Rosa Luxemburg on “the Socialist Civic Virtues”

By Steve D’Arcy

Of all the early-20th century marxists, Rosa Luxemburg arguably made the most notable contributions to leftist democratic theory, underlining the importance of the self-emancipation of the working class, and the dangers of substitutionism. “Let us speak plainly,” she wrote. “Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.”rosa_luxemburg

But one of her most striking and least well-understood contributions was to draw on the classical “republican” notion of “civic virtue,” as a vital part of her analysis of working-class democracy. Although the application of notions of “vice” and “virtue” to personal dispositions within the workers movement (e.g., virtues like solidarity and vices like opportunism) was no doubt already widespread by the end of the 19th century, Luxemburg may have been the first to explicitly deploy the formula of “socialist civic virtues,” and to integrate this notion into a larger “civic-republican” conception of political engagement as active participation of all in public affairs, animated by a public-spirited devotion to the self-governance of equals.

It is in the context of articulating this socialist-republican ideal that Luxemburg introduced the notion of “socialist civic virtues.”

The essence of socialist society consists in the fact that the great laboring mass ceases to be a dominated mass, but rather, makes the entire political and economic life its own life and gives that life a conscious, free, and autonomous direction…. Only through constant, vital, reciprocal contact between the masses of the people and their organs, the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, can the activity of the people fill the state with a socialist spirit…. From dead machines assigned their place in production by capital, the proletarian masses must learn to transform themselves into the free and independent directors of this process. They have to acquire the feeling of responsibility proper to active members of the collectivity which alone possesses ownership of all social wealth. They have to develop industriousness without the capitalist whip, the highest productivity without slave-drivers, discipline without the yoke, order without authority. The highest idealism in the interest of the collectivity, the strictest self-discipline, the truest public spirit of the masses are the moral foundations of socialist society, just as stupidity, egotism, and corruption are the moral foundations of capitalist society. All these socialist civic virtues, together with the knowledge and skills necessary to direct socialist enterprises, can be won by the mass of workers only through their own activity, their own experience. The socialization of society can be achieved only through tenacious, tireless struggle by the working mass along its entire front, on all points where labor and capital, people and bourgeois class rule, can see the whites of one another’s eyes. The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself.

This is such a remarkable contribution to socialist political philosophy that it merits a closer look. I want to draw out and underline some examples of specific socialist civic virtues, highlighted both in this passage and elsewhere in Luxemburg’s work. In particular, I think five of the socialist civic virtues merit particularly close examination: the civic virtues of militancy, solidarity, collectivism, self-activity, and “tenacity in struggle.”

In the most general sense, a virtue is an admirable disposition (where “disposition” means a reliable tendency to act in a certain way, under appropriate circumstances). We admire the disposition to be willing to take personal risks in pursuit of important ends. This is the virtue of “courage.” It contrasts with the vice of cowardice, the disposition to shirk or evade risks, even when important ends demand risk-taking.

Specifically civic virtues differ from such personal virtues mainly because our admiration for them is grounded in the importance we assign to their impact on public affairs. A civic virtue is a disposition that we admire because of its salutary effect on public affairs. For instance, we admire some dispositions because their activation, by large numbers of people, tends to weaken the grip of systems of domination or exploitation or to hasten the self-emancipation of the exploited and oppressed.

Consider five of the socialist civic virtues identified, either explicitly or implicitly, by Luxemburg.

  1. Militancy. The virtue of militancy is the admirable disposition to adopt an adversarial, confrontational stance toward intransigent elites and unresponsive systems of power, and so to be willing to defy authority and disrupt institutions in order to oppose injustice and oppression. As Luxemburg puts it, this demands that the working class cultivate a rebellious, fighting spirit, “by extirpating, to the last root, its old habits of obedience and servility.” There must be a shift, she says, from “the regulated docility of an oppressed class” to “the self-discipline and organization of a class struggling for its emancipation.” The socialist civic virtue of militancy consists of what Luxemburg calls the “combative spirit” that animates the class struggle at its best. Elsewhere she calls it, more vividly still, “the forward-storming combative energy of the masses.” In her view, we are right to admire this combativeness, to exhort one another to cultivate it, and to hold up exemplars of it to ourselves and each other as models of civic excellence worthy of emulation. (I try to develop this notion of militancy as a civic virtue in my own book, Languages of the Unheard.)
  2. Solidarity. Luxemburg’s activism and intellectual work were carried out at a time when the value of solidarity was widely understood. Today, this is no longer the case. Even on the activist Left, there are many who view solidarity with suspicion, on the grounds that the exhortation to treat “an injury to one” as if it were “an injury to all” seems, to some, to imply that everyone in fact undergoes the same injuries, which obviously they do not. But Luxemburg believed that the morality of the working class was grounded in “solidarity, harmony, and respect for every human being.” In her view, solidarity does not mean actually enduring the same injuries, but something quite different: resisting injuries to others as if they were direct attacks on oneself. Rather than viewing it with suspicion, we should admire the stance of solidarity, not only because it is a effective at building and maintaining potent alliances based on long-term commitment to common struggle, but also because it embodies the “highest idealism in the interest of the collectivity.” It elevates us above the bourgeois-ideological “rationality” of egoistic calculation of personal advantage.
  3. Collectivism. This brings us to the third socialist civic virtue, collectivism. In this context, collectivism is the disposition to act politically in ways that repudiate individualism, in favour of “the feeling of responsibility proper to active members of the collectivity.” In other words, we rightly admire those who act in “the truest public spirit of the masses.” Collectivism, in this sense, is among “the moral foundations of socialist society, just as stupidity, egotism, and corruption are the moral foundations of capitalist society.” (Quotations in this section are all from the long quoted passage, given above.)
  4. Self-activity. Self-activity is another important socialist civic virtue, which Luxemburg continually promotes. As she says (see above), it is by means of this admirable disposition of self-activity that “the great laboring mass ceases to be a dominated mass, but rather, makes the entire political and economic life its own life and gives that life a conscious, free, and autonomous direction.” Here Luxemburg echoes the Kantian idea (and anticipates its use in Irish Autonomism, from Connolly to Holloway) that it is our capacity to direct our own decision-making that gives us our peculiar dignity. Whereas autonomy elevates us, heteronomy — the other-directedness of a “dominated mass” — is degrading. Heteronomy lowers and demeans us, so we rightly admire those who embody the disposition to act for themselves, notably to “break the chains” that subject them to the dictates of others. “The mass of the proletariat must do more than stake out clearly the aims and direction of the revolution. It must also personally, by its own activity, bring socialism step by step into life.”
  5. “Tenacity in Struggle.” The fifth socialist civic virtue to which Luxemburg draws our attention is what she calls “tenacious struggle.” We applaud all struggle against exploitation and oppression, of course. But the most excellent, admirable struggle embodies a relentless insistence on prevailing, even in the face of setbacks. What we admire, she suggests, is not just struggle in general, but “tenacious, tireless struggle by the working mass along its entire front, on all points where labor and capital, people and bourgeois class rule, can see the whites of one another’s eyes.” In this sort of tenacity in struggle, even “after fresh disappointments and disenchantments,” she says, the best exemplars “will stand all the more firmly and faithfully by” the movement “that knows no compromise, no vacillation…, without counting its enemies and dangers – until victory.”

