You were supposed to be getting Shabcast 18 this week… but it vanished into the ether, owing to a malicious and inexplicable failure of my recording software. The Mailer Daemon collected it and conducted it to internet Hades. It was great too. I had Gene Mayes and (at last!) Jon Wolter in, and we chatted about Umberto Eco, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, etc, in a podcast that was a lot sillier, funnier and more ribald than the subject matter really warranted. But, as I say, it is lost forever, doomed to live on only in the memories of the three men who experienced it… which, in a way, makes it all the more precious. One day, it will be the most sought of all lost Jack Graham-related media, and take on a near-mystical reputation, rather like London After Midnight, or Orson’s cut of Ambersons. I actually remember very little about it, as I was somewhat drunk and we were recording in the wee small hours here in Britain, and I spent most of the discussion in a haze of fatigue and mild inebriation. I seem to recall that we talked about the hip-hop musical Hamilton, which apparently at least one podcast listener is desperate to hear me talk about. Well, that listener lost their one and only chance. They’ll never hear what I said. Not even the bit where the three of us imagined a hip-hop musical about Garibaldi, written by Umberto Eco, and I said I’d go to the theatre heavily armed and force the cast to perform for me at gunpoint.
So, as I say, this Thursday was supposed to be release day for the April Shabcast, which means I had no writing anywhere near ready. Which means I had to either scrabble and really work hard, or fob you off with something I dashed off in another drunken haze the other night, and hope I get away with it.
Guess which option I chose.
What follows is actually a revised and much-expanded version of something I wrote as a result of an online discussion I was having with Daniel Harper. It is not a cogent argument. It has become, to put it humblebraggingly, the outline of a groundwork of a personal theoretical position. It is not meant to masquerade as an original and profound work of philosophy. I am not an original thinker and I make no claim to be one. I am not a philosopher and I make no claim to be one. It is a semi-refinement of the outloud thoughts of a intoxicated man who, determined to embrace intersectional discourses while retaining the (to him) irreplaceably valuable core of Marxism, has been mulling this stuff over for a while and, even if he doesn’t fully realise this himself, needs someone tolerant to talk at.
Please feel entirely free to ignore everything below if Marxism does not interest you. People interested in Marxism should, perhaps, feel even freer.
Classical Marxism has basically nothing specific to say about human diversity, sex, identity, gender, sex, stuff like that. Stuff that is, it seems, massively important to at least a significant section of today’s and tomorrow’s activists. This is an unwarranted oversimplification, but there you are.
This importance is not a new emphasis, whatever some will tell you. And from the very start, Marxists – mostly women – have fought to crowbar awareness of the importance of such questions into Marxism. Some of the finest Marxists have been women. Their relative lack of recognition and fame is, at least partly, a function less of any lack of importance than of sexism built into Marxism. Sexism sits within Marxism alongside a radical commitment to women’s emancipation. Marxism contains many contradictions. It is bound to, being a human production. All sets of ideas contain contradictions. Marxism itself sees internal contradictions as central to change and progress.
It is not surprising that Marxism should have things of this kind built into it. It bears the lowly stamp of its origin. It is – as many critics have observed with a sort-of unearned dramatic “gotcha!” – the product of the very civilisation it aims to destroy/transform. It is marked, like a bullet, with the lands and grooves that identify the barrels from which it was fired. Marxism itself identifies the way that ideas grow from material conditions, marked by them.
To demand that Marxism be free of patriarchal impulses, bourgeois impulses, authoritarian impulses, Eurocentric impulses, etc, before it dare speak, is to demand that it be forever silent (which is, of course, often the real desired effect). This is not to defend those impulses (hey, let’s acknowledge them, weed them out, etc) but rather to accept the self-evident fact that ideas are not born pure of heredity. Marx is far from using semiotics, but he is fully aware of the genealogy of ideas, and that it is the nature of people to develop their worldviews slowly, unevenly, a bit at a time. To expect otherwise of Marxism is to do the same as the crude reactionaries who want to know how someone can be an anti-capitalist if they ever bought food from a shop.
