Left Luggage

The socialist strategy site

Accounting for culture in class analysis

Posted by Left Luggage on July 18, 2009

It seems one of our recent posts about the social class composition of the Left has come in for some criticism in the blogosphere. One blogger who linked to our piece this week reveals his inclusion of us in the round-up “led to some criticism in [his] inbox for [his] endorsement of that kind of class analysis”. It is a pity these comments were confined to private emails as we very much welcome constructive (in the sense of comradely) discussion and criticism on all the articles on Left Luggage.

In the post in question we tried to delineate two definitions of class, one based on a structural economic analysis (a broad definition) an one based on social or cultural criteria (a narrow definition). The point seems obvious to us. However, we can understand that many on the Left will recoil at such an argument. I had a debate recently with a friend who argued university lecturers were very bit as working class as factory workers. True in one sense, as we admitted. Yet to be blinded to the very obvious differences between these two groups of workers is to be blinded by one’s own ideology.

At its heart this is a strategic point. It is obvious that those on the Left are constantly having to make decisions about what issues to take up, what tactics to adopt, who they attempt to reach and how. Much of this is automatic and, one might say, unconscious; poeple do what is “common sense”. Equally, much of this, particularly in the far-left parties, takes the form of commands from above. Regardless, the point still stands.

Obviously there are an infinite number of possible options facing Left activists in making these decisions. Even more obvious is the fact that some actions (and slogans, arguments, issues etc.) will resonate more with ordinary people than others, some will be better at mobilising, some will be more effective in their goals etc.

Our argument is essentially culture plays a central role in defining what is “common sense”  to different people. It would not be unfair to say that the Left pretty much has its own subculture that is reproduced by its members. It is also true to say that the social class demographic of the Left as a whole is not representative of either the population at large nor working class people.

If one takes account of culture and how ideas about what seems “natural” are formed, it becomes clear that an economic account of class is too crude a tool; even if the university lecturer and the factory worker have a similar position in the relations of production, this does not mean their ideas, experiences, culture etc. will be identical. Such an understanding, while valuable, needs to be supplemented by an understanding of social class and the role this plays in making choices. This affects the Left all the way down the line strategically.

Blogger Vengeance and Fashion makes the point well that the Left needs to engage the working class where it is, rather than where we wish it would be. He is referring the “ultra-Left” groups and the tendency to prioritise theory over action, and also the danger of action for action’s sake. But the point applies equally to the Left’s attitude towards “intervening” in struggles with its own ideas of the important issues facing working class people, rather than attempting the long hard task of understanding and building from where things stand:

More than anything, we need to open our ears and listen not just to other Leftists, but other workers, who often have a complex set of views that don’t fit into a box.  Once we’ve listened, then we can make our comments, dealing with their concerns and interests, and broadening it out to the big picture, hopefully setting them on the way to looking at the system itself as a problem.

Criticisms, comments and stinging ripostes are, as always, very welcome.


9 Responses to “Accounting for culture in class analysis”

  1. vengeanceandfashion said

    Good post, I hope those who are critical of your stance comment on here, it’s an important discussion to be had.

  2. c0mmunard said

    I broadly agree with the post above. However, I would say that calling the ‘narrow’ definition ‘cultural’ is maybe a bit misleading. What seperates the university lecturer from the factory worker is not simply culture (i.e. beliefs, assumptions, preferences, self-image), but any number of objective, non-cultural challenges faced by one and not the other in the course of their lives (as children, as adults). One might be geographical: the area you are born, the school (or university, or job) you have access to. Another might be income. Some things seem partly but not wholly cultural: health, for example. Other important factors follow on from these: quality of housing, for example.

  3. Thanks for the comments, V&A and Communard.

    What Communard says is a useful addition to what we were getting at in the post. Where these “objective” factors intersect with culture, and indeed are productive of it, is interesting; in many instances they are certainly closely related, as you suggest.

    As we said in the post, we would include cultural and social factors in this narrow definition of class. The reason we mostly focus here on cultural factors is precisely because it is beliefs, assumptions, preferences, etc. that have a determining role in how activity is actually organised. Thus, as we agree, social class does make a difference in what the Left chooses to do and therefore how effective it is.

    Thanks again for the comments.

  4. This is a good discussion to have, as in some respects it goes right to the core of the arguments of the late 1970s and 1980s that led to the de-privileging of the working class as the primary agent of revolutionary change.

    I would suggest that there is an important distinction to be made between a “class-of-itself”, and a “class-for-itself”, following Marx’ 18th Brumaire. The idea of a class-of-itself encompasses the factory worker, the lecturer, the ‘informal’ labourer and so on. Objectively they form a working class because of their relations with other classes and the means of production. However, subjectively, as you’ve mentioned, they experience their exploitation in different ways.

