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Problems With Class Reductionism

Apparently J. Sakai's Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat is again making the rounds in activist circles and, as usual, is again provoking an uncritical dismissal that I critiqued, months ago, in a review of problematic reviews of the book.  What makes these snide dismissals rather sad (and entirely predictable) is that they often come from people who have not read, and even refuse to read, Sakai's book.  These uncritical rejections sometimes emerge from elements of the left that see themselves, or maybe their families, as part of "the white proletariat" that Sakai is critiquing.  Then, while openly refusing to read the book beyond the title, they tend to assert that the book is not for them.  One dismissal a good comrade passed on to me, for example, even went so far as to argue that Sakai was an arrogant "academic" who clearly had no understanding of the reality of the white working class.  The fact that the person who made this dismissal, regardless of family background, was actually embedded in academia, whereas Sakai is actually not an academic (and even critiques left academics) is yet another example of an unwillingness to actually read what was being written.

The uncritical nature of these spurious critiques is troublesome.  The comrade who passed along the aforementioned dismissal spoke of another "white backlash" amongst certain sectors of the left––the dismissal of Sakai being a symptom of a broader malaise.  It appears that in response to the culturalism of post-modern identity politics––where there is an inability to provide either concrete analyses or viable political projects––certain leftists have responded by embracing the crudest form of class reductionism.  In an earlier entry I critiqued this problem but I think it needs to be discussed again, but from a different angle.  (There will definitely be overlap, so I apologize ahead of time for being boring.)

1. Class Essentialism

Those promoting this crude class reductionism tend to ascribe to a dubious notion of class that emerged from Trotskyist theory.  Although I do not like bashing Trotsky or Trotskyism (something that can easily become, and has become, dogmatically sectarian), I do think it is very important to ask why the most vociferous class reductionists ascribe to Trotskyism (though a few are arguably Stalinist), and reduce their understanding of class struggle to Trotsky's (and other Trotskyist's) theorization of marxist philosophy.  Of course the problem is much larger than Trotskyism, connecting to ideology and class consciousness, but it is the theory that emerged from Trotskyist analyses of class and class struggle that permit a very crude, and ultimately very idealist, conceptualization of class.

This crude conceptualization imagines that class is an essence, something that is given rather than made, and that class consciousness is a direct product of this essence.  Thus, according to this argument, if someone works in a factory they are intrinsically revolutionary.  This position has typically led to a denial of other material factors, especially in colonial and semi-colonial concrete contexts, resulting in more than one Trotskyist group arguing that the colonizing industrial "proletariat" will lead the revolution in settler-colonial states.  If the factory worker is always and essentially the revolutionary subject, after all, then it is impossible for them to be authentically invested in colonialism.

According to this position, the colonizing working class simply needs to realize its vocation as the leader of the revolution and, upon realizing this fact, act to abolish oppression on the part of the colonized.  If anything, racism is just something that "comes from outside" to split the working class.  Hence the crude dismissals of Lenin's theory of the labour aristocracy; hence the imperial "marxist" dogma that world revolution will be led by the workers at the centres of capitalism who, because of their advanced status as essentially and properly proletariat, will liberate the entire globe.

And yet colonizing and imperial workers, as anticolonial marxists have emphasized, are often dependent on the labour of others.  Marx tells us that the slaves make history, that world revolution comes from below on the part of those who have nothing to lose but their chains, not from a privileged strata dependent upon exploitation.  Class essentialism, however, denies this argument because, due to its philosophical commitments, can only understand class outside of history and society.  "Proletarian" thus becomes a magical formula: it is always and only this––often meaning white, male, trade-unionized.

But class is a social relation, something that is made rather than found, and this was one of Marx and Engels' great insights.  Prior to the emergence of capitalism, class position was understood differently: if you were born a peasant that was your identity ordained by God, the heavens, etc.  A supernatural order defines social hierarchy, your class position is in your blood.  The rise of capitalism revealed the inaccuracy of this way of seeing the world by demystifying these relations, often violently, and by reducing everything to its crude economic logic: class could be made because our destiny was not an essence defined by some natural order.  And yet today's crude class reductionism clings to a pre-capitalist notion of class.

This class essentialism, where a specific class position operates like a Platonic form, can also lead class reductionists to claim that, regardless of their current class position, if they were born into a working class family then they are still intrinsically proletariat.  Again, this ignores the very meaning of class by transforming it into a cultural essence rather than understanding it as a social relation.

2.  Class Culturalism

Here I need to qualify my position so that it is not misunderstood.  As another good comrade recently pointed out, being born into an immigrant working class family, for example, does influence one's understanding of and relationship to class.  Class position does produce culture; the children of the privileged classes have an easier time becoming privileged themselves, as well as navigating their class, then someone from a lower-classed background.  Class, though not itself a cultural essence, is always clothed in culture.

