Some Concise Research Notes on Two Concepts in Early Marxism: The “Volksmasse” and “Antagonismus”

“A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism.”
(Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848)

“In the former case, we had the expropriation of the mass of the people by a few usurpers; in the latter, we have the expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people.”
(Marx, Capital, Volume I, Chapter 32, 1867)

  • Although early marxism (1848-83) obviously attached great importance to class struggle, it is important to see that it attached even greater importance to communism or, as Marx sometimes puts it, “communality” — a more flexible term that acknowledges intra-capitalist collectivisms. After all, in the early-marxist schema, class relations are not basic, but derived, that is, constructed by means of active, and often violent processes of enclosure, dispossession, and expropriation, in which the dominance (Herrschaft) of a social class is imposed on a wider social order, so that (as Marx puts it) “the labour of the many becomes the wealth of the few” (Civil War and France). This few — “a few usurpers,” as Marx puts it in Capital — constitutes the group within a social order that Marx calls its “ruling class” (herrschenden Klasse). They assume the position of pre-eminence that Marx calls domination (Herrschaft), in contrast to the “mass of the people” (Volksmasse) whose members are subjected to the position of “servitude” (Knechtschaft). The terms “domination” and “servitude,” which I cite from Capital, are borrowed by Marx himself from Hegel, whose discussion of Herrschaft and Knechtschaft is one of the centrepieces of his Phenomenology of Spirit.
  • Today, class domination is pervasive, across the globe. But it has never been total or uncontested. Marx believed that some survivals, continuations, or resurgences of what he and Engels called “Urkommunismus,” i.e., originary communism, persisted at least well into the 19th century, when they wrote, and they regarded these enduring collectivisms as very important. (Marx attempted to study several of these, notably in India, Ireland, Russia and the Americas, and Engels used Marx’s research as the basis for a book he later wrote, on The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.) In particular, Marx and Engels highlighted the importance of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in the Eastern Great Lakes Region, as having attained a degree of political equality and democracy that far exceeded the attainments of any other modern political systems, a fact that they attributed to the persistence of elements of pre-class collectivism within their social relations. The inclusive and consensus-building aspects of Haudenosaunee political processes, Marx and Engels thought, could serve as a model for a form of post-capitalist democracy in which “supreme authority” would be vested in a “Council” functioning as “a democratic assembly, [where] every adult male [and] female member had a voice upon all questions brought before it” (Marx, Ethnological Notebooks, p. 150; the fact that this was deemed by early marxism to be a model for emulation by anti-capitalists in Europe and beyond is made particularly explicit by Engels, in The Origin of the Family, chapter 3, whereas in Marx’s ethnological notes it is more implied than stated).
  • Nevertheless, even in social orders that have undergone a more thoroughgoing and comprehensive “usurpation” by a ruling class (i.e., a more nearly total liquidation of traditional practices of collectivist egalitarianism or “commoning”), the primary communality of human production and reproduction – that is, collaborative, coordinated social labour, drawing on the integrated cooperation of everyone who labours and the transmitted heritage of “all the dead generations” – remains operative, as a “spectre” that “haunts” systems of exploitation, as the permanent possibility of an “expropriation of the expropriators”: the spectre of a communal re-appropriation. This looming prospect of a “negation of the negation” brings forth in the ruling class “the foreboding…that present society is no solid crystal, but an organism capable of change,” i.e., that their privileges are vulnerable to subversion and revolt. This is a roundabout way of saying that the Achilles heel of any system of class Herrschaft is its dependence on the continued willingness to work, and to submit to the orderly coordination of social action, on the part of people who have both the capacity to rebel against their exploitation and an interest in doing so.
