Class, Race, Sex?!

Toward the end of the 1960s, Marxism climbed into the left’s ideological saddle. Left thought elevated economics. Class became paramount. Imperialism became the reigning enemy. Astute activists felt that the plight of the ghettoes, the sex life of teenagers, the ills of alcoholism, and the roots of crime were all primarily class issues. You want to address gender, sex, race, and culture? Sure, why not, but do it secondarily, as superstructure.

Alongside all this came Black Power, La Raza, the new women’s movement, and the gay and lesbian movements. These projects fought against repressive society, but also against reactionary residues inside the left. "Highlight our situation in your thought and practice," the new social movements instructed class-focussed leftists. "Pay attention to race, gender, and sexuality not as derivative but as critical in their own right, not as secondary but as strategic keys to social change."
Jet forward to the mid-1990s. Class is relatively absent from the left’s lexicon. Priority attention to the economy is not only diminished, but often entirely absent. Lots of leftists celebrate markets, earlier despised—and despise unions, earlier celebrated. Class is relatively slighted in left activism. Race, gender, and sex are relatively highlighted. What happened, and what is to be done?
Everyone realizes that with the emergence of large, reinvigorated race, gender, and sexuality movements many new folks unaware of class issues came into the left, but no one argues that this alone explains declining attention to class. After all, we should have been able to raise class consciousness for these new participants, enlarging the perspective of each new constituency rather than having new recruits drive out prior valid beliefs.
Some people examine the history and say, hey, blacks, Latinos, women, and gays made a mess. They actively pushed class out of prominence. They replaced it with this fragmenting social stuff and we have all paid the price. We must now reverse the trend by re-highlighting class and to do that we have to clear the table of exaggerated emphasis on divisive concerns. This view is now surfacing in progressive periodicals such as the Nation and in left-authored books such as Todd Gitlin’s The Twilight of Common Dreams. Is it credible?
Consider this: Hard upon the re-emergence of economic prioritization, movements center-piecing race also flourished, and, according to folks like Gitlin, started the process of elbowing class aside. Then came feminists focusing on gender. More elbowing. Then gay movements rose and fought for their own agendas, elbows flying. Okay, given if each new movement was elbowing aside concerns that preceded it, I wonder why didn’t the arrival of the women’s movement elbow race (and not just class) aside? And why didn’t the arrival of queer activism elbow gender and race (and not just class) aside? How come it is only class that succumbs so easily to newly arriving prioritizations, as if the other three concerns constitute some kind of unholy alliance, when clearly they are often at odds with each other?
If that doesn’t raise any questions in your mind about the roots of the declining attention to class over the past few decades, go back and look at the literature of the new social movements. Did they have components that largely ignored class, in some sense contributing to declining attention to class? Sure. There’s no sense denying it. But (1) why would previously entrenched class attentiveness, having a much longer pedigree and presumably seen as crucially important by its advocates, retreat so dramatically under such weak assault? And, moreover, (2) for every sector of a new movement trying to replace class, there were other sectors that sought to add race, gender, or sexuality to class, keeping class prominent and expanding left agendas rather than shuffling them. Yes, radical feminists argued the unique priority of gender so that their battle with orthodox marxism was, in some sense, zero sum. Again, there is no point in denying it. But marxist-feminists argued the need to have two conceptual toolboxes and orientations, using each in turn as appropriate. And, better still, socialist feminists saw the need to reinvent approaches to both class and gender with the insights of each approach being revised in a new conceptual toolbox capable of addressing both dimensions of life simultaneously. Why didn’t these more insightful efforts (and the same diversity existed regarding race), plus the seemingly unbreakable attachment to class of the marxists, keep class on the table? I think this is an interesting question and that many folks are coming to wrong conclusions about it, with potentially disastrous results.
Yes, resurgent social movements fought to establish the central importance of race, gender, and sexuality. But this was a needed step forward. Arguing the a priori priority of economic relations and the superstructural subordination of kinship, cultural, sexual, and even power relations was wrong, and would still be wrong if revived today. And arguing that new focuses had to be elevated is not the same as arguing class focus had to decline. So why did class-focus diminish instead of persisting along with new priorities and conceptual insights? Why diminish instead of informing and being informed by the new insights?
The first broad cause of the declining attention to class by the ideological left from 1967 to now had two sides, widely understood.