But because class is always clothed in culture, then it is impossible to speak of a single and hegemonic proletarian or bourgeois culture.  It is also impossible, as I know the comrade mentioned above would agree, to imagine that class is not raced or gendered.  If we take the cultural aspect of class seriously in a concrete and materialist manner, then we cannot be selective when it suits us: we have to also engage with the entire cultural sphere which is not limited to the culture of whiteness, maleness, etc.  Reducing class to a singular cultural essence, therefore, actually prevents us from understanding the cultural dimension of class: class becomes misunderstood as nothing more than one set of clothes it wears; when it changes its wardrobe, or is stripped naked, we become confused.

Confusion over a concrete historical materialist understanding of class actually (as I mentioned in the prior post, cited above, about this issue) results in the very identity politics that class reductionism claims to resist.  Once class is a singular cultural essence, after all, then it becomes an identitarian position.  This is why Sakai's Settlers is often denounced: "How dare Sakai question my understanding of my class identity!"

And those responsible for this class reductionism––those who attack anti-racists for engaging in "identity politics"––also engage in the most banal identity politics whenever they are accused of racism and pro-imperialism.  For example, when a political line is critiqued as expressing a pro-colonial politics, the class reductionist can argue that, since someone from a third world background supports this political line then the line is not colonial.  Clearly this argument flows from class reductionist identity politics: if someone was born in a context of oppression, and experienced oppression, then their consciousness must automatically be one that supports anti-oppressive politics.  The actual political content of any position can therefore be ignored because an essential identity can always and only produce revolutionary politics.  Thus "identity politics" ultimately finds its most bankrupt expression at the nadir of class reductionism.


  1. Excellent post.

    Regarding the first part, on class essentialism, Sakai makes a good point in "When Race Burns Class" (or at least I am pretty sure it was Sakai in WRBC) that there is a need to tease apart working class and proletariat as terms of description.

    The proletariat is Marx's revolutionary subject, the people who because of their position in the global capitalist order have nothing to lose but their chains. Just being working class, as you correctly point out, does not automatically make one proletarian. The working class of the settler-colonial nations (America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Israel) are dependent upon the exploitation and oppression of colonized people, both those captive within their territories (Natives and African people in North America) and in the so-called Third World.

    As a nation the settlers, including their working class (which Sakai most certainly does not deny the existence of, which is a point I think some people miss) are elevated above everyone else.

    As the Uhuru Movement puts it, they stand on a pedestal built from the genocide and displacement of Native people, the plundering of Africa for its human and natural resources, and imperial and colonial policies and relations throughout the world generally. As such, it's not the industrial white working class who are the revolutionary agents, because they are not those people who have nothing to lose but their chains.

    I think you hit the nail on the head by locating this particular way of thinking about class within the Trotskyist tradition. I spent a long time as a Trotskyist, aligned with the reunified Fourth International internationally, and with the New Socialist Group and Solidarity in North America, and it is exactly this way of thinking about class, of approaching the colonial and settler questions in North America that was one of the things that in the end drove me out of it.

  2. Also, would you mind I reblogged this article?

  3. The points you make are excellent. Especially zeroing in on the fact that Sakai does not deny the existence of the working class and how people (especially those who do not read, or lazily read, the book) miss this fact. If anything, Sakai's concept of settlerism really does a good job of explaining the race/class issue, particularly in America (and needs to be articulated according to the concrete context of Canada).

    Yeah, I don't want to attack Trotskyism like so many others do - I do have good friends who came through the Trot movement - but this way of thinking about class is so connected to that current.

    You're always welcome to reblog.

  4. I don't know how anyone who lives in this society can read Sakai and not make the connection. Perhaps it strikes too hard at the core of things, stirs up too many uncomfortable truths, and leads too many very difficult conclusions. In short, like revolutionary communism in general, it scares the pants off of people; especially people who take their "progressiveness" for granted.

    I loved every word of it.

    Settlers was one of those reads that had a real impact. When I read the line "This is a reconnaissance into enemy territory", I knew I was in for the real deal. The reviewers you mention knew that too, loaded their pants, and started scribling (I'm fairly certain) not too long after reading that introduction.

    By the way, we've got the Vote With Your Feet poster up on the front door and we're printing more up to pass around. I'll try emailing again.


  5. Excellent post! This conflation of working class and proletariat wreaks all kinds of havoc when it comes to the actual content of political organizing and is reflected in some of the demands certain groups/trade unions pursue.

    The inability of the working class and its labour leadership in trade unions to articulate the fundamental contradiction in Canada--the colonial question--leads to a host of other issues concerning other oppressed groups, nationalities etc. The inability of trade unions to tackle this question within their own ranks reinforces the most crass kind of Canadian nationalism and does produce a 'white backlash'...

    This question is absolutely crucial.

    I love to quote Butch Lee:

    "Just as the early euro-amerikan capitalists took a class relationship, that is a hierarchical structure of economic roles and property relations, between themselves and their slave proletarians, and gave it the outward clothing of race. In class society, what is man-made is always disguised as the natural, the biological, or the Holy. What we think of as race or gender or nationality is class in drag."

