Against the class struggle strategy

by Jehu

I have been asked to comment on Werner Bonefeld’s 2004 essay with the unusually long title, “On Postone’s Courageous but Unsuccessful Attempt to Banish the Class Antagonism from the Critique of Political Economy“.

The essay attempts to establish a beachhead, so to speak, against Postone’s master work, “Time, Labor and Social Domination”. In his ground-breaking book, Postone set forth the thesis that, properly understood, Capital should not be read as affirming wage labor against capital, but as an extensive critique of wage labor itself. The aim indicated in Capital is not for the emancipation of wage labor from capital, but the emancipation of the proletariat from wage labor itself. Postone argues that this distinction was not properly understood by Marxists for most of the 20th century and accounts for our present impasse.

Bonefeld disagrees with Postone reduction of classes and class struggle to a mere superficial phenomenon:

“Postone presupposes what needs to be explained: he presupposes the class-divided human being as a personification or a character-mask – that is, as a human attribute of things.”

Bonefeld accuses Postone of treating classes and class struggle as superficial manifestations of a much deeper process in much the same way prices of commodities can be said to be the superficial manifestation of their values. He warns this must lead to communists becoming apologists for existing social relations.

In this post, I want identify five problems with Bonefeld’s approach to historical materialism. In the next and final post, I will try to conceptualize what an alternative to the class struggle strategy might look like.

Before beginning, I have to admit a bias here: Postone’s argument is one of the more important reasons why I have adopted the slogan, “Communism is free time and nothing else.” So my discussion of Bonefeld’s critique of Postone will obviously be tilted in favor of the latter writer.

That said, this examination is not a defense of Postone. Postone doesn’t need an idiot like me to defend him. I examine Bonefeld’s critique in order to better my understanding of the implications of Postone’s argument in “Time, Labor and Social Domination”. Personally, I think there is no better way of grasping an argument than by studying the arguments made against it.

Problem one: Bonefeld argues the categories of commodity relations owe their origin to capital, not labor

While Postone emphasizes the economic structure of society as the determining factor in capitalism, Bonefeld argues that the law of value itself is premised on class struggle:

“As Clarke put it, class struggle is the ‘logical and historical presupposition for the existence of individual capitalists and workers’ and ‘the basis on which exploitation’ rests. Were this not so, the understanding of history as a history of class struggle would make little sense.”

Bonefeld more or less sides with those who assert that the economic relations of capitalist society are determined by the conflict between classes. This view is opposed to the alleged “economic determinism” of traditional Marxism which holds that class conflict in society is determined by economic forces.

Bonefeld argues that the economic laws of capitalist society more or less express the historical conditions that gave rise to capital, and in first place the violence of the separation of the worker from the means of life:

“The terror of separation, of capitalism’s primitive, or original, beginning, weighs like a nightmare on the social practice of human purposeful activity. The commodified existence of human social practice in form of wage-labour confronts its conditions as alien conditions, as conditions of exploitation, and as conditions which appear, and so exist, contradictorily, as relations between things.”

The relation between wage labor and capital, says Bonefeld, expresses the violence of primitive accumulation, the robbery by which the proletarians were separated from the means of life. This robbery constitutes the origin of the value relation, the economic structure of society, in which relations between individuals appear as relations between things.

For this hypothesis to hold, I think we have to accept Chris Arthur’s argument that so-called simple commodity production did not exist prior to capitalism. (See, my last blog post on this subject: “Chris Arthur versus Frederick Engels: Did Engels fundamentally revise Marx’s labor theory?“) Bonefeld thus appears to agree with Arthur that commodity production and exchange, value and exchange value owe their origins to capital, not labor. This is a view that runs counter to long accepted readings of labor theory of value.

Problem two: We cannot explain the class struggle on the basis of Bonefeld’s argument

In my last blog post, I asserted that Arthur’s argument that the categories of simple commodity production owe their existence to capital robs us of the ability to explain the class struggle:

“If you throw out the distinction between capitalistic and simple commodity production, you basically lose the explanatory power of labor theory of value with regards to the class struggle.”

Let me expand on this here.

Bonefeld is seeking to explain the origins of the wage labor-capital relation. He finds this explanation in the primitive accumulation that occurred at the dawn of the mode of production:

“The human history of primitive accumulation is thus not only a constitutive presupposition but also the foundation upon which the constituted existence of capital rests. Primitive accumulation, in short, is the ‘foundation of capitalist reproduction’. The class struggle, then, that freed master from serf and serf from master is constitutive of the relation between capital and labour.”

But Bonefeld’s reading of history, in which the class struggle explains the relation between capital and labor, cannot explain the class struggle itself. As an analogy for the problem this poses, following Arthur, we might explain value as an abstract conception formed from countless exchanges of money for commodities, but this explanation cannot explain the origins of money itself.