  • For this reason, the basic and ineliminable political challenge for any ruling class (herrschenden Klasse), certainly including the capitalist ruling class of today (“in view of the threatening upheaval of the proletariat,” as Marx said), is to keep this spectre of communal re-appropriation at bay: to encourage “the isolation of the labourers, due to competition,” and correlatively to discourage their “revolutionary combination, due to association” (Marx, Capital, I). In short, the most indispensable activity of ruling is that of fostering the atomization and decomposition, while discouraging the convergence and recomposition, of what Marx called “the independent self-conscious movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.” In short, the ruling class must “constitute itself as the nation” — or as Marx elsewhere puts the point, it must “acquire” the “faculty of ruling the nation” — precisely so that the proletariat does not do so by composing itself, in the mode of “revolutionary combination through association,” as the Volksmasse, bearers of the public interest, or – again, quoting Marx – “raising itself to be the national class” (nationalen Klasse). (In The German Ideology, Marx pointed to this under the label, “die herrschende geistige Macht,” i.e., the ruling spiritual power.)
  • In the first volume of Capital, Marx sums up much of the above by means of a decisive contrast between the “Volksmasse” or the “mass of the people,” on the one hand, and “a few usurpers” (wenige Usurpatoren), on the other. This aspect of Marx’s mature (1867-83) thought is too little appreciated. Most people assume that marxism will treat class as primary, and regard communality, the Volksmasse, or as Engels says, “Gemeinwesen,” or community, as dimensions of a distant, post-revolutionary, and post-“transition” future. By contrast, Marx locates the self-defense of the Volkmasse against the class-imposition of the few usurpers at the very heart of class society generally, and capitalism in particular.
  • Related to this idea of community, as the spectre of communal re-appropriation that haunts class society, Marx makes substantial use in multiple key works of a distinction (which, symptomatically, never caught on subsequently, except in the anti-colonial marxism of James Connolly) between (1) “the nation,” in “the bourgeois sense of the word,” which is what we today would call, “the nation,” full stop; and (2) “the nation,” in the proletarian or oppositional sense. The proletariat, Marx said, “must constitute itself [as] the nation,” and the struggle against the ruling class is “at first national in form,” although it is internationalist and counter-nationalist in content. What do these formulations mean? They mean that the “spectral” communality of the social order, its pre-enclosure, pre-expropriation basis in human cooperation and collaboration (and indeed, the persistence of intra-capitalist collectivisms, pointed out by James Connolly and others, and indeed by Marx in his last decade, in reference to Russian rural communalism, the Irish “Rundale” system of collective tenant-farming, and other cases of modern, intra-capitalist collectivisms), implies a common interest of the people, namely, “the mass of the people” (die Volksmasse). The working class is itself the bearer of the common interest in resisting and overturning the expropriation of the commonwealth of the labouring many, and in this sense it can, and indeed must, claim its place as collective defender of the mass of the people against the few usurpers.
  • Ultimately, according to the conception proposed in Capital, the class struggle is an “antagonism” (Gegensatz or Antagonismus) between “the mass of the people” and the “few usurpers.” The spectral communality of the mass of the people, interrupted and undermined by the ruling class’s stratagems of decomposition, implies a notion of the public interest or common good: “the interest of the immense majority” (Interesse der ungeheuren Mehrzahl), the interest of the Volksmasse. (The same idea reappeared in early-1970s marxism, when Black Panther Party intellectual George Jackson proposed a fateful distinction between “the 99%” and “the 1%,” a formula greeted with an uncompromisingly rigorous silence within official marxism at the time, but strikingly consistent with the impulses of early marxism.)
  • But the counterpoint to the early-marxist idea of the “interest of the immense majority” is another crucial early-marxist idea: the idea of antagonisms within the Volksmasse. “Antagonisms” (i.e., “Gegensätze” or “Antagonismen”) is Marx’s most general concept for describing social conflicts between collectivities with adverse interests, founded upon structures of asymmetrical (dis)advantage. Among these, Marx pays particular (but not exclusive) attention to four antagonisms: (1) “the antagonism between capital and wage labour”; (2) “the antagonism between man and woman”; (3) “the … antagonisms of peoples” (die…Gegensätze der Völker), notably, “the antagonism between Englishman and Irishman,” i.e., colonizer and colonized; and (4) the “antagonism” between ‘white’ and ‘non-white’ people in the context of what Marx called “racial relations” (Racenverhältnisse).