  6. As Rowland indicated above in reference to Sakai, the inability to tease apart working class and proletariat does indeed lead to political problems. It also leads people to easily denounce what Sakai is saying when he writes "the mythology of the white proletariat."

    We also have to question, as I know you agree, why the heck the white working class is often so willing to indulge in racist back-lashes. If this was just a bourgeois ideology used to "divide the working class" [but a *white* working class divided from what? itself?], then why is it often so easily accepted? It is at this point we need to examine, obviously, class consciousness.

    And I have always loved that quote by Butch Lee.

  7. I'm confused, can someone describe the difference between working class and proletariat? I've always thought that these terms were synonymous, and a google search doesn't seem to help.

  8. There are entire books and articles written on this (one of which is Settlers) so this is going to be a gross simplification.

    Marx's concept of the proletariat is: those upon whose labour class society is built, those who have nothing left to lose but their chains, and those who are able to understand the necessity to overthrow society. It is more than just a functional position but is also about consciousness. Marx spoke of "class in itself" and "class for itself" - the latter being about consciousness, an understanding of being against capital, and an important qualification for "the proletariat." The class in itself is just the working class, simply put, not a revolutionary subject.

    Also, since the proletariat is supposed to be the foundation upon which capitalist class society is built - those who have nothing left to lose and whose labour is the bedrock of capital - then sectors of the working class at the centre of imperialism, especially in colonial countries, may not always be the proletariat. It is clear that *some* factory labour at the centres of capitalism, for example, is not necessarily the fundamental labour, at the point of production. It is also clear that large sectors of the [predominantly white] working class do not have "nothing left to lose but their chains."

  9. Thanks for this great post -
    I found it very helpful to read some of the Trotskyist theories that end in class reductionism. It's something I don't know much about.

    I also really appreciate the distinction between working class and proletariat, terms which I have also used synonymously. To make sure I understand, I'll use an example from my own area of interest. A woman who performs unwaged labour in the home is working class, but is not necessarily proletariat. Is that right, or do I have it in reverse?

  10. Huh... That's a good question. Since I think that reproductive labour is often foundational to a lot of waged labour, I think that sometimes the woman who performs unwaged labour at home can be proletariat and not working class. Of course, if she's part of the larger labour aristocracy and thus connected to her family's waged incorporation (because capitalism does structure the family) in a privileged tier of workers, then she might have a lot to lose, lifestyle wise, and that will affect her consciousness. I think there's a lot of good investigation, though, that still needs to be done around class and reproductive/unwaged labour...

  11. I agree... And I'm working on it! ;)

    And that actually is one of the debates in the feminist literature on class that I have been reading (which is admittedly largely looked at in a hetero-normative manner in some ways, but which certainly expands the scope of analysis): Is a woman's class position tied to her husband's? There are arguments for and against this, but I think ultimately the answer is yes - and due in large part to what you point to as the way in which capitalism structures the family.

  12. Clearly the family does help structure class under capitalism... Looking forward to reading your final word on the matter!

  13. Earlier on in my political development I wrote off studying Sakai - not so much that I was committed to defending the white working class but because I tended to judge a theory by the company it keeps. The people that I saw gravitating towards Sakai described the theory crudely and used it to justify their own abdication of revolutionary organizing and fetishistic approach to the Third World and indigenous peoples. The theory worked nicely to justify their own failure. "It's not that I can't figure out a mass line or that I look like a weirdo and turn people off! It's because there's no working class here!"

    I'm glad there's more sensible coverage of Sakai's work recently. His theory needs better defenders and I'm looking forward to engaging with it more deeply.

  14. I agree that some of the people who have defended Sakai in the past have interpreted it in very simplistic ways. It is good to know that his theory is reemerging and being treated with the sophistication it deserves.

  15. I read Sakai again recently and one thing struck me his comment that race was "raw class" which was also why it was explosive.

    How do you interpret that comment of Sakai's ?

  16. It's been a while since I've read Sakai (I scanned my old reading notes when I wrote that review of the annoying reviews): it's difficult to remember specific quotes. What was the actual context?

  17. We have to really get it that race issues aren’t the opposite of class issues. That race is always so electrically charged, so filled with mass power, precisely because it’s about raw class

    J Sakai - When Race Burns Class

    The raw and cooked idea is Claude Levi Strauss what do you make of it in this context ?

  18. Oh, that was in the interview...

    Well I think he's just arguing that race, especially in a settler-colonial context, is completely about class rather than about simply "culture." I don't think the "raw" is meant to be some special conceptual definition, but just a rhetorical flourish to emphasize his point. But since you seem to have an idea about Levi Strauss' notion of raw/cooked (I'm not ver familiar with Levi Strauss) you might have a more accurate reading.

  19. The raw/cooked in Levi Strauss is about nature/culture therefore I read it has race being "nature" class being "culture' or cooked race. Raw Class = Race.

    Maybe I am reading something that is not there ?

    What do you think ?

  20. I don't know... I think it's problematic to classify race as "nature" and class as "culture" since both are social categories.


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