I’ve written a couple of posts recently about my own attempts to comprehend (in very abstract terms) the relations among different forms of oppression, and how quite different sorts of processes form a single whole. I finished the second with some inconclusive comments about Marxism, which remains the paradigmatic reference point for a historical theory of how communism will triumph. I also posted recently about socialist feminism, liberal feminism, and radical feminism, though again somewhat inconclusively.
What I to do now is become fractionally more conclusive, by directly considering the key claims of ‘Marxism’ and offering the beginnings of a broader theory that would seek to expand it while remaining materialist, in particular in the direction of radical feminism as opposed to socialist feminism.
This will involve my own understanding of Marxism and of materialism; I’ve studied the subject a little, but many others have studied it more. Marxism is often caricatured (and also often affirmed without much in the way of argument) so bear this in mind.
I might approach the relevant features of Marxism through looking at the notion of a revolutionary force. What sort of group of people can produce a revolutionary transformation of society in the full sense? Three criteria seem fairly straightforward:
1) A group must be sufficiently numerous to have ‘social weight’ – not necessarily the majority, but more than a handful of conspirators;
2) A group must have a central role in production, so that if it withdraws its co-operation, a social crisis ensues in the sense that the social system cannot reproduce itself;
3) A group must have habits and methods of organisation that will allow it both to co-ordinate social struggle and then to co-ordinate the running of society. For example, a group whose members spend their lives organising others and controlling production (e.g. through ownership of property, or by a system of burueacracy) will have this, whereas the traditional peasantry, whose everyday activities are much more isolated and asocial, will not.
The more significant criterion is that this group should be a class, i.e. have a shared economic role and hence shared economic interests. This is perhaps the key claim, and the argument, as I understand it, is that people’s actions are powerfully affected by the needs and conditions of their concrete lives (which seems pretty intuitive), and that a movement without an identifiable class base – i.e. without any commonality of concrete interests among its members – will either dissolve when people decide to ‘get on with their lives’ because they never really committed to it, or will be successful only as long as an external force exists to give it unity, after which it will split into class factions.
For example, it’s a standard trope that in the French revolution, the proletariat, peasantry, and bourgeoisie all co-operated in overthrowing the aristocracy, but as soon as they tasted victory, their divergent interests led them to pursue opposed agendas, reflected in a splitting of the movement and them turning against each other (with the bourgeoisie winning in the end).
Of course it’s obvious that people can make huge sacrifices for ‘non-economic’ motives, like patriotism or religious fanaticism or pure altruism or whatever, but it’s claimed that when such things have a major influence on large numbers of people, it’s because of how they connect with ‘material’ factors – how the frustrations of everyday life are ‘displaced’ onto fictitious entities or principles. This of course implies the need for a sustained psychology that would trace out how this happens.
It is then finally argued that the proletariat is the unique revolutionary agent capable of replacing capitalism with communism, because it both fulfils the previous four criteria, and moreover its particular ‘class interest’ or ‘class position’ is one that is amenable to communism: as the class of people who do not own, and who work collectively in opposition to those who own, a society ruled by it will be one that abolishes ownership.
I think materialism in general is a good approach to society – materialism in the social sense, here meaning, as said above, that people’s political views and actions, on the statistical average, reflect their concrete lives, and thus that to promote a political position or change requires seeking to understand who will support and what about their lives will lead them to do so.
In this sense, ‘materialism’ is a natural (though not logically necessitated) extension of ‘naturalism’ in philosophy: that just like the rest of the natural world, humans behave regularly and in response to causal inputs, and that the most frequent and intense of these inputs will be a greater determinant of action than infrequent and mild ones.
But I think Marxism in the above sense is only one version of materialism, in that it identifies the ‘material’ or ‘concrete’ factors that influence people with economic factors, i.e. with economic classes. I would suggest, firstly, that non-economic factors can be equally ‘material’ – whether or not you get pregnant and have a baby, whether or not you are ostracised by your community, the representations you identify with in every conversation every day, are all part of people’s ‘concrete lives’.
Secondly, I’d also suggest that economic interests themselves are not entirely determined by ‘economic facts’. For example, two people in different family positions may both do the same job for the same wages, but relate to those wages in different ways: one, for example, might see them as a means of providing for their dependents and thus fulfilling their ‘duty’, while the other might see them as the reification of power and status. This would then give them different ‘interests’: the first, for instance, might have a natural ‘plateau’ of wealth, above which it becomes much less important, while the second might have no such plateau, and be driven to seek ever-greater accumulations of wealth. So what people’s ‘economic interests’ are is partly a result of influences outside of economics.
I think that Marxism is often defended by the vague sense that dropping Marxism means dropping materialism and hence naturalism (which here means simply the belief that people are continuous parts of the natural world). The feeling seems to be that if factors other than economic facts are allowed to play important or even crucial roles, then an unsystematic element is introduced into social causation – people’s behaviour can just change without any natural cause being involved. But this is entirely missing the point: there are many factors in concrete material life which aren’t economic, and these factors can be understood systematically. We should leave the idea that only what can be captured on a supply-and-demand chart is real to the neoliberals.
The task then is to develop the skeleton of an analysis of oppression in non-economic forms that can make these material processes as intelligible as economic analysis tries to make class processes (which is to say, not all that clear, but better than nothing) – in particular, by showing to what extent robust and persistent class structures are to be found there. In the light of this we could review the five criteria for a revolutionary agent discussed above – numbers, structural importance, organisation, class-based commonality of interests, and the content of those interests.
I fear I’ve not got the space to extend this post much more without making it intolerably long. The last couple of posts – the ‘three modalities of oppression’, were the preamble to such an analysis:
oppression is a process that 1) disciplines people into accepting identities, truths, and worldviews, in which 2) some people are recognised as having a right to autonomy and power and others are not, and 3) then develops solutions to the inevitable conflict between those who are, which both prolong that conflict in more stable form, and solidify the victory of some over others, imposing a further layer of identities and ideology to justify that.
Going beyond this, in particular tracing out the links between this general ideological process and the concrete facts which determine its content, will be the task of the next post in this series. It may seem that interesting points are slow in emerging here, but I felt it was important to try and engage properly with Marxism, which requires laying out why I think it makes sense and what about it should be preserved.