  • The ruling class rules in that its position is one of Herrschaft (domination), but to rule it must ward off the consolidation of an oppositional Volksmasse. It must dissolve or decompose the Volksmasse; it must dis-integrate or dis-aggregate the “interest of the immense majority.” The basic formula for ruling by decomposition, according to early marxism, is to order difference as antagonism. Decomposition is the undoing or dissolution of the oppositional class(es) “constituted” as “the nation,” in the non-bourgeois sense, the Volksmasse. To produce conflicts of interest, in place of a common or “national” (in the non-bourgeois sense) interest, is the work of decomposition as a ruling stratagem. But, in a context when the most salient interest “of the immense majority,” is to “expropriate the expropriators,” to throw off the Herrschaft of “the few usurpers,” antagonisms have to be seized upon and intensified, when they already exist, or actively constructed, where they don’t exist already. This process, described in some detail by Marx (in his Letter to Meyer and Vogt on the Irish question), may be called the deployment of antagonisms.
  • The deployment of antagonisms does not mean inventing differentiation within the Volksmasse. It means ordering differences as antagonisms, that is, crafting social structures that distribute benefits and burdens asymmetrically, so as to function as what Engels called “machines for holding down the oppressed,” or what Marx called “engines of class despotism.” An example of such a machine would be white supremacy, i.e., racism. By systematically deploying “racial” differentiation as a basis for asymmetries of benefit and burden, new interests are introduced, which decompose the (non-bourgeois-sense) “national” or “Volksmasse,” setting up an antagonism between members of the Volksmasse, the Gemeinwesen or community, in which some are systematically privileged by the asymmetry, and others are systematically disadvantaged by it.
  • Typically these “machines” or “engines” deploy asymmetries of legal standing, social status, income and wealth, representation in ‘mainstream’ culture, health care access and health outcomes, vulnerability to police or domestic violence, and so on, on a systematic basis. As Marx says, antagonisms of this sort are “antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism but of an antagonism that emanates from the individuals’ social conditions of existence,” i.e., from the operation of pervasive and enduring (albeit by no means uncontested) social structures.
  • Although these engines are indeed structures, nevertheless they are deliberately deployed structures, and in that sense they are both structures (social engines, social machines) and stratagems: “This [kind of] antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the…working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.”
  • Engels describes this sort of deployed asymmetry as “a relative regression, in which the well-being and development of the one group are attained by the misery and repression of the other.” It is a “relative regression,” in that every advance for the privileged group is purchased by a relative or comparative deprivation by the disadvantaged group.
  • In this way, this sort of social machine — where “machine” means any social structure that relentlessly generates the intended outcome, on a systematic basis — functions in such a way as to “cleave” [spalten] (as Marx puts it) the Volksmasse into “two hostile camps.” The privileged camp “sees itself as part of the dominant” group, and enjoys certain benefits. The disadvantaged group regards its privileged counterpart as both duped by the ruling elite and unjustly benefitting from its tacit, de facto alliance with the enemy. (On these points, see Marx’s Letter Vogt and Meyer on the Irish Question, 9 April 1870.)
  • The effect of these deployments of antagonisms is to increase what Marx calls “Isolierung” or isolation of differentiated sections of the labouring “many” from the wider Volksmasse, and to diminish what he calls “Vereinigung” or combination of the labouring many in opposition to the “few usurpers.” But crucially, it is also to decompose or dissolve the very existence, as a practical matter, of a Volksmasse (“national” or “public” or “general”) interest.
  • It is in this sense that the proletariat “must constitute itself as the nation,” rather than simply being the nation in advance. (Here Marx is perhaps more nuanced than Connolly on the “non-bourgeois” sense of “nation.”) It has to forge the commonality of the Volksmasse. But, in forging this commonality, the proletariat does not invent “the people” or “the public,” in short, “the community” (Volk). Rather, it becomes “for itself” what it already is “in itself” (as the spectral communality of social labour upon which private appropriation is always already parasitic).

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