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Marxism as the Art of Class War

In the wake of the Zapatista struggles and the temporarily halted anti-capitalist globalization movements, our strategic reconstruction of Marx necessitates further enriching the concept of the proletariat.

Manuel Yang

Issue #66, February 2004

Thus it is said that one who knows the enemy and knows himself will not be endangered in a hundred engagements.
— Sun-tzu

Four years before the collapse of the Soviet state capitalist empire, Edward Thompson, the leading thinker of the British New Left, said, "I'm less and less interested in Marxism as a Theoretical System. I'm neither pro- nor anti- so much as bored with some of the argument that goes on. I find some of the argument a distraction from the historical problems, an impediment to completing my work." Eight years after the demise of this same state most closely associated in the popular consciousness with Marxism, Yoshimoto Taka'aki, the leading thinker of the Japanese New Left, remarked that, although Marxism is certainly dead, the relevance of Marx is yet to be grasped and that this Marx will only come into being in perhaps ten or fifteen years." The certain death of Marxism to which Yoshimoto refers is that of Russian Marxism, what Harry Cleaver rightly describes as "Communist Marxism" that "Soviet capital" used to "justify its policies of exploitation and dismantle any independence of the worker soviets and to impose a new discipline of work and maximized production." Marxism as a stadial theory of state capitalist modernization did lose out to the reigning vulgar Hegelian theory of neo-liberal corporate capitalist globalization. And Marxism as a "Theoretical System" today only preoccupies an increasingly diminishing number of radical academics, most of whom have traded in this lugubrious System for ersatz fragments of post-Marxist and postmodern theory. However, for those of us who still read Marx not as an exponent of Marxism but as a strategic theorist who seeks out, in Yoshimoto's phrase, "the possibility of revolution" within contemporary, existing capitalism, Marx is more alive than ever.

What is the nature of Marx's strategic theory? Paraphrasing Clausewitz, Cleaver says its purpose is "to grasp the basic form of the class war, to situate the different struggles which compose it, to evaluate the opposing tactics in each of those struggles, and to see how the different tactics and different struggles can be better linked to achieve victory." (see Reading Capital Politically). Cleaver goes on to distinguish such a "strategic deciphering" on the basis of whether it is done from the perspective of capital or the working class; he characterizes the two predominant ways of reading Marx in terms of political economy and philosophy as largely conducting "ideological readings" that merely critique capitalism or, when strategizing, do it from the perspective of capital (state capital in the case of the aforementioned "Communist" or "Russian" Marxism). In contrast, what Cleaver calls the "political reading" of Marx "self-consciously and unilaterally structures its approach to determine the meaning and relevance of every concept to the immediate development of working-class struggle...and...eschews all detached interpretation and abstract theorising in favour of grasping concepts only within that concrete totality of struggle whose determinations they designated." That this approach is fundamentally rooted in Marx's own method is clear when we turn to the Grundrisse.

The only place where Marx extensively discusses the methodological principles underlying his theory can be found in the section on "The Method of Political Economy" in the Introduction to the seven notebooks he composed in white heat in 1857-8 and posthumously bound together under the title of the Grundrisse. Taking the example of "population" and following the path of political economy, Marx explicates how "by means of further determination, I move analytically towards ever more simple concepts, from the imagined concrete towards ever thinner abstractions until I had arrived at the simplest determinations." Thus, "population" is shown to consist of "simple concepts" of classes that rest on "wage labour, capital" that "in turn presuppose exchange, division of labour, prices, etc." From these abstracted "simple relations, such as labour, division of labour, need, exchange value" an analytical ascent is made "to the level of the state, exchange between nations and the world market." Marx calls this latter analytical moment "obviously the scientifically correct method." We must be careful here not to impose a positivist conception of "science" that irrelevantly demands narrowly defined quantitative or empirical proofs, for, as C.L.R. James wrote apropos of Marx's labor theory of value in his seminal "Dialectical Materialism and the Fate of Humanity": "If the labor theory of value proved to be the means whereby the real relations of bourgeois society would be demonstrated in their movement, where they came from, what they were, and where they were going, that was the proof the theory." In short, the only relevant proof for the "scientifically correct method" of deciphering the "basic form of class war" from the working-class perspective is whether the strategy obtained through this method succeeds or fails on the field of battle.

