Rethinking class: from recomposition to counterpower - Paul Bowman

'In this article Paul Bowman draws a line between revolutionary class analysis and universalist utopianism and goes on to explore the history of different ideas of class and the elusive revolutionary subject. After exploring the intersecting lines of class and identity, he poses the challenge that we as libertarian communists face as we strive to create “cultural and organisational forms of class power [that] do not unconsciously recreate the... hierarchies of identity and exclusion” that are the hallmark of the present society.

Against universalism, against utopianism

The term class divides people into two camps. One which seems to uphold its validity with an almost cult-like intensity, and a much larger camp that is at best undecided, but mostly turned off entirely by it – and especially so by the apparently religious fervour of the small minority in the first camp.

Given the fact of this starting point, the most obvious question is - Is class still a useful idea? Is there any mileage to be gained from including class in our analysis or should we instead, just dispense with it and go with the raw econometrics of inequality?

Today books like “The Spirit Level”1, try to recast the old discourses of socialism against poverty and class injustice, as appeals to universal rationality. Inequality, they say, leads to measurably worse social outcomes on a whole number of levels. The graphs and the statistics they muster, should surely convince any putative social engineers, with a scientifically neutral interest in the social policies most proven to maximise social utility, of the sanity, the “rationality” of more egalitarian policies.

Similarly, inspired by the success of Occupy Wall Street in putting the whole 1% versus 99% meme on the social agenda2, sources as diverse as popular science magazines like New Scientist publish special reports3 on the scientifically measurable ills of inequality, and locally organisations like TASC4regularly publish data on inequality in Ireland.

What useful extra does class add to that? In what way does class step outside the dead end of the “rationalist” programme? Simply put, by rejecting the unspoken, underlying presumption of such a programme – by rejecting universalism - and its bogus moralising.

A class analysis accepts the truth that the status quo is not against everyone's interests. That being the case, any attempt to construct a programme of radical social change in the name of the “general interest” is doomed to failure, because there can be no universal interests so long as the interests of a minority resist change. In fact it is the very ability of a tiny minority to make its own interests rule over those of the vast majority that is one of the most important things that needs to change.

But more than this, a class perspective is not simply the foundation of a critique of what exists, and an analysis of what needs to change, but also implies a strategy for how that change could be brought about. In the matter of strategy, a class perspective rejects the “rationalist” programme as utopian.

What does it mean to say that a programme for social change is utopian? In the first instance it means that the programme has no obvious strategy for how it is to be brought about, other than a vague notion of if you educate enough people about its desirability then somehow it will be brought about through weight of numbers and the force of public opinion.

On a deeper level, utopian programmes are differentiated from instrumental and prefigurative ones on the basis of the means-ends relationship. To start with the most familiar case, instrumentalism is the position that “the end justifies the means”. That is to say, that if the end, or goal, is one that significantly increases social good or the welfare of the masses, then any squeamishness about using deceptive, manipulative or manifestly unjust methods to achieve it, is a case of misplaced scruples, or “bourgeois morality”. In other words, for instrumentalists, there is a total disconnect between means and ends.

The prefigurative approach holds, by contrast, that there is an inherent link between means and ends. For example, if kangaroo courts or summary execution are used to rid society of a genuine evil-doer, the use of improper methods lays the foundation for miscarriages of justice in the future. The means used to achieve a goal, necessarily leave its mark in the end result, in the prefigurative view. For example, the famous Sonvilier Circular issued to all sections of the First International by the Jura Federation in 1871, declared that

The future society must be nothing else than the universalization of the organization that the International has formed for itself. We must therefore strive to make this organization as close as possible to our ideal. How could one expect an egalitarian society to emerge out of an authoritarian organization? It is impossible. The International, embryo of the future society, must from now on faithfully reflect our principles of federation and liberty, and must reject any principle tending toward authority and dictatorship.5

However, recognising the link between the means employed and the ends achieved, as prefiguration does, must not mean mistaking the one for the other, for confusing means and ends.

This error, of confusing means and ends, is the starting point for utopianism. From the utopian viewpoint the end and the means are simply one. If you want to change social relations all you have to do is for a group of well-meaning people to voluntarily begin to practice the new relations amongst themselves and spread their adoption through the power of example, education and propaganda etc. This perspective erroneously confuses interpersonal relations, which can, with effort and struggle, be changed by the voluntary actions of a few, with social relationships, which cannot.

To take another historical example, Robert Owen, in his 1819 “An Address to the Working Classes” states that because the new (communist) society will be an improvement in the conditions of all members of society, therefore there is no fundamental conflict between classes in the here and now to prevent its achievement. Hence why Owen is generally categorised as a utopian socialist (and not just by Marxists).

Despite the clear difference between prefigurative and utopian approaches, the two continue to be confused today. Partly this is deliberate on the part of instrumentalists like Leninists and other authoritarian Marxists and socialists, who are hostile to prefiguration on principle. But partly it is genuine confusion on behalf of those, who through naivety or lack of critical ability, read the Sonvilier line about the International being the embryo of the new society growing within the bosom of the old too literally.

So, in the question of class this question has significant meaning. If we aspire to a classless society, it is not enough to start by pretending that class doesn’t exist. Such a confusion of means and ends would be hopelessly utopian and would ignore the fact that class is not simply a subjective phenomenon, but has an objective material basis that persists regardless of whether anyone chooses to believe in it or not.'

© Georgina Rowlands, all rights reserved