Class, class consciousness and left political practice

by Philip Ferguson

Class, we are often told these days, does not exist.  Or certainly not in New Zealand.  That’s when it’s mentioned at all.

It is certainly not, we are told, a useful category through which to approach the study of society, let alone the problems of society.  And it is especially not a useful category upon which to base a perspective of fundamental social change.

It’s fairly obvious why the ruling class don’t like to talk about class, at least not in public.  After all, their wealth derives from the exploitation of the working class.

But many people who would see themselves as progressive-minded and supporters of a more equal society don’t like to talk about class in New Zealand either.  For instance, take the current concern about child poverty.  Which class do these children belong to?  Is it just them who are poor, or are their parents poor as well?  Since these are working class kids and their parents are also poor and working class, then the issue of poverty is an issue of class not age.  Yet the campaigns that exist around this poverty are child poverty campaigns, not campaigns against unemployment, low wages and benefits for the children’s parents.

The discussion around the misnomer of ‘child poverty’ and around issues like poor educational outcomes in many working class areas also use terms like ‘deciles’: decile-one schools, decile-one areas and so on.  Or even more confusing terms, like ‘the lowest quintile’.  But what are involved are actual living, breathing, struggling human beings and they are not so much members of a decile or quintile as members of a class: the working class.  Terms like decile-one or ‘the lowest quintile’ are gobbledegook for what is really the poorest section of the working class.  So why don’t commentators, officials and anti-poverty campaigners say “the poorest section of the working class”?  Moreover, the poorer one section of the working class is, the lower pay rates in general will be.  So it is a class issue and, indeed, an issue for the entire working class.

The desire to use almost any point of reference other than class has also been evident in the Occupy movement.  Since New Zealand has had the least political Occupy movement in the world, the lack of class analysis among Occupy people has been especially pronounced.  The Occupy people in Christchurch, for instance, harmlessly camped out in a corner of Hagley Park, with a big banner up saying “We are the 99%”.  In fact, they weren’t even the 99, let alone the 99%.  I remember attending a good talk there about major points in class conflict in New Zealand history, given by Jared Davidson.  Most of the campers showed no interest at all in availing themselves of the opportunity to hear his talk and those that did and spoke during the discussion were advocates of “all you need is love”, “we just need to love our mums more” and hostility to concepts of class struggle because they were too conflictual and divisive.

One of the benefits of talking about child poverty rather than the class-based poverty that we actually have, or using terms like “haves and have-nots” or “the 99%”is that obscures real class relations, the basis of the organisation of capitalist society.  Instead, a moral appeal is made to the “haves” or the state to be nicer.  If only the “haves” paid more taxes and were more generous or public-spirited.  Meanwhile the system of exploitation itself goes uninterrogated.

Post-class society

In the academic world, post-modern theorists have for several decades suggested that every member of society is an ‘actor’ or ‘player’ who performs a whole number of roles’ simultaneously.  Thus someone might sell their labour-power and produce surplus-value for a capitalist – although this is a ‘role’ which post-modernists prefer to ignore altogether – but s/he is also a parent, a sibling, a child, a consumer, a taxpayer, a member of a gender, ethnic or national group, of a particular skin colour and sexual persuasion, a fan of particular types of sport and music and so on.  None of these roles, it is suggested by the post-modern theorists, is or should be viewed as any more important, unless, perhaps, the particular actor chooses to make it so.

Moreover, like Madonna, people can supposedly ‘reinvent’ themselves by writing a new ‘script’ and taking on a new ‘role’.  Post-modernism has had a particular appeal to middle class liberals.  The men can ‘reinvent’ themselves as sensitive metrosexual guys through men’s groups, therapy, the right consumer items and discourses on the ‘new masculinity’; the women can ditch dreary husbands and ‘reinvent’ themselves as free-spirited women of the world.  And novels and films featuring such female characters certainly have a substantial ready-made audience.

But for the majority of humanity, including in this country, our place in society is structured not by ‘scripts’, least of all self-penned ones, but by real, material relations.  We must struggle to survive and make a life for ourselves in conditions over which we do not have control.  Workers made redundant might dearly love to ‘reinvent’ themselves but cannot ‘reinvent’ the jobs and better wages which are needed in order to live.  Workers run up against real obstacles in the real world which exists outside of post-modern discourse.

Our solutions therefore cannot be found in individual self-invention and ‘discourse’, but only in collective action at the level of society as a whole.

But, even if this is true, it might be argued, what sort of collective solutions are there?  Why must they be based on class?

