Beyond Berlatsky or What is Class Consciousness?

Charges of "class first" leftism or "class reductionism" distract us from long-standing problems within the socialist tradition that still need to be sorted out.

On December 5th, 2020 ARC digital media published an essay by Noah Berlatsky entitled “Why Class-First Leftists Are Wrong.” The essay is just the latest salvo in the ongoing war between factions within the US Democratic Party. It’s part of an onslaught from the right-wing of the Democrats meant to crush whatever remains of the New New Deal social democratic wing. 

Taken at face value Berlatsky’s argument is easy enough to refute. 

To begin with, Berlatsky creates a strawman version of his opponent Ben Burgis. Burgis is not a “class first” leftist, because he does not prioritize some abstract class struggle ahead of any specific political struggle that might be taken up today.

In fact, almost none of the positions that Berlatsky attributes to Burgis are really what he, or anyone else who would consider themself a socialist or even a social democrat, might hold. Burgis does not believe, for example, that the oppression working-class people face is more real than the oppression people of color or that queer people suffer under.

Berlatsky is arguing in bad faith, relying on moralism and sentiment to carry the day over reason and coherence, but this is hardly worth commenting upon. It’s, after all, his preferred mode of analysis. What might be worth examining is how Berlatsky’s incoherence hinges upon a difficulty that has plagued the socialist left for at least a century.

Berlatsky wrote, “the contours of class, and the exact definition of working people or the poor, are fuzzy and arbitrary, in much the same way that the contours of any identity are fuzzy.”

For socialists, the question of what constitutes a class can be separated out into three distinct questions or categories. You can conceive of class in strictly economic terms, or as your relationship to work and production. You can conceive of your class as a political commitment, determined by your participation in struggles in the workplace, within a party, or with or within the State. And you can conceive of your class as something that sets the terms for or determines your consciousness, which amounts to an epistemological or ideological worldview but not a fixed cultural identity or biological type. This third form of class consciousness, while theoretically separable from the others, would only arise in fact from either one’s relationship to production, or from one’s political commitments, or from both.

For Western Marxists like Lukacs, working-class consciousness is nearly the same thing as Marxism. In order to be working class through and through you’d have to cover all three registers or categories. You’d have to be seeking or receiving a wage relation, you’d have to be struggling with the bosses for better conditions, and you’d have to understand the totality of capitalism through Marx’s categories as something to be overcome.

Hello Zero Books readers, in this video we’ll be taking up Georg Lukacs’ Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat and Theodor Adorno’s Philosophical Elements of a Theory of Society in order to better understand the third register of class or class as a form of consciousness. We’ll aim to clarify how class consciousness is not a kind of identity thinking nor an ideology, but a revolutionary struggle. Along the way, we’ll dispose of Noah Berlatskey’s arguments against class politics as we read excerpts from Stephen Paxton’s “Unlearning Marx” and try to solve a Rubik’s Cube.

In Berlatsky’s essay “Why Class-First Leftists Are Wrong” he asserts that “Marx would have considered prisoners and sex workers to be lumpenproletariat, not part of the working class, and therefore not in the revolutionary vanguard.” He follows this by asking the rhetorical question, “Is that an objective statement of material conditions, or a reflection of Marx’s prejudices?”

These lines are a good example of how arguments against “class first leftists” are so damaging to the struggle for socialism. Not only is the idea of a “class first left” purely fictional, but worse the creation of such a position can only be accomplished by suppressing class consciousness. Instead of understanding class as something that changes historically, the categories of capitalism as something that are changed through struggle and/or the internal contradictions of capitalism, this reproach of Marx for his designation of prisoners and sex workers as lumpenproletariat assumes that class and class consciousness is a fixed and ahistorical essence. 

When Marx wrote of the lumpenproletariat in The Eighteenth Brumaire, when he described the lumpen as “vagabonds, discharged convicts, runaway galley slaves, charlatans, pickpockets, brothel keepers, literati, tinkerers, short the entirely undefined, disintegrating mass,” he was describing the group enlisted in a political struggle between Napoleon and the French National Assembly after the defeat of the revolutions of 1848. 

He was not defining a permanent identity of lumpenproletariat for all time.

