Saturday, June 1, 2024

Class matters (2024)

Book Review from the June 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Radical Chains. Why Class Matters. By Chris Nineham. Zero Books, 2023.197pp.

Recent times have seen much talk of identity politics and sectionalism. Gender, race, and ethnicity among other ‘sectional’ interests create what the author of this book sees as divisions and diversions from the common interest we have in establishing a different kind of society from the existing one. The view he forcefully expresses is that to regard these as groups with different interests has the effect of diverting attention from the shared working-class issue of wage and salary work and the insecurity it brings.

The book’s sub-title, ‘Why Class Matters’ is an uncompromising expression of the Marxist view that there are two main classes in capitalist society, the tiny minority class that owns and controls the Earth’s resources (the capitalist class) and the vast majority (the working class) who, in order to survive, need to sell their labour-power for a wage or salary to that minority. It argues this proposition with informed and incontrovertible clarity and powerfully insists that the effect of ‘identity politics’ is to cause muddle and confusion, nor does it make any sense to split wage and salary earners into a series of different sub-classes (eg, ‘middle class’, ‘upper class, ‘professional class’) with somehow different interests from one another. He dismisses ‘the various attempts to downplay class’ as ‘completely misleading’ and illustrates effectively that, whatever their line of work, all those who live on a wage or salary are fundamentally in the same subordinate position with regard to the system and the class that owns it (ie, the capitalist class).

This message is then connected, in a wide-ranging survey, to the various conflicts, large and small, that have arisen across the globe between subjects and their masters over the last two centuries. Yet here it somewhat loses its way and focus in seeking to see in these conflicts conscious attempts to establish new forms of society rather than largely desperate reactions by downtrodden people against oppression or powerlessness. It starts with the nineteenth-century movements for political change in France and Germany before going on to Russia’s 1905 revolution, and then the taking of power by the Bolsheviks in 1917 and the civil war that followed, with reflection on these events as analysed mainly by Trotsky, Gramsci and Lukacs.

The author then moves on to the Second World War and its aftermath, and later, in a section entitled ‘Dreams deferred’, he takes us through revolts and uprisings in China, Egypt, Algeria, Cuba, Vietnam, and Latin America as well as the ‘Arab Spring’ before moving back to Europe with the ‘events’ of May 1968 in France, the opposition to Thatcherism in Britain and the reactions to the ‘neoliberalism’ which it heralded. A broad sweep indeed in which historical development is often encapsulated with verve and economy (eg, the First World War defined as ‘the catastrophic climax of mounting international competition for markets and resources’) but which is tainted by an over-enthusiastic tendency to see events as more driven by class-conscious motives than they were in reality.

Having gone through this history of revolt and struggle, the author’s main message for today is that we must struggle against the current ‘neoliberalism’, which he sees as a new and increasingly exploitative form of capitalism causing ‘an epidemic of workplace insecurity’. He peppers his book with references to it, seeming to consider it as something qualitatively different from the capitalism that existed before over the past two centuries. But is it that much different from capitalism’s business as usual? It’s true that, in the post-Second World War years, free-market capitalism (previously called ‘laissez-faire’) gave way to a new variation widely practised by governments, whereby the state would intervene in the economy more readily than before to try and get the system back working in a less crisis-ridden way (often called ‘Keynesianism’).

But as capitalism went on its merry way creating, as the author himself quoting Marx says, ‘uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions’, the state intervention method was found to be no more effective in ‘taming’ capitalism than what preceded it. It became discredited therefore and governments went back to favouring so-called ‘free markets’ and the relaxation of controls: an old way of running things in fact, even if its critics have attached to it the new label of ‘neoliberalism’. The fact is that governments do not – cannot – control the way the capitalist economy works. It’s the other way round. It’s the operation of capitalism that constrains governments. In fact they can do little more than react to what it throws at them. And the system remains fundamentally the same – something the writer himself, despite his focus on ‘neoliberalism’ seems also to accept when he writes ‘the production of commodities through exploitation remains …the driving force of the system’ and ‘it is still a system with the exploitation of workers at its heart’.

But what is the form of struggle he advocates that we engage in to transcend the capitalist system and establish socialism? At one point he quotes Marx’s view of socialism as being the ‘abolition of the wages system’, talks about ‘liberating society as a whole’ and ‘dissolving classes altogether’ and seems to agree that this should be the ambition of those who oppose capitalism and have a clear view of the class system that characterises it regardless of attempts at obfuscation. And that is very much to his credit.

But the main thing he seems to offer in terms of action is support for ‘struggles over pay and conditions by trade unions’, which, it is claimed ‘have a capacity to generalise into a political conflict between different class organisations’ and ‘at the same time developing the revolutionary consciousness and combativity of all those involved’. We have of course heard this kind of thing many times before from the Trotskyist left and we continue to argue that it’s no substitute for a movement whose aim should be to develop majority consciousness among workers of the need to use democratic means to establish a classless, stateless, marketless, free-access society of democratic cooperation, mutual aid and economic equality based on the principle of from each according to ability to each according to need.
Howard Moss

1 comment:

Imposs1904 said...

Chris Nineham was for many years a leading member of the SWP, and was part of the split from that organisation in 2010 - alongside the likes of John Rees and Lindsay German - which led to the formation of the group, Counterfire.

As a musical aside, he was briefly a member of the band The June Brides. Sadly for him, this was before the NME's C86 compilation, so he missed out on his moment in the Jangly Pop Sun.