Farewell the working class?

Among the many ‘posts’ of our post-infatuated academia and chattering classes, and closely connected to post-modernism, is post-Fordism.  In books such as Andre Gorz’s Farewell to the Working Class: an essay on post-industrial socialism, it is suggested that factory-line production of the sort associated with Henry Ford is a thing of the past; the end of such production means the end of the working class.

The problem with such post-modern and post-Fordist analysis is that it tends to be based on what these academics see looking out their office windows.  In many First World countries the ld smokestack industries are gone; using empirical deduction, the academics presume this must mean the working class has gone too.  But statistics themselves show that not only is the working class still in existence, it’s bigger than ever.  This is also true not only of the white-collar working class but also the industrial working class globally.

Take China for instance.  The Communist Party’s development of a capitalist economy there has taken tens upon tens of millions of people out of rural areas and proletarianised them – ie, converted them into wage-labourers – on production lines in massive factories in the new industrial cities over the past three decades or so.

Similar phenomena can be observed throughout East and South-east Asia.  Anyone who is familiar with volume one of Capital and investigates the development of the working class in this hugely-populated and important part of the world cannot help but be struck by the modernity and relevance of Marx’s analysis and the similarities between the factory conditions of the newly-industrialising countries and Victorian Britain.

But even in the developed Western world where most countries have been in slump conditions, on and off, for most of the time since the early 1970s, the working class continues to exist and grow.  For the working class consists not simply of people employed in old smokestack industries, but also those who work in factories, offices,  workshops, schools, transport, on the land, at sea, and elsewhere.  Essentially, the working class is all those people who have no means of surviving except through selling their ability to work.

Just as the earth went round the sun regardless of pronouncements to the contrary by the medieval European church, the working class exists as an objectively-defined category regardless of whatever self-justifying and apologetic ideas may be fashionable in academia and politics at any one point in time.

Role of workers in society

Marx did not alight upon the working class as the social agent of revolution because he had a penchant for muscly, sweaty men on factory floors, but because he understood the unique position of the working class in society.  What is crucial is the role played by the working class in making and distributing all the goods and services which society needs in order to function.

This insight has been succinctly put by Marxist cultural critic Terry Eagleton, in his humorous critique of the “celebrated triptych of ‘class, race and gender’” which was fashionable in some left circles in the 1980s.  (This trend was especially notable in New Zealand.)  Of the ‘class, race and gender triplet’, Eagleton notes:

“What these social groupings have in common is of curse the fact that they are variously oppressed, denied their full humanity; but Marxism’s interest in the working class is not at all in the first place to do with the fact that they are denied their full humanity.  The proletariat is not a potential agent of revolutionary change because it suffers a good deal.  As far as suffering goes, there are many better candidates for revolutionary agency than the working class: vagrants, perhaps, or impoverished students or senior citizens.  Many of these individuals suffer more than your average worker who drives a Renault and holidays in Greece.  But none of (these other groups) is even potentially an agent of social transformation, as the working class is.  Unlike the latter, these groups are not so objectively located within the capitalist mode f production, trained, organised and unified by that very system, as to be able to take it over.  It is not Marxism which selects the proletariat as a potential revolutionary instrument, but capitalism, which as Marx wryly commented gives birth to its own gravedigger.  Radical politics is not just a matter of looking around the place, determining who is the most needy or desperate, and backing them against the system.  Historical materialists can leave such a strategy to guilt-stricken middle class liberals.”

What about race and gender?

But if the working class is situated in such a position to give it the power to overturn capitalism, and its existence as an exploited class gives it a reason to do so, what has this to do with oppressed sections of society such as women, national minorities, homosexuals and so on?  Are workers often not the most prejudiced on these questions?

The first thing to note about these objections, which are usually raised by people involved in single-issue campaigns and movements such as feminism and Maori sovereignty, is that much of the working class is itself female and/or Maori.  Most women and most Maori are also working class.

But what is also decisive is that unlike any previous class which could transform society (eg the capitalists under feudalism), the working class owns no property and exploits no-one.  The working class as a whole, including white, male, straight workers, cannot achieve liberation without overthrowing the system which oppresses most of the rest of society.  As Marx put it, the working class is the universal class; its interests are the interests of humanity.