It is important for those of us on the Left of today — so different, in both good and bad ways, from the Left of her time — to be willing to learn from Luxemburg’s insights about civic virtue. There’s a danger that we might slouch, thoughtlessly, into a neo-Schmittian marxism, which recognizes only the strategical categories of “friend” and “foe,” but cannot stomach the more demanding categories of “admirable” and “contemptible,” upon which so many of Luxemburg’s most emphatic assessments rested. But we need these concepts. We need to cultivate the kind of sensitivity to excellence and degradation that enables the best, most admirable among us — people like John Brown, or indeed Rosa Luxemburg — to steer clear of the corrupting influence of “access to power,” a “seat at the table,” “taking the helm,” and other temptations.

Allies with Benefits: The Strategic Challenge of Solidarity-Building

Working-class struggles against sexism, racism, colonialism, environmental destruction, and capitalism are often discussed in terms of “benefits” and “interests.” In particular, the strategic challenges confronted within these movements are often framed in terms of how settlers benefit from colonialism, how white people benefit from racism, how relatively affluent workers benefit from the despoliation of the planet, and so on. The implication is that those who benefit from these forms of domination would seem to have an interest in maintaining the social relations that the struggles against these systems attempt to contest. For example, the implication of the claim that settlers benefit from colonialism is supposed to be that they have an interest in maintaining the ongoing colonial domination and dispossession of Indigenous peoples. The implication of the claim that white women benefit from racism is supposed to be that white feminists have an interest in maintaining the racial oppression of women of colour. And so on.

Conflicts of Interest?

Those who emphasize these points do so out of a suspicion that these advantaged groups might not be reliable allies in struggles that oppose the very social structures from which they derive benefits. This in turn suggests that they may not be suitable partners for a convergence in common struggle. Women of colour, for example, might have reason to doubt the reliability of white feminists in struggles against the racist domination of women of colour, since — although white feminists have an “interest” in the empowerment of white women specifically — they actually benefit from the racist subordination of black and brown women. This seems to suggest that there is a conflict of interest in play here, which we ignore at our peril.solidarity-forever

Clearly, there is a great deal at stake here. The more we underline and emphasize this set of observations about apparent conflicts of interest within popular movements for social justice, and the threat these conflicts of interest can potentially pose to solidarity and mutual aid within and between movements, the more pessimistic we might become about the prospects for common struggle in broad-based alliances. Ultimately, the effect may be to foster a more and more fragmented and inward-looking set of oppositional movements, of the kind often associated with the “twitter Left” and the “social justice blogosphere,” where a pervasive skepticism about the capacity to mobilize broad-based popular movements based on solidarity across real differences is taken for granted as an unspoken, and usually unchallenged assumption.

Acknowledging that the Benefits are Real

Of course, this thought — that these worries about conflicting interests can seem to undermine our hopes for solidarity-building — can lead us down a terribly misguided path. We might find ourselves tempted to bury our heads in the sand, and to pretend that these concerns are not grounded in genuine insights. For example, we can be tempted to cast doubt on the perception and understanding of those women of colour who perceive these conflicts of interests within feminism. But the truth is, their assessments are based not on hasty preconceptions, but persistent experiences of disappointment within practical politics, reinforced by longstanding empirical and theoretical findings by important research traditions. Any self-blinkering refusal to admit that these conflicts of interest are both substantiated by research and repeatedly confirmed by experiences in struggle (not just twitter debates, but actual movement activism), would be a recipe for disaster for the Left. Instead of offsetting the tendency toward fragmentation and mutual suspicion, such denialism would have the effect of intensifying these divisions and reinforcing pessimism about broad-based alliance-building, by seeming to confirm the fear that interest-conflicts make those who benefit from inequalities incapable or unwilling to admit that systems of domination directed against some groups confer advantages on other groups. On the contrary, we have to begin by acknowledging the reality of these interest-conflicts, and by insisting on the need to grapple with the strategic and analytical problems they pose, rather than trying to bypass the hard questions by pretending the problem is a figment of overactive imaginations.

The first step is to acknowledge that the benefits are real. White people do benefit from racial oppression; settlers (i.e., all residents of a colonized region who are not members of one that region’s Indigenous peoples) do benefit from colonial dispossession and displacement; men do benefit from sexism; and so on. And this fact explains people’s very real experiences of unreliable alliance-partners. For instance, it helps to explain the ways that white feminism has, in some but obviously not all cases, participated in the racist depiction of black men as threats to white womanhood, or the racist depiction of “the West” as saviour of vulnerable women in the Global South via imperial “interventions” in the context of the “war on terror.” The harms visited upon women of colour by these forms of racism are much more readily recognized by women of colour themselves than by white women, in part because racism threatens the well-being and the dignity of women colour in ways that it doesn’t threaten white women. Indeed, racism can create opportunities for enhanced well-being and dignity for white women, in some ways and under some circumstances.

Against “the Whole Damn System”?

And yet — crucially — this is not the whole story. There is a much more subtle set of dynamics at work here. For one thing, there is a clear, albeit no doubt complicated sense in which everyone — or all but the most wealthy and powerful few, the “ruling class” or the “one percent” — would benefit from a post-racist, post-sexist, post-capitalist, post-colonialist world. Some people try to point to this more complicated and seemingly contradictory situation by saying (in my view, too hastily) that the conflicts of interest discussed above are merely apparent, but not real. That is, they say that, even if it seems to almost everyone concerned that these conflicts of interest exist, in fact the conflict is a kind of ruse or deception, which conceals an underlying commonality of interests. According to this view, racial and gender oppression, colonial and capitalist domination, and other such hierarchies and inequalities, actually create a common interest of all exploited and oppressed people in overturning “the whole damn system” of racist, sexist, colonial, ecocidal capitalism. When we fail to confront and challenge all of these forms of domination, we merely shoot ourselves in the foot, by propping up the very system that attacks us all, albeit in different ways and by different means. Our real interests, or at least our “long term” interests, according to this view, actually converge on one overriding, shared interest in overturning the system and establishing a post-capitalist, non-oppressive, ecologically sound, egalitarian and democratic society that prioritizes the welfare of all, instead of the enrichment and empowerment of a few.

There is a grain of truth in this view, to be sure. But I am convinced that it fails to get at the central point. The point is not that the interests or benefits in maintaining inequalities and oppressions are merely apparent, instead of real interests, nor that they are merely short term, instead of long term interests. Instead, the point is that the very real, and quite possibly long-term interests that advantaged groups have in maintaining inequalities only exist in a context of atomization and individualization (so that we can speak here of “asolidaristic” interests), but they would not exist in the context of a common struggle where the fate of each was bound up with the fate of all (where asolidaristic interests give way to “solidaristic” or “alliance-dependent” interests).

“Benefits” and “Interests” Distinguished

To see this point, consider an analogy. Suppose a group of 20 people are being held hostage by one person, a man who is carrying a knife. The hostage-taker is the only one who is armed, and so he has a great advantage. Any of the 20 who tries to overpower the hostage-taker can expect to be wounded or killed. But suppose 10 or 15 of the hostages were to try all at once, in a coordinated way, to overpower the hostage-taker. In that case, they could easily prevail, with only a modest risk of serious injury to any one of them. Seeing this threat of a possible coordinated rebellion, the hostage-taker institutes certain benefits or advantages to those who comply with his instructions, and imposes penalties to those who resist. Now ask this question: do the 20 hostages have an interest in complying with the hostage-taker’s instructions, thereby helping to prop up his dominance, or do they have an interest in cooperating with each other to mount a coordinated assault on the knife-wielding hostage-taker, liberating themselves and each other through a common struggle, as if an injury to each were an injury to all?

