[Marxism] Part 2: Working class for itself
brownh at hartford-hwp.com
Mon Nov 6 07:15:39 MST 2006
The distinction between being a class "en soi" and a class "pour soi"
ios widely used and at first seems quite useful. On the surface it is
simple enough, but looked at more closely, questions arise.
Being a class "en soi" means that there are people sharing objective
conditions that place them in a common social class.
The problem here comes with an attempt to define these conditions, for
in the empiricist terms commonly employed, the notion of an objective
definition of classes simply collapses.
An empiricist definition defines class membership in terms of some
intrinsic qualities such as income level. Being intrinsic rather than
systemic, the qualities choosen are necessarily subjective. Why not
power levels? Why not life-styles, etc.? In fact, there's an array of
empirical criteria which can slice up the social pie in any number of
ways, some useful, some not. But the point is, there's no scientific
basis for suggesting that one way to slice it is the right one rather
than the others.
Another difficulty with the empiricist approach is that the qualities
are nearly always merely points on a continuum. High, middle and low
income are just subjectively chosen ranges, and there is no scientific
reason for the transition from one to the to another. In fact, we
aways change such categories as circumstances change. You can buy
T-shirts now that are L, XL, XXL, but forget trying to find a S
The only way to deal with all this empirical complexity and
ambivalence is to define class, not in terms of shared qualities, but
in terms of a shared causal relation to a source for peoples'
development. You define a class member, not in terms of a person's
static state, but as participating in a process undergoing
development; what class members share is a common potential for
We call such a causal relation a "relation of production". It is a
causal relation between a person and a potential for his or
development. In Marxist terms, we tend to think of property as the
principle source for a person's potential in life under capitalism,
and non-ownership (better, though "non-possession") of productive
property by the modern working class means that they can only develop
by other means, through class solidarity.
Once we are clear about the important difference between defining a
class in empiricist terms of in terms of a relation of production, the
notion of class en soi might seem straightforward enough. But the same
can't be said of the notion of class "pour soi".
Being a class pour soi can means two quite different things: acting in
a way appropriate to one's relation of production, or being conscious
of one's shared relation of production and (presumably) acting in a
particular way as the result. The difference here is that in the
former case, no special consciousness is involved; in the second,
class consciousness is a precondition for acting as a class member.
It is possible to think of a situation in which acting spontaneously
in response to one's relation of production and acting
self-consciously as a class member do not coincide? I believe so, and
I believe there is good reason to prefer spontaneous action over
consciouss action, if consciousness is detached from spontaneous
We tend to think of spontaneous behavior as tending to be
opportunistic or merely adapting to circumstance, and in both cases,
there are negative connotations. But this connotation is not quite so
obvious when we realize that what is being "adapted" to is not a set
of empirical facts, but a potential for development. You don't "adapt"
to that; you can only seize up on the opportunity and as the result
develop in ways not entirely dictated by the circumstance that had made
development possible. Otherwise, you can ignore that opportunity and
fall subject to other determinations. In Marxist terms, you don't
choose between a freedom to develop and being determined by
circumstance, but instead you "adapt to" (seize upon) those aspects of
one's circumstances that offer the greatest potential for development.
In U.S. political culture there's a strong element borrowed from
capitalist ideology which is an emphasis on free choice, free speech,
personal autonomy, etc. As a result, there's a gut feeling that any
kind of outside determination can only stunt one's freedom and
development. But spontaneous action as a result of one's relation of
production does not represent a loss of freedom and development, but
its assurance. A choice that is free in the sense of an independence
from objective determinations, is a choice is that is necessarily an
Perhaps this obsession with class consciousness as being basic to
class struggle goes back to some old Cartesian notions that human
consciousness does not arise from matter, but is somehow free from
outside determinations. Human volition and external circumstance in
this view are contradictory categories. It is consciousness that
elevates the mind from the arena of unequivocal determinations. This
set of Cartesian assumptions has today fallen to the side - at least
in terms of science.
This fixation on consciousness seems implicitly elitist, for it
implies that those having such consciousness (as a result of
cogitation, a unique experience, education, etc.) are the only ones to
have a clear understanding of the path we should all follow. I am not
suggesting that a heightened consciousness resulting from, say,
education, is not useful, but only that the opposite, that those
without such education cannot act appropriately in terms of their
class, is not true. Secondly, people who acquire a heightened
consciousness usually do so in a way that the resulting consciousness
is imprinted by the means of acquiring it. In contrast, a more
spontaneous action guided by one's relation of production seems more
likely to be "authentic" in the sense of being appropriate to the real
limitations and possibilities latent in our circumstances.
I'm not arguing here in favor of anti-intellectualism. For example,
while circumstances often seem to offer little opportunity for change,
someone for whom the distant future seems real and is in command of
great rhetorical power, can inspire us to struggle anyway, and if we
struggle hard enough, what seemed virtually impossible becomes in fact
possible. While a consciousness that arises from study or from a
quixotic determination to act despite circumstance may often be
needed, what keeps it from betraying us is that it is compelled to
address the real limits and potentials of our circumstances, which
only the person directly engaged in production can really know. So
while I don't believe the intellectual should lead, he or she should
nevertheless be heard and adjudged by the working class movement.
So, what does all this imply for the notion of class "en soi" and
class "pour soi" from a Marxist viewpoint? First, to the extent it
implies a Cartesian mind/body dualism, the concepts should not be used
at all. In Marxian terms, heightened consciousness emerges from our
material existence and does not exist in spite of it. That is, a class
"en-soi" already implies the limits and potentials for class action we
associate with the term class "pour soi". There's nothing in "pour
soi" that was not already present in en-soi except a developed
consciousness. However, that consciousness is not constitutive, but
only ancillary to class identity.
Haines Brown, KB1GRM
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