Breaking Through: Towards Second-Generation Neo-Marxist Class Theory

By Dave Neilson,

The neo-Marxist challenge to the orthodox Marxist approach opened up a period of exciting, but short-lived, innovation. By the end of the 1980s, first generation neo-Marxism was already reaching its limits. It lives on in the present as an unconsciously accepted ‘normal science’ that is overdue for critical renovation.

Orthodox Marxism identifies with the Communist Manifesto narrative that socialist transformation is inscribed in capitalism’s unintentional structural logic. Specifically, the Manifesto predicts that the logic of capitalism will generate class polarization, and relatedly, transform the ‘immense majority’ into the socialist revolutionary proletariat.

Louis Althusser’s work facilitated the first-generation neo-Marxist break with orthodox Marxism. His concept of overdetermination refers to the independent and contingent force of politics and ideology on economic process. This implies, contra orthodoxy, that capitalism’s structural logic is modified in historical practice.

However, Althusser’s famous claim that there is an ‘epistemological break’ in Marx’s work leads to the retention of an orthodox residue. On the one hand, he treats Capital as science because it identifies ‘a process without a subject’, which resonates with the Manifesto’s ‘objectivism’. On the other hand, he dismisses as pre-Marxist ideology the early works that foreground themes of subjectivity. This dismissal includes praxis, which Marx emphasizes in his famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: ‘Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.’

Orthodoxy also went unchallenged because Althusser is silent about the break between the class prognosis of the Communist Manifesto, and the class theory of Capital Vol. 1.

In contrast, my second-generation neo-Marxist reading demonstrates epistemological consistency and complementarity across Marx’s works, while revealing the break-in-account between the Manifesto’s class prognosis and Marx’s mature account of capitalism. In particular, my recent study makes the case that while the Communist Manifesto and Capital Vol. 1 are epistemologically consistent; the analysis of the later shatters the class prognosis of the former.

This reading underpins my second-generation project to reclaim Marx’s Marxism as an open-ended innovative praxis that can make history in the 21st century.

Althusser’s break with orthodoxy nonetheless unleashed a spirit of innovation that encouraged first generation neo-Marxist class theory to address the ‘embarrassing’ empirical gap between the Communist Manifesto prognosis of class polarization and the persisting ‘middle class’. However, Erik Olin Wright’s innovative account circuitously moves back towards the orthodox reading. The ‘middle class’ is not really a class at all, but rather ‘a set of contradictory locations’ between the capitalist class and the working class. Like the orthodox reading of the Communist Manifesto, Wright conflates the capital-labor exploitation relation with empirical class effects.

In contrast, I argue that while the capital-labor relation identifies the essential class antagonism at the economic core of capitalism’s extended reproduction; this logic empirically generates complexly divided and heterogeneous forms of labor.

The Communist Manifesto actually distinguishes the capital-labor exploitation relation from its empirical class effects. Nonetheless, conflation is encouraged. That is, Marx and Engels predict that competition over the rate of exploitation, which drives the increasing dominance of the industrial form of the capitalist labor process, will eventually split society into two ‘warring camps’.

One camp will comprise a small powerful capitalist class who control the means of production globally. The other camp will comprise the industrial working class who will have the same material circumstances and be the world’s ‘immense majority’.

Harry Braverman aligns his seminal analysis of the American Taylorist form of the capitalist labor process with the Communist Manifesto prognosis of two great classes, while theoretically grounding it in Capital Vol. 1. Taylorism coincides with labor’s ‘real subordination’ to the unvarying and deskilling rhythm of the machine system. As in the Manifesto, the capitalist labor process is seen to equally deskill labor and tends towards encompassing the ‘immense majority’.

Following Braverman and Althusser, neo-Marxists miss the break in account between the Communist Manifesto and Capital Vol. 1.