It is the same when we try to explain the origins of the class struggle that Bonefeld argues is the foundation of capitalist reproduction. All Bonefeld has done here is to push the actual origins of capital one step further back in the historical record:

Q: Where does capital come from?

A: The class struggle.

Q: Where does the class struggle come from?

A: More class struggle.

Like the mythological World Turtle of the ancient society that supported the entire world on its back, and in turn stood on the backs of ever larger turtles, it’s class struggle all the way down.

Problem three: Bonefeld denies the logic of capitalism

The third problem I have with Bonefeld is his accusation that Postone ignores actual human history:

“[Postone’s] approach, then, implies that theoretical mysteries do not find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice. Instead, he sees human social practice to be ‘structured by, and embedded within, the social forms of the commodity and capital’.”

Bonefeld warns that Postone’s approach leaves us susceptible to accepting existing capitalistic economic relations as necessary. Thus, we are put in the position of being apologists for capitalism:

“Postone’s notion, however, that class struggle is merely a constructive force for the development of capitalism is an unquestionably useful, that is, consensus creating and thus peace-making, deceitful publicity.”

In my opinion, Bonefeld’s charge that Postone accepts the logic of capitalism as necessary is accurate, but this is exactly Bonefeld’s error. Postone’s approach does indeed imply that the logic of existing capitalistic economic relations is necessary, however, acceptance of the necessary logic of existing capitalistic economic relations is not, of itself, the problem here. Theorists like Bonefeld want to forget how Marx characterized the logic of capital, so I will remind them:

“Development of the productive forces of social labour is the historical task and justification of capital. This is just the way in which it unconsciously creates the material requirements of a higher mode of production.” (Capital, v3, c15)

Accepting the logic of capitalistic economic relations as necessary means that we accept that capitalistic development of the productive forces of social labor itself creates the material requirements of communism. We have no problem with capital’s development of the productive forces of social labor. We see in this development a pathway that advances society toward our ultimate goal, i.e., a classless, stateless, propertyless society.

The idea that communists should embrace capital’s development of the productive forces of social labor is likely to be rejected as a heretical statement for most communists, however it is just this aspect of capital that Marx argued drew the concerns of Ricardo and English political-economy — and for good reason. The flip side of the development of the productive forces of social labor is the falling rate of profit, with all the consequences that this fall implies for the mode of production:

“The rate of profit is the motive power of capitalist production. Things are produced only so long as they can be produced with a profit. Hence the concern of the English economists over the decline of the rate of profit. The fact that the bare possibility of this happening should worry Ricardo, shows his profound understanding of the conditions of capitalist production. It is that which is held against him, it is his unconcern about “human beings,” and his having an eye solely for the development of the productive forces, whatever the cost in human beings and capital-values — it is precisely that which is the important thing about him. Development of the productive forces of social labour is the historical task and justification of capital. This is just the way in which it unconsciously creates the material requirements of a higher mode of production. What worries Ricardo is the fact that the rate of profit, the stimulating principle of capitalist production, the fundamental premise and driving force of accumulation, should be endangered by the development of production itself.”

The development of the forces of social labor implies the progressive reduction of living labor in the production of material wealth. Since labor is the only source of value and surplus value, this development amounts to a capital’s own apocalypse, the revelation of hidden forces driving capital to its ultimate end.

In Marx’s view, Ricardo sensed this logic inherent in the capitalist mode of production; that its constant development of the productive forces of social labor was precisely the thing driving it toward collapse.

Problem four: What class?

There is a fourth problem with Bonefeld’s critique of Postone that might not be obvious to someone who identifies with Bonefeld’s view of the class struggle. That problem can be stated this way: as Marx defines classes, the proletariat is not actually a class. That’s right, despite all the talk about the working class and the class struggle in Marxist literature, from the beginning of their collaboration, Marx and Engels argued there was no such thing as a working class.

In his essay, Bonefeld quotes approvingly from Marx and Engels in the German Ideology, but what he neglects to mention is that precisely in that work, where Marx and Engels first develop their fundamental approach to history, they assert the proletarians are not a class:

“In all revolutions up till now the mode of activity always remained unscathed and it was only a question of a different distribution of this activity, a new distribution of labour to other persons, whilst the communist revolution is directed against the preceding mode of activity, does away with labour, and abolishes the rule of all classes with the classes themselves, because it is carried through by the class which no longer counts as a class in society, is not recognised as a class, and is in itself the expression of the dissolution of all classes, nationalities, etc. within present society“. [my emphasis] The German Ideology, Part I, section D

To put Marx and Engels’ argument in the simplest possible terms, the proletarian revolution puts an end to classes because it is not a class itself. The social revolution brings to power a mass of individuals who no longer constitute a class in the sense Bonefeld uses that term. This view is amplified by Marx and Engels in their description of the activities of the proletarians. Unlike other classes in society, the proletarians act as individuals, not as a class:

“It follows from all we have been saying up till now that the communal relationship into which the individuals of a class entered, and which was determined by their common interests over against a third party, was always a community to which these individuals belonged only as average individuals, only insofar as they lived within the conditions of existence of their class — a relationship in which they participated not as individuals but as members of a class. With the community of revolutionary proletarians, on the other hand, who take their conditions of existence and those of all members of society under their control, it is just the reverse; it is as individuals that the individuals participate in it. “

The proletarians don’t act as a class, they act as individuals. The classic mistake Marxists made in the 20th century was to invent the fallacy that proletarians act as a class and can act as a class against the capitalists. As a general rule, this cannot happen empirically.

