Chris Nineham, Radical Chains: Why Class Matters (Zero Books 2023), 197pp. Chris Nineham, Radical Chains: Why Class Matters (Zero Books 2023), 197pp.

Radical Chains comprehensively reasserts the centrality of class after decades of ruling-class denial, finds Alex Snowdon

Chris Nineham’s new book begins with a paradox. Inequality has grown over the last few decades, exposing a starkly divided society, yet the concept and language of class has become unfashionable, almost taboo. This is no accident. The assault on thinking and talking in terms of class has been part of the class war: a war waged, largely successfully, by a ruling class possessing greater wealth and power than ever.

It is in the interests of that class to make the existence of class invisible, the language of class unsayable, and the class struggle a one-sided affair. The ruling class certainly hasn’t succeeded entirely with that project during the neoliberal era. It is a strength of Radical Chains that it registers the scale and scope of that ideological offensive, and how it is intertwined with the material class struggle by the ruling class to increase exploitation. But there is no gloom or fatalism: it is equally a strength of the book that it identifies the limitations to that ruling-class offensive, pointing out the cracks and weaknesses. It is sober, but ultimately also hopeful.

The Marxist analysis of class is restated brilliantly. There is no sterile dogma, but rather a fresh, lucidly expressed clarity about what Marx wrote about class, capitalism and the class struggle. The essentials of this analysis are summarised concisely, doing justice to the nuances in Marx’s work.

But the validity of Marx’s class analysis is also tested against current reality. The author makes a case for its relevance through discussion of changing patterns in capitalism, and the continual expansion and recomposition of the global working class, showing how the classical Marxist understanding of class retains its potency.

In the course of restating and updating the Marxist view of class, various myths are busted: that most people are now middle class, that we have a multitude of different classes, that class is a question of lifestyle, that diverse identities have replaced class, that class analysis is reductionist, that ‘immaterial labour’ has made class redundant, and so on. These, and more, are carefully dissected and discarded. There is plenty of recognition of the complexities of contemporary class society, but the fundamental division into classes, and the antagonism between the classes, remains central to capitalism.

This is therefore a book that restates the relevance of class, summarises the Marxist analysis of class, and robustly tackles numerous challenges to such an analysis. But it does much more: it engages with many of the developments, economically and socially, that define the world we live in today.

Class, oppression and worldwide exploitation

This includes careful, sensitive discussions of the relationship between class and different forms of oppression, in particular racism and women’s oppression. This is bracing stuff in an intellectual climate characterised by a deeply conservative push away from socialist politics on questions of oppression. Nineham firmly roots these issues in the material world, makes the connections with economics, and re-politicises them. The book serves as an effective refutation of the superficial vacuities of identity politics, but more importantly it provides an alternative to them.

The book also engages seriously with the real changes that have occurred during the neoliberal era. Deindustrialisation has been a real phenomenon in some countries, though we also get evidence of how this has often been exaggerated. The growth in the scale of women in work is documented and its contradictory effects are examined. There is a global dimension to the book, which has remarkable geographical breadth – there are, for example, interesting observations on the rapidity and scale of the growth of the Chinese urban working class. There is also a persuasive argument that while capital accumulation can, as some writers like David Harvey emphasise, take place through things like privatisation of public assets, it remains true that direct exploitation at work is primary. The global picture – when you consider the scale of China’s industrial plants, for example – supports this argument.

Potential for transformation

Nineham provides some interesting summaries of key theoretical developments associated with Marxist thinkers who built on Marx’s breakthroughs. Perhaps most illuminating is his discussion of how Lukács and Gramsci (but especially Lukács) developed Marx’s understanding of class consciousness. This is vital for making sense of why working-class people have so often acquiesced in their own exploitation, with Lukács’ work on alienation proving especially fruitful here. It is also, however, the basis for outlining how the working class can, through collective action and ultimately revolution, change both social conditions and its own consciousness.

This is not merely abstract theorising. Nineham examines how such ideas developed in interaction with the revolutionary upheavals that reshaped the post-World War One political and intellectual order. These historical sketches – not limited to that era, but also covering the end of World War Two and the early 1970s in particular – convey a powerful sense of how workers have, at certain high points, posed a mass challenge to the capitalist order.

There is a strong sense of certain moments being decisive in the history of class struggle: these moments have seen the contending classes facing each other at historical crossroads. There is no sense of inevitability here about the outcomes. Instead there is reflection on what factors – mostly subjective elements like failures of political leadership – inhibited the working class making further advances.

A major argument in the book is precisely that working-class struggle has been a bigger, more influential, actor in the history of the last two centuries than generally recognised. There have been many times when pressure from strikes, demonstrations and other forms of activity have wrested reforms from the ruling class and its political representatives. Fear of working-class revolt has sometimes been a powerful motivator for the ruling class to adjust its approach. Many examples of this are provided, not just from distant history, but including the last quarter of a century.

Yet the potential of working-class action has on many occasions been wasted. Nineham documents the role of reformist and Stalinist political forces – at different times in history, and in a range of locations – suppressing the dynamic, disruptive energies of working-class revolt from below. He provides explanations of why such suppression has often been successful. The disorienting impact of social-democratic governments implementing right-wing policies has caused major problems inside the working class too. All of this is discussed with sensitivity to specific contexts and without lapsing into simply blaming poor leadership. Often it has been the balance of the ideological struggle that has been critical.

Finally, the author makes a case for distinctively revolutionary-socialist organisation that is rooted in the experiences and struggles of working-class people, while sustaining an independent anti-capitalist outlook. Only such political and organisational independence can combine efforts to lift the level of working-class resistance with a broader political vision that connects myriad issues and points towards a different future. If reformist ideas have organised expression, revolutionary ideas must also be given organisational form. Such organisation must seek the broadest possible unity around specific issues with unwavering opposition to capitalism and the championing of a general socialist alternative.

Radical Chains takes its title from the contradiction at the heart of capitalism. In Rosa Luxemburg’s words: ‘Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there must the chains be broken.’ Capitalism creates – in the working class – its own gravedigger: a class that, due to being both hugely numerous and strategically placed at the centre of production, has the power to overthrow the system and set about creating a more equal, democratic and cooperative society.

There can be no substitute for the self-emancipation of the working class. This radical notion – and its profound relevance for today’s world – is at the core of the analysis throughout the book.

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Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).

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