We can see this if we look at the position of even white, male workers in relation to women and oppressed ethnic or national minorities.  For instance, the ability of the capitalists to hold down the wages of women and non-white workers in any country serves to lower wage rates as a whole because wage rates are constructed from the bottom up.  Thus when the system of Jim Crow segregation existed in the United States from the late 1800s until the 1960s and denied blacks in the southern states such basic rights as the vote, wage rates for white workers in those states were lower than anywhere else in the United States.  As Marx noted as early as the 1860s, labour with a white skin can never be free as long as labour with a black skin is branded.

The same is true in relation to women.  The ability of employers to pay women less than men and to use them as an industrial reserve army does not ‘privilege’ men as a group: it serves to depress all wages.  Thus even the most chauvinistic male worker has a vested interest in supporting equality between women and men.

But, it will often be argued, what about women’s domestic labour?  This ‘services men’ and therefore gives all men ‘privilege’.  However, domestic toil is about ensuring that wage labour is reproduced and kept in a fit state to be exploited by capital – scarcely a ‘privilege’ for the men who have to go out and work 8-10 hours a day.  It is the capitalists, not individual men, who benefit.  Through imposing domestic toil on women – and, increasingly these days, men as well – the capitalists escape paying for a sizeable chunk of the social costs of the reproduction and maintenance of the labour-power they exploit.

We might also know that sections of the feminists who make this argument are often ensconced in middle-class occupations and incomes and are themselves frequently serviced by low-paid female labour and studiously ignore the fact that their own position in society is predicated on the continued subjugation of working class women (and men).

Not only do women as a section of society not occupy a position which gives them all a reason and position of power from which to act as the agent of revolution, women belong to different social classes.  Female members of the ruling class have a vested interest in preventing the emancipation of working class women.  In fact, upper class women are able to escape both domestic toil and exploitation in the workplace thanks to capitalism and the exploitation of female and male workers.

National minorities are also divided into classes, although commentators in New Zealand have the standard habit of pretending this is not so.  For instance, the media makes constant references to “Maori say. . .” and “Maori are. . .” etc in relation to ‘race’ relations, water, and so on, whereas actually they are talking about a specific section of Maori and frequently it is a class fraction of Maori.

Another objection that is made to what we might call ‘the class approach’ is “Well, even if this is true, why don’t the workers act in a way that reflects what Marxists say their class interests are?”  This is where the question of class consciousness comes in.  The working class is not only an objective category: it is flesh-and-blood human beings and their consciousness of themselves as members of a class and their understanding of the world in which they live – social totality – is of crucial importance in determining how workers act.

The existence of the working class and its position in society does not mean the working class will automatically act to achieve its class interests and the emancipation of itself and society as a whole.  This sphere of class consciousness and its vital importance to revolutionary change is largely ignored by many would-be Marxists, a fact which helps explain the dire situation of the radical left today.

Unfortunately, certainly in the West – and it’s particularly true in New Zealand – class consciousness, in any meaningful sense, tends to be absent more than it is present in the class.  Why should this be so?  What is class consciousness?  How does it come into existence?  What is the connection between the objective aspect of the existence of workers as a class and the subjective aspect of their consciousness?  How does this connection help explain the situation today – one in which workers’ struggles are at an all-time low?  And how can this situation be challenged?

View from the left

Much of the left holds the view that workers’ consciousness develops spontaneously out of their conditions of existence.  Thus the role of ‘Marxists’ is reduced to patronising workers by telling them what they already know (“wages and conditions are crappy”), urging them to do what they already do (“fight for better pay”, “Vote Labour”), and provide networking tips (“link up with other workers in struggle”).  Workers have, of course, been doing all these things for a very long time but are no closer to liberation than 100 years ago.

The idea of introducing Marxist ideas into the working class, a necessity for which Lenin argued vigorously, finds little support among would-be Marxists and the non-Marxist left alike.  Often they argue this approach is “elitist”.  But if anything is elitist is the idea that Marxist theory is for them alone and that workers are too thick to understand it and so any old dross and absurd advice will suffice for the mere proles.  In fact, this form of ‘anti-elitism’ is simply a way of denying workers access to rigorous Marxist political education and a scientific analysis of the system which exploits them.  Instead, it reproduces the division between manual and mental labour created by capitalism itself.  The ‘leaders’ and ‘intellectuals’ do the theorising; the ranks just go out and sell the party paper; the workers just get patronised with the kinds of advice mentioned above.

For genuine Marxists, however, the perspective is rather different.  If we live in a class society and the ruling ideas are therefore those of the ruling class it is not possible for workers as a class to spontaneously come to understand the need to overthrow capitalism, let alone develop the kind of analysis of the workings of the system needed for the revolutionary project to succeed.

