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"Dividing the Working Class"?

The marxist analysis that explains the existence of x oppression as merely an ideology promoted by capitalism to "divide the working class" is an analysis I have always found extremely crude and theoretically useless.  Usually this analysis is the result of a class essentialism that, in its effort to foreground class struggle, ends up explaining oppressions as supposedly outside of the proletariat-bourgeois contradiction (i.e. racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.) and thus imported by a ruling class conspiracy.  In the entry linked above, as well as other similar entries, I have tried to explain how to understand other oppressions in a manner that does not simply treat them as an imported ideology (but instead attempts to understand them in a historical manner that connects with class composition) so I'm not going to retread old ground here.  Rather, I'm interested in discussing the larger problems that have led me to be deeply dissatisfied with this "dividing the working class" explanation that continues to haunt marxist analyses of oppressions that do not, at first glance, seem to be coextensive with class exploitation.

1.  General lack of explanatory depth

The "dividing the working class" explanation seems to be a rather spurious and hastily made explanation that, due to its sloppiness and haste, fails to express the explanatory depth required of a scientific analysis.  Okay, so capitalists want to keep the workers divided––in general, this explanation makes sense because workers are kept separated, divided, and set against each other in competition as part of the basic structures of capitalism.  Furthermore, divisions along race and gender lines, for example, clearly do produce even more animosity.

At the same time, however, divisions that result from some oppressions might actually, if we were to think only of capitalism according to the abstract economic logic described in Capital, get in the way of the generation of surplus necessary for the reproduction of capital.  For instance, it might have made more sense to allow for men and women to work equally as exploited proletarians since this would allow for: a) a larger potential work force and thus a larger reserve army of labour; b) would avoid any pesky feminist revolts undermining the day-to-day functioning of capital.  And though it is correct to suppose, as the Italian marxist feminists have, that the labour performed in a feminized "domestic" sphere is necessary reproductive labour, it is also correct to assume that capitalism (abstractly understood) could function without that specific structure, or that maybe it could have done so in a way that wasn't gendered––which is why we need to ask why it was that women, rather than men or rather than all genders, tended to be pushed into the domestic sphere (or, on the broader and global level, why women do most of the world's labour), and this whole "well sexism is just an ideology that divides the working class" political line is rather simplistic.  It doesn't explain very much.

The thing is, the "dividing the working class" explanation is caught in a contradiction that prevents it from providing an epistemic and/or ontological foundation to what it is supposed to explain in the first place.  (That is, it cannot provide the whatshows or whys to the phenomena it seeks to explain… and if you can't explain what something is, how it came to be, or why it exists in the first place, then you really don't have much of an explanation.)  This is the contradiction between an abstract and concrete definition of capitalism.  If it could resolve this contradiction, and find dialectical unity between these opposites, then it would be able to provide a proper explanation of the phenomena of oppression, but such a resolution would mean that it was providing an explanation different from the simple x oppression is just something that divides the working class story that so many of us lazily rely upon whenever we are asked to explain why class struggle is fundamental in "the last instance" despite the obvious existence of other forms of oppression.

So on the one hand, this position recognizes that there is nothing in the abstract functioning of capitalism as an economic order that would explain the existence of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc.  Abstract meaning the way that capitalism is described, and needs to be described, in Capital––isolated from concrete particularities and determinations in an attempt to locate its inner logic, much in the way elements of an experiment are isolated in a laboratory in order to produce scientific theory.  All capitalism needs to reproduce itself as capitalism is the division between the proletariat and bourgeoisie, the latter exploiting the former's labour to generate surplus value.  Therefore we can imagine "possible world" capitalisms, that might have emerged had history been different, where the basic economic system of capitalism is wearing different clothes, possesses a somewhat different superstructure, and might not at all be racist, sexist, etc.––or, perhaps, a capitalism that is racist and sexist in a different way.  Actually, all we have to do is look at the different articulations of capitalism in various national contexts to realize that even these minor cultural differences mean that capitalism can wear different clothes, though granted, when it comes to real world capitalism, these clothing differences seem to share a similar sense of fashion.

Thus, in order to preserve this pure and abstract understanding of capitalism, where the clothing capitalism wears doesn't matter, there is a temptation to relegate other oppressions to the realm of mere ideology: it's not a part of the economic functioning of capitalism since capitalism-qua-capitalism, according to its abstract logic, doesn't need racism, sexism, etc. to persist.  And if that's the case, and we can't imagine how or why real world capitalism would need these oppressions––and yet it is clear that these oppressions still exist––then the laziest way to make sense of them is to say, "oh they're just made up by the ruling classes to trick the exploited masses into working against their own unity."