Marx is an anti-philosopher, and Marxism is an anti-philosophy – in the sense that both are opposed to the main and hegemonic intellectual project of their epoch. And yet they emerge from that project. To a dialectician, such paradoxes present no problem. It is for people like Isaiah Berlin to fatuously ask how Marxism reconciles its materialism with the historic fact that its own corpus of ideas has changed the world. Let him wallow in such smug and vulgar false dichotomies. We can do better than that.
As it happens, Classical Marxism does have a little something to say about gender. A little something in the midst of a vast sea of silence, admittedly. It has a great deal to imply about gender without actually saying it… but what it has to actually say is nevertheless interesting. In The Origin of the Family, Engels describes what he calls “the world historic defeat of the female sex” (I don’t think he means to make it sound so final) as a result of the rise of class society.
Engels’ book has been lambasted and declared discredited, and is indeed out-of-date in many respects as a result of more than 130 years of subsequent research. However, like Engels’ work on the philosophy of science, Dialectics of Nature, there is, I would argue, a core of the theoretical position, and even of the empirical claims, which withstands all subsequent assaults. Indeed, despite being deeply flawed and badly in need of updating, both these books are among the most important in the canon, and among the most incendiary.
The excellent thing about the Marxist ethnology of pre-class societies is that it works for us either way. If we cannot declare what pre-historic human society was like before class arrived, then neither can anyone else for much the same reasons. If, as some of the evidence suggests, pre-class human society was egalitarian, this is proof that human nature is not fixed in grotesque hierarchies. If, as some of the other evidence suggests, pre-class human society wasn’t really all that egalitarian, this is still proof of the plasticity and potential of humanity, as it shows how far we’ve come. Human society is grotesquely hierarchical, and yet, even in the developed world, the small groups into which human still interact on a daily basis are, by and large, remarkably informal and non-hierarchical. Try looking at the position of women throughout class society and you see not that ‘women have always been, and will always be, oppressed’, but rather that it has fluctuated wildly from place to place and time to time, even within patriarchal class systems. To Marxism, ‘progress’ is real but comes hand-in-hand with barbarism… and yet progress has been made. It is for the vulgar liberal ‘progressive’ to simultaneously say that things have gotten better and yet always stayed the same.
Marxism is often said to be ‘economic determinist’. There is an extent to which this is true, and defensible. There is a degree to which some things are determined by other things, at least when viewed from certain viewpoints. The universe simply would not function were this not true. A dialectical analysis does not deal in a demonology of ideas. Moreover, such a view of history is far more potentially emancipatory than its focus on ‘laws’ might suggest. One of those birthmarks of Marxism again is the tendency for Marx to talk in 19th century terms about ‘iron laws’. The actual ideas in play are, in practice, far more flexible than that.
Intersectionality and what we could call ‘privilege theory’ are not incompatible with an analysis which sees economic exploitation as the basis of class, and class as the basis of all other oppressions. Such a theoretical perspective simply doesn’t need to collapse the existence of those identities into class.
The hierarchical and alienated structure of class society is the basis of the oppression of certain gender/sex identities, as well as of certain ethnicities.
This is not even to say that class is ‘more important’ exactly. For a start: what would that even mean in real terms? …except in terms of trying to privilege certain ‘real world’ struggles over others? This, as should now be enormously obvious to everyone, is not the way to go about things. The task, as ridiculously demanding and impossibly draining as it may seem, is to support all real world struggles of the oppressed. Obviously, you can’t take that to ridiculous extremes (i.e. an anti-war march or a national strike is always going to be bluntly more important than someone tweeting transphobia, as disgusting as both transphobia and online abuse undoubtedly are) but nobody is actually asking for such ridiculous extremes. Indeed, to worry about being called to take it to ridiculous extremes is itself to partake of cloddish and misplaced anxiety, furtively akin to the you-can’t-say-anything-these-days brigade.
