If we critique ‘historical materialism’ we are left with a very large corpus of Marx material. That material is pervaded by a set of basic assumptions about history that put them in a wrong contexts. But even so the issues of class, and ideology remain a core inspiration for a new kind of left.
One key is the theme of the working class. We should be wary here because any attempt to recreate Marxism could suffer the fate of misconstruing the working class issue(s). But it should be said at once that Marxism itself is the first culprit here. Beside historical materialism, Marxism has another claimant for the ‘dynamic of history’: class struggle. But does that really work? Class pervades history, but it is mostly a victory for the pervasive class domination of ‘rulers’ and their elites. The reality seems rather that the modern left, with Marx et al. in the fore, have created organizations of class struggle for the first time. In fact, as always we see that archaic Greece shows the birth of class struggles in its city-states,and the birth of democracy in that context. If this is true we can suspect that if we look closely Sumer as usual came first: the creative focal zone of the first ‘higher’ civilizations.
The point here is that class struggle shows amplification in the eonic effect and is a macro aspect. Remarkable. Marx’s insight is highly relevant, but we have slightly modified the theme: democracy is associated with class action but this is driven by the macro effect as other times show the comebacks of corrupt elites. Let us note that beside that stolid bourgeois, Luther, the birth of the modern shows the spectacular action of Thomas Munzer. Class struggle indeed. Here we must however see the peculiar fate of ‘democracy’, so visible in the wake of the English Civil War and the Restoration as the phenomenon of the Parliament (an ancient theme for medieval times) overtakes real democracy in a kind of bourgeois muddle that is not really resolved until the era of the French Revolution, the birth of socialism, and Marx’s cogent critique: democracy shifted from class struggle to bourgeois ‘democracy’ of the Restoration type. Marx’s significant expose here has however tended to suspicion of ‘democracy’ as the term suffers its semantic shifts. The point is that ‘democracy’ and class struggle are in origin one and the same. Class struggle in ancient Greece is the canonical case. But we must amend the idea to see that ‘republics’ are commonly the outcome, but but in Athens only do see the full realization.
Here the theme of the proletariat and ‘socialist democracy’ suffer a classic discombobulation as the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat theme emerges meaning one thing until it starts meaning another thing and we end up with the Marxist bourgeoisie as a new ruling class enforcing ‘dictatorship’ in the name of the proletariat. The Leninists thus join the list of screwball screwups of the democratic idea. Hal Draper has an indispensable study of this terminology and the way ‘dictatorship’, more like ‘dictation’ at first, ends up with dictatorship by the Marxist bourgeoisie of Bolsheviks, now in control of the entire productive apparatus, and a working-class now without nary a single ‘union’. Noone can quite face the monumental failure of the Marx project here.
We can critique bourgeois democracies but we should nonetheless consider that constitutional fixation of rights did better over all than the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.
We should be done with such a pernicious terminology. Here our idea of a ‘democratic market neo-communism’ enters with a new approach. Let it be said that this model requires careful consideration of ‘working class’ issues, which seem absent at first. But the approach is constitutional: equality, economic rights, rights of nature, etc, have to be given constitutional foundations. I would be delighted if a group of working-class revolutionaries took over and realized this model in practice. But in any case, the American model shows the strength and limits of the constitutional approach. We can add in a whole slew of working class organizations and we certainly require a set of labor unions in its mix of elements. The DMNC model is not utopian perfection but has constitutional guarantees on working-class issues. Marxists would in theory reject that, but the muddle of Bolshevism warns us to be wary of their claims. Another approach is to this liberal system and build a socialism around it: democratic market neo-communism. The key contribution of the revolutionaries/reformists is to exproriate the capital factor and create a Commons, not the Marxist bourgeoisie taking control of production.
The working-class theme is Marx’s (and the early socialists who first proposed the model) great master theme but is the object of strange mystifications. Although the early proletariats had a special dignity in their plight they are not other than the rest of homo sapiens, and can not as such be expected to produce some ideal man. The problem however is that the implication is that a working-class social nexus as the dictatorship of the proletariat theme shows is going to create equality when in reality it was swindle by the marxist bourgeoisie. And what is to happen to all the other classes? The dreaded undertone lurks: they must somehow disappear. It can’t and won’t work short of a massacre. We need to make statements about a new system will treat all the old classes.
Here the constitutional model is superior as a foundation. Equality to the best of our hopes is built on a legal foundation with a Common, a system of socialist markets, planning sectors, and has a place for all the classes at entry in a system that is not utopian perfection but a viable communism that functions with a sane economy that is kicked upstairs from capitalism.
We must interject a ‘trick play’ here: the term ‘working class’ is so vague (it must have meant factory workers, to start) that we must take Marxists by the sleeve and ask, who’s who here? Semantic precision never graced the term: the working class is a. a set of factory workers, now mostly overseas, b. all those who perform wage labor. The latter is very suggestive for a correction, albeit a trick play: the working class is all those who work as ‘wage labor’. But this includes virtually everyone, including capitalist managers who are also salaried employees.
We have thus no settled definition of terms, and would do well to follow our constitutional approach which offers foundational rights and liberties by law, and an equal share by all including a working class in a factory system that has a legal connection to the Commons, and a right of suit to make sure that happens.
In a way the working class a the class of wage labor works better because it is more inclusive but as we can see all the different definitions are so vague semantically that we are at risk of incoherence.