[Marxism] A forwarded message on class

Haines Brown brownh at hartford-hwp.com
Fri Dec 8 06:30:47 MST 2006

I'm assuming that Louis Proyect is merely passing along a statement
from Mike Friedman with the exception of the initial parenthetical
comment. If I'm wrong, my apologies.

> He (Joaquin?) actually didn't "throw out a judgement that social
> distinctions such as race and gender are more important or real than
> class," but merely that race and gender "trump" class in our social
> formation in terms of impeding the development of class
> consciousness on the part of the bulk of white working people. In
> that sense (that of E.P.  Thompson), the working class in this
> country doesn't exist as such.

I'll accept your interpretation of Joaquin's use of the word
"trump". If the original statement meant only that race and gender get
in the way of people acquiring class consciousness, I'd have no
trouble with that. The problem comes with the uncritical acceptance of
E.P. Thompson's view that if a class is not thinking like a class, it
is not a class because it can't otherwise be a historical factor.

Purely objective facts (such as forces of production) can't be
historical factors? Do all forces at work in history reduce to
subjectivity? Is the real engine of historical change metaphysical
Ideas? These are simple questions thrown out just to illustrate the
danger of being parochial. A more cosmopolitan view is that all
historical change necessarily represents "work" (in its technical
sense), and work in turn is always driven by the dissipation of energy
in non-equilibrium systems, and so the fundamental driving force in
history is not subjective. Subjectivity merely struggles to constrain
those objective forces. The obvious point seems to be that our
subjective experience cannot be separated from our objective
existence; class consciousness can't be separated from the dynamics of
the capitalist system.

So we are left with two competing views, E.P. Thompson's atypical view
and the more common one, over whether class exists because it is at
least in part a matter of objective determinations or does it reduce
to subjectivity?  Obviously we can't embrace one side or the other on
this issue without some argument, for E.P. Thompson is widely admired,
but so too is a century of sociology.

I wouldn't presume to attempt a full answer this question, but instead
would like to look briefly at just one of its aspects.

It might seem common sense that a class that lacks any consciousness
of itself as a class cannot for that reason represent an historical
force; it would only be a theoretical construct lacking empirical
effect; we can ignore it. I'm not sure this is a fair representation
of Mike's (or E.P. Thompson's) views, but it raises a fundamental
issue that must be addressed.

In terms of common sense, the statement seems obviously true, but
common sense often betrays us. I believe the basic issue is whether or
not one adopts empiricist assumptions (as E.P. Thomson did).

People are often annoyed by tedious philosophical argument, and so
I'll try to keep it short. It is not hard to show that empiricism is a
static view that takes a body of observational data as representing
the entire truth of a situation. The relationships among the data
(proximity [to associate a cause with an effect], constant conjuncture
[to infer general laws], or function [to define the interdependency of
things]) are only inferred in empiricism. They are not considered

For example, to put this in more concrete terms, in a particular
situation in which class does not appear to be a major factor, we have
no way of knowing if it is simply an effect of a particular
conjuncture. An empiricist reduction of a system to a collection of
factors offers no _explanation_ at all of the dynamic of the system
nor the real significance of its parts. Some factor might appear
insignificant in terms of observational data, but it may be critical
for the operation of the system, or its insignificance may be only
temporary in light of our understanding of system dynamics.

We cannot understand and therefore cannot effectively act in a
situation without understanding it in systemic and dynamic terms. For
example, a particular small segment of the working class may have
class consciousness, while the majority do not. This situation is
typical in history, but it is also clear that the relation between
this minority and the whole of the class is dynamic and requires real
explanation. Dismissing a minority simply because empirically it
happens to be a minority is very unrealistic, although in empirical
terms quite justified, where the significance of a factor is a
function of its observable magnitude.

Marxism is not empiricism. I hope everyone understands and agrees with
that. To embrace empiricism, as I believe E.P. Thompson did, these
days is to tread on very thin ice. That was not evident in Thompson's
formative years, but it has become increasingly so in recent
decades. It also does not mean that the opposite viewpoint (Althusser
in this case), was necessarily right either.