Such a commitment can sometimes mean taking positions which are mutually incompatible. Some may latch onto such incompatibilities and cry “hypocrisy!” But it is in the nature of such people to opportunistically privilege a foolish consistency over real and committed alignment to the struggles of the oppressed, especially where such an alignment would conflict with what is invariably their real priority: maintaining an alignment – an at best temporary, at worst illusory – community of mutual interest and respect with all that is ‘sensible’ and ‘realistic’, i.e. with power. Those of us who want nothing less than the overthrow of the capitalist order itself should not balk at hardheaded strategy. It should not be foreign to a Marxist to say that they support x against n while condemning x in relation to y. This should not, in my view, even be foreign to a grown-up.
In any case, such accusations are usually specious anyway. It is a constitutive limitation of those such as what used to be called ‘the decent Left’ that they cannot see beyond or outside the current epoch and its hegemonic ideas of utilitarian rationality. Put more simply: they use bourgeois ideas to judge and critique bourgeois ideas, and subsequently end up judging and critiquing truly radical ideas from the standpoint of the system of ‘reason’ that those ideas exist to undermine.
The classic cry is “How can you be against Western intervention to defeat tyrannical regimes? Isn’t the Left supposed to be against tyranny?”. These rhetorical statements are regularly paraphrased in the stomachs of bourgeois critics and then regurgitated at us with every appearance that the vomiter thinks their puke to be highly novel and original – despite the fact that it has been repeatedly cooked, consumed, and spewed. But the unspoken assumptions of what constitutes ‘tyranny’, ‘defeat’, and ‘against’ – as well as a host of others so unspoken that they don’t even need stating in such garbled form – are what reveal the sentiment to come from within a system of ideas that will never allow the comprehensibility of anything that comes from outside it. It is, almost literally, a language that thinks all other languages are gibberish. As is so often the case, it is those inclined to point and scream “dogma!” who are, in reality, the most trapped within rigid orthodoxies.
To speak more directly to the issue I’m supposed to be thinking about… there is a need for Marxists to recognise the tactical and strategic (as well as moral) necessity of aligning with those who speak the language of identity, diversity, and intersectionality.
To object to such discourses is, in fact, to engage in our own version of the same wilful incomprehension outlined above, the same puritanical refusal to admit of the lucidity of propositions that come from outside our system. (It’s the decent-leftism of the Indecent Left – of which I am a proud but wary and rueful part.) This is manifestly foolish because of the very tactical and strategic (and moral) necessities I’ve already mentioned. We don’t need to agree that a priority is the priority in order to see that it is, a priori, a priority. We might get pointed at and have “hypocrisy!” screamed in our faces, but we’re used to that (see above). Much as even some of the good folks of Occupy tried to stop Marxists joining because we’re too dogmatic (oh, the irony), we must still lend support.
There will be those who will claim that our attempt to enter is a violation of a safe space… but such strawmen of the new social movements and discourses are rarer than the chatter of paranoiacs would have you believe. Generally speaking, those seriously engaged in the new social movements and discourses know far better than to so abuse notions like ‘safe spaces’ via such trivialisations. To worry too much about this is to partake of the same kind of smear tactic as those who think men these days are the real oppressed gender, etc.
Back to class. It is wrong to say that class is a ‘more important’ form of oppression that, say, gender, because to say so is to see class as a category, whereas Marxism more properly understands it as a structural feature of the arrangement of society itself. Indeed, a classic liberal mistake is to consider class as just another category of oppression, and then to say that Marxists think it’s ‘the most important’…
(As is so often the case, the makers of such anti-Marxist strawmen are, sadly, all too often helped by vulgar Marxists, who will look at the strawmen and say “yeah, seems legit”.)