We should not be too quick to answer this question. Before we can answer it in a sufficiently nuanced way, we need to become sensitive to a distinction that has lurked in the background of this whole discussion: the distinction between a benefit and an interest. In most cases, we have an interest in X whenever we benefit from X. But there is an important class of exceptions to this general rule. Sometimes, benefits come at a price that is so high that claiming the benefits is self-destructive, and hence contrary to one’s interests. Importantly, though, they do not stop being benefits. In such cases, benefits and interests cease to coincide. In the present context, the most important type of example occurs when a group of people is given access to certain privileges denied to others, where this differentiation of group fates is deployed by elites as a form of social control. Karl Marx, the social theorist who pioneered this kind of analysis, gives the example of colonial domination of the Irish by the English. According to Marx’s analysis, the offering of privileges to English workers, as benefits conferred upon them from England’s colonial domination and occupation of Ireland, and the related anti-Irish racism within England itself, were indeed linked to benefits made available to English workers. But the deployment of these benefits, and the correlative disadvantaging of Irish workers, were in fact a ruling-class stratagem of social control that weakened the social power of both Irish and English workers. The benefits in question, according to Marx, were “the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its [high level of] organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.” In short, the English workers benefitted from colonial domination and dispossession of the Irish, but because the deployment of these benefits or privileges undermined the potency of the workers’ movement in England, English workers were undermining their own position by failing to repudiate and help to overturn their own access to those benefits.

With this distinction between benefits and interests in mind, let’s return to our hypothetical question about the hostages. Where do their interests lie? Do they have (1) an interest in offering compliant assistance to the hostage-taker, in order to secure personal advantages as a reward for collaboration, or (2) an interest in rebelling against the regime of the hostage-taker in order to overthrow their own subordination along with that of all their fellow hostages? We know that, as long as the hostage-taker is offering advantages to compliant individuals, then hostages will benefit from docile and cooperative compliance with the hostage-taker’s regime. But do they have an interest in that kind of compliance?

The correct answer, I think, is that it all depends. Both are possible interests that they could have. Which of these two interests they do in fact have, in practical terms, depends on what they have reason to expect one another to be willing to do, given the situation in which they find themselves. If any one hostage has reason to expect that, were he or she to rush the hostage-taker, very few or none of the others would join in the effort, then proceeding to rebel in isolation and without support or cooperation would be self-destructive: a recipe for personal disaster. In this scenario, where the hostages do not coordinate their response, each of the hostages is clearly better off seeking to curry favour with their overseer as best they can, in the hope of receiving benefits in return for collaboration and complicity. On the other hand, however, if each of the hostages could plausibly expect that, were he or she to revolt, several of the others could be counted upon to join the fight and to coordinate their efforts in a common struggle to disarm their shared captor, then a new calculation would be necessary. In this second scenario, it would actually be self-destructive to collaborate with the hostage-taker in pursuit of personal benefits, because such collaboration in pursuit of personal gain would actually prop up artificially the hostage-taker’s dominance, by insulating it from the prospect of a coordinated challenge from the dominated majority. The result of collaboration would be disastrous, because it would foreclose the possibility of a potent common struggle to disarm the hostage-taker. Collaborating with the hostage-taker, instead of revolting, would ruin their only chance of ending the ordeal once and for all.

Alliance-Dependent Interests

The predicament outlined in this parable very precisely maps onto the situation described above. Settlers really can gain advantages (benefits) by collaborating with the colonial domination and dispossession of Indigenous peoples, but by doing so they foreclose the possibility of accessing a far greater benefit of common liberation, which is only available on the basis of a coordinated, solidaristic struggle against “the whole damn system” of domination and exploitation. White feminists really can secure benefits by embracing the racial hierarchies that subject people of colour to domination and exclusion, but by doing so they prop up the very system that blocks their own access to liberation by insulating that system from a coordinated, solidaristic challenge from below. These cases echo the situation Marx described: the benefits are real, but they don’t generate interests, because the claiming of privileges blocks access to the kind of potent, solidaristic revolt that could bring liberation from forms of domination to which the privileged are also subject. If that’s the case, then (non-elite) settlers would seem to have no interest in propping up colonialism to claim benefits, white feminists would have no interest in propping up racism to claim benefits, and so on.

Unfortunately, this falls short of the neat and tidy resolution that our minds might wish we could find for these problems. What makes the thought raised here unsatisfying is the “big if” that it references. If they can count on broad-based solidarity and reliable mutual aid in a context of a common struggle for their joint liberation, then, and only then, will they have an interest in renouncing the dubious benefits of collaboration, in order to gain access to the liberation promised by a broad-based, anti-systemic revolt from below: a potent, transformative, and liberating rebellion against the system as a whole. Where that condition — that “big if” — is met, the asolidaristic interest in seeking to protect access to benefits, by collaborating with the prevailing distribution of power, would give way to the solidaristic or alliance-dependent interest in rebelling alongside all the exploited and oppressed against a ruling class and its system that blocks the emancipation of all workers.

At this point, the more pessimistic among us will be only too quick to insist that, alas, the crucial condition is not in fact met. There is no plausible basis to anticipate that such reciprocity and mutual aid will be forthcoming. Therefore, the pessimist will conclude, the interest in rebellion (and the benefit-renunciation it would entail) does not exist, as a practical matter, even if it exists “in principle” or would exist, counterfactually, under different circumstances. Indeed, this thought has real merit as part of an explanation for the low levels of popular revolt in many parts of the world today. Rebelling feels far too much like the self-destructive attempt of an individual to rush the knife-wielding hostage-taker all by herself, with no expectation that others will “have her back” and support her, “shoulder to shoulder,” in the way that working-class rebels of yesteryear could often expect to be backed up by neighbours, co-workers and comrades in the movement. To most people, in today’s very different context, it seems that the best way to gain benefits for oneself and one’s family is by pursuing an individualistic path to improved well-being: getting a better job, a raise, or whatever, by “impressing the boss” and “staying out of trouble.” In short, the problem with alliance-dependent interests is that they tend to evaporate in the absence of the reliable expectation of solidarity upon which they depend in order to have real weight in people’s decision-making about what to do. In the absence of reliable solidarity, asolidaristic interests reassert themselves.

Solidarity can be Cultivated

But this bleak thought misses something important. The expectation of solidarity is not an “all or nothing” affair. Solidarity can be built. Trust can be cultivated. Relationships of reliable mutual aid can be fostered over time. The norms of solidarity and cooperation that working-class movements against racism, sexism, colonialism and capitalism relied upon in the past did not spring up out of nowhere. They were constructed over time. People had to learn how to count on one another for backup. They had to discover, as a hard-won practical lesson, that sacrifices made by one person this year could be reciprocated by that person’s neighbour the next year, so that even apparent self-sacrifice pays off in the end, as our common strength is bolstered by our commitment to stand and fight by one another’s side.

But let’s not look on this learning process in a mythological, rose-coloured and cartoonish way. Often, in the years of the Left’s former periods of relative “ascendancy,” there were bitter failures of solidarity. There were unforgivable betrayals. There were reversions to sectionalism, individualism, and very often racism and sexism. This is the flip-side of the slogan, “workers of the world, unite.” Very often, working people failed to unite; otherwise, why exhort them to do so? In the same way, the slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all,” would be unnecessary and pointless, if not for the fact that some injuries, often of the most egregious and brutal kind, were treated by many workers as if they were “someone else’s problem,” or no problem at all. And yet, rather than simply react to these tendencies toward the dissolution of solidarity and common struggle as “facts of life,” forever precluding a common struggle, the Left traditionally grew out of the opposite impulse: the impulse to insist on solidarity, even in the face of betrayals and disappointments; to exhort neighbours and co-workers to embrace mutuality and cooperation, even as the drift toward individualism, sectionalism and competition continually undermined efforts at effective working-class organization.