    This subjective experience is conditioned by culture (in which definition we can follow Communard, “i.e. beliefs, assumptions, preferences, self-image”). Communard goes further, however, to assert differing challenges faced by one worker and not the other. But the same is true of two individuals in the same job. There’s no point in getting into an argument over whether or not these ‘challenges’ are more properly defined as objective or subjective; I think it’s simpler to cut to the end of the page and assert that these are as nothing when set against the other challenges which are common to the objectively-defined working class as a whole: acquiring and sustaining the means of material life, not to mention reproducing. There is also the matter of their professional relationship with management.

    And I think we are borne out here by the (formerly?) easy way in which solidarity was possible between non-academic and academic staff at universities. Their jobs are entirely different; the minutiae of their day to day struggles are entirely different – but they are not the masters of their own labour. Neither are they the privileged sectors of the working class; or more accurately, the privileges of one set against those of the other seem small when they are compared to the managers of the university, or to the bosses of capitalism generally. These workers have cut to the end of the page and show signs of becoming part of a “class-for-itself”.

    That’s not to belittle the role of culture. The wrong beliefs, assumptions, preferences and self-image can lead to friction between parts of the working class. For example, the demands of one set of workers can be set against another set. E.g. auxiliary staff at a university might say “Lecturers and Auxiliary staff must be paid the same” as a means to levering up their own wages. Whereas a general demand for better pay and conditions would see some solidarity expressed, to phrase the specific, confrontational demand risks alienating lecturers. Or a better known example is when the question of race becomes involved.

    Regardless of the social class which one comes from, into a job, from the perspective of revolutionary activists the task at hand is to knit together a “class-for-itself” out of the labouring mass and overcome pre-existing divisions of social class, not to reaffirm them.

    The political programme of this “class-for-itself” is ultimately economic – since we can hardly write a political programme to alter the beliefs, assumptions, preferences and self-image of sixty million people. We can alter the circumstances in which they do it for themselves, however. In order to do that, we’ll develop different ways of talking to different groups, different themes to hit on according to the needs of the moment – but there are parameters to be set. Our end goal circumscribes a set of methods outside of which we step at our peril – as the Communists of Germany found out, with their appeals to nationalism, in the hope that they would tap into the same well as Hitler, only more successfully.

    To spell it out, I’m saying that yes culture/social class can be a determinant of actions – but it can often be a determinant of the wrong actions, because both reflect the power relations of capitalist society. We’re fighting against the relations and cannot co-opt their products to our side. However, we cannot ignore that culture can be a vehicle for counter-hegemonic practices that can be rendered explicit and used to give force to our arguments.


    Outside of how we regard culture/social class in determining our activity, I think two other important points were made in the discussion. I think it’s important that we recognize the demographic skew of the Left, as you have.

    I’m a teacher. From the perspective of others, I could seem like the worst sort of dilettante, including a spell at Oxford and parents who were really quite well off (one being a bank manager, the other being a policeman). Subjectively, however, I have experienced unemployment, resultant poverty, not to mention stifling power structures over the years when I actually had a job. My social class has been supplanted by an acute awareness of where I stand in relation to the means of production, the power structures which keep me in my place and my relation to other workers. My objective conditions have made themselves felt.

    That is something which cannot be said of every socialist. To shoot fish in the proverbial barrel, this is certainly true of many of the people I went to university with, who are senior in the youth organisations of Labour and who will go on to occupy, I don’t doubt, various posts in a future Labour government. We can’t be socialists and consider ourselves working class whilst also hoping to get a job with Goldman-Sachs. If we are socialists, then it’s important that we are putting our own jobs at risk when we’re asking other people to do the same. At the very least, this will ditch the stereotype by which the 1980s Left was damned.

    Which brings me to the other point of importance: speaking to people ‘where they are’. I absolutely agree with this…to a point. Or, I would draw a distinction between speaking to people ‘where they are’, i.e. relating our pre-existing analysis of the world to their subjective experience, and pandering. Some workers are racist. Some are nationalistic. Thus, by its very nature, Marxist theory can seem like it is grafted on to the working class, whereas other beliefs, assumptions, preferences and self-images are autonomously generated. We must get past that perception. We don’t have to talk like Althusser; it’s a skill to be able to break down complex arguments into digestible chunks – and one we should learn.

    If more socialists followed these prescriptions which flow from two of your observations – be of the working class, and learn to talk about complex themes in simple words, we’d be a lot better off as a movement.