Marxism is more than the analysis of capitalism. It is a theory of history, of how it works. It is not, and should not be said to be, a Theory of Everything, but it does make fundamental claims about history, or rather about how history changes (indeed, it insists that history essentially is such change). More narrowly, it offers an account of human history as (so far) being the story of the rise of class societies, hierarchical societies. Indeed, Marx goes so far with his loathing of class society (i.e. every form of ‘civilised’ society yet invented) that he essentially thinks of it all as pre-history. There’s sense in which, for him, real history hasn’t even started yet.
Class society arranges people into exploited and exploiter groups, with the upper layers always decreasing in size in inverse proportion to the height of their ascendance, and with the exploitation as essentially economic.
Economics, to a Marxist, doesn’t mean just the operation of markets, or supply and demand, or numbers on balance sheets. To a Marxist, economics is how societies are reproduced, the methods and means and forces they use to keep existing from day to day. The basis of economics is how humans make what they need to live. The basis of the Marxist theory of history is that the circumstances under which, and by which, societies do this, will have a fundamental and determining influence on what they look like, how they function, how they are arranged, etc. These work on multiple levels, from the directly mechanistic up to complex strings of contingent and mutually-influencing social phenomena.
There is a determinism built-in to this conception – and that’s fine. There are such things as determining relationships. That bourgeois society overuses determinism, over-applies it, turns it into reductionism, etc, is no reason to throw the baby out along with the bath water. It doesn’t destroy free will anymore than I lose my sense of free will when I contemplate the fact that I will cease to live if deprived of oxygen. This is, essentially, the terrible spectre of reductionist and determinist Marxism: the insight, so obscured yet so obvious, that people need to eat, that they co-operate to find ways of eating, that these groups are called societies, and that societies will have certain features because of how they go about eating.
The idea of class as ‘primary’ is based on the Marxist emphasis on work. And yes, work – i.e. conscious activity to change the world in certain ways – is basic to Marxism because it is how society is reproduced. To say that Marxism practices ‘economic determinism’ is to actually partake of a separation of ‘economics’ and ‘society’ that is foreign to Marxism. The Marxist ‘economic base’ is not a thing that just sits there giving orders. It is not a thing separate to society, anymore than is the state. That Marxism isolates such aspects of society is not to say that it reifies them. Indeed, it is a critique of such reification. Bertell Ollman’s characterisation of Marxims as a ‘philosophy of internal relations’ is crucial, and everyone interested should read his book on Dialectics.
But again, this insistence upon work is not because there’s anything more ‘important’ about work than sex or gender. It’s far more complex and simple than that. A nuanced Marxism considers sex, gender, love, spirituality, pies, sheds, books, everything, as being produced by humans. Labour in the sense of production is the essential facet of humanity, of which ‘work’ is but one part. It is the separation of ‘work’ from all other human productive activity that is one of Marxism’s fundamental complaints about class society. Class societies pervert, immiserate, and alienate work from the rest of our productive activity. The foundation of human sociability is thus a perversion in a class society.
What we see from a historical-materialist analysis of how class societies arrange themselves, rise and fall, etc, is that they do so according to pre-existing lines of variation amongst people, exploiting things like gender and sexuality and ethnicity and cultural differences, as faultlines between people along which structures of oppression can be constructed.
But Marxists contend that the fundamental structure of this oppression is along lines of the relation in which people stand to the means by which society is reproduced… essentially: whether they materially control them or not.
In class societies, which are societies where the forces of production create a surplus which is then controlled by an oligarchy who stand in a relation of control to the means of production, then the basic structure is of the economic oppression of the majority by the minority. As I said, class is not a category but a fundamental structural aspect. But gender, for instance, is a vital aspect of how such systems of production are created and maintained.
Capitalism created itself partly by appropriately huge amounts of capital (material and cultural) from pre-existing structures of relations… including, in Europe, seizing huge amounts of such capital from women.
The oppression of women was already there in pre-capitalist forms of class society for the rising capitalist system to utilise.