A “Mission Statement” for the Left?

This, then, is what we need to recall today, in the hour of the Left’s most grim marginality and seemingly bleak prospects. The Left was founded upon a singular, very precise insight: that the exploited and the oppressed, or what Marx called “the downtrodden millions,” could liberate themselves only on the basis of a repudiation of the “bourgeois” values of careerist self-seeking and individualistic competition, and a corresponding embrace of the opposite values of solidarity, cooperation and mutual aid. It is no accident that the slogans of the classical Left continually foregrounded this thought: “workers of the world unite!”; “an injury to one is an injury to all!”; “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere!”; “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all!” Neither should we be surprised that the gravest vice against which the Left continually railed was that of the turncoat who, seeking a personal advantage, exempted himself or herself from the common obligation of unbreakable unity: the dreaded scab.

Recalling the sheer repetitiveness and even shrillness of the constant exhortations to solidarity that accompanied the rise of the Left in its heyday should remind us of something decisively important: solidarity, and the common interest in revolt that it brings in its wake, is not a given. It has to be fought for, continually, against systemic pressures and elite stratagems that always work to erode and undermine it. The recomposition of reliable, practical solidarity has to be nurtured and pursued as a high-priority political objective. Without it, the alliance-dependent interest in revolt tends to evaporate, generating asolidaristic “conflicts of interest” within the wider workers’ movements.

Perhaps this, then, can serve as a kind of mission statement for the Left: our role is to defend solidarity, not by denying every departure from it, not by ignoring the many failures to deliver on it, but by exposing and reversing these missteps, by working to repair our solidarity whenever it breaks down, reinforcing it wherever it falters, and embodying it materially when it threatens to degenerate into a mere pious ideal. The broad-based, working-class interest in rebellion is a special, alliance-dependent interest. It only emerges, as a practical matter, when we have good reason to count on our co-workers, neighbours and comrades to back us up as we move into struggle. That makes cooperation and solidarity into precious resources upon which the very fate of humanity depends. The challenge of building solidarity won’t take care of itself. And the benefits it confers are by no means automatic or unassailable. We have to put the rebuilding of solidarity on our shared agenda, across all our struggles, and to recognize it as a matter of both the greatest difficulty and the highest importance.

(Stephen D’Arcy is a member of Climate Justice London, author of the book, Languages of the Unheard: Why Militant Protest is Good for Democracy, and co-editor of the forthcoming book, A Line in the Tar Sands: Struggles for Environmental Justice.)

What is Dialectical Reason?

By Stephen D’Arcy

1. Reason is a special sort of capacity or competence: the capacity to weigh considerations for and against adopting either (1) a belief, or (2) a course of action. To be rational, in the relevant sense, is to be capable of deliberating about these considerations, which are called “reasons” (to believe or to act). When we weigh reasons to believe, we call this activity epistemic reasoning; when we weigh reasons to act, we call this practical reasoning.

2. In the marxist tradition, notably in the work of Marx himself, the favoured mode of reasoning, about both epistemic and practical matters, is dialectical reasoning. It is favoured because the “point” of reasoning, in this tradition, is not “scholastic,” but transformative: “The philosophers have [hitherto] only interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it.” Dialectical reasoning encourages the interpreter to understand the world as a field for possible transformative interventions, to be “understood in its contradiction and revolutionized in practice.” (All of these quoted passages are from Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” 1845.)marx123

3. Dialectical rationality, in the marxist tradition, is the competence to deploy a set of higher-order interpretive standards about how best to weigh reasons at the first-order level, in light of the overriding “practical-critical” interest (or “point”) that animates dialectical research, which is to lay bare the opportunities for potent and emancipatory intervention into dynamic systems of conflict and subordination or “fettered” human “development.” Reasoning is dialectical, in this “practical-critical” way, when the standards it uses to steer decision-making (about what to believe or to do) jointly prioritize an understanding of the world, and the intervention-opportunities it offers, that is informed by a conception of events and actions as importantly embedded within and largely generated by antagonistic and dynamic systems with discernible developmental trajectories (concepts that I explain below).

4. The interpretive norms that qualify reasoning (about what to believe or to do) as dialectical can be stated concisely:

(a) First, dialectical reason is committed to a norm of systemic understanding, according to which events and actions are to be understood, not in terms of pure facticity (as something that “just happens”) or pure agency (as voluntary choices of an unconstrained “free will”), but rather in terms of larger antagonisms and systems that tend to generate events and acts of the relevant kinds, in ways that comply with an intelligible systemic logic.

For instance, dialectical reasoning discourages adoption of the belief that a certain CEO chose to attack a union due to her moral failings as an individual. The “dialectical” basis for casting doubt on such an interpretation is that the proposed view understands the events and actions under consideration as generated by voluntary decisions made by an individual, who could just as easily have chosen to encourage union activity. When we adopt the interpretive norm of systemic understanding, we tend to discount such judgments as ill-founded, in favour of competing interpretations, according to which (for example) the CEO is responding to systemic imperatives that tend to govern her choices, systematically encouraging profit-maximizing choices, and systematically discouraging public-interest-furthering choices. Dialectical reasoning treats the systemic character of this second interpretive option as counting in favour of its adoption (other things being equal).

At the level of practical reason, our reasoning accords with this norm of systemic understanding, when it diagnoses the antagonism between the CEO and his or her employees, “not in the sense of individual antagonism but of an antagonism that emanates from the individuals’ social conditions of existence” (Marx, Capital), and therefore prescribes interventions that target the systemic logic at work, rather than the individual choices of a specific personage.

(b) Second, dialectical reason is committed to a norm of dynamic understanding, according to which these systems are to be understood, not as stable structures that automatically self-regulate toward a reliable equilibrium, but unstable, dynamic systems that transform themselves according to discernible (albeit not necessarily predictable) developmental trajectories. As Lukacs puts the point, dialectical reason regards the “present as history,” always already undergoing transformation and reconfiguration.

For example, a description or explanation of “the economy” will better accord with the interpretive standards of dialectical reason to the extent that it highlights the tendencies toward instability, crisis and system-malfunctioning. Conversely, dialectical reasoning will tend to view sceptically any description or explanation of “the economy” as tending automatically to gravitate toward a stable equilibrium. (Again, this is not a matter of refusing to recognize reality, under the influence of some a priori ideological commitment. Rather, it is a matter of highlighting the points of possible intervention, and “laying bare” the instabilities that can focus proposals or projects for emancipatory practical engagement — all of which are glossed over or repressed by undialectical interpretations.)

(c) Third, dialectical reason is committed to a norm of antagonistic understanding, according to which the dynamics of unstable systems are to be understood in terms of conflicts and antagonisms that animate and destabilize them.

For example, dialectical reasoning will assess a proposed description or explanation of a social problem (like climate change or unemployment) more favourably, other things being equal, to the extent that the proposed interpretation reveals the basis of transformations and instabilities of prevailing systems as products of the tensions, conflicts and struggles between opposing social forces or groups, pitted against one another in ways that undermines social cohesion. An interpretation of climate change in terms of “overpopulation” or “overconsumption,” for instance, will tend to be weighed unfavourably by dialectical reasoning, to the extent that it glosses over or conceals the roots of social actions and events in conflicts between profit-motivated employers and need-motivated workers, or the antagonism between business interests and the public interest. A class-struggle analysis, and/or an anti-colonial analysis, will — by contrast — be weighed more favourably by reasoning that is dialectical, assuming that the analysis highlights rather than covering up the conflicts between what Marx called “the mass of the people” and “a few usurpers.”