In fact, as Lenin noted, workers going about their normal business of being exploited and resisting this through trade union organisation will only, and can only, develop a trade unionist consciousness.  This is still a form of bourgeois consciousness, he argued, since it does not at all question the very existence of exploitation and oppression, but merely seeks to improve the terms upon which these take place.  And, given that trade union consciousness is itself sectional, in the sense of organising groups of workers in separate sectors, it often pits workers against each other – one union against another, male workers against women workers, white workers against workers of colour, immigrants etc – rather than uniting workers as a class.

False consciousness

Although some people on the left coined the term ‘false consciousness’ to describe the outlook of workers most of the time under capitalism, and it is ‘false’ in the sense that it works against their interests, the term is also something of a misnomer.  For this form of consciousness is completely real in the sense that it is based on how things do actually appear under capitalism.  It arises out of the very workings of the system itself.

For instance, the way capitalism operates mystifies the way in which exploitation (and thus the creation of surplus-value) is carried out in the production process.  Workers can and do sell their labour-power at its value; thus a ‘fair’ exchange appears to take place.  And, given that commodities of equal value are exchanged – labour-power at its actual value – the appearance coincides with reality.  It is this exchange of labour-power at its value which gives rise to the consciousness of workers and the notion of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.  What the worker does not and cannot see spontaneously is the crucial aspect that, in the production process, labour-power can create an even greater value.  (See the article on exploitation, here.)

Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism explains the process of mystification, in which a “definite social relation between men” takes on “the fantastic form of a relation between things”.  Only an understanding of the inner workings of the system – through the application of revolutionary science – can reveal this to the worker (or anyone else).  Moreover, as Frank Richards has noted, “As capitalism develops, the connection between production relations and the complex forms in which they are expressed is increasingly lost.”  For instance, this is particularly so with the rise of paper money and increases with the replacement of paper money by plastic cards and internet banking and payments.  (For a more in-depth discussion of how capitalist ideology works, see here.)


We might also note here that the tendency of so much of the left to base its politics on the surface appearances and the existing levels of consciousness inevitably leads to a reformist practice.  A gross example of this was in the 1990s when ‘far left’ groups restricted the politics of anti-French nuclear testing groups to demands which the New Zealand ruling class itself supported, while studiously ignoring NZ intervention in Bosnia, the most significant deployment of NZ troops in a combat zone since Vietnam.  But it’s also evident in more recent practices like obscuring the capitalist nature of the SOEs, despite the fact that these were specifically established as capitalist enterprises.  While much of the left essentially supported state capitalism and obscured the nature of these companies, a chunk of the SOEs got on with the serious capitalist business of laying off hundreds of workers in order to boost profits.

The question of class consciousness was considered vital not only by Lenin but a number of other major Marxist activist-theoreticians who came to prominence in the wave of revolutionary struggles which followed the working class seizure of state power in Russia in 1917.  All these theoreticians were particularly concerned with breaking from the lifeless and reformist outlook of the Second International, which believed that socialism was inevitable due to objective laws operating above and beyond human consciousness and activity.  Of course, this outlook quickly descended into the idea of gradual change within capitalism.  In this case, the consciousness of the working class never need be raised beyond the most narrow trade union concerns because capitalism was developing into socialism due to all-powerful historic laws.  (As Lenin noted of the Second International, “problems of revolution in general hardly concerned them.”)

Karl Korsch also analysed the way the Second International revised Marxism:

“a unified general theory of social revolution was changed into criticisms of the bourgeois economic order, of the bourgeois state, of the bourgeois system of education, of bourgeois religion, art, science and culture.  These criticisms no longer necessarily develop by their very nature into revolutionary practice; they can equally well develop into all kinds of attempt at reform, which fundamentally remain within the limits of bourgeois society and the bourgeois state and in actual practice usually did so. . .”

In this sort of practice, the parts of a unified capitalist system are broken up and each made the subject of separate complaints.  This provides no challenge to the overall system at all.  If the working class is ever going to get rid of capitalism it has to be concerned with the operations of society as a whole and with al the forms of oppression which are engendered by capitalism.  In this way the working class ceases to be a class in itself, wrapped up in its own narrow daily preoccupations with survival and becomes the class for itself and, as the universal class, the social force representing the general interests of humanity.