It’s a necessary part of the system as it stands that it should oppress women, even though economic exploitation is more structurally fundamental to it. Capitalism necessarily inherits the oppression of women, gleefully adopts it and utilises it… yet this is not mere happenchance. The oppression of women is already there, forged by class society going back to the start, to the division of labour as enforced by the rise of urban agriculture, and settled communities with surplus.
Then, as capitalism rises, you get women’s activity being turned into capital in a different way to how the male labourer’s work is. Women are exploited to reproduce capitalism by their domestic labour, which keeps the male labourer alive and showing up, and raises the next generation of workers, free of cost to the system. (Remember, I’m talking about the early days here… though things haven’t actually changed that much.)
There’s absolutely a way in which male labourers are privileged in such an arrangement, which is not incompatible with an analysis which sees them as also exploited as labourers by capitalism.
It becomes necessary to have a layered theory of how class exploitation works. What might we call such a discourse? How about ‘privilege’?
It would actually be wrong, right the way back to Marx’s analysis of capitalism in the 19th century, to see the oppression of the woman even as a ‘by-product’ of the exploitation of the worker – not just because women do waged labour too, but also because it is only the social/cultural construction of domestic labour as unpaid which even makes it look like anything other than capitalist exploitation.
Yes, the wage relation is a vital part of Marx’s analysis of how capitalist society exploits… but the fact that a wife in an English Victorian working class home isn’t getting a wage doesn’t mean she’s less exploited, it means she’s more exploited – obviously! The wage is paid to the entire family, with the wife doing the socially necessary labour that is outside the workplace! She’s an exploited worker just as much as the guy who goes to the factory and picks up the wages. Indeed, the division of labour – the rise of specification – is a vital part of the destruction of communal labour that is inherent to all class society (though capitalism both exacerbates this and also brings people together into huge communal and cooperative workplaces, which is what Marx sees as the germ of the working class’s power to change and rule society).
‘Social-reproduction theory’, for all its flaws, offers a vital renovation of Marxism. Marxism is, in many ways, the original ‘social reproduction theory’. That it needs a renovation with that name highlights those sexist lands and grooves we talked about earlier, but does not identify a fundamental flaw in it.
And I actually think such an analysis is not only totally compatible with most forms of privilege and intersectional discourse, but actually that they are bolstered by it!
Such an analysis actually removes any need to see gender/sex differences as essentially causing oppression themselves – which looks to me like the potential dark flipside of ahistorical versions of narratives about difference and privilege.
Please take as read the caveat that ‘difference’ is constructed. ‘Difference’ from what? The notion of difference is actually incoherent. Some humans are supposedly different to others who are… what? Not different? All humans differ… but difference is the defining feature of only some? Nonsense. None of this is to deny or downplay the very real differences between people, but rather to reveal that oppression and marginalisation relies upon one privileged group setting itself up as the standard from which it then decides other groups ’differ’. Such a take doesn’t deny the specificity of identity, but rather generalises variation and fluidity in a manner that should be highly conducive to the new social movements and discourses. Moreover, historical materialist analysis of history can reveal the process whereby capitalist society, for economic reasons, goes about constructing ‘difference’, and thus laying an inhuman grid of boxes on top of the spectrum, and arranging those boxes into hierarchies. If Marx himself sometimes fell into reductionist positivism about human groups, we can freely use his system against him. The power of his system is that it scorches all manifestations of bourgeois reductionism it touches – including the lapses of its own originators and practitioners!
A Marxist structural analysis, it seems to me, just needs to absorb the idea of difference and fluidity as built into humanity (and again, though this isn’t in Marx as such, it doesn’t constitute a contradiction of him).
It can then offer an explanation of oppression which validates difference, refuses to acknowledge that the oppression of difference is an innate human social trait, and which also says that the oppression of difference is actually an anti-human and unnatural perversion of human social life created as a product of hierarchical societies.
Isn’t it nice when you can have everything!