(d) Fourth, there is the norm of negation-negative understanding, according to which the conflicts and antagonisms that animate dynamic, unstable systems are to be analyzed in terms of “fetters” on the “free development” of social “forces” or social energies that antagonistic systems both rely crucially upon and continually struggle to constrain and domesticate. (In the jargon of dialectical research, the overcoming of fetters that block development is called the “negation of the negation.”)

Dialectical standards of sound understanding encourage adoption of proposed descriptions or explanations of actions and events when these interpretations reveal forces or energies within the prevailing situation (that is, the socio-historical object under study) that are blocked or held back from full and free development by established social relations. For example, a dialectical interpretation of unemployment will highlight the capacity for productive, socially useful work by unemployed people, whose contributions are blocked from taking full effect by the dominance of a social structure (the labour market) that allocates labour power according to criteria of profit-maximization rather than need-satisfaction. Such an interpretation brings into view a kind of “negativity” or “lack” within observable reality, consisting of possibilities that are present in principle, but blocked in practice by existing social relations. As such, it highlights prospects for liberating transformations that un-block reality (negate the prevailing negation) in order to actualize potentialities that are “fettered” or tied up due to interest-conflicts between antagonistic social forces (e.g., workers and capitalists). A dialectical interpretation will thus tend to reveal existing social relations as (to cite the Communist Manifesto) “so many fetters” to be “burst asunder.”

The norm of negation-negative understanding is particularly important in dialectical practical reasoning, since it discourages us from weighing heavily a reason to act which does not link a proposal for change to fettered forces (blocked or negated potentialities) that can be unleashed and turned against the social relations that limit and block them. For instance, Marx’s critique of Utopian socialism was grounded in the norm of negation-negative understanding: the Utopians proposed abstract ideals that were purely exterior to the status quo, rather than finding within capitalism itself the social forces (productive forces, organizational forms, like co-operatives and unions, and the collective agency of working class people) that could be mobilized and turned against the system to “burst asunder” the constraints that block their development, negating the negativity or fettering that held them back. As Marx says in the Grundrisse, “if we did not find concealed in society as it is the material conditions of production and the corresponding relations of exchange prerequisite for a classless society, then all attempts to explode it would be quixotic” (Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), trans, M. Nicolaus, Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1973, p. 159.)

5. These broadly “methodological” or “meta-interpretive” commitments to an understanding of social reality that reveals its susceptibility to transformative political action through anti-systemic mobilization are clearly substantive, in the sense that they predispose dialectical social analysis to adopt a certain range of descriptions and explanations over others. In principle, it is possible that the substantive pre-commitments of dialectical inquiry might prove to be systematically misleading (to be, not only prejudgments, but prejudices, in the worst sense). But here, the materialist-dialectical approach to inquiry returns to its guiding intuition: that the “practical-critical” mode of inquiry will prove itself in the context of emancipatory political struggle. The question of the “ultimate” justifiability of these dialectical commitments “is not a question of theory but is a practical question,” according to the marxist tradition. Ultimately, critical researchers “must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the this-sidedness [Diesseitigkeit] of [dialectical] thinking, in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question,” and hence falls outside the scope of dialectical thought. But the exclusion of this “metaphysical” question, about whether and to what extent dialectical reason is justified by the way the world “really is,” indicates less a limitation of dialectical reason than a limitation of the pertinence or value of metaphysical speculation for the projects that motivate dialectical research in the first place. Once again: “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” (Quotations in this section are from Theses on Feuerbach.)

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).

“Exploitation” versus “Privilege” in Class Analysis

If a group of unionized nurses in Oakland, California, goes out on strike, to oppose their employer’s attempt to gut their pensions and benefits; or a group of autoworkers fights with the police in Seoul, South Korea, over an employer’s plan to lay off members of their union; or if a group of tire factory workers in the French city of Amiens holds a manager hostage, to negotiate better severance packages for laid off workers — should these actions be understood as “proletarian” struggles against exploitation, which ought to be actively and vigorously supported by the socialist Left? Or are these, on the contrary, the struggles of a parasitic elite attempting to defend its unearned privileges, which have been gained largely at the expense of the actual proletariat by means of a corrupt bargain struck with the capitalist ruling class? This is the question taken up by the leftist writer, Bromma, in the book, The Worker Elite: Notes on the ‘Labour Aristocracy’ (Kersplebedeb, 2014)


BC Teachers’ Federation: Defending privilege? Or opposing exploitation?

According to Bromma, none of the struggles described above are “proletarian.” Instead, they are the struggles of a parasitic section of the middle classes, which Bromma calls “the worker elite.” And they are not, according to Bromma, struggles against exploitation, but struggles to defend privilege. Anti-capitalists who align themselves with such workers make a grave error, according to this analysis. “Flattering a failing worker elite with crocodile tears for its lost privileges…leads to disaster for proletarian forces,” above all by fueling right-wing populism (57). Ultimately, Bromma concludes, “the parasitic and patriarchal agenda of this class must be defeated” (75).

The “Proletariat” versus “Privileged Workers”

Bromma’s book is not unusual in its opposition to the struggles of unionized nurses, construction workers, teachers or factory workers, nor the first to single out these workers as “overpaid” and “privileged.” These groups of workers and their unions have always had an overabundance of enemies. What is unusual is that, in this case, the attacks originate from within the ranks of the anti-capitalist Left. Indeed, Bromma’s accusations of privilege and corruption are motivated by the very thing that (from one point of view, at least) seems least likely to pit anti-capitalist activists against workers who fight with their employers: a commitment to the class struggle of the proletariat against the capitalist ruling class.

What turns Bromma’s commitment to class struggle into a hostility toward the struggles of so many workers is the conviction, defended in The Worker Elite, that workers do not constitute a single class, but on the contrary can be divided into three distinct classes: a “lumpenproletariat” of criminals and underground economy labourers, a worker elite of “privileged” labourers, and the proletariat proper, which comprises about 80% of humankind, but excludes many people that would normally be regarded as “proletarians” by most (non-maoist) socialists. The proletariat proper is depicted by Bromma as a genuinely productive class, exploited by others. But both the lumpenproletariat and the worker elite are, like the capitalists, fundamentally parasitic on the proletariat:

[I]t is an unavoidable fact that the worker elite is an intrinsically parasitic class. The treasured privileges of the worker elite are funded by the ongoing capitalist exploitation of the proletariat….The ruling class diverts a portion of the wealth that it [exploits]…to cultivating and maintaining worker elites, which in turn are persuaded to abandon and attack the proletariat and other enemies of capital….Its prized middle class status comes from a preferential social contract, approved and paid for by the bourgeoisie (11-12).

This view will be familiar to readers of books like J. Sakai’s Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat and Zak Cope’s Divided World, Divided Class, among others. Bromma’s book is less an attempt to innovate than to lay out, in accessible, clear language, yet with considerable sophistication and relatively substantive arguments, a concise statement of the case for the claim that many construction workers, factory workers, teachers, and other workers with (especially in global terms) unusually favourable rates of pay, working conditions, health and safety protections and job security, are not only non-proletarians, but indeed are the class enemies of the proletariat and key allies of the ruling class: “The worker elite provides mass acquiescence and mass support for anti-proletarian politics, including settler colonialism, imperialist war, male domination, and genocide” (9).