First, orthodox marxism was like radical feminism or narrow nationalism in trying to defend a single side of life as paramount. Many of marxism’s advocates were intellectually wedded to "economics in command" and honestly didn’t agree that they had been wrong to think that culture, race, gender, sex, etc., are causally derivative and strategically peripheral. Second, resistance to the new conceptualizations was also sometimes defensive. That is, men, whites, and heterosexuals in the movement weren’t eager to have their beliefs and advantages challenged. So, yes, for the most doctrinaire and/or the most racist, sexist, or heterosexist marxists (a) and (b) worked together to pose the problem as class or race, or class or gender, or class or sex, so that if race, gender, and or sex rose in importance, class would have to decline.
But I don’t find (a) and (b) convincing as a full explanation of declining attention to class because I don’t think most rank and file marxists (much less class-concerned activists) from the time were that doctrinaire or that defensive about their privileges. I think a serious study would show that in fact most marxists from the 1960s, whether leaders or writers, or what have you, were actually quite open to the idea that other than class concerns had to be conceptually and programmatically prioritized. The most sectarian or personally retrograde folks aside, and they certainly did exist, I never bought the idea that the race, gender, and sex biases of committed, leftist, class-focussed activists— whether we are talking their principled conceptual beliefs or their defensive material and social interests—were strong enough to cause them to leave the stage (thus reducing support for class politics) rather than admit the importance of other focuses. I think if we went back and tracked people’s trajectories we would find instead that a whole lot of these folks actively embraced race, gender, and sex politics, barely resisting it, in fact, yet nonetheless reduced their allegiances to class politics. Points (a) and (b) above do not explain this choice. So what else could be at work? Well, I think the additional problem which contributed to declining attention to class was that marxism’s focus on class, which it lent to left movements more broadly, was narrow and ill-conceived in the first place.
Yes, marxism’s class-oriented leftism was very good on ownership relations. There is no denying that. It rejected private ownership of the means of production, rightly, and it understood the difference between owning capital, on the one hand, and owning only one’s ability to do work, on the other. Understanding class relations meant understanding the impact of ownership on motivations, power, and income, which was substantial and important, indeed. The problem wasn’t that paying attention to ownership was a bad idea, but that there is a critically important class that is obscured from view by having an exclusive focus on ownership relations. That is, when one set of non-capitalists has a relative monopoly on information relevant to decision making, higher incomes, and more status, and another set enacts instructions with little access to broader information, levers of decision making power, status, and higher income—this, too, is a class difference affecting motivations, incentives, life conditions, and life perspectives. The structural relations of work creating this division in job types defines what I call the coordinator class of empowered conceptual workers as compared to a working class of largely rote workers. The class difference between workers and coordinators (assemblers and managers, secretaries and lawyers, shipping clerks and top level editors, nurses and doctors, typists and accountants, and so on) is not based on ownership and is, in fact, invisible if the only concept that we use for discerning class is ownership relations.
So what, you might say? Had it not been for race, gender, and sex elbowing class off the stage, perhaps marxist movements would have got around to this broader conceptualization and tackled this other class relationship as well as differences in ownership.
I think not. I think the opposite. And I think this is a big part of why class declined in visibility. Here’s why. (1) Marxist movements were profoundly and militantly anti-capitalist, yes, but, at least operationally and at the level of leadership and their conceptual framework, they were pro coordinator class not pro working class. That is, the marxist agenda was and has always been overwhelmingly to create a new economy without private ownership but in which folks with a relative monopoly on information and decision making power, become the new ruling class—as in every country where marxism has won. (2) Something about the arrival of race-, gender-, and sex-oriented leftism meant that if class stayed on the table, awareness of the role of the coordinator class would come to the fore and be challenged, calling into question not just the economism of marxism, but its class allegiances. (3) On average, this caused many marxists to fight against the new orientations to protect a narrow class attitude (not just economism), and others to align with the new movements while dropping priority concern with class (again lest class awareness expand), but relatively few to try to keep class prioritized along with race, gender, and sex. But why would the arrival of race-, gender-, and sex-focused activism push people who continued to pay attention to class to see beyond ownership relations to the role of information, knowledge, and monopolies of decision making tasks in creating class division?
