous centrality of capitalism in driving the latter system’s inequities and contradictions’ (360). Saul then goes on to consider identities based around ‘ethno-nationalism’ and religion. He asserts that, like gender and race, neither of these two phenomena can be dismissed as imaginary and ephemeral - they are phenomena which are central to the self-identity of many millions of people and it is clear from human history that they have the power to move people to act on the world around them. It is clear, however, that Saul seems to think that ‘ethno-nationalism’ and religion, are rather more problematic for Marxists than are feminism and identity politics based around race. These two phenomena, it seems, can ‘cut both ways’ in that nationalism and religious belief can manifest themselves in reactionary and destructive guises, but also in progressive and constructive forms. Saul points to the fact that nationalist sentiment can bolster and animate popular struggles that aim at objectives socialists could support and that religious belief, too, can add weight to struggle against oppression. One need only look at ‘liberation theology’ in Central and South America for example, Saul points out, to see that Christianity can and does inspire people to fight for egalitarian and anti-oppressive ideals. The challenge for the Left, Saul argues, is to encourage and support those instances of religious and ‘ethno-nationalist’ struggle which aim at progressive ends. There are many potentially positive alliances to be made between religion, nationalism and struggles based on class analysis. These variables have much common ground between them.

None of the identities Saul highlights, then, can be ‘reduced to mere reflexes of the economic, the material or the class-determined’ but, however, ‘socialists have every reason to argue that these variables are best treated in close relation to an analysis and a politics of anti-capitalist class struggle’ (356-357). He concludes that class analysis is a ‘moralising science’ which can be rendered important to other forms of discourse based around struggle against oppression. It can be articulated ‘non-reductively, non-economistically, non Eurocentrically, but centrally… with them’ (367). It is important, that class analysis is articulated ‘centrally’ with other forms of identity politics and not ‘drowned in “difference”’ (368) because class based politics are central to the cause of human emancipation. This centrality is founded in the fact that class analysis implies the crucial demand that the structural limits of capitalism are over-come - without this transcendence of capitalism the demands of other forms of identity politics cannot adequately be met.

Criticism of the paper

The first criticism I wish to make of Saul’s paper is that his assertion that Marxists choose class analysis because it is useful for the advancement of a prior judgement they have made about the injustice of capitalism is rather awkward. It is possible to infer a certain circularity of argument here. Saul seems to be saying that socialists can use class analysis as a way of identifying the injustice implicit within capitalist structures, but that they are motivated to use this analysis by the prior belief that capitalism is unjust. It is as if Saul argues that class analysis reveals the injustice of capitalism that motivates socialists to use class analysis to show those injustices. I do not think that Saul explains this very well - he probably does not notice this circularity in his argument. However, this is not a major difficulty for Saul’s theory - we could speculate that those pre-disposed towards socialist ideals can see injustice all around them in the structure of society and the global economy, but do not acquire the intellectual tools to make full sense of that vague comprehension of injustice (to see the reasons behind their existence and the links between them) until they come across socialist theory. The circularity of argument then does not destroy Saul’s theory, it just results, perhaps, from awkward phrasing and can be easily overcome. Indeed, I think that his claim that Marxism is a type of ‘moralising science’ is exactly right. It is clear to me that there is no ‘true’ and objective vantage point from which judge social reality - all theories are based on sets of prior value judgements and preferences. It is up to us then to choose the values and standards that we wish to advance and to tailor our theoretical vantage point accordingly.

The second criticism I want to make is to point out the inadequacy of Saul’s comments about the necessity of developing a ‘counter-hegemonic universalism’. I quite agree with Saul that an emancipatory project cannot merely define itself in opposition to something else - capitalism - it must set out exactly what it is for and develop a set of worked-out normative principals to struggle towards. Saul merely makes a brief gesture towards this important area - acknowledging that it must be done, but contributing nothing towards its realisation. Of course Saul is not alone in this - time and time again in Leftist writing you can come across assertions that the Left simply must develop and present a vision of what it wants to build up in place of capitalism and acknowledgement that socialism’s aversion to ‘blueprintism’ has been something of a draw-back. No-one ever, though, seems willing to be the one to put forward any substantial ideas in this respect. Most agree that it must be done and then quickly change the subject before, perhaps, anybody actually asks them to do it. I find this very frustrating. It would be unfair to blame Saul too much here, though, because he is far from the only person to go in for this sort of ‘blueprint-dodging’.

The third weakness that I can see in Saul’s position is, perhaps, potentially more serious for the ultimate success of his argument. As we have seen, Saul insists that socialist analysis does not necessarily entail the downplaying of forms of identity other than class. Other forms of identity have worth in themselves and Marxists can accept the legitimacy of other forms of social analysis. However, there is a tension in Saul’s theory in that, though he attempts to argue that different forms of identity have equal validity and that Marxists can adopt a pluralist stance in this sense, he still claims that class must be regarded as a primary factor of social reality. True, Saul stresses that an understanding of the inter-relationship between other forms of identity and class structure is necessary for the development of a successful politics of emancipation - though this, in itself, is a privileging of class before other forms of identity and surely, therefore, involves a certain downplaying of those other types of identity. However, more than this, Saul comes close, on a number of occasions (especially in his discussion of feminism) to suggesting that other forms of identity cannot be fully understood in themselves in isolation from consideration of class structures and political economy. This would certainly seem to suggest that, in some sense, class is more fundamental to human social existence than other kinds of collective identity. This sits awkwardly with Saul’s promotion of diversity and pluralism.

Having made those criticisms, I want to conclude by saying that I think that essay is, on the whole, successful. Certainly, John Saul should try to overcome the tension between his promotion of pluralism and his simultaneous suggestion of the primacy of class identity (though I cannot suggest how this could be done!) I think that Marxism does suffer from a mistaken concentration on class struggle to the exclusion of all else - class reductionism - and I feel that the development of a more pluralist socialism is a worthy and necessary project to engage in. Certainly if socialism is to have any hope of success in the future it must widen its scope to be inclusive of the demands of ‘new social movements’ and those human desires for change which cannot simply be reduced to the rather mechanical and inhuman dynamic of class struggle. I like, as I have indicated, Sauls’s claim that Marxism is not an objective science and that it is based more on a ‘moralising science’ - socialism is, surely, in my view, a political response to injustice and based, therefore, on moral and normative impulses. I am greatly sympathetic to Saul’s suggestion that socialism holds the key to the resolution of the immediate problems of the ‘post-colonial’ Third World and inequalities between North and South. Finally, I also find myself in whole-hearted agreement about the great potential for constructive dialogue and alliance (indeed the utter convergence of interest) between socialism and progressive forms of religion.

* unfortunately, the essay's not online.

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