All of this will be rejected by many leftists, quite emphatically. But why? What’s this dispute all about?

In my view, what accounts for the deep gulf separating the class politics of Bromma and other adherents to this view from the class politics of others on the anti-capitalist Left is a disagreement about how to think about the nature of class. Specifically, should we understand class in terms of exploitation, or in terms of privilege? (For some important background on the use of concepts like “exploitation” and “privilege,” which I can’t detail here, see my article, “The Rise of the Post-New Left Political Vocabulary.”) Whereas many marxists view class through the lens of the concept of exploitation, Bromma instead views class mainly through the lens of the concept of privilege. (I say ‘mainly,’ because Bromma does make use of the concept of exploitation, but it has a secondary role, largely to support the book’s analysis of ‘worker elite’ privilege.)

I think we can understand the issues better if we take a closer look at these two approaches: the exploitation approach versus the privilege approach to class analysis.

The Exploitation Approach to Class Analysis

In the exploitation approach, class is understood in terms of the antagonistic relationship between boss and worker, and the “friction of interests” (as EP Thompson put it, deploying a phrase from Balzac) that propels them toward conflict. In this view, workers are regarded as fundamentally productive, in contrast to members of the employer cass who are fundamentally parasitic and unproductive. In some cases, the productivity of workers is a matter of directly generating wealth in the form of commodities (for example, work producing automobiles, food, or computer software). In other cases, the productivity of workers is a matter of establishing or reproducing the necessary societal background conditions for the generation of wealth (for example, the work of teaching, caring for the physical or emotional needs of children, or restoring the health of the sick and injured). In still other cases, productivity is a matter of work enabling what Marx called the “realization” of wealth by facilitating the sale of commodities for cash (for example, shipping, advertising, or retail work). By contrast, the capitalist ruling class is strictly unproductive and parasitic: it extracts wealth from work done by others, by converting its control of productive resources (“means of production”) into relations of exploitation over workers. Capitalism is then a system of exploitation: an institutional structure through which the labour of the many is pressed into the service of the enrichment of the few.

This approach to thinking about class tends to encourage those who adopt it to look favorably upon the struggles of workers generally (including the struggles of highly paid workers, with sometimes atypical levels of job security, and so on). When workers are able to secure improvements in the terms of their employment, either through struggle (such as strikes) or through a favourable bargaining position (such as labour shortages), the higher wages or benefits that accrue to them are usually depicted by those on the Left as “gains” or “victories” in relation to the employer-class. Generally, an exploitation approach to class encourages an understanding of the advantages of higher pay, pensions and improvements in workplace health and safety as outcomes to be fought for, welcomed, and then defended, even if for the time being only some workers have made these gains, while other workers have not.

The Privilege Approach to Class Analysis

We can contrast this with the privilege approach. In the privilege approach, class is understood as a location in a system of differences, but not primarily, or at any rate not exclusively, as a two-way antagonism between boss and worker. Just as important as the boss/worker conflict, from this point of view, is the antagonism or differentiation between differently located groups of workers. The differences between them — that is, the “privileged” position of some working people, which sets them apart from other workers — may very well, according to this approach, necessitate that we treat differently positioned workers as constituting different, antagonistic classes: a privileged class of elite workers that benefits from unearned advantages that are denied to members of the genuinely “proletarian” class of workers.

Consider two groups of workers. The first group consists of non-unionized migrant workers seasonally employed in agriculture, paid at or near (or even below) the minimum wage; the second consists of unionized, stably employed nurses working at a hospital, with relatively high status, pay and benefits. An exploitation theory of class encourages us to highlight the commonality between these two groups of workers, noting their shared antagonism to the class of employers (including private investors and high-level managers in both the private and the public sector). But a privilege theory of class encourages us, on the contrary, to note the differentiation between these two groups, and the fact that the first group is shut out of the benefits and advantages — the “privileges” — of the second group. In particular, the privilege approach will encourage us to focus on ways in which the second group may have access to some of those advantages due, at least in part, to such factors as membership in a favoured racial group (whites), a favoured gender (men), a favoured legal status (citizens as opposed to undocumented people), or the fact of residence in an imperialist country.

In contrast to the exploitation view, the privilege conception of class encourages us to view advantages or gains made by some (but not all) groups of working people, not positively, as “victories for our class,” but rather negatively, as unearned advantages, subsidized by the continuing impoverishment of the lower paid, less advantaged workers.

Evidently, Bromma’s use of “privilege” as the primary concept in class analysis is a symptom of a much wider transformation of the political vocabulary of the activist Left in North America, in which the New Left political vocabulary of the 60s and 70s (with its emphasis on “systems” of exploitation and oppression and the possibility of “alliances” among anti-systemic movements, grounded in supposed cross-difference commonalities among “the people”) has increasingly lost ground to what I have called the “post-New Left political vocabulary” of today’s activist Left (with its emphasis on “intersecting axes of privilege,” and other barriers to the construction of broad alliances of the exploited and the oppressed). The privilege-focused, post-New Left vocabulary generates a much more suspicious stance toward proposals for broad-based alliances across differences.

Dangers of Giving Up on the Exploitation Approach

Is this shift toward a privilege conception of class a welcome development? Whatever the pros and cons of adopting a ‘privilege’ conception of racism, sexism, and other social hierarchies and antagonisms, I am convinced that this approach is unhelpful when introduced into class analysis. There are two basic reasons: one theoretical, and the other practical.

Theoretically, a privilege conception exaggerates the importance of distribution, and tends to obscure the importance of production. To be sure, writers like Bromma and Cope claim to be highlighting a difference between a productive class of proletarians and an unproductive parasitic class of ‘labour aristocrats’ in the ‘worker elite.’ But Bromma bases this claim largely on the difference between the wages and working conditions of the two (supposedly distinct) groups. If the wages and benefits of autoworkers in Detroit were, in the next 20 years, to fall to a quarter of what they are today, Bromma would no doubt re-define them as proletarians. But that, surely, is not the key variable for understanding the class structure of capitalism. Instead, what matters is (1) the exclusion of most people from control over means of production (workplaces, machinery, patented processes, etc.), which forces them to seek paid employment (as bearers of commodified labour-power) in the labour market, and (2) their consequent subordination to bosses in the workplace. How much pay or benefits they can extract, by means of such measures as union organization and strikes or political mobilization leading to expanding welfare state provisions, bears on our understanding of the of prevailing distribution of wealth. However, it tells us little about the basic structure of capitalism as a system production, and therefore it can’t be the basis for a plausible analysis of capitalism’s class structure.

Practically, the implications of the privilege approach to class analysis are even more troubling. By singling out the most organized sections of the labouring population, with the most potent capacities to organize strikes, including general strikes, or indeed to launch mass protest movements; by depicting this group of workers as the class enemy of the “proletariat,” to be not supported, but “defeated” by the proletarian struggle; and by stigmatizing gains won through strikes or reform campaigns as “corrupt” and “anti-proletarian” — the “privilege” approach can be fairly described as actively hostile to unions, and either indifferent to or enthusiastic about the disappearance of hard-won advantages that some workers enjoy: pensions, job security provisions, health and safety protections, restrictions on child labour, and so on (all of which Bromma describes as privileges available exclusively or disproportionately to the worker elite).