Movements against racism, sexism, and heterosexism all address the actual interpersonal social relationships between people. They each find the hidden injuries of the oppressed by highlighting the detailed ways of ignoring, denigrating, and ruling one another between opposed groups. Women revealed how men talk differently to women, act differently toward women, make different assumptions about women. Blacks did the same vis-a-vis whites, showing the way racism manifests itself in appearances, attitudes, assumptions, values, mannerisms, and language. Each reveal any structural conditions which relegate one group to subordindate position vis-à-vis another. If class was to continue being investigated alongside these new focuses, due to their quality of attention to the dynamics of hierarchical social relations the hidden injuries of class would surface as well, and these would include the injuries that workers endure at the hands of coordinators, not just capitalists. Paying attention to actual social interactions, beliefs, relations, aspirations, words, and deeds among folks arrayed in an oppressive hierarchy—would, if it spread to how we looked at class relations, have quickly brought to the table workers’ antipathy for lawyers, doctors, engineers, and, of course, managers. It would have revealed the basis for that antipathy in structural economic relations that create class division. It would have thereafter led to seeing that an economic program could oppose capital and advance firstly either workers or coordinators, and would therefore have led to a far more profound and needed critique of marxism than just that it was too narrow—rather, that it favored the wrong class. Working people’s views of their own situations would be heard in a context informed by the women’s movement’s, the anti-racist movement’s, and the gay movement’s approaches to understanding interpersonal relations, and the concepts emerging from working people’s experiences viewed in that context would enter the debate and change awareness. Ownership wouldn’t have disappeared as a concern, but who has economic power over daily life conditions would have come to the surface as well. The worker-capitalist interface would have stayed on the table, but the worker-coordinator interface would have joined it there—as well as concern with race, gender, and sexuality. You can see how this would have happened organically and inevitably, had all the old advocates of class welcomed the new ways of thinking and the new priorities of the "social movements" and then begun to apply them in the economy. You can also see how it would have happened, for that matter, had the new movements welcomed into their ranks lots of working people who would have been inspired by these movements’ attitudes of resistance to racism and sexism to also resist class impositions. The upshot of all this would have been a struggle inside the left to have movements not replicate coordinator class values and forms, just as there was a struggle to have movements not replicate Jim Crow and sexist and heterosexist values and norms.
And so there we have it. And what an irony. Class focus in the committed left circa 1967 to now has had a weak basis that declined rather than transforming and developing largely because the conceptual framework and practices that sustained it were not truly committed to pro-working class agendas. They were, instead, committed to coordinator values and aims and attached to not permitting coordinator advantages to surface as a legitimate target of criticism and activism. And, for that matter, over in the women’s and civil rights and gay movements, it was never being soft on capitalism that impeded attracting workers as members. It was not wanting to erupt working class opposition to coordinator structures, values, and aspirations which remain largely enshrined in most progressive institutions, projects, and movements. The hidden injuries of class that had to be kept from sight were not capital imposed poverty. Virtually no one anywhere in the left had or has any significant problem admitting highlighting that. The hidden injuries of class that had to be downplayed were and are the lack of dignity and empowerment that comes from workers’ subordination to the will of managers and experts. The roots of declining attention to class are, in turn, I would argue, due to a virtually reflexive defensiveness about opening this class front to analysis and activism.
So what is a good way forward regarding race, gender, and class? In our society cultural relations, kinship relations, sexual relations, political power relations, and economic relations all powerfully determine people’s life prospects. They all demarcate social groups with on average different circumstances, material and social interests, and prospects for becoming radicalized in various ways. More, each of these spheres of social involvement and function reproduce not only their own defining oppressive hierarchies, but, due to having been molded by the others so powerfully, all the defining oppressive hierarchies. To understand any aspect well—economy, kinship, community, polity—requires concepts informed by lessons from examining the others. So, yes we need to put class back on the left table. We need class concepts organizing our perceptions and structuring our thoughts. We need class vision providing aspirations and orientation, class strategy to guide our practical choices. But we also need gender, race, and sexual concepts, vision, and strategy, both in their own right and also informing our understanding of economy. We need a way to practice politics that respects the autonomy of the constituencies these four spheres of life define and that gives each room to develop and nurture its own agendas, but which simultaneously counters narrowing biases so as to generate real solidarity. Create a conceptual framework that pays proper regard to all critical sides of social life. Create movements that combine autonomy (that allows constituencies to find their own agendas) with solidarity (that informs each agenda with essential insights from all the others and causes them to support one another). More, to do all this successfully, one has to seriously address each focus from the perspective of advancing the groups at the bottom of its oppressive hierarchies. This has pretty obvious and non-controversial implications for kinship, culture, and polity. But regarding class, we have to broaden our conceptual sights and programmatic passions from only ownership to ownership plus social relations, and from a two class view to a three class view, and we have to work to not only extricate capitalist forms and values from our organizations and aims, but also coordinator forms and values, including many managerial mentalities and class hierarchies of all kinds.
A friend of mine told me one day of saying to his three-year-old child, "You can do this, or you can do that, now let’s get on with it. Which will it be." And the child said back, "But daddy, I don’t like either choice." Three- year-olds can manage this level of comprehension. We don’t have to choose between weak class analysis or no class analysis, or between class myopia or non-class myopia. Surely we can opt for something broader than these competing failed orientations. If we don’t, we have only ourselves to blame.