30 April 2018

Alberto Toscano: Solidarity and Political Work


A version of this article was originally published at

The topic of our issue is Marx’s 200th birthday. On a most general level and after 150 years since the first volume of Capital was first published: Why should one still read Marx today?

Marx’s writing remains the most formidable effort to weld the drive to understand our world to the practical imperative of its negation. In other words, it is the project, both vital and paradoxical, of creating a partisan and revolutionary science. (In the ‘Confession’ that he penned as a family parlour game in 1865, Marx listed his heroes as Spartacus and Kepler…) Across a variety of genres (journalism, political speeches, philosophical tracts, political-economic treatises, correspondence, polemic, historical narrative, etc.), the corpus of Marx’s writings (very much including those of his partnership with Engels) excels in problematizing that which we experience as our sensory and intellectual ecosystem, namely what he once termed capitalism’s “religion of everyday life”. The image of our social life as a problem, whose lines of solution are to be conjured and cajoled out of its conflicts and blind-spots, its lacunae and contradictions, but also by reading against the grain the stories our society tells about itself, remains indispensable. We need to reactivate the networks of concepts Marx forged to elucidate the capitalism of his age, but we also need – in these stupefying and grotesque times – his capacity for satire, polemic, for the painstaking labour of division that makes a true politics of association possible.

Since the publication of Capital there have been countless ways to read Marx, some of which operated in frustratingly narrow confines and tended to reduce Marx’s work to an objective science of “pure economics”. Do you see chances for more open and heterodox readings of Marx in the reception of his work over the last years and decades? And if so, which are the ideas and general positions that distinguish them?

To streamline and homogenise Marx’s work so that it can be compared (however favourably) to other economic doctrines or integrated into economics is no doubt to strip of its scandalous singularity (that of a reflexively partisan science) as well as to petrify and thus defuse it. A Marxian theoretical practice should instead cleave to the Eighteenth Brumaire’s description of proletarian revolutions, as ones that “criticise themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin it afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses and paltrinesses of their first attempts”. Since Marx’s death, and periodised by the multiple crises of Marxism, readings of his work have gone through several phases or conjunctures of opening and closing, heresy and orthodoxy, deterritorialisation and territorialisation (see Fredric Jameson’s interesting remarks on the nexus of capitalist crisis and post-Marxisms in ‘Five Theses on Actually Existing Marxism’). Many of these were ‘grafting’ operations, which always involved a salutary interrogation of Marx or Marxisms’s self-sufficiency: Kantian Marxism (to correct an ethical deficit), Freudo-Marxism (to offset a libidinal deficit), Third Worldist Marxism (to counter a Eurocentric bias), Marxist feminism (to integrate the gendered specificity of exploitation and social reproduction), and so on. I think that theoretically speaking (the political outlook can only be much gloomier right now) the present moment has greater potential for a revitalisation of a Marxist research open to the unpostponable demands of the present, to the imperative of a problematizing practice that cannot presuppose it already has all the analytical tools at its disposal, as though Marx’s restless, multifarious and unfinished writings provided some kind of secure and comforting canon. The lesson that Stuart Hall drew from Gramsci in the 1980s remains relevant: ‘Gramsci … came face to face with the revolutionary character of history itself. When a conjuncture unrolls, there is no “going back”. History shifts gears. The terrain changes. You are in a new moment. You have to attend, “violently”, with all the “pessimism of the intellect” at your command, to the “discipline of the conjuncture”.’ What we have to ask then is not whether readings of Marx are open, heterodox or heretical – as though these were values in themselves – but whether they subject themselves to the ‘discipline of the conjuncture’, and if that means jettisoning, mutating or demoting certain aspects of Marx’s work, so be it (let’s not forget Marx wasn’t so precious about his own concepts as to cherish them for their own sake). Shining the flickering light of the present onto the corpus of Marx’s writings has brought into relief aspects of his thought that might in other moments have seemed secondary. Or, to try another metaphor, Marx’s texts contain a whole host of chemical reagents that can trigger a kind of theoretical reaction when those texts are introduced into our present. These encounters between Marx (and Marxism) and our moment have given rise to all kinds of vital areas of inquiry, to name a few: the plural temporality of capitalist time and history (in the writings of Massimiliano Tomba, Harry Harootunian and others, in dialogue with material as varied as Benjamin and Bloch’s philosophies of history, Charkrabarty’sProvincializing Europe, and Trotskyist theories of uneven and combined development); ‘real abstraction’ as the distinguishing feature of capitalist domination (building and departing from the insights of Sohn-Rethel, Adorno and others); the revitalisation of Marxist feminist theory (including Black and Third World feminisms, theories of social reproduction, queer perspectives, etc.); an intensified attention to the racialized character of exploitation and to ‘racial capitalism’ more broadly (in thelongue durée of slavery and settler-colonialism); political and philosophical debates on the contemporary figures of communism, communisation, and the “commons”, etc.