My point is that empiricism is much a part of the Anglo-capitalist
ideological world, but anyone who follows the development of science
knows that it has suffered fundamental challenges from people such as
Kuhn, Feyeraband, Popper and Lakatos. I'm not saying that
neopositivism is necessarily a viable alternative, but only that
empiricism can no longer be presumed to be unproblematic.

Here's a few titles that elaborate my point about the limitations of
empiricism. I've picked them at random and not because they
necessarily represent the best choices (although these are among the
top names in the field of the philosophy of science):

Wesley C. Salmon, Four Decades of Scientific Explanation (Pittsburgh,

Rom Harré, The Philosophies of Science (Oxford, 1986).

Roy Bhaskar, Scientific Realism & Human Emancipation (London, 1986).

Patrick Suppes, Probabilistic Metaphysics (Oxford, 1984).

Nicholas Rescher, Process Philosophy (Pittsburg, 2000).

For something easier, the Wikipedia article on "empiricism" has some
useful bibliographical citations that reveal empiricism's
limitations. This article, however, seems to imply that as
phenomenalism and logical positivism fell by the side, a rational
empiricism (pragmatism, instrumentalism, operationalism), survives in
good shape embedded in the scientific method. The books I listed above
clearly show this confidence is premature and that, while empiricism
may be operational (for closed systems), it really fails when it comes
to explanation.

Anglo-capitalist empiricism cannot be presumed to be the only valid
approach to understand the world. Marxism rejects it, and does so on
grounds that remain entirely respectable (although not the most
typical) in the modern philosophy of science. While being an
empiricist does not cast one into the void, it is incompatible with
human liberation because it systematically excludes the causal
mechanisms that provide a real explanation of the forces at work in a
system (empiricist covering-law explanations are not really
explanatory and in any case are of little use in evolutionary systems
such as human history).

Important here is that it is widely understood that explanation is a
prerequisite for human liberation, and empiricism cannot support it.

> Bustelo spent the bulk of his last post discussing "the determinant
> relationship between these distinctions and the behavior of the
> capitalist system as a whole."

Looking at the behavior or characteristics of a whole as a
manifestation of the interactions of its parts (i.e., an atomistic
reductionism), may be compatible with empiricism, but not with
Marxism. In Marxism, there is no such contradictory categories of
parts and wholes, for the part contains something of the whole just as
the whole embodies the parts. There are many areas in which this unity
that transcends the whole/part dichotomy comes up in Marxism. For
example, in labor power, in man as a social being, and in the
commodity. It is not that the part is a function of the whole, but
that the part is not hypostatized as having an existence other than in
the whole, but at the same time this does not downplay the empirical
specificity of the part. This is possible because the system is not
reduced to empiria, but necessarily includes real unobservables. The
resulting unit has one aspect that we perceive empirically as a part
and another aspect that is the unobservable but real causal relation
to the whole that is definitive for the aspect we call a part (as in
the Marxist definition of class as a relation of production).

That is, a "social class" in Marxist terms does not reduce to some
qualities that are intrinsic to workers and that they happen to
share. The meaning of class incorporates the capitalist system as a
whole. So to dismiss the working class simply because it lacks one
intrinsic quality, in this case the worker's consciousness of himself
as a class member, is not at all compelling and fails to explain the
connection between class identity and what makes the capitalist system
as a whole "tick".

> Further, you allude to the "scientific concensus that there is no
> such thing as race." That's false. None of my colleagues would deny
> the existence of race as a social category (as opposed to a
> biological category). This is simply to ignore a reality that
> produced the police murder by firing squad of an unarmed Black youth
> here in New York just two weeks ago. The NYPD certainly recognizes
> race.

Yes, that is true. Race is socially constructed. When I spoke of a
"scientific consensus" I meant the consensus of scientists whose job
it is to study such things and I meant the question of race in
scientific terms. But the point here is important, for it again brings
up the issue of whether we are speaking of objective or subjective

Here "race" is supposed to exist because people widely share what is
objectively illusory, while "class" does not exist because people
don't happen to see themselves as class members. To the extent this
reduces things to pure subjectivity I don't think it can be taken
seriously. Unquestionably consciousness is an important factor in our
explanations, but that one factor does not constitute reality and it
does not substitute for scientific explanation.

       Haines Brown, KB1GRM
   	 Dialectical Materialist        

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