On the other hand, capitalism exists in particular concrete forms just as much as it possesses an abstract economic logic.  There is an actually existing capitalism, that emerged in the real world due to the specific course capitalist development took, and that inherited all of the oppressions of past modes of production.  These other oppressions might have nothing to do, abstractly, with capitalism's economic logic but they do have something to do with the way it logically functions now, in every social context, and thus have partially determined its economic mechanics.  In other words, capitalism might not abstractly need a feminized domestic sphere to reproduce itself as capitalism, but actually existing capitalism, in numerous social contexts, sure as hell came to need this sphere.  And capitalists did not one day get together and decide that it would be a good plan to keep sexism alive to "divide the working class"; they inherited the relations of previous patriarchal orders and, still acting according to this inherited ideology, slowly participated in the development of a system that rearticulated them according to the general logic of capitalism.

And yet the "dividing the working class" explanation ends up violating its initial attempt to preserve an abstract notion of capitalism by clumsily attempting to recognize the concrete reality of oppressions that persist in actually existing capitalism.  While it appeals to an abstract notion of capitalism by claiming that oppression x is nothing more than something that "divides the workers" (since capitalism doesn't need these sorts of divisions to function except on a worker-against-worker level), it also argues that there is a necessity to divide the workers and, clearly, if there is such a necessity than capitalism does seem to need these sorts of divisions in the first place.

So on the one hand this explanation claims that other oppressions only affect the economic base of capitalism as an alien ideology that has nothing to do with the "authentic interests" of the proletariat; on the other hand, it claims that the converse "authentic interests" of the bourgeoisie require an ideological conspiracy when, abstractly, they do not.  Stuck in this lazy and simplistic definition, it cannot explain the whys and hows of this necessity besides the fact that it exists: it is a pat answer, an attempt at an epistemic foundation that it refuses to question although it raises questions, and is always given, without very much thought, whenever questions of racism, sexism, etc. are raised.

2.  Chauvinist practice

Then there is the long-standing historical problem that this "dividing the working class" political line has actually produced a practice that prevents broad sectors of the oppressed masses from dealing with the fact of actually existing oppression.  There are innumerable examples of people being told that their complaints about racism, sexism, etc. are complaints that could "divide the working class" and prevent the unity necessary for class revolution.  Therefore, just as racists and sexists are told that their racism and sexism are a ruling class conspiracy that works against their "true" class interests, victims of racism and sexism have been told that their attempts to resist this oppression is also divisive.  This is a dismal echo of the liberal "why can't we all get along" logic that, ignoring the class division that makes capitalism possible, imagines that the proletariat and bourgeoisie can collaborate to make a better world. But a better world is possible only when the exploiting class is made to pass away as a class… Similarly, a better world is only possible when oppressive groups are made to vanish as oppressive groups.

Thankfully, even most leftists who define other oppressions as nothing more than ideologies that divide the working class no longer argue that it is divisive for oppressed groups to struggle against the terms of their oppression.  Most of us have learned that such a political practice has led to the alienation of broad sections of the extremely exploited proletariat who, for example, could not unite with workers who also wanted to have them lynched.  Yes, there are still a few fringe puritans who will argue this backwards political line about "unity", but most will only bring their "dividing the working class" analysis to bear on the issue of oppression itself rather than attempt to use it as a deterrent for anti-racist, feminist, queer-positive, etc. struggles for self-determination.

The problem, however, is that this analysis logically produces the argument that struggling against oppressions other than class oppression is divisive.  This is simply the only logical conclusion that follows from the premise that oppressions outside of class exploitation are nothing more than phenomena designed to divide the working class.  For if these oppressions are only a conspiracy foisted upon the proletariat by the bourgeoisie, then the duty of even those proletarians who experience the full weight of this conspiracy is to treat it as a trick because, if they don't, they will be acting according to the divisive intentions of the conspirators.

Point being: you cannot define the existence of x oppression as nothing more than "capitalism dividing the working class" and have a political practice that adequately takes into account the experience of oppression that large sectors of the proletariat experience.

3.  "Authentic" unity?

This entire "dividing the working class" analysis is premised on the belief that there is some default unity that every proletarian shares and if they just reach down deep enough they'll realize this unity and stop dividing according to the nefarious plots of the bourgeoisie.  But the proletariat emerged as a class already divided according to concrete circumstances; it might share the fact that it is exploited by the bourgeoisie but this is not, by itself, enough to produce an awareness of some authentic unity that, like a Platonic essence, can be recognized through recollection.