How would you evaluate the role of various “postmodern theories” (poststructuralism, postcolonial theory, queer and feminist theories) vis-à-vis the reception of Marx in the last few decades and, in particular, since that crucial “moment” of 1968? Has Marxism gone beyond poststructuralism?

This is probably a reflection of having personally come to serious study of Marx and Marxism after immersion in so-called “post-structuralism” (a term I confess finding of rather limited use), or more precisely la pensée soixante-huit in its more speculative variants (above all in Gilles Deleuze, who was never able to bring to completion his planned bookLa Grandeur de Marx), but I find the slackening of a certain defensiveness among Marxists to be a positive phenomenon overall. While I recognise that the theoretical tendencies you mention were often caught up in a marginalisation of both ‘classical’ and ‘Western’ Marxism that was experienced as a reactive and reactionary process by an earlier generation of scholars and activists, I think the vantage of the present allows for a different attitude, one that maintains a commitment to an ongoing ‘totalisation’ of diverse theoretical perspectives while not imagining that Marxism is some kind of self-sufficient theoretical canon, dead set on either subsuming or fending off rivals. While not going as far as subscribing to Alain Badiou’s nominalist dictum “Marxism does not exist”, I would also dispute that “Marxism” and “post-structuralism” are unified theoretical domains that could be usefully compared to one another. When we speak of them in their unity, I think these are not theories but ideologies (or cognitive maps, perhaps), and as such objects of polemical affirmation or negation (it is in this respect that the ill-conceived debate over post-colonialism triggered by Vivek Chibber’s book strikes me as a mostly sterile ideological quarrel and not a real theoretical dispute, which would of necessity involve “critique” in its more Marxian form). I think much ‘progressive’ academic theoretical production will today include conceptual elements drawn from Marxist and post-structuralist works alike, but will feel less compelled than it might have 10, 20, or 30 years ago to engage in an ideological demarcation (in this respect, I find the Chibber debate politically anachronistic too).

The Marxist concept of “class” is, even within the left, often associated with the white male industrial worker of 19th and 20th century Europe. On that basis some have argued that “class” and class politics doesn’t exist anymore. How would you respond to such claims?

It is one of the tragic outcomes of actually-existing class politics across the twentieth century in Europe and North America in particular, with its constitutive internal demarcations by race, ethnicity, gender, and other markers of difference, that the profound practical and theoretical critiques of the “whitening” of the working class still goes largely unheeded. The finest revolutionary minds of the twentieth century, from Lenin to CLR James, DuBois to Fanon, Rosa Luxemburg to Angela Davis, all variously dismantled that conceit, in the response to the mass movements of women and people of colour who were at the forefront of real challenges to the rule of capital, and yet the trade unions and political parties that marched under the banner of Marxism (or social-democracy) largely reproduced themselves by consolidating that toxic identification – from the exclusion of African-Americans proletarians from many of the gains of the New Deal to the disastrous nationalism of the French Communist Party, from ‘hate strikes’ against the racial integration of trade-unions to the phantasmagorical rebirth of a pseudo-class subject in idiotic slogans like ‘British jobs for British workers’. To rub against the grain of the doxa on class, we could say that it is precisely to the extent that the class came to be laminated onto particular ethno-national and racial identities and cultures, and specifically on varieties of whiteness, that class discourse and politics were neutralised, and that class has been speciously reborn in the contemporary imagination as the most reactive form of ‘identity politics’ (witness Trump, Brexit, the rhetoric of the Front National, etc.). The working class that had nothing to lose but its chains is now replaced by its simulacrum, the one that believes it has everything to lose along with those chains. It’s a dismal sight to see self-described classical Marxists turn to a class ‘analysis’ based on dubious marketing and income methodologies (where the working class is reduced to ‘category C2 and D voters’, for instance) to shore up the claim that contemporary reactionary politics are a symptom of working-class revolt, while at the same time ignoring the most basic of orthodox Marxist lessons, namely the centrality of relations of production to the definition of class – which would at the very least lead one to note that a Romanian fruit-picker in England is far ‘more’ working-class than a real-estate agent or pensioner whose father once worked in a steel mill… If we zoom out from the Euro-American provinces to the rest of the world, and pay attention to the enormous numbers of human beings whose livelihoods (and absence thereof) depend on waged labour – who are proletarianised in the sense of ‘without reserves’ – as well as to the exacerbation of inequality and exploitation across multiple axes, the farewell to class as an analytical and political category appears as a massive case of disavowal, in a quasi-Freudian sense.