The two analytical moments above — one of descending to simplest abstractions and one of ascending to the level of the world — parallels Yoshimoto's own method of sekai ninshiki ("comprehending the world") that derives from his reading of the thirteenth-century Buddhist monk Shinran, augmented with his study of Marx and Hegel. In Shinran's terminology, there are two movements, one called ousô and the other gensô. The first refers to an ascent to the paradise of Amida's Pure Land and the second to a returning descent to the earth to participate in the salvation of humanity. According to Yoshimoto's reading, ousô is the movement of the intellect ascending to the highest level of comprehending the world and gensô the movement of grasping what Shinran calls gusha ("fools") — or, in Yoshimoto's term, the "masses" — by becoming one of them. Similarly, in Marx's strategic theory of class struggle, we descend to the simplest determinations that make up the dynamic of power and forces between capital and the working class and then ascend to the highest level of grasping the world in its totality to transform it. In other words, Marx's two-part methodological movement parallels the movement of ousô; it is a deepened refinement on the first part of his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, namely to demystify and accurately understand the world consisting of specific class antagonisms out of the various interpretations of ruling-class philosophers and political economists.

Using an antinomian figure of speech, Edward Thompson advises the application of this form of interpretation on ruling-class primary documents to understand the eighteenth-century English proletariat: "Such literature as this must be held up to a Satanic light and read backwards if we are to perceive what the "Jolly Tar" or the apprentice or the Sandgate lass thought about Authority or Methodist preachers." Peter Linebaugh, one of Thompson's finest students, casts this "Satanic light" on demography — as Marx did on "population" and other categories of political economy — to establish a sociological method of the condemned that he terms "Tyburnography" that "taught us that the hanged were more international in their composition than other samples of the London population" whose anomalous proletarian roots are further illuminated through an "economic history of the trades and working conditions" of the condemned. The point here is not to reconceptualize Marxism as an academic exercise in accurately interpreting the thoughts and deeds of the historical proletariat, for that is neither Thompson nor Linebaugh's intention; rather, it is to make such an accurate assessment of past and current class compositions, defeats, and victories the basis for the second crucial movement of gensô, in the Feurbach thesis, to strategically and organically fuse these insights into working-class movements that actually change the world.

ponderIn his eloquent polemic against Althusser, Thompson criticizes the Hegelian strains in Marx's method in the Grundrisse as a "mode of abstraction" that "could still give him, on occasion, capital as the unfolding of its own idea" because it posits capital in an "anti-historical stasis ("closure") that "subordinates all elements of society to itself and creates out of society "its" own organs." Of course, this reading stems from Thompson's "own considered conclusion" that the Grundrisse is a work that, though seeking "the overthrow of "Political Economy" became another Political Economy. Following Roman Rosdolsky's reading, such a conclusion imposes on what were sprawling working notes, with rich possibilities of interpretation, precisely the "static, anti-historical structure" that Thompson accused them of being locked inside. Linebaugh has written: "Edward Thompson after 1956 went back to the drawing board and became preoccupied with the metaphor of base and superstructure. This was the leitmotif of his engagement with Marxism from 1956 to the attack on Althusser in 1979." That, in addition to Linebaugh's criticism that Thompson's Marxism failed to make "unpaid and paid labour" its important part and "approached class relations without benefit of the concepts of the wage whose irrationality is the beginning of so much hidden politics," to observe that Thompson too rigidly read the Grundrisse into an "anti-historical structure" of "Political Economy" is not to indicate his inadequacy as a Marxist — a polemical exercise perhaps best left to sectarians defending the Holy Writ of Marxist orthodoxy (however you may define it). Rather, it is to recognize that, as Thompson said of Marx, he is on our side, and to undertake the task of making his limits and potentiality the basis of our own thinking. We know that, within the realm of practical politics of the international anti-nuclear movement, Thompson ignored, in the words of Midnight Notes Collective, "the working class and its struggle" and "the fundamental part played by war policy and its enormous economic base in organizing the expropriation and accumulation of surplus value." Just as we do not determine Marx's relevance on the grounds of his conspiratorial analysis of Lord Palmerston and Russian diplomacy, we do not discount Thompson's expansion of the Marxist method in reading and writing English history from below through the prism of the Satanic light because of his insufficiency in extending this method into his political activism or discourse on Marxism. Insufficiencies and limitations are for us to revise and develop.