In fact, the whole conception of communist revolution as first developed by Marx and Engels assumed the working class does not act as a class. The proletarians would put an end to class society because, unlike other classes in history, they had no particular class interest to assert against the ruling class:

“This subsuming of individuals under definite classes cannot be abolished until a class has taken shape, which has no longer any particular class interest to assert against the ruling class.”

Ask the typical Marxist today if there is a proletarian class with an interest to assert against an exploiting capitalist class and they will likely answer in the affirmative. It is almost impossible to imagine that this idea actually has no place in Marx and Engels theory. As impossible as it may be to imagine it, this is in fact the truth of it. Classes and class struggle play no role whatsoever in historical materialism. Classes are no more than the superficial manifestation of deep underlying economic forces that were the focus of Capital.

Classes are as inadequate to explaining capitalist society as prices are to explaining the law of value.

Problem five: The strategy based on class struggle has been defunct for more than a century

The need for a new strategy based on Postone’s reading of Capital is obvious. We can’t just pretend that the present strategy, based on the notion of classes and class struggle, has been without problems. Those problems were on full display already, for example, in the attitude of the English working class on the Irish question. And no one can credibly deny that the strategy collapsed entirely with the outbreak of World War I.

The problem, to be absolutely honest, is the persistent pattern where the working class identifies more with the bourgeoisie of its own nation over its solidarity with the working classes of other nations. Even today, it is obvious that the identity of the working class revolves more around nation, gender, race, sexual orientation, etc., than it does around its objective position within the mode of production. Practically this means that an African American worker is far more likely to identify with Barack Obama than with the white worker who votes for Donald Trump and vice versa. This is likely true even of the most class conscious workers.

This should be no surprise to anyone familiar with Marx and Engels’ argument in the German Ideology: In that argument, the relations between individual members of every class in bourgeois society is characterized by more or less open hostility:

“The separate individuals form a class only insofar as they have to carry on a common battle against another class; otherwise they are on hostile terms with each other as competitors.”

The conflict a class has with other classes in society is what makes each class aware of itself as a class. As I have stated above, however, the proletarians suffer the defect that they have no particular class interest to assert against the ruling class. This would seem to imply that, for the most part, they are unaware of themselves as a class.

Now, just imagine what this implies for the class struggle:

In the class struggle, one side, fully aware of their particular class interest, faces off against the other class, who have no particular class interest to assert against the first class. The working class is thus at a distinct disadvantage in the class struggle against capital. Marx and Engels’ insight has been verified by the long history of the working class movement. The present impasse is not just the result of the failure of ‘real existing socialism’, it is determined by a strategy premised on the myth of proletarian class character.

In reality, the proletarians no longer count as a class in society, are not recognized as a class, and and are merely the expression of the dissolution of all other classes by the development of the mode of production itself.

However venerated it might be among Marxists, class struggle is hardly the basis for a realistic proletarian strategy. It has, at best, a very low political valence, especially when compared to more superficial, less inclusive, political identities like nationality, gender, race, etc.

Moreover, as heretical as this argument might sound, I have so far understated it. It is likely that the class awareness of proletarians actually diminishes with the progressive development of the mode of production. Thus the need for a strategy that is not based on class consciousness becomes increasingly urgent for communists.

Why might the class consciousness of the proletarians diminish over time?

If Marx and Engels were correct in the Communist Manifesto, at the time of its writing, fresh, newly radicalized elements were constantly being thrust down into the proletarians as a consequence of capital’s ongoing dissolution of other classes in society. Today, by and large, in the most advanced capitalist countries this process has been completed. This robs the movement of the forces Bonefeld identified as most acutely aware of the ongoing process of primitive accumulation still at work in the background.

(Of course, this is just a hypothesis. It needs to be verified or falsified by actual empirical research. But it may explain why, as some scholars have argued, the leading edge of the conflict between wage labor and capital has shifted to Asia today.)

*****

In any case, Postone’s reading of Capital is the best hope for a new approach to strategy, because his approach de-emphasizes the centrality of class struggle and places greater emphasis on the underlying economic structure of society that have always determined the class struggle. These economic forces are objective, which means they do not require we be aware of them to work. But once aware of them, we can make use of them in much the same way we make use of physical laws to put people on the Moon or send robots to Mars.

I will turn my attention to this problem in the last part of this series.