Notes on privilege theory’s critique of Marxism (1)

by Jehu

I have been spending time trying to wrap my head around privilege theory. What follows is the result of that investigation. Since it runs more than 6000 words, I have decided to break it up into a series of smaller posts, which I will publish over the next week. –Jehu

1.    Privilege theory as a critique of Marxism from within Marxism

sadwhiteguyPrivilege theory was custom made for post-war Marxism because, basically, with the just dawning realization that the class struggle appears to have all but disappeared in society in the post-war period, they don’t have much of anything else to discuss when it comes to politics.

Privilege theory has its roots in a self-critique within mid-60s Marxism that communists were neglecting the extent to which racism divided the working class. These critics argued the communists themselves marginalized or altogether ignored the surging black liberation movement and the movements of other oppressed strata within American society. However, the view of these critics of Marxism was, in large part, itself infected with many of the same naive conceptions of the working class in particular and class society as a whole as infected the thinking of the more “orthodox” Marxists.

The “white blindspot” critique assumed the working class was not  already divided by its material conditions of existence, but because the capitalist created and employed racism to divide it. As I will show, the false implication underlying the original argument was that absent racism, the working class would be united. The error is not unique to the “white blindspot” theorists: it pervades the Marxist praxis in the post-war period. This is the sort of argument that demonstrates Marxism’s complete lack of understanding of class society. The argument here is critical to both the critique of Marxism and of privilege theory because the assumption (implicit or explicit) made by Marxists on both sides is that the working class is capable of overcoming its divisions short of complete social emancipation.  On the other hand, the growing influence of privilege theory among activists demonstrates the working class is anything but united and likely cannot be united within its present material conditions.

The conflict over privilege theory can be summed up in two (admittedly simplistic) arguments:

1. With the overthrow of capitalism, racism, sexism and all forms of oppression will be done away with.


2. Racism, sexism and other forms of privilege cannot be ended simply by overthrowing capitalism.

At the outset, I am not going to say both sides are wrong in their characterization of the conflicts and divisions within the working class. I just want to assert that the notion of working class unity runs into some very thorny theoretical question based on a less naive grasp of how classes are constituted in bourgeois society. In historical materialism, all classes in bourgeois society have the same characteristics: First, their common material conditions of existence are independent of the members of the class. Second, absent a conflict with another class, the members of a class are on hostile terms with each other.

These characteristics of a class are not unique to the bourgeois class, but are features of all classes in bourgeois society — including the proletariat. The category, “class”, in historical materialism is defined by these two characteristics. Hence, in historical materialist analysis, the proletariat is, first and foremost, a body of men and women who share common material conditions of existence that are beyond their control and over which no social organization can give them control. Second, it is a body of men and women who are, in the absence of conflict with the other class, on hostile terms with one another as competitors.

Thus, contrary to both what we may call ‘orthodox Marxism’ and its privilege theory critics, theoretically it does not matter in the least what forms the divisions within the proletariat take at any point in time, since, in any case, these divisions always exist and must assume some definite form.

The individual members of the proletariat treat every other member of the class as the enemy — a competitor in the struggle to sell their labor power — and in the conflict within the class no competitor can be logically expected to willingly give up his or her competitive advantage over other members of the class. Moreover no competitor can give up his or her special advantages, since these privileges, as commonly defined in the literature, are identical with the individual’s personhood. People cannot cease being themselves, no matter how hard they try. It is the specific characteristics of their personhood — white or black, male or female, skilled or unskilled, highly educated or not — that constitutes their specific competitive advantage or disadvantage. Which is to say, these are characteristics that give them an advantage or disadvantage in the universal competition raging within the class.

This conclusion disturbs our Marxists because, as Tad Tietze put it, “it becomes hard to see how ideas can change at all.” So Marxists keep trying to come up with a way to reconcile their ideology with privilege theory, but run up against the same barriers to analysis.

That barrier can be conceptualized this way: the two ideologies are each concerned separate spheres of politics: Marxism, in its classical post-war form, is concerned with the political conflict between the two classes, bourgeois and proletarians; while privilege theory as such is concerned with conflict within and among various sectors and strata of the proletariat. The critique privilege theory makes of Marxism is, therefore, a critique of the class struggle from within the class of proletarians, a critique of its limited character. This critique of the class struggle is carried on from within the competition raging within the proletariat itself.

This suggests, on a broader level, that if the kernel of the privilege critique of post-war Marxism is correct, the proletariat can only supersede capital by such means as it allows it to overcome its own divisions. Thus, there cannot be a purely political overcoming of capital. Unless the material conditions of the proletariat (and the divisions produced by these material conditions) are done away with at the same time as the capitalist mode of production, there can be no social emancipation.

For this reason, Marxism fails to come to grips with the critique offered by privilege theory precisely because Marxism proposes capital can be overcome by political means alone.