Indeed, there are entire sections of the working class that are able to possess a certain amount of privilege due to the greater exploitation of other sections.  And theories of the labour aristocracy, as unpopular as they might be for some marxists, are usually attempts to explain why some workers are more than happy to endorse multiple forms of oppression because these oppressions might allow them to be in unions that exclude others.  Different consciousnesses emerge from different proletarian positionalities and it is "authentic" for someone whose more privileged form of labour is contingent on a more exploited form of labour to resist demands that would require hir to share hir privilege.

None of this is to say that there isn't a necessity for every section of the proletarian to realize that there is a common need to overthrow the bourgeoisie, only that this consciousness is not something every proletarian is naturally inclined to recognize.  For if this was the case, then there would have been no need for Lenin and others to spend so much time theorizing the necessity of a revolutionary party capable of producing this unity of consciousness.  Lenin argued that without a revolutionary party there could be nothing but trade union consciousness; I would extend this logic and say that without a unifying revolutionary party there can't be a unified proletarian consciousness.

In some contexts, privileged sections of the working class already possess a consciousness that is not "authentically" biased towards proletarian unity.

The fact is that the proletariat came into being already divided, a division which preceded some bourgeois plot, and that we would be bad historical materialists if we just explained the division away as simply division rather than attempting to trace the historical meaning of this division.  For to say it only exists because it is an ideology promoted by capitalism simply to divide ultimately begs the question: why does it work so well, where did it come from, and why the hell do these divisions resembled divisions that existed before capitalism and might have been part of the way capitalism emerged as capitalism?

All explanations that remain trapped on the level of simple division are lazy and fail to produce any practice capable of addressing the problems of actually existing capitalism.  If we are to build unity, then we cannot waste our time speaking about an "authentic" unity that eclipses the reality of an even more "authentic" disunity.  We must begin by recognizing that division exists, asking why it exists and, instead of grounding our whys in the simple fact of division, attempting to solve this problem of division by granting that there are oppressions that are now part of the everyday unfolding of actually existing capitalism.

[If this more onerous-than-usual blogpost catches your fancy, feel free to donate to my soon-to-be-born child's education fund (hopefully to be obsolete when the inevitable socialist revolution happens!) by supporting this blog.]


  1. Great post, JMP. This reflects a lot of what I have been reading about/working on these days. I've been reading Selma James' new book (which is a collection of her previous writings with added contextualization, which you should definitely borrow when I'm done).

    For my project, it's interesting to see the wage as the dividing point in the working class. In both "Sex, Race and Class" and "The Wageless of the World", James identifies waged labour as stratified according to hierarchical divisions. For James, the wage becomes the dividing line not just between men and women, but also between waged workers in "developed" areas and unwaged workers in the so-called "Third World". I think it's really interesting the way James uses a reading of Marx to highlight the power of the wage, showing that while Marx was no feminist he understood the power of the wage and the fact that capitalism was largely built on unwaged labour.

    As for why women have been pushed outside of the wage labour market in certain historical contexts and are assumed to be the performers of social reproduction in the home, the Italian marxist-feminists have certainly provided some interesting analyses (esp. Leopoldina Fortunati, Giovanna Franca Dalla Costa and Mariarosa Dalla Costa). I think Silvia Federici's Caliban and the Witch provides a great historical analysis of the history of patriarchal control over women's bodies, specifically in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Talk about dividing lines! The co-optation of the female body is looked at through the witch-hunts, which were central to breaking relations between women and men, with the female body transformed into a tool for reproducing the labour force.

    Just some ideas - I hope you don't mind me using your blog to work through some of this!

    1. I don't mind at all; this is all interesting stuff, of course, and I did briefly tangent on the concept of reproductive labour––so best to have a commenter who specializes in this area (and will probably become the next academic authority on this area, lol) chime in to elaborate.

      I definitely agree that *Caliban and the Witch* is one of the best sources (along with Maria Mies' "Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale") for understanding patriarchy and how it intersected with the rise of capitalism, and I think she provides the only substantial historical materialist account of the witch hunts (especially compared to all that pagan crap that claims the witches were all wiccans and that the witch hunts were just religiously motivated and had less to do with patriarchy and the enclosure of the commons).

