Populism as Legitimate Class Politics

“As philosophy finds in the proletariat its material weapons, so the proletariat finds in philosophy its intellectual weapons, and as soon as the lightning of thought has struck deep into the virgin soil of the people, the emancipation of the Germans into men will be completed […] The head of its emancipation is philosophy; its heart is the Proletariat. Philosophy cannot realize itself without transcending the Proletariat, the Proletariat cannot transcend itself without realizing philosophy”. [Karl Marx, ‘Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction’]

In his latest post David Harvey explains the current financial crisis and touches upon a number of points. Given its sweep, it is not possible for me to summarize it here, and it is best if you can read the whole post in its entirety.

The only point that I want to make is that the question that he raises about class politics and the leading role ascribed to the industrial working class aka the proletariat. This is because Harvey addresses a question that has befuddled me for over a decade and a half. A classical Marxist position has been the leading role of the proletariat in socializing the means of production and therefore the social surplus (profits) that accrue. The proletariat, whether in the industrialized world or its nascent cousin elsewhere has not taken a leading or even a participant role in anti- capitalist struggles. Lenin explained the absence of a revolutionary proletariat in the West due to the emergence of a ‘labour aristocracy’.

Recourse was taken to the need for the intelligentsia in organizing the working class (in Lenin and much more elaborately in Antonio Gramsci). After the 1950s, this role was transferred to the students in the West and the peasantry in the developing world. Harvey indicates that the problem lies not so much with the inherent nature of the proletariat as a revolutionary class but with the way Marx posed the problem. This is easier said than done given Marx’s well- known adage quoted above and the centrality that he placed on this class. However, it opens up a line of thought (at least for me) to conceptualize the problem in an altogether different way.

A couple of quotes follow from Harvey’s very cogent post that, I reiterate, needs to be read in its entirety (emphasis mine):

There is another point we have to consider, which is that labour, and particularly organised labour, is only one small piece of this whole problem, and it’s only going to have a partial role in what is going on. And this is for a very simple reason, which goes back to Marx’s shortcomings in how he set up the problem. If you say to that the formation of the state-finance complex is absolutely crucial to the dynamics of capitalism (which it obviously is), and you ask yourself what social forces are at work in contesting or setting it up these institutional arrangements, labour has never been at the forefront of that struggle. Labour has been at the forefront in the labour market and over the labour process and these are vital moments in the circulation process, but most of the struggles which have gone on over the state-finance nexus are populist struggles in which labour has only been partially present.

For example in the US in the 1930s there were a lot of populists who supported the Bonnie and Clyde bank robbers. And currently many of the struggles going on in Latin America are more populist than labour led. Labour always has a very important role to play but I don’t think we are in a position right now where the conventional view of the proletariat being the vanguard of the struggle is very helpful when it is the architecture of the state-finance nexus (the central nervous system of capital accumulation) that is the fundamental issue.

There are a lot of possibilities the left should be paying attention to – this is a real opportunity. But it is where I have a problem with some Marxists who seem to think, ‘yes! It’s a crisis; the contradictions of capitalism will now be solved somehow!’ This is not a moment for triumphalism, this is a moment for problematising. First of all I think there are problems with the way Marx set up those problems. Marxists are not very good at understanding the state financial complex or urbanisation – they are terrific at understanding some other things. But now we have to rethink our theoretical posture and political possibilities.

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bhupinder singh

reader, mainly and an occasional blogger

2 thoughts on “Populism as Legitimate Class Politics”

  1. I find it surprising that both you and harvey fail to dwell on the role being played by the electronic media in promoting consumerism and diverting the attention of the people towards crass enjoyment of sport, soaps and movies. how can the working class philosophise if it is constantly distracted by soaps and commercials. secondly the power of the state has increased many many times from the days of marx. it is not as easy as it was then to overthrow the state. it is considerably more powerful in both financial and military terms compared to any working class party that may dare to challenge it. the banks could have been nationalised and converted into cooperatives and still the collapse would have been averted. but that is the crux of the matter – capitalism is too well entrenched and the working class too mesmerised by television for this to be possible.

  2. I think the lack of leadership demonstrated by the industrial working class (the proletariat) pre dates the phenomenon of mass culture and consumerism, as indicated in he post when referring to Lenin and Gramsci. I do not disagree with any of your observations as such.

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