Both accounts do consistently focus on the exploitative effects of labor process mechanization. However, against the dominant view, the Capital Vol. 1 analysis directly contradicts the Communist Manifesto prognosis that the wage earning industrial working class will become the empirical majority. Instead, in Chapter 25 of Capital, Marx predicts that capital accumulation will make labor redundant and lead to a divided and stratified ‘relative surplus population’ becoming the majority.

Today, the neoliberal-led unleashing of capitalism on countries at very different stages of industrialization across the whole planet intensifies the ‘relative surplus population’ effect. In the countryside of non-developed nation states that have just recently being opened up to global capitalist forces, the peasantry confronts the redundancy effects of direct competition with industrialized agriculture.

Dispossessed peasants trudge to the cities with ‘nothing to sell but their labor-power’ but alongside the industrial working class of the advanced industrial capitalist countries, they confront the redundancy effects of rapidly advancing automation.  Relative surplus population tendencies associated with capitalism’s ascendancy and its maturity simultaneously drive labor’s global oversupply.  These surplus population effects also imply capital’s scarcity that turns the competition between nation states unleashed by the ‘neoliberal model of development’ into a zero sum game.

The world’s laboring population presently comprises radically different and competing national class compositions.  Varying national sizes and forms of the employed population correlate with varying sizes and forms of the relative surplus population. The latter includes illegal workers, informal service workers, child laborers, beggars, criminals, the incarcerated, and slaves. As well, laboring populations of non-developed countries include large peasant populations.

This analysis decisively challenges the Communist Manifesto’s prediction that capitalism will result in the immense majority being a working ‘class-in-itself’, i.e., a group of people with similar socio-economic circumstances. It therefore also challenges the Communist Manifesto’s ultimate prognosis: that the logic inscribed in capitalism’s exploitation-based structural dynamic will generate the working class ‘for-itself’. In other words, circumstantial fragmentation undermines the Manifesto’s conclusion that working class subjectively will take the form of a collectively unified socialist political consciousness.

First generation neo-Marxists, following Althusser’s ‘epistemological break’, have precious little to say about subjectivity. Althusser dismisses Marx’s early writing about alienation, praxis and ‘class-for-itself’, and explains away any reference to such themes in the later works as irrelevant residue. Althusser’s seminally innovative concept, overdetermination, does bring in the contingent effects of politics and ideology on capitalism’s structural logic. However, crucially, overdetermination reinforces the objectivism of orthodox Marxism because it removes from consideration the direct historical force of conscious ideas and deliberate intentionality.

Consistent with the denial of the material force of ideas and the dismissal of the early writings, first generation neo-Marxism has been silent on themes of solidarity and political consciousness. However, Marx’s early work on alienation, his account of ‘commodity fetishism’ in Capital Vol. 1, and his various discussions of competition can all be read as challenges to the early prognoses of working class solidarity. These analyses identify divisive forces that alienate individuals from each other and encourage competitive wage-dependent individualisation. As well, Capital Vol. 1 dramatically contradicts the Communist Manifesto argument – necessary for predicting an organic socialist movement – that capitalism renders visible its exploitative core.

Contra the first generation position and central to the second-generation project, praxis is thrust back into the foreground of the class struggle. Paradoxically, Marx’s immense intellectual effort to lay bare capitalism as a ‘process without a subject’ can be read as that of a willful subject. Marx intentionally developed knowledge that could contribute to the making of a collective subject that will transform the capitalist world.

Intellectuals thus become integral to the struggle. Especially given the laboring population’s divided fragmentation, intellectuals have an important role in ideologically constructing the class-for-itself as what Antonio Gramsci called a ‘counter-hegemonic social bloc.’

The first task for intellectuals is making visible the structural interconnections that can bring together the world’s divided laboring population. The second task is linking this interconnectivity with a mid-range socialist project that can progress human civilization beyond the ‘morbid symptoms’ (Gramsci) of the neoliberal project’s present systemic crisis.

To read more, see Dave Neilson, “In-itself for-itself: Towards second-generation neo-Marxist class theory,” Capital & Class 2018.”

originally posted here