Book Cover

Across the world, class remains central to understanding the way the society works, as the current issue of Socialist Register (2015) demonstrates with great thoroughness, argues Alex Snowden

Transforming Classes

Socialist Register 2015: Transforming Classes, eds. Leo Panitch and Greg Albo (Merlin Press 2014), xii, 375pp.

The 2015 volume of Socialist Register, the annual journal of left-wing theory dating back to the 1960s, continues the same broad theme as last year’s volume (which I also reviewed for Counterfire). Both issues of the journal are concerned with contemporary changes in class structure and class politics. Taken together, these two volumes are a concerted reassertion of the centrality of class to understanding society and to mapping the future of radical and left politics. This is at a time when class is an unfashionable concept and the working class is widely viewed as no longer a collective agent of social change.

At times it feels like the contributions are so diverse that the theme – transforming classes – is rather too loose. The ruling class, the middle class and the working class are all covered, with the last of these receiving the lion’s share of attention. There is truly global coverage, with the eighteen essays (mostly by left-wing academics with an intellectual background in Marxism) including contributions on China, India, South Africa, Turkey, Egypt, Brazil and Chile. This year there is very little specifically on Britain – or in fact anywhere in Europe – while there is a lively series of four interlinked essays devoted to working-class politics, resistance and organisation in the US.

The collectio0n is very disparate, but there are a number of basic political ideas that are just about universally shared among the contributors. They still regard class as a relevant concept; indeed, they typically see it as the fundamental division and relationship in society. The volume as a whole asserts the continuing centrality of class to making sense of the world we live in, through tracing the specific changes taking place in class composition or in the balance of forces between classes. This combination of fidelity to viewing class as the dominant social relationship and flexibility in relating that to evolving conditions is a great strength.

It is also the case that contributors, as might be expected in a socialist journal, adopt a partisan standpoint of support for working-class interests and for various forms of working-class resistance and organisation. For me, probably the most interesting and useful dimension of the volume is precisely the analysis of concrete examples of working-class politics, resistance and organisation, which comes through strongly in several contributions. The backdrop here is the impact of 35 years of neoliberalism, a sustained effort to shift the balance between capital and labour in favour of the former. As the editors, Leo Panitch and Greg Albo, note in their preface: inequality has grown ‘in the political conditions and social struggles allowing the spread and deepening of capitalist social relations’ (Preface, p.x). The 2014 and 2015 volumes combined should, I think, be seen as a major project in charting the impact of neoliberalism on class relations and class politics globally, with special attention paid to those hopeful developments in working-class organisation that point to a different future.

A substantial essay by Susan Ferguson and David McNally is especially pertinent at the time of writing, as it explores the role of migration in contemporary working-class formation. It is a sophisticated analysis which weaves together different elements within a ‘social reproduction’ framework, doing an excellent job of highlighting the centrality of migrant labour to global capitalism and exploring what that means for migrant workers and their families. There is a little too much academic jargon, but the arguments and ideas are valuable. The authors thoughtfully consider the intersections of class, gender and race in a broadly Marxist framework, always alert to the fundamental role of the economy in shaping society – and to the experience of work as integral to working-class experience – without being reductive.

The re-shaping of the ruling class is an important theme in a number of essays, most dramatically in Lin Chun’s piece on China. The topic is hugely important considering the remarkable economic growth of China in recent years, and very topical as I write this because of the financial turmoil in the country. The essay examines how China has been transformed as it has opened up to capitalist globalisation. Alongside this there has been a shift in Chinese ruling-class discourse, balancing precariously between the supposed benefits of an increasingly neoliberal model and the old rhetoric of state Communism. An intriguing aspect of the shifting discourse is the complete invisibility of any reference to class, which would of course point towards the social inequalities in China and, even more dangerously, to the notion that a collective force may exist that can change society.

Achin Vanaik, writing on India, is also perceptive about the shifts in ruling-class and dominant politics, including the ideas and language deployed to sustain ruling-class power.  It is an excellent attempt at explaining how the reactionary BJP has come to replace the traditionally dominant Indian National Congress as the country’s most successful political party. It analyses the political crisis of the old order, and its roots, while looking at the social base of the BJP. The growth of the middle class is indispensable to understanding this, though Vanaik avoids any simplistic reductionism. The other key reference point is something dating back to the late 1980s: ‘a neoliberal turn in the economy being accompanied by the rise of a Hindutava-influenced consolidation of ‘common sense’ socially and a stronger authoritarian inflection politically’ (p.57).

Two very different contributions focus on the middle class in particular: John McCullough writes about Hollywood representations of the middle class over time, while Randy Martin asks ‘what happened to the professional middle class?’ However, it is those which focus on the working class that really form the main body of this volume. These essays allow much greater scope for discussing class struggle and political action, as well as tracing developments in work and in the material composition of the working class. Two essays especially are fascinating on the complex developments in working-class movements in recent years: one on South Africa, the other on Egypt.