I hesitate to describe a sincerely advanced political position held by some people on the Left as “reactionary,” so I will simply say that this conception rests on a view of what it means to be pro-proletarian that I find highly suspect. Its widespread adoption on the Left would, I fear, have the effect of badly disorienting workers’ movements and the Left. (I have offered what I regard as a much better way of understanding the material basis for the decline of militancy and anti-capitalist politics among various groups of workers, in the article, “Why Rebellion is Rare, or Why Solidarity Matters.” There, I analyze workers’ acquiescence in capitalist domination in recent years in terms of what social scientists call “collective action problems.”)

For the time being, Bromma’s view seems to be a marginal one on the Left. Most people who identify as leftists continue to regard unions favourably, more or less, and fear rather than welcoming the dissolution of the advantages that union struggles and political mobilization have made available for some workers. But, given how rapidly and thoroughly the problematic (interpretive framework) of privilege has come to pervade the discourse and the strategic thinking (such as it is) of the activist Left in recent years, one can’t help but wonder how long the exploitation approach to class analysis can continue to shape the politics of activists, especially in Canada and the United States (where the post-New Left political vocabulary is now most entrenched).

The exploitation approach is a kind of residue or remainder of an earlier incarnation of the anti-capitalist Left (above all, its marxist variants). Increasingly, many younger activists have begun to embrace a more individualistic analysis of colonialism, patriarchy and racism, preferring to talk about these oppressions in terms of individual privilege rather than in terms of large-scale systems of institutional power. Will the same shift lead, sooner or later, to the displacement of the exploitation approach to class analysis? It’s hard to say. But no doubt the prospect of such a transformation is a real danger, to be discouraged if possible by vigorous attempts to insist on a conception of class that is crucially linked to the analysis of capitalism as an exploitative system of production.

Interview on Protest and Democracy

On 21 April 2014, the leftist web site,, published an interview with me, on the topic of militancy and democracy. The interview was conducted by Meg Borthwick. Here’s the text, reproduced from Rabble: Revolution 101: Interview with Steve D’Arcy on Militant Protest.


Meg Borthwick (MB): In your book Languages of the Unheard you explain, in detail, what makes a form of protest militant. What distinguishes militancy from other forms of protest?

Stephen D’Arcy (SD): First, let me say what I don’t mean by “militancy.” I’m not using this word as a euphemism for violence. The whole theme of violence and nonviolence gets too much attention and distracts us from more basic and pressing questions. Instead, I define militancy as grievance-motivated collective action that is both adversarial and confrontational.

Militancy is adversarial in the sense that, instead of seeking to find common ground with its targets, it identifies them as adversaries to be defeated or to be forced into retreat. For example, the companies that profit from the tar sands, and the politicians that serve these business interests, are not potential partners for a meeting of the minds. If they are to be stopped, it will have to be through determined struggle; relentless, escalating, and with a broadening base of participation. We have to identify these targets as adversaries, and work to build an alliance of people and organizations willing to fight them and defeat them.

Militancy is confrontational in the sense that it actively encourages conflict, rather than seeking to resolve or limit the animosity and disorder that conflict generates. In Martin Luther King’s words, militancy seeks “to create a crisis” and “to foster tension.” Defeating a determined and hostile adversary — someone like Prime Minister Stephen Harper, for example — requires a willingness to defy the authority of that adversary, and to disrupt the functioning of the systems of power from which that adversary draws strength.

Militancy, so understood, stands in contrast to forms of protest that treat their targets as susceptible to rational persuasion. The hope, in some cases, is that a politician, a corporation, or some other target of protest can be made to see the protesters’ point of view. In some cases, this can be useful as an initial approach. But soon enough, we discover that corporations and governments tend not to be responsive to the public interest, or to the requirements of social and environmental justice. And that puts the ball back into our court: Will we respond to the intransigence of elites, and the unresponsiveness of systems of power, with a compliant and patient attitude, which King denounced as “the tranquillizing drug of gradualism”? Or will we respond in the way he proposed, insisting on what he called “the fierce urgency of Now”?

Speaking somewhat loosely, we can distinguish in this way between “persuasion-oriented” and “confrontation-oriented” protest. Militancy, as I use the term, is this second type of protest.

MB: At what point do you think militant action is justified or, more importantly perhaps, can be seen to be justified?

SD: We can think about it by analogy with everyday interactions. Everyone can agree that sometimes it is necessary and justified to confront other people, to demand that they stop what they are doing, because it is harmful or abusive. But suppose all we need to do is ask. Suppose they will stop if we simply express our concerns clearly. Then we should try ordinary communication and asking. The need for more forceful forms of confrontation only arises in cases where asking does no good, when our concerns are persistently ignored. When this happens, a more confrontational stance is needed, and we have no trouble justifying this escalation toward confrontation. After all, we tried communication and reasoning, and our concerns went unheard.

It is the same with confrontational social protest. We don’t immediately go for an option like launching an unlimited general strike, or even acts of civil disobedience. That kind of escalation is something we have to build up to, as our persistence and determination to secure justice come up against intransigence and dismissal from those who wield power.

I like to call militancy a “remedial virtue.” When we admire militancy, when we regard it as a virtue, like the “marvelous militancy” that King mentioned in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, it is because it offers a remedy for the problem of elite intransigence. When people with substantive and pressing grievances raise their concerns in public, but the powerful see fit to ignore them, or to silence their voices with repressive policing or just stubborn indifference, this poses a real threat to democracy, in the sense of public empowerment. It weakens the power of people to exercise collective control over their own lives. In these circumstances, militancy is the “marvelous” impulse to push back against the power of money and privilege, on behalf of justice, and to refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer. That’s why I borrow King’s description of rioting, “the language of the unheard,” for the title of my book. Militancy is how the exploited and the oppressed can find their voice, when — as happens so often — the powerful refuse to listen.

We can see, here, the Utopian aspect of militancy. The impulse that animates militant protest is summed up in the Zapatista slogan: “Here, the people rule, and the government obeys!” Every time people say, “Enough! Here, now, the people will rule!,” it opens a window into the possibility of another kind of politics, where no one is silenced or ignored, where everyone has a voice, and where people’s concerns are taken seriously and, as far as possible, addressed. This is why militancy is so closely associated with assembly democracy, the coming together of people to hear each other and be heard, and to make decisions about matters of common concern on the basis of listening to one another and hearing the voice of the other. Militancy and democracy are connected in the most intimate way. Ultimately, militancy is justified because democracy is justified.

MB: We currently are living under a federal government that is intransigent. They do not listen, they do not respond to concerns raised by the people. Is it time for large-scale, cross-country militant action? If so, what form would that militancy take. Would civil disobedience be enough?

SD: It’s very true. The Harper regime is deeply committed to a politics of elite intransigence. They embrace the Thatcher model: insisting at every turn that “there is no alternative” to the transfer of both wealth and power from the poor and marginalized to the rich and powerful. In one sense, the rest of us can learn from them. We, too, can refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer. We, too, can be determined to impose defeat on our adversaries. In our case, of course, we do so to expand democracy and establish justice. In that sense, what we do will always be the very opposite of what someone like Harper is trying to accomplish.

The role of militancy here is important, but difficult to get right, because if we put forward the proposal to launch immediately a militant campaign to defeat Harper, starting from where we are at right now, at such a low level of mobilization and struggle, it comes across as unrealistic, as mere posturing. People agree, in principle, but they don’t regard it as credible, because they know how hard it would be to make it happen.