In order to better understand the lumpenproletariat today, we should not look to the list of professions and types that Marx included in the Eighteenth Brumaire, but instead, we should look to how he described the reserve army of the proletariat in Capital, Volume 1. We should not ask how the group lined up during a particular historical struggle but rather look to how different types relate to capitalist production today, or how the formation of a lumpenproletariat serves the interests of capital and capital accumulation. It is only when we are considering the lumpen as arising from the logic of the ongoing process of capitalist development that we can discover what it means to be lumpen with the reserve army of the proletariat today. 

For Marx, the formation of an industrial reserve army is necessitated both by the periodic crises inherent to capitalism and by the uneven expansion of capital accumulation. He argued that capitalists need a reserve army of workers in order to be flexible in the deployment of labor. They need to be able to employ masses of workers in newly developing sectors, such as, in Marx’s time, the railroads, without having to steal workers away from other parts of the economy which are necessary for the totality of capitalism to function. The lumpenproletariat is conceived of as a subset of this reserve army.

As described in the Eighteenth Brumaire the sort of consciousness that develops within the lumpenproletariat isn’t determined by the lumpen’s relation to production alone, nor by the way their immiseration serves capital’s interests, but can only be understood by evaluating this economic reality alongside the political forces that are working on the masses. In France, back in 1850, the lumpenproletariat’s reactionary consciousness arose from both their miserable conditions, the cultural stigma they operated under, and the way they were organized by Napoleon the Third.

There is no comparable reactionary lumpen political movement today, despite appearances to the contrary.

In the upcoming book “Unlearning Marx” Stephen Paxton quotes the British historian EP Thompson on the topic of class. Thompson wrote: “When we speak of a class we are thinking of a body of people… who define themselves in their actions and in their consciousness...Class itself is not a thing, it is a happening.”

If we understand class in this way, if we think of class as something people create politically in order to act in their own collective interest as opposed to a fixed identity, a thing, which people simply are, then we get a better understanding of the effect people like Noah Berlatsky have when they oppose class politics by misrepresenting it. When taken seriously Berlatsky’s politics act to disrupt the formation of a political class movement. 

However, it is too easy to focus our attention on our ideological enemies. If we want to truly understand why class politics is so elusive we should consider how capitalism works materially to reproduce itself. Understanding how capitalism creates its own politics, its own ideological frameworks, is an essential component of developing class consciousness.

In his essay, Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat Georg Lukacs explored how the objective conditions of capitalist production influence the subjectivity of the people trapped inside this system. 

For Lukacs, the key to our contemporary consciousness, to bourgeois consciousness (a consciousness that I would argue can arise within a wage worker just as it can arise in a capitalist boss) is how the production of commodities shapes not just our economic but social life.

Lukacs wrote that “the reified mind necessarily sees [the world of commodities] as the form in which its own authentic immediacy becomes manifest and - as reified consciousness - does not even attempt to transcend it. On the contrary, it is concerned to make it permanent by ‘scientifically deepening’ the laws at work. Just as the capitalist system continuously produces and reproduces itself economically on higher and higher levels, the structure of reification progressively sinks more deeply, more fatefully, and more definitively into the consciousness of man.”

This reified mind is a mind that takes its own immediate experience, the framework that supports its perception of reality, to be objective and fixed. This sort of person understands the ways he is directed to act upon and shape the world through commodity production and exchange, and he sees this as identical with his own self and his own desires. Far from seeking a new way of producing his life he concerns himself with perfecting the process he’s already acting out. And as he goes along working within a commodified world the more deeply that world etches itself upon his psychological and social character.

And this reification arises in nearly every layer of society, and perhaps especially within the struggle for socialism or Marxism itself.

For example, in 1964 the father of critical theory Theodor Adorno gave a series of lectures attempting to lead students through an immanent critique of sociology and philosophy. The lectures have since been translated into English and published by Polity Press.

Some of the claims in the book are sound. For instance, Adorno notes that sociological surveys treat people’s opinions about themselves as empirical and objective data and not as records of subjective expressions of ideology. What these surveys leave out is how opinions are the products of a media industry that includes the sociologists themselves. However, even Adorno can go astray and get caught up in reification.