      Your comment about wages is important not just for reproductive labour but for a broad concept of the proletariat as well. The reserve army of labour, for example, was always considered part of the proletariat by Marx in *Capital*, and just as necessary (obviously) as reproductive labour, even though they do not draw a wage when they're jobless. And simplistic theorizations of "lumpenproletariat" are also used to dismiss the reserve army.

      I really do need to pick up that new collection of Selma James. I look forward to the review.

  2. Dude, if I'd read this article through earlier, my response to the Israel/Palestine thing in your "vacuous anti-imperialism" article might have been completely different. I remember just skimming the first paragraph and thinking I'd read the article later. But it actually addresses key issues regarding positions on Ireland, Israel/Palestine, etc.

    What this post made me realize is that as a white, heterosexual Canadian male, I can never really understand what it's like to be a member of a historically disadvantaged group, be it women, an ethnic minority, a colonized people, etc. My only experience of oppression has been as a poorly-paid member of the working class (or, quite often since I graduated, part of the reserve army of labour). So it's harder for me to empathize with those struggles, because from my vantage point, the problem is simply about workers uniting. I do think that in the last analysis, that is the key point. But of course it's easier for me to say that because I've never experienced any of those other types of oppression - that is, I've never been the victim of sexism, racism, homophobia, or any of that.

    The town I'm living in right now is 40% native, and I'm planning to write an article soon about the oppression faced by First Nations peoples, because it's something I see here every day. Even if I have a relatively privileged position, perhaps by making an effort to truly understand the experience of more disadvantaged groups, I can develop a more well-rounded view of how capitalism impacts different demographics.

    1. I think it's a mistake to think you can't really understand these struggles. I think that the point is try to understand these struggles within the overall struggle of the proletariat in this social context, figure out a class analysis that is capable of giving explanatory depth, and uniting with them within an overall proletarian struggle. On the one hand there is the analysis that attempts to reduce everything to a banal "workerism" that ends up not being about the working class but an imaginary working class; on the other hand there is the analysis of identity politics that claims there can be no solidarity. I think proper historical materialism advocates a third, and dialectical, position, that unifies these potential opposites: we say that there can be this kind of difference within an overall proletarian struggle. We say that there can be solidarity, that we don't have to say "since I'm a white heterosexual male I can't understand this", that we can all be part of a larger struggle that also takes into account these demographics. This is difficult to figure out, but it's also the essence of historical materialism: both class essentialism and the post-modern identity politics of difference [in their own separate ways moments of reductionism] abdicate responsibility. So why can't we say in this context that there can be a proletarian solidarity that takes into account the problems of national self-determination faced by Canada's indigenous population? I think we can…

    2. Also: in the last analysis "workers uniting" is the key point... but as Lenin and Mao both pointed out, "the last analysis" is a moment of final dialectical unification. Mao once said that in the "last instance" economics is determining, but then went on to point out how the superstructural level was also co-determining. There are multiple steps before this last analysis, that mediate and are mediated by this last instance. The contradiction between the proletariat and bourgeoisie is fundamental in the last instance, but before this last instance the contradiction is produced by multiple pressures. So we must focus on this last instance and hold it up as the primary moment, but we also must accept that it is produced by other oppressive contradictions. And if we do this we can approach solidarity, in a much larger sense, with a more universal understanding.

    3. God, I love dialectics - truly, the logic of contradiction. Ever since I engaged in a reading group with some comrades to read Hegel's Shorter Logic, I can't help but see everything in dialectical terms. Of course, that doesn't mean that I'm always able to grasp the real nature of the various contradictions, as your reply suggests. But on the other hand, I'm able to more easily grasp the errors in logic I might make because of that higher understanding.

      Long before I became a Marxist, I was pretty much your standard-issue centre-left "progressive", albeit with socialist leanings. The way I thought was basically: progressives are right, conservatives are wrong. That is, I had no way to reconcile those two opposing schools of thought. What I love about Marxism is it allows me to understand the contradictions and integrate them into a greater whole.

      Conservatives are right that national debts are a serious problem - but their solutions of austerity and drastically cutting spending will only exacerbate that problem. Liberals are right that austerity will shrink overall consumer demand and undermine any economic recovery - but on the other hand, their promotion of discredited Keynesian deficit spending to stimulate the economy would ultimately only lead to greater inflation as governments borrowed beyond their means to pay for such programs. As a mere "progressive", I could never reconcile those contradictions. But as a Marxist schooled in dialectics, I can understand them and move beyond them. Ultimately, no solution to the current economic crisis is possible under capitalism.


    4. Well, rock on the rational kernel of dialectics ripped from the mystical shell of Hegel, lol!


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