R48G: universal class versus (and/or) the working class…a Janus-faced unity/polarity of class
November 11th, 2017
The focus on the working class has been the focus of the left since the era of 1848 and that is all well
and good. But a larger perspective is also useful in order to completely transcend the idea of class altogether. Our idea of the ‘universal class’ is like automatic transmission: it changes gears seamlessly as it becomes clear the universal class and the working-class concepts are close to being variants of each other. But the idea of the universal class is a tool to study all class formations and to envision a communist ‘universal class’ into which the working class can merge in a seamless equalization of social entities.
The problem with the working-class concept is that it assumes class struggle is the motor of history, but unfortunately that is not really true. And the working class betrayed socialism at the start of WWI while in the Bolshevik revolution, despite a strong proletarian aspect, we see not a working-class triumph but a crypto-vanguardist revolution, albeit on with communist axioms. Many marxists would strongly disagree with that, please do so dialectically, but it is useful to table the idea to be clear that the revolution toward communism doesn’t require working class mono-focus. Since the idea could cause disunity we must say at once that multiple approaches need to work together and once having raised the issue of the universal class we can certainly move along the lines of a working-class leftism, being clear however that a communist outcome must have a project to deal with the complexity of class entities in a mix that is hard to deal with. In the final analysis the issue is a majoritarian core of social membership that may or may not be purely working class. In reality, the term working class is fixated on industrial labor. But the concept should refer to a set complement of the bourgeoisie, and that includes a huge number of sectors often ignored by class ideology. The working-class focus arose in the wake of
the failure of bourgeois revolutions to produce a true democracy. The early socialists, whose views were
taken up by Marx/Engels, corrected this with a focus on the working-class formations left out of the bourgeois formula. What else is new? But our circumstance is slightly different. Look at Trump’s followers. Not exactly a working-class triumph here, next to the debate admittedly as to whether Trump’s core base was working class at all.
In any case our distinction is really a tool to re-study fundamentals and to ask who is going to lead a revolution beyond capitalism. Both the American and the Russian revolutions show a core elite next to a populist movement working in tandem. An elite is a dangerous thing but it is unavoidable, a point deftly considered by Lenin (perhaps). A tricky combination of different class entities is just as viable as the classic formulation.
In the end it is a strange subset of the larger universal class that tends to be activist and radical. Lenin and the Bolsheviks weren’t really working class. I recall the OWS period: who led this movement? I remember a union rep expressing contempt for the movement on the grounds the left should be fighting for the wages of the ‘working class’…As if the unionized autoworkers of UAW had any real revolutionary potential. We are evidently some kind of middle class riffraff failing to fight for the wages of the factory workers, and panhandle the rest of the time.
In fact, the distinction is false: the OWS average membership was in reality one aspect of the overall working class, by definition, factory job or not… Things fall apart, and the idea of the working class needs to be understood all over again. The ‘distinction’ of universal and working class is a useful tool for this.