But there is a chicken-and-egg relationship between planning to win and actually winning. If we resign ourselves in advance to the inevitability of defeat, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, because we will find ourselves reluctant to do the difficult and challenging things needed to build a powerful movement. But if we are committed from the beginning to winning, it will inspire us to adopt bold and challenging tactics. Just as important, a clear path to victory is crucial to motivating others to join our movement and contribute their energy, skills, and commitment to our struggle. Few people are interested in joining a movement that has no prospect of winning.

The kind of militancy that would be needed to turn the tide, to begin to force Harper and his allies into retreat, is in short supply right now. It would take organized workers in the public and the private sectors shutting down their workplaces. It would take large-scale campaigns of disruption and defiance in the streets. And it would have to be relentless, escalating, and with a broadening base of participation. We would have to learn from the example set by some of the strongest models of resistance out there: the Mi’qmak of Elsipogtog First Nation on the east coast, blockading a highway to defend their land from fracking, and the Québec students emptying their schools and filling the streets for six full months to oppose tuition hikes. These forms of struggle, with the same intensity and determination, would have to become the “new normal” for hundreds of thousands of people.

It’s not easy, but it can be done. Here in Ontario, we began to do some of that large-scale organizing during the Days of Action, in the mid-1990s, with many tens of thousands of people walking off the job for single-day general strikes, followed by large-scale street protests, in several cities. Thousands of people who had never protested in the streets were drawn into the movement, because they came to see mass protest as a way to force a determined adversary into retreat. At the same time, more confrontational tactics were being introduced by groups like the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, setting a good example for the wider movement. But in the end, the will to follow through with the necessary escalation wasn’t there among the highest-level union officials, and they were able to demobilize the struggle.

We can learn positive and negative lessons from these experiences, but one lesson is clear: hundreds of thousands of people can be motivated to walk off the job and to march in the streets to oppose the kind of politics that someone like Harper represents. That’s crucial to keep in mind, because it’s that kind of mobilization, in the workplace and in the streets, that offers hope, realistic hope, for building the kind of grassroots counter-power that could impose defeat on Harper and the agenda that he so single-mindedly pursues.

A Radical-Left Response to the ‘Gun Control’ Debate

By Stephen D’Arcy

The mass killing of twenty-six school children and education workers in Connecticut, a little over a year ago, horrified everyone concerned about public safety. It also re-ignited the longstanding debate about ‘gun control,’ and whether there is anything more that can or should be done to protect people in their neighbourhoods and workplaces from attacks by violent people armed with assault-type weaponry and wearing body armor. Normally, the debate is dominated by two positions: a “libertarian” position that favours the unfettered right of people like Ted Nugent to bring an assault rifle into a coffee shop or a school whenever he chooses, and a “liberal” position that wants “the authorities” to be empowered to exercise unilateral power from above in imposing gun regulations deemed by politicians to be “sensible.” Is there a third position? More specifically, is there a radical-Left position, based upon the values and principles of egalitarian democracy and worker empowerment? 

I believe that there is such a position, but that it has not been adequately articulated, with the result that many on the Left have come to believe that the “libertarian” and “liberal” positions are the only ones available. The following comments attempt to introduce a Left perspective into the debate, sketching the elements of a community-based, radically democratic approach to firearms regulation.

The present situation in many jurisdictions (such as Utah, to give an extreme example) is intolerable, from an egalitarian and democratic point of view. What makes it unacceptable is that (i) it shows callous indifference to the most basic standards of workplace health and safety, allowing anyone, including open fascists and violent police officers, to bring guns, in some cases even assault weapons, into workplaces and classrooms; (ii) it prevents workers and communities from taking grassroots action to limit the capacity of fascist or quasi-fascist militias to set up and train paramilitary organizations (of which there are several dozen in the US), whereas if anyone on the Left attempted to do the same thing on a similar scale they would be brutally suppressed by the state, regardless of the law, as history amply illustrates; and (iii) it assigns sole authority to regulate or not regulate firearms to the least trustworthy institutions in society, employers and the capitalist state, completely disempowering workers’ organizations and neighbourhood-level community organizations.


This situation can and should be changed, by bold action from below, to reclaim public authority that now wrongly resides with employers and the state. Such authority ought to be exercised democratically, by participatory-democratic public assemblies. Only democratic regulation of firearms by the people, in workplace and neighbourhood assemblies, can be relied upon to put the public interest ahead of the interests of elites in (a) maximizing the unchecked power of the police, and (b) insulating far-Right militias from public accountability or limits imposed by those most endangered by such groups, especially the racialized groups and immigrants that are their main targets.

In practical terms, a community-based approach to gun regulation would begin by establishing Public Safety Assemblies in every neighbourhood, and Workplace Safety Assemblies in every workplace. These Assemblies would be empowered to impose substantive limits on the carrying of weapons within the areas of their jurisdiction. No employer or state agency should be able to force workers or other persons to endure unfettered gun-wielding by strangers entering their neighbourhoods or work sites. If such risks are to be taken, it should require prior authorization by democratic assemblies of the people who live and work in those places. These Assemblies would offer a means by which such authorization could be granted, or denied, on a democratic basis.

Among the substantive regulatory proposals that such Public Safety or Workplace Safety Assemblies could entertain, any of the following can serve as examples: that only persons with permission of the Assembly may carry assault weapons in the workplace; that no police officers may carry weapons into the workplace or neighbourhood, except under specifically enumerated circumstances set out by the Assembly, or with special permission of the Assembly; that the storing of weapons by openly racist militias within the jurisdiction of the Assembly shall be prohibited; and so on. Such proposals could be rejected by the Assemblies, of course. The point here is that it should be up to workers to decide whether or not such regulations make sense for their workplaces; and it ought to be up to residents to decide whether such regulations make sense for their neighbourhoods.

Note that this proposal is not like conventional forms of “gun control,” as advocated by many liberals. Because community-based gun regulation relies on democratic control from below, by workers’ and neighbourhood Assemblies, the process is actually neutral between those who believe that arming people more heavily would improve public safety and those who believe that restricting firearm use, at least in certain areas or by certain people, would improve public safety. The Assembly process would require people to deliberate publicly with their co-workers and neighbours about the merits of various proposals. In some cases, this might lead to ‘stricter’ controls; in other cases, the controls might be made ‘less strict.’

For example, under a community-based gun regulation system of this type, Starbucks workers would be empowered (as they are not, as of now, as a matter of company policy) to designate their work site as a gun-free zone. Conversely, those same workers could decide to allow open or concealed carry of firearms in their workplace. Or they could allow workers to be armed, but not customers. And so on. The most basic commitment of a community-based approach to gun regulation is not a commitment to ‘strict’ or to ‘lax’ gun regulations, but to democratic gun regulation, from below, on the basis of empowered, participatory deliberation in public by workers and neighborhood residents.

This proposal cuts against the “libertarian” impulses of many on both the Left and the Right. But where libertarianism promotes, not liberation, but the disempowerment of workers and community members, and serves objectively to insulate the police from public control, and to embolden fascists to militarize their operations, we ought to choose egalitarian, horizontal Assembly democracy over “libertarian” misunderstandings of freedom.

Community-based, democratic firearms regulation, on a horizontalist, participatory-democratic basis, is an idea whose time has come. It ought to be embraced by the Left, both for the benefits it offers in terms of public and workplace safety, and for the challenge it poses to the unchecked power of irresponsible elites to usurp powers that rightly belong in the hands of the people.

[Note: An earlier version of this text was posted on ZNet]