For Marx's own work is a monumental project that was left unfinished. At the end of his "Method" section, Marx delineates the outline of his "Economics" in five parts, only a minute segment of which saw the light of day in the form of the three volumes of Capital and, the fragmentary fourth volume, Theories of Surplus Value. To affirm and elaborate Marx's relevance as a strategic theorist of class struggle, therefore, doesn't mean treating his work as a closed system--which it is not, not least of all for its incomplete nature. To paraphrase what Marx himself said of economic categories of political economy, neither does it mean to let his ideas and analytical categories "follow one another in the same sequence as that in which they were biographically decisive" but rather to organize their sequence "by their relation to one another in the working-class strategy of class war, which is precisely the opposite of that which seems to be their natural order or which corresponds to biographical development." Part of this reconstructive project involves applying the same method Marx applies to the concepts of political economy on what Yoshimoto calls "dead intellectual language." In our times it is not only "population" that needs to be critically and strategically rethought, but also other reified abstractions, such as "technology," "proletariat," and the oft-cited triumvirate of "gender, class, and race". Within academic and political discourse, such terms have become deadened and ossified precisely because they are, as in political economy, "encased in eternal natural laws independent of history, at which opportunity bourgeois relations are then quietly smuggled in as inviolable natural laws on which society in the abstract is founded."

And it is especially the abstractness of labor that Marx here as elsewhere emphasizes as the central defining characteristic of capitalism — how human lives are organized around the ever-expanding, endless imposition of work. Cleaver's elegantly axiomatic political reading of the first chapter of Capital formulates a strategic theory to rupture and create liberating alternatives to this core function of capitalism. Marx goes on to write: "even the most abstract categories, despite their validity — precisely because of their abstractness — for all epochs, are nevertheless, in the specific character of this abstraction, themselves likewise a product of historic relations, and possess their full validity only for and within these relations." This means that we have to also analyze the "specific character" of abstractions that correspond to the particular conditions of contemporary capitalism. Yoshimoto, for example, questions if we can still use the concept of "proletariat" in the sense Marx used for nineteenth-century British industrial capitalism and poses our problem to be one of how to "depict the proletariat with a very enriched image" that is "different from the human beings who may die of starvation the next day due to poverty and who still exist in the Third World and Asia." Certainly, the equation of "working class" with the "industrial proletariat" is no longer possible and, arguably, has been a major source of distorting revolutionary politics in the twentieth century, as the Midnight Notes say:

the history of anti-capitalist struggle in the period after WWI shifted from the city to the countryside. This move was presaged by the great Mexican revolution of 1911-1917 and projected forward by the anti-colonial struggles in Asia, South America and Africa in the 1930s through the early 1960s...Nevertheless, again and again, peasants, agricultural workers, indigenous people, rural women, the forests and soil were sacrificed by socialist and communist parities and even anarchists in the name of "saving the revolution," "national defense," or "development" and "progress".

In the wake of the Zapatista struggles and the temporarily halted anti-capitalist globalization movements, our strategic reconstruction of Marx necessitates further enriching the concept of the proletariat by reading his discussion of the indigenous relations of the Iroquois Confederation in The Ethnological Notebooks back into this concept. This will also entail the elaboration and extension of the revolutionary commons as central part of the working class struggles whose heterogeneous diversity has too long been historically squeezed into the hegemonic vise-grip of the industrial proletariat and the vanguard party of Communist Marxism. In our neoliberal global capitalism, much work remains to be done — including the critical rereading of ancient and modern classics of military strategies under the Satanic light of proletarian warfare — and a detailed exposition of an autonomist marxist art of class war must await another occasion.

As a graduate student in the History Dept. at the University of Toledo, Manuel Yang is diligently studying — so far, with very little success — the strategic use of Marxism for seduction, street brawls, and bumming free drinks. It is rumored that, as one of the most assiduous zeroworkers in the Dept., not only will he fail to finish his degree but will be the first to be barred from the profession on grounds of sleeping too much. He recently mailed yet another application to join the Ramshackle Socialist Victory Party (RSVP) but it never reached its destination due to insufficient postage.

Credit: Graphic from 19th c. patent medicine illustration.

Copyright © 2004 by Manuel Yang. All rights reserved.