    • Thanks very much for your comments Dave, which stand alone as a useful contribution to the debate. Apologies for the slow response. I’ll make just a couple of points in response:

      Regardless of the social class which one comes from, into a job, from the perspective of revolutionary activists the task at hand is to knit together a “class-for-itself” out of the labouring mass and overcome pre-existing divisions of social class, not to reaffirm them.

      I agree with this. Of course we don’t want to deepen existing divisions between workers and this would certainly be possible depending on the accent you put on social class. This is something the Independent Working Class Association, a group we have a lot of time for, has been accused of: excusing people deemed to be middle class. (Although they always made clear middle class people were welcome in a supportive, but not leading role.) Whether this is a correct strategy or tactic depends partly on the objective situation facing a group such as the IWCA.

      But in any case we use the distinction to make a major strategic point: the Left is out of touch with vast sections of the population and is socially middle class in character. All of us should want to change this urgently. So how to go about this. Without a sensitivity to social class and the role it plays in detemining action, we cannot see clear enough how to go about mouting a corrective to our strategy.

      The political programme of this “class-for-itself” is ultimately economic – since we can hardly write a political programme to alter the beliefs, assumptions, preferences and self-image of sixty million people.

      I think a narrow focus on the economic is not necessary, since a whole host of other non-economic actions can develop class consciousness especially where it has some strength already. It is not a case of writing a programme, but in creating an alternative at all levels: ideological, political and economic.

      You might also find useful the article on Gramsci’s thought we’ve posted up today, which covers many of the themes we’re dicussing and some of the ground covered above.

      Thanks again for your comment!


  5. Hmm. That was longer than I had intended to write. I hope you don’t get bored halfway down.

  6. Bob said

    First, sorry for taking so long to comment here, as I had some responsibility to do so I guess. My inbox comment was from an ex-leftist along the lines of “you don’t still buy that class stuff do you?” With the report this week on the posh still dominating the well-paid professions, I am sad to say I feel vindicated.

    I’ve pondered the questions you pose here over the years. For a while, I had a hardcore Marxist attitude that class in the Marxist sense was the only meaningful one, and what I called the sociological conception (what you call the cultural side) was a distraction. As I became more convinced of a state capitalism analysis of the old Stalinist countries, I began to develop a variation on my hardcore Marxism, influenced by CLR James. I began to think that there were whole segments of the waged classes whose material interest was in the institution of state capitalism. Basically, I began to see that certain types of salaried state workers, middle class workers, have historically led the working class into state-based solutions and away from real (small-c) communism. It struck me then that the SWP, despite their state capitalist analysis, most enthusiastically mouthed the “we work, therefore we’re all workers” line, and that this was an alibi for the fact that they were dominated by exactly that fraction of the class that had a material interest in state capitalism. [Am submitting this now, as am working on a dodgy internet connection, so I’m doing this in stages.]

  7. Bob said


    A little later, I came under the interests of two groups that had a very different approach to class analysis: Red Action and Class War. Both these groups articulated a strong sense of the sociological/cultural working class, rather than the Marxist “economic” one. Under their influence, I began to realise that there was more to class than Marx had allowed.

    Later, I returned to sociology, and especially the work of Pierre Bourdieu, and more recently to some academics influenced by him, like Bev Skeggs. I am more and more convinced that the social power of the middle class (its social and cultural capital, to use Bourdieu’s analysis) is a major issue, something which goes way beyond the relation of exploitation at the heart of the Marxist explanation. Now, although the relation of exploitation in wage labour remains for me the fulcrum of all politics, I increasingly think we need to find ways of challenging the social domination of the working class by the middle class too.

  8. Bob said


    Finally, I am still unsure what I think of what Dave wrote above. I think that forging the proletariat as a class for itself is indeed partly about transcending the social divisions within the class, differences of ethnicity, gender, sociological class, etc. But at the same time the solidarity that we need to forge a class for itself is partly drawing on specific working class traditions and histories, such as the histories of industrial struggle, that are specific to the “narrow” working class.

    On the experience of poverty etc regardless of one’s origins, I again half agree. The experience of exploitation, the experience of what Marx called the objective antagonism between capitalism and labour, is most directly felt when you clock on, when you do physical work, when you can see how someone else profits from selling the stuff you make. This objective antagonism needs to retain a central place in the left. Fighting oppression without fighting this sort of exploitation is ultimately just about reshuffling our masters.

    Finally, despite just having used the phrase objective antagonism, I am all in favour of plain speaking. And certainly the middle class left has used Marxist jargon as one of the tools of its class power, its social domination, its cultural capital. However, the working class, narrowly defined, is perfectly capable of understanding complex stuff and complex language. This is clear when you read Red Action, for exaple, or when you look at the history of the Plebs League or the Workers Dreadnought.

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