  1. Similarly, the left seems to be locked into the unfortunate dichotomy of “class politics” (associated with the figure of the white male worker) on the one hand and so called “identity politics” (issues of gender, race, sexuality etc.) on the other. What, in your opinion, are the more promising avenues that the (radical) left should follow, if it wants to overcome this hindering juxtaposition?

The first step should perhaps be a ruthless (self-)criticism of the degeneration of Marxisant notions of class into identity politics in the first place – abandoning the culturalist fetishizing of geographically and historically minoritarian experiences of industrial labour as the only context for the recognition of class. Conversely, it is important to learn how to discern the classed and anti-capitalist dimensions of what is sometimes misconceived reductively as ‘identity politics’. After all, how could the political movements and militant theorising of those whose labour and lives have been confiscated, devalued and ‘primitively’ accumulated through gendered and racialized exploitation not concern class understood in its most crucial, which is to say its relational dimension? If start from class as a relation rather than class as an identity (an identity that would allow us to demarcate, as too many Marxists beginning  with Marx have done, a good working class from bad lumpen, free from forced labourers, etc.) then we can begin to attend to the invisible ‘iceberg’ of exploitation (to borrow Maria Mies’s characterisation of the role of ‘women, nature and colonies’ in capitalist accumulation, recently revisited and revitalised by Jason W. Moore) which lends class determination its full weight. Ironically, as I already suggested, beginning with a more orthodox, even dogmatic definition of class (relation to the means of production, etc.) would today perforce lead one to recognise how the working class, globally conceived, but also in the so-called ‘North’, is anything but a white, male redoubt. None of this is to ignore that a focus on identity (including in a narcissistic-individual sense) to the detriment of collective experiences of exploitation and antagonism remains an ideological problem, that liberal (or even reactionary) reflexes inhabit us all to varying degrees. But I think that to reproduce this dichotomy – class politics versus identity politics – is not only to freeze the necessary internal debates in the left into the sterile terrain of 1980s skirmishes around postmodernism, but to conceal all the ways in which political and theoretical work across the twentieth century had already dismantled it. Stuart Hall et al.’s turn to the language of experience and mediation in their landmarkPolicing the Crisis is very instructive in this regard, when, in speaking of the Black British proletariat they write: “racial oppression wasthe specific mediation through which this class experienced its material and cultural conditions of life, and hence race formed the central mode through which the self-consciousness of the class stratum could be constructed”. Analogous if not identical arguments could be made in terms of gender or sexuality.

  1. With the current resurgence of right-wing populism in many western countries, there has been much talk about the “forgotten” white male working class that is taking its revenge on a supposed urban and elitist “cultural left”. What do these developments tell us about the uses – or maybe rather abuses – of the Marxist concept of “class” and how can and should an antifascist left react to it?

The problem with these formulations, as is so often the case with ideological phenomena, is that they are at one and the same time phantasmagorias – incoherent congeries of fantasies, nostalgias and wish-fulfilments – and terribly, performatively real. I think it is useful here to remind ourselves of Marx’s famous 1852 letter to Weydemeyer (put to illuminating use in Andrea Cavalletti’s acute essay on class, which I’m currently editing), where he clearly states that it was not he who invented the concept of class, but rather bourgeois historians – and that his contribution was rather tohistoricize class, to envisage thedictatorship of the proletariat, and to posit therevolutionary abolition of class. In other words, there is nothing particularly Marxian or Marxist about reference to class, nor indeed about the idea of class politics, and thus nothing contradictory or unusual about a reactionary politics that uses class as one of its chief signifiers (the history of fascisms and related political and ideological formations teaches as much). With this proviso in mind, there are a multiplicity of non-exclusive responses to this predicament: one can engage in the work of sociological demystification and undermine this inconsistent entity (i.e. ‘the forgotten white working class’); one can explore the historical and material grounds that lead particular sections of workers to develop passionate attachments to their ethno-racialised class identities; one can agitate among the targets of these reactionary discourses; above all perhaps one can foreground the fact that exploitation and exclusion (or indeed social ‘forgetting’) disproportionately affect thenon-white working class. All of this without underestimating the depressing allure of the ‘psychological wages’ of whiteness that DuBois wrote about inBlack Reconstruction, which remind one that any kind of ‘class unity’ or ‘solidarity’ is a very precarious product of political work and not some underlying and secure ground which is merely obfuscated by capitalist brainwashing, liberal ideology or, indeed, ‘identity politics’.