Questions and Answers
The Concept of Class

 The following questions and answers on the concept of class were part of an on-going discussion of the Victorian period of English history that takes place on a cyberspace "list" called, appropriately enough, "Victoria" managed by Listserv@IUBVM.  The questions by Bronstein were posted on the list in the Spring of 1993 and directed to all who were interested.  Cleaver's responses were posted in reply.

Jamie Bronstein = J.B.
Harry Cleaver = H.C.

J.B.: In what sense do you still find "class" a useful category?  Given the uneven development of industry and the variety of the work experience in Britain in the 19th century, can you really claim the existence of economically determined classes?

H.C.: I still find "class" a useful category in the following Marxist sense (one of many competiting ways of looking at the issue): the history of capitalism is a history of the creation and reproduction of a social order in which the vast majority of people have had their lives subordinated to work with a thoroughness never known before in history.  Earlier ruling classes have forced others to work for them (ancient slavery, feudalism, etc) but never before has the entirety of social life been organized around the work of producing commodities (either commodities which capitalists sell for profit -which they then use to put people to work again in the next period- or the commodity labor-power -which workers sell to live).  As long as we find ourselves in such a society where the majority of our life-time is organized around such commodity production (getting ready for it, traveling to it, doing it , or avoiding doing it, returning from it, recuperating from it, doing what we have to do in order to be able to begin again the next day {or week, etc}) then we need theoretical categories which provide us with tools for understanding how our lives are dominated, which help us understand the social structures which have to be ruptured in order to escape domination and to elaborate our lives freely.  In other words: it is capitalism -as a form of social organization- which has imposed the commonality of situation which is designated by the concept of class; as long as we have to deal with capitalism, we need to be clear about that commonality in order to improve our chances of finding ways to overcome it.

 The diversity of work situations is not an argument against the relevelance of the concept of class, because that diversity has been the very means by which class is imposed: divide and conquer.  The homogeneity of class lies but rarely in common work situations but rather in the common experience of having one's life subordinated to work.  Moreover, with time workers' struggles force changes in the diversity so the "class composition" is never given once and for all.  Waged work (e.g., in factories or offices) has always been intimately connected to unwaged work (e.g., on slave plantations or in homes and schools); high and low income (whether waged or unwaged) are part of a hierarchy designed to divide and conquer.  The division of labor has never been purely technical but has always been an embodiement of a structure of power (e.g., Taylorism and the powers inherent in craft skills against which it was aimed).

 The "economic determination" of classes doesn't make sense to me because in capitalism the "economy" is not a separate sphere -despite the claims of economists and others.  Karl Polanyi (The Great Transformation) rightly saw "economic relations" being "disembedded" from the rest of society (work ceased to be just one part of life).  But with the development of capitalism it tended to "reembed" the rest of society into itself (the organization of everything came to revolve around the imposition of work) to the point where the "economy" is not just omnipresent but is just another term for capitalism itself.

J.B.: And if you don't mean class in the economically determined sense, but rather as the sum total of differences in status, religion, education, housing, diet, etcetera, isn't the three class model (such as F. M. L. Thompson sets forth in the Rise of Respectable Society) really oversimplified?

H.C.: I'm not familiar with F. M. L. Thompson's "three class model" but it sounds like another attempt to "classify" people by characteristics and thus probably not that useful.  Most concepts of class, it seems to me, have NOT been that useful because this is what they do.  Even E. P. Thompson's approach [in The Making of the English Working Class] is problematic because its methodology is close to this -he was, afterall, an only somewhat unorthodox communist party member whose idea of class was teleological.  Wonderful as his history is, he not only looks at it "from the bottom up" but also from the perspective of what the "British Working Class" had to become, i.e., a self-conscious anti-capitalist class whose brain was the communist party.  A thoroughly "bottom up" approach abandons the teleology and sees how people coped with the imposition of class -with finding themselves all forced into a similar situation that impeded independent self-determination.

J.B.: 3. Do you think class was people's first concept of self-identification? And if not, are we presenting a distorted view of 19th Century society by categorizing it as inextricable from class in this way?

H.C.: The question of class is only very partially one of "self-identification".  The Marxist category of class in-itself -as one designating an imposed condition- suggests that part of workers' struggles have been to liberate themselves from their own class status.  Communism as post-capitalist society, after all, was conceived of as a society with no classes. Workers have struggled together of course.  Sometimes they have thought of themselves as "working class."   Sometimes they have not; they have identified themselves differently (by activity, community, race, sex, ethnicity, nationality, etc).  What is at issue, it seems to me, with respect to the Marxist concept of class, is whether or not there was a commonality to their oppression, i.e., whether their lives were dominated by capitalist imposed work, or not (given that there have always been degrees), quite independently of how they have thought about it.  Even the Marxist category of "class for-itself" only designates common struggle for common ends, not necessarily any particular form of self-identification.  I think that there has always been something healthy about workers' resistance to allowing themselves to be categorized as merely "workers."  It is a category that denotes a very one-sided being (even when work is with brain as well as hands).  People want to be something more than that, and struggle to be so; thus the reasonableness of refusing the title.  The ideological efforts of the left to make a hero of the "worker" -which achieved its worst forms in Stalinism- is based on the idea that not only does capitalism force everyone into the situation of "worker" but that they come to struggle together for the same ends, i.e., for the "class interest," as if there were such a unified goal.  Thus, in orthodox Marxism (marxism-leninism) socialism and communism are conceived of as the realization of that unified goal, which boils down to everyone being a worker!!  This was Marxism turned into an ideology of domination by the Soviet State -against which the Russian workers and peasants always struggled (and eventually so imobilized that it collapsed).

J.B.: Although I had a little trouble understanding Patrick Joyce's most recent book, I think he made a good case for self-identification with "the people" outstripping self-identification with the "working class" in many cases.

H.C.: Which book?  Even identification with "the people" is probably a very historically specific experience.  "People" usually have very concrete ideas about themselves and others, about their being many different kinds of "people".  What is interesting, I think, is the self-identification that goes with autonomous self-activity as various groups of people struggle to construct their own lives (individually and collectively).

J.B.: In my own work on the Chartists, I have always been impressed -given E. P.  Thompson's claims for a self-aware working-class by the early 1830's- with the ways in which even Chartist language transcends class.  Not only as a political critique of society, as Gareth Stedman Jones suggested, but also as a moral critique, making it possible for rhetorical firebrands like Joseph Rayner Stephens to have a significant following among those long characterised as the "Chartist rank and file."

H.C.: Besides my earlier comments on E. P. Thompson above, I think we should recognize that, as Marx noted, ideology has often involved general claims, i.e., that the interests of a class are the interests of society as a whole.  The ideology of self-proclaimed spokespeople for the working class (Marx included) has always involved the notion that the overcoming of capitalism will mean the liberation of society as a whole, not just that of factory operatives or rural wage laborers, -thus one source of the appeal to a wider audience.

J.B.: Is class dead? Should we kill it? All interventions on this subject are welcomed.

H.C.: Class can only die with the capitalism of which it is a part.  Should we kill it?  Absolutely, because that involves killing capitalism.  But what does "killing it" mean?  Certainly not refusing to use the term "class" or to recognize the general situation to which it draws our attention; rather, let it mean liberating ourselves from the imposed commonality of our collective life sentence to hard labor handed down by capital.  The master narrative to be abandoned is capital's.  Marxist theory just gives us tools to understand what it is trying to do.  Against its master narrative (domination and exploitation) we need not pose another (socialism), but rather a politics of diversity within which we can realize our potential in many different ways.