In an aside Adorno echoes the Communist manifesto by claiming that the act of exchanging living labor for wages presupposes the class system. Now, this may sound similar to Marx’s claim that “In bourgeois society, living labor is but a means to increase accumulated labor,”  however, in the Manifesto Marx is referring to living labor as it is utilized by the “bourgeois society,” as a whole, while Adorno is taking aim at the particular fact that this society is shaped by market exchanges.  

He claims that if you have to sell yourself on the job market you’ll inevitably end up in a situation wherein you cannot actually realize your own possibilities and talent but must largely follow what is demanded of you by a boss.

On the level of what might be called “lived experience” this is nearly a truism. But, conceiving of the class dynamic inherent to the wage relation in terms of the exchange of living labor for a wage leads away from a deeper truth about class and the bourgeois society from which it arises. 

The bourgeois worldview is one wherein freedom and equality are synonymous. The notion of a fair day’s labor for a fair day’s works is justified on the basis of this notion of equality. The work you do is thought to be equal in value to the wage you receive.

If this were true then selling yourself on the job market would not presuppose a class system. One could imagine a world or a society similar to the former Soviet Union only with a truly democratic state at its center. In a world wherein the problem with capitalism was our inability to shape or decide how we use our labor power specifically in terms of what we produce and how we produce it, an equal exchange on the labor market could be true freedom. After all, as democratic participants in the State, each worker could have a say in setting the terms of his or her work. If the difficulty with the wage relation was the exchange itself then what would be required could easily be managed by State power. All that would be required would be mandated full employment and a fair evaluation of the value of living labor. 

However, the exchange of a worker’s time for a wage is not really about exchanging what Adorno calls “living labor” for money, but rather it is an exchange of what Marx called labor power for money. One’s labor power is one’s ability to work and it has real price on the market, a fair enough price as its value really is equal to its price. ANd the lowest wage you can get is a wage that equals the amount of money required to keep you fed, sheltered, clothed, and well enough to come to work the next day.

The contradiction in the wage relation is not the fact that it is a hegemonic relation that one must participate in, but rather the contradiction arises from the difference between the value of labor power and the value produced by living labor. To be clearer, and to step beyond the lingo, what this means is that real sensuous work produces commodities and these things have value, but the living labor itself does not have any value or any price. Labor power, the promise to arrive at work and do your best, has value and a price. Your labor power is the one commodity you really own if you’re a worker, but it is a special kind of commodity because the use of the commodity of labor power is what creates the value used to set up exchanges in the market. 

In order to set up his observation on the problem of exchange Adorno mentions and then explains the concept of a ‘leonine contract’. A leonine contract is a contract between unequal parties where the terms are set by the party with the most power. The example Adorno gives is the contract between a mouse and a lion wherein the mouse agrees to be eaten.

But, this analogy between the leonine contract and the wage relation reinforces the false notion that the difficulty is either unfair wages or the threat of unemployment. As Adorno puts it, “the workers will face hunger and have nothing to live on if they do not enter into the contract for work,” but this is only true in a society wherein unemployment threatens, a society without deep democratic participation, a society that maintains what Marx called the reserve army of labor.

It’s worth being reminded that this reserve army is not the consequence of a political decision but arises out of the process of production for exchange. It arises out of the fluctuations in profitability that are inherent to capitalism.

Adorno calls his position on the consciousness arising out of the exchange relation (as opposed to production for exchange) “heretical” because, Adorno says, Marx believed that “power could arise” out of the formal contract for wages. This is another way of saying that Marx believed that the working class as such could create a power capable of overturning capitalism. That is, on the one hand, Adorno is rejecting the idea that tailing after workers and their struggles as workers is sufficient for the overcoming of capitalism, but on the other Adorno’s notion of capitalism is one-sided. By ignoring what he calls, “an ideal-typical and ahistorical model” of capitalism in favor of the psychological experience of immiseration and precarity, Adorno ends up, however briefly, reproducing what Lukacs would call a reified consciousness.

In his lecture, Adorno points to the truism of inequality and precarity to denounce what really amounts to the kind of generalized coercive quality that would arise out of any mediated social arrangement, rather than carefully analyzing the nature of commodity production and the logic that arises from it.

In the next essay, I’ll continue to explore Lukacs’ essay Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat as we struggle to draw a connection between the commodity form and what we might call Capitalist realism, or alternatively, the ideology of the ruling class.