Sam Ashman and Nicolas Pons-Vignon assess the problems with successive ANC governments in South Africa and how the once mighty movement, which united many behind its banner in fighting to end apartheid, has been deeply compromised by administering cuts and privatisations in office. However, what is most interesting is the focus on developing alternatives: in the union movement, in the social movements, and in the field of electoral politics, with some valuable insight into how these interact with each other. The great trade-union federation COSATU has suffered a crisis precisely because of its relationship to the ANC government, leading to some hopeful fresh developments. The metalworkers’ union NUMSA has moved to the left and been in repeated conflict with the ANC. The authors conclude:

‘The fact that the current contestation in South Africa, driven by a radical union and involving a growing number of workers, combines a powerful counter-movement to neoliberalism with a socialist political vision is of global significance’ (p.108).

Joel Beinin and Marie Duboc focus on workers’ struggles in Egypt since the revolution overthrew Mubarak in early 2011. It is refreshing to see such close attention to this vital dimension of Egypt’s upheavals in recent years. The essay charts the long-term development of labour movement struggles over some years – before and after the revolution – and identifies pre-2011 strikes as a major stream flowing into the revolutionary events. It also draws attention to the role of the long-term neoliberal restructuring of the Egyptian economy in fuelling working-class revolt. It ends with a sober assessment of Egyptian politics, as of 2014, acknowledging that the left’s failure to develop a coherent and organised political alternative to mainstream political forces has been (and remains) a huge obstacle to positive social and economic change.

Perhaps the most wide-ranging contribution is by Hugo Radice; his ‘Class theory and class politics today’ is as sweeping as its title suggests. Radice’s starting point is the BBC survey in 2013 which posited seven different classes in modern British society. He recognises that this model reflects genuine fragmentation in society, but is also critical of it, not least because it fails to identify how social classes interact with each other and it doesn’t involve any sense of class struggle. He suggests that we need class analysis that wrestles with both increased polarisation and increased fragmentation, and which grasps social conflict between classes (and the significance of it for how we evolve as a society).

This leads him on to direct engagement with Marx’s writings, and their relevance today, and an interesting discussion of the middle class, its composition and relationship to other classes. He is sensitive to different to Marxist interpretations of the middle class and provides a thought-provoking summary of how the middle class has evolved. Radice concludes with some welcome observations on the continuing importance of work as central to how class divisions are created and reproduced, also identifying a few important trends in the world of work under the impact of neoliberalism. His comments on resistance and organisation at work, though, are rather vaguer and very much under-developed.

The volume concludes with a series of four pieces on the American working class, its politics and organisations, which taken together are referred to as a ‘symposium’ on Labour and the left in the USA. I found these fascinating, especially when read in conjunction with each other. Although there’s no direct dialogue between them, there is a sense of coherence and of different contributions adding up to an overall understanding of the topic.

Kim Moody and Charles Post, in a jointly authored piece, provide a useful overview of the long-term decline of the power of labour in American society, tracing the numerical decline, bureaucratisation and hollowing out of unions. They analyse the relationship between this and major economic changes and policies during the last few decades. However, they also – more hopefully – summarise some strategies for renewal, referring to concrete examples of what has already been done and indicating what might be worth generalising. Campaigning by fast-food workers and their supporters is one good example; the movement of Chicago teachers is another. These are examples of struggles that have incorporated social movement tactics and been tied up with union recruitment and capacity building.

It is the concrete struggles and forms of organising that provide most of the material for the other three contributions to the symposium. One called ‘New working-class organization and the social-movement left’ develops the theme of the interaction between traditional workers’ organisations and methods of struggles with social movements and the issues they champion. The range of examples is tremendously insightful and provides a powerful sense of how the labour movement might potentially be built anew. Another piece takes a long view, examining the evolution of working-class struggle and organisation from the post-war boom onwards, concluding that stronger and more combative trade unions remain indispensable to any project of left-wing renewal, while also grasping that this will take forms that reflect changed realities. Jane McAlevey’s contribution, meanwhile, is a compelling case study about union building among hospital workers, which shares important successes from which we can learn and be inspired, while also being soberly realistic about the limitations. 

Overall, this volume is a very worthwhile complement to last year’s first instalment in the journal’s project of analysing class society and class politics in today’s world. It simultaneously restates the centrality of class and traces the most important changes in work, class composition and the balance of forces between capital and labour. It is truly global, which is both a strength and a minor weakness: to my mind, it doesn’t have sufficient focus. Some contributions are regrettably too academic in style, though others are fairly lucid. Above all, however, there is a wealth of material on concrete struggles, political debates and ways of organising, exemplifying the general commitment not only to class analysis but the role of the working class in social transformation.

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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