To play this role requires workers mastering what Korsch rightly calls Marxism: “a unified general theory of social revolution”.  Marxism embodies, as Korsch notes, neither pure theory nor pure practice, “but a single theoretical-practical and critical-revolutionary activity.  It is ‘a method that is by its very nature critical and revolutionary’.”  (The portion in single quotes is Marx’s own term.)  Put bluntly, without the political education and transformation of consciousness of the universal class, the working class, there will be no challenge to capitalism.

Consciousness today

For Marxists it is not simply enough to repeat what Marx, Lenin, Korsch and Lukacs said about class consciousness seventy years ago: we have to examine society today to understand the kind of consciousness which exists now, how and why it exists in its current form, and what is required for it to be transformed.  Consciousness in New Zealand today, for instance, is a product of the retreat of the working class following the end of the long postwar boom in the early 1970s, almost perpetual slump conditions over the two-and-a-half decades since the 1987 crash and the defeats that were inflicted on the class by the fourth Labour government and further codified in the Employment Contracts Act and benefit cuts of the early 1990s and later industrial legislation.  It is shaped, too, by almost continual economic restructuring which has seen the massive downsizing in employment in industries like the meat works, car plants, ports, pulp and paper, forestry mills and the working class communities and consciousness developed around them.

The old ‘class politics’ of the trade union movement proved woefully inadequate to defend even union membership levels, let alone hold onto pay and conditions, let alone challenge the system of exploitation.  Moreover, Labour – supposedly some kind of ‘workers party’ – was actually the party which initiated the blitzkrieg against the working class.  Political and trade union labourism has been proven primarily a conduit for imposing the interests of capital onto the working class, although this lesson, even after al these years, has still not really sunk into much of the left.

In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels noted, “separate individuals form a class only in so far as they have to carry on a common battle against another class; in other respects they are on hostile terms with each other as competitors.”  Thus the demise or substantial decline of traditional sectors of employment, the massive decline in class conflict and the exhaustion of reformism have led to the highly atomised and individualised consciousness of today.

This process was well-described by Bill Bainbridge, writing about the closure of the steel works in Newcastle in Australia back in the mid-1990s:

“Along with this loss of employment have gone the experiences of work and industrial struggle which were the core of identity formation for individuals within the working class.  When these reference points are weakened or disappear, the individual comes to the fore as the sole co-ordinator of the myriad of cultural information and identities available.  The individual must be able to invest the self with all the necessary skills for staying afloat in a highly competitive world.  In this context the aggressive individualism of economic rationalism begins to strike an electoral chord, and the notion of labour as a source of identity and politics begins to look a little shaky.”  (For the New Zealand situation, see here.)

The old reformist class politics cannot be rebuilt, as the failed efforts to do so indicate – the most significant being the Alliance.  Both the material base and ideology of reformism have been exhausted with the exhaustion of capitalism itself.  Thus workers are not about to rush to get involved in reformist parties and in trade unions.

Moreover, a whole new generation has grown up since 1984 – in fact, we’re into the second new generation of young people since then.  These new generations have no experience and no attachment to the old labourist version of ‘class politics’ and ‘class institutions’ to which much of the left remains romantically wedded.

New politics needed

For these reasons, an entirely new form of politics has to be created.  To be effective it has to start not from arguing over the terms on which workers will continue to be exploited and the world continue to go from crisis to crisis, nor from nostalgic attachment to old and discredited labourist institutions.  Instead, it has to begin from the point that this present system is historically transient, has reached its limits and is now thoroughly inadequate for humanity; we need to get rid of it, lock, stock and barrel.

In the short to medium term – for longer than we’d wish, that’s for sure – the collapse of the old institutions and the forms of consciousness related to them – in the context of protracted slump – stimulate the appearance of all kinds of pessimism among large sections of the population.  Hostility to science, rationalism and technological experimentation, coupled with the outbreak of moral panics, fear of crime, the desire to punish and so on, are all products of alienation and a decaying social order in which people experience the problems thrown up by capitalism as individuals and therefore as being personally vulnerable and powerless.  This presents huge problems for the project of fundamental social change.

It is more important than ever therefore for Marxists to develop critiques of contemporary society and social trends and begin to try to consolidate a core of theoretician-activists who can argue these critiques convincingly and begin to help transform the existing consciousness.  Of course, since we are not idealists we do not believe that this process can succeed in the absence of a social force capable of changing society; nor can it advance much in the face of unfavourable objective conditions.

However, the objective condition of capitalism today is that it is exhausted.  The objective position of the working class still gives it a vested interest in changing the world – and the potential power to do so.  Today, there are two keys to making this possibility a reality.  One is changes in the objective conditions, in particular through some forward motion within the working class.  We need this in order to be able to turn the second key much.  This second key involves finding points at which the revolutionary ideas we develop can intersect with people’s active dissatisfaction with the harsh realities of life under slump capitalism and develop a conscious movement for a new society, one based on freedom and plenty.



  1. “But, it will often be argued, what about women’s domestic labour? This ‘services men’ and therefore gives all men ‘privilege’. However, domestic toil is about ensuring that wage labour is reproduced and kept in a fit state to be exploited by capital – scarcely a ‘privilege’ for the men who have to go out and work 8-10 hours a day. It is the capitalists, not individual men, who benefit.”

    The capitalists do benefit from this, but its undeniable that many men, most likely a majority, enjoy an easier time of it in terms of the world’s combined paid and unpaid labour.
    These days, the cost of running a working class family requires women as well as men work to full time.
    Although modern appliances have helped – and to some extent facilitated the release of more women into the workforce – women still carry a greater load. Both husband and wife go out each day to work for a boss. When that work is finished there is still considerable labour to be done at home. The bulk of that is most commonly done by the female. Shopping, cleaning, cooking, childcare, children’s education and entertainment, balancing household accounts, hospitality and wider family caring responsibilities are widely seen as the responsibility of women.
    There has been some movement in this area and of course not every family is a nuclear family, although most in western countries are still a semblance of it.
    I would not put quotes around male ‘privelige’ in their domestic situation. In the great scheme of things it may appear as petty privilege, but material privilege it undeniably is.

  2. What does the author think these ‘entirely new forms of politics’ will look like? Are his criticisms of the traditional labour institutions suggesting change is required to the general Leninist orthodoxies surrounding the party, work in the trade unions, etc., or only the more specific questions of method?

  3. Another great article Phil. I admire your dedication to workers and NZer’s in general.

    My current half-assed solution is to exploit the exploiters. I haven’t consistently arrived at work on time for my minimum wage job in the two years I’ve been working fulltime since leaving uni with a BA(Hons). Everyday, without fail, I spend most of the day walking around doing nothing or reading the internet on my phone!

  4. Thanks for these articles, I’m enjoying reading them. Although I have to play the cliche anarchist card and disagree with Lenin’s notion of trade union consciousness, I don’t really want to speak to that, as there’s many great points raised in this text. The post-Fordist critique makes me think of the massive struggles happening in Bangladesh right now ( Maria Mies and Silvia Federici (materialist feminists/autonomous marxists) also talk of ongoing Fordist production, and indeed, primitive accumulation, in many parts of the world—a process that seems to be ignored, as Phil mentions.

    One thing we’ve tried to do in Beyond Resistance is to look at how the lived, material conditions of people’s lives can serve as a catalyst for organising. Yes, we can argue that the working class is universal with universal interests, but within the class one’s race and gender means we reproduce/struggle against capital in different ways. For example, what might be relevant class struggle to me as a white male could be completely different to the needs of a single mother, or a Maori single mother. Claims that our interests are universal because of our class is not enough. Yet a focus on the material needs in our own lives—and then trying to organize with others of the same material interests—allows us to concretely identify our lived experience of exploitation and to act in an informed way. it allows us to recognise that our lived experience of exploitation, our relation to capital, is informed by various sources of oppression.

    Such an approach recognizes the fact that people will engage in class struggle in various ways and at different sites. For example, as new parents, my partner and I are having very interesting discussions around unwaged work and the reproduction of labour power. That is a site of struggle relevant to my partner’s current experience as a mother, and involves a capitalist division of labor informed by patriarchy. Having an understanding of their relationship (or their intersectionality) in material terms, really helps.

    Of course if organizing around one’s material needs is taken in the strictest sense, there is a danger of limiting oneself to isolated fights or relationships. I guess it’s better to think of this approach as a way of beginning; a stepping stone in building relations and circulating struggle amongst similar class interests. As Selma James writes, “to grasp the class interest when there seems not one but two, three, four, each contradicting the other, is one of the most difficult revolutionary tasks, in theory and practice, that confront us.” Locating our own struggles as a first step gives us a better chance to grasp these interests, and I think, is a good way to build revolutionary consciousness, as it is a specifically lived experience of capitalism—one that doesn’t rely on the moral preaching of leftist-activists (anarchists included).

    Cheers, and thanks for mentioning my talk (I never really got involved in Occupy for various reasons, some of which are explained here).

  5. Overall, this is an excellent summation; in the United States, things are little different from how you describe New Zealand, other than the Occupy in the U.S. sounds more advanced than in N.Z. (although subject to many currents that fall short of a sound understanding).

    I do have to join Don in pointing out that men indeed are privileged in relation to women. Although it is true that capitalists ultimately are the biggest beneficiaries of women’s unpaid domestic labor, it is women and not men who perform it while the men watch football or drink in a pub. The giant upsurge in activism and consciousness in the 1960s and 1970s in the U.S. foundered because women (and others) were patted on the head and told “Yes, we agree you are exploited but you’ll have to wait for the revolution to fix that.”

    That is unacceptable if we are serious about liberation of all working people. As my partner is fond of saying: If men don’t benefit from their privileges, why do so many of them work so hard to keep them? I do think you need more nuance in how you explain privilege/non-privilege between the genders and among racial and national groups, while not detracting from the well-thought-out explanations of how capitalists foster and benefit from such divisions.

  6. Thanks for all these comments.

    To say something in relation to gender. I radicalised when I was starting high school and the women’s liberation movement was very radical and influential on me and my friends. The left group I got involved with was heavily involved in women’s liberation and some of the first marches I went on while at school were for women’s right to abortion. I also belonged to a radical high school movement that existed at the time and had gender equality as a core plank. None of us were at all attracted to left groups with a ‘women must wait’ or ‘Maori must wait’ or ‘the real struggle is at the point of production’ position.

    So I’m very aware of all this.

    But I also often feel that there is a section of the left that hasn’t quite caught up with developments in capitalism that have occurred since then.

    Women certainly do more domestic toil, but men do more hours of work in the factory, office, the buildong site etc. So part of the problem is the gendered division of labour under capitalism.

    And what of a situation where a woman in the home does 6 hours a day domestic toil and the male does 8-10 hours a day labour in a factory, on a building site, on the wharves or whatever?

    I think that when you add up all labour time – time in paid employment and domestic toil – women *do work more*. But I don’t see that puts all men in a privileged position because if the system changed, we’d all be working less: men would work less hours (and, of course, women’s work hours would decrease even more).

    And that was the point I was making – that it isn’t a *privilege* to be exploited by capital 8-10 hours a day.

    Also, women are very heavily divided by class. There is a section of women, mainly (but not exclusively) brown who work a massive amount of hours in paid employment, often holding down several jobs, and then have domestic toil. And there is a section of women who have high-flying jobs and get other people (working class women) to do their domestic toil.

    I remember way back in the 1970s supporting a struggle by women childcare workers who were being paid $1 an hour at a creche in Christchurch. While they were on strike, I saw two feminist academics drive through the picket line. I knew one of them and she was very irate that these working class women were on strike and it interfered with her career.

    Another thing I have a bit of a problem with is that men in New Zealand live four years less than women. Groups which are simply privileged don’t tend to die earlier than those they oppress. (And, of course, in NZ we’ve had the experience where at one point in time about a decade ago the top six or seven positions of state power were all held by women.)

    So I think gender inequality is more complex *today* than feminist discourse often presents it.

    If women were not oppressed most men would actually be better off. Working class men who collude in the oppression of women are basically shooting themselves in the foot, as are NZ-born workers colluding with the state and ruling class against immigrants.

    The road to workers’ liberation isn’t an economistic one; it’s a political one. If the workers’ movement, in whatever specific shape it takes, doesn’t emblazon liberation of all the oppressed sections of society on its banner it simply won’t succeed. The workers’ movement can champion those issues precisely because the working class is the universal class, it exploits and oppresses no-one and can only be free if society as a whole becomes free. I think this is often lost sight of and that’s why I highlighted it. Not because I think other oppressions aren’t important – quite the contrary!


  7. Below is an email exchange following from this that I hope Phil doesn’t mind me reprinting.

    Phil: I’m also uncomfortable about saying that the gender that dies first is all that privileged.

    Don: There is that.

    Although, being around to care for and comfort the dying partner, then to be left alone is not always much fun…
    I don’t think gender should be some sort of competition, just can’t help having observed all through my life that more often than not its the woman who gets the burnt chop.

    Phil: I certainly agree with all that.

    “The road to workers’ liberation isn’t an economistic one; it’s a political one. If the workers’ movement, in whatever specific shape it takes, doesn’t emblazon liberation of all the oppressed sections of society on its banner it simply won’t succeed. The workers’ movement can champion those issues precisely because the working class is the universal class, it exploits and oppresses no-one and can only be free if society as a whole becomes free.”

    I think the encapsulation above sums up our task very well.
    At the moment, we are crying in the wilderness.
    The concept of class as a serious central political issue is absent from almost every forum of political discussion. This absence from the political stage must suit the powers that be very well.

    Today, the elephant is a very quiet well behaved house trained animal, but remains in the room.

    As an old comrade once said to me after the Clark government granting of a very small reform :

    “Yes, that’s a bit better. Labour will grant you that one. But the surplus value is spoken for”.

  8. Don’t mind at all Don.

    Something else that is important, and that I didn’t touch on in the article, but which crops up from time to time to obscure class and human agency, is the presentation of workers as “vulnerable” and “victims”. Actually, I probably should have mentioned that because it’s one of the main ways that class and the (potential) class power of our side is obscured these days.

    For instance, while Labour Day was always a crappy alternative to MayDay, now we have DeadWorkersDay, which is even crappier.

    But throughout the year we have references to “the weak and vulnerable”. Of course weak and vulnerable people don’t make revolutions, but a lot of people on the left still peddle this kind of terminology. Alms for the poor rather than workers’ struggle for emancipation.


  9. Some very thought provoking comments there Phil, with most of which I tend to be in agreement.

    However I see more merit in Marxist class analysis than in Marxist class politics. Class analysis defines the relationships between entitities involved in typical social or economic transactions, but it does not necessarily define the psychological status of individuals. There is a similar problem in religion, where there are clear guidelines to determining whether an act is good or evil, but where determining whether a particular person is good or evil is rather more problematic.

    For example many of those who you would describe as working class are in some objective aspect of their being capitalist. Waterfront workers, firemen and thousands such among the “aristocracy of labour” invest in shares, rental properties, interest bearing deposits and so on. They may gain most of their income from labour, but their aspirations are strongly capitalist. The proper response to this situation is not to say that “These people are objectively members of the working class, and therefore we should support them” – “class” politics in other words – but to say “They are engaged in the exploitation of others, and therefore we should urge them to give up their income from shares, rental properties, and bank deposits”.

    A similar argument applies to those who own and run capitalist enterprises, usually on a small scale, but rely essential on the value of their own personal labour for their incomes. Such people should not be indiscriminately disparaged, but encouraged to ensure that their incomes reflect the value of their own labour rather than the value of the labour of their employees. A small business owner may actually be less inclined to capitalist exploitation than a fireman or a policewoman for example, both of whom are techically speaking state sector wage labourers.

    A second difficulty I have with class politics is that it ends badly. The Marxist party identifies itself with “the working class”, the party then comes to view its own interests as synonymous with the interests of the “class”, and eventually we have a return to capitalist exploitation either by the party itself or the reconstituted remnants of the party, as is the case in China and Russia respectively. Politics based on sectional interests is at risk of representing progressively more narrow interests, and progressively less principled positions. If the working class really is the universal class, then it should put forward a universal political programme, which ethically challenges all forms of exploitation, and does not make the categorical mistake of trying to classify all individuals in society as members of either the “working” or “capitalist” class.

    By the way Phil, if you don’t attend to your gmail account, redline might lose some potential recruits.

  10. You’ll be relieved to hear that we’re not trying to party build at present, or in the foreseeable future!

    I think there are ways to avoid the dangers you point to in relation to the party/class issue. One is having an independent working class mass movement, with lots of political education and high levels of class consciousness.

    In relation to people who aren’t part of the working class or capitalist class, I largely agree with you. But keep in mind that was an article with limited aims. It was about re-stressing the centrality of class and, especially, the centrality of the working class to projects for fundamental social change.

    At some point we will need to update a class analysis of NZ as a whole, and that will include the middle class. I think NZ has a substantial middle class, including small business owners. I know a couple of small business owners and they are very good in the sense of paying fairly good wages, having good conditions (in industries in which that is not typically the case); but there is also a problem with small businesses. Because, so often, they are squeezed by big business, there are a lot of small businesses which press down on their employees particularly heavily. Those recent cases of places in Auckland paying well below the legal minimum wage are examples, but there is no shortage of other cases.

    I’m not sure what you mean about gmail account. . . I have a personal gmail account, that I try to look at every day or two, but it’s not always possible. Or do you mean Redline mail?


  11., given as a contact address on your homepage, does not appear to reply to queries. Yes, it is a well recognised fact that small business can exploit its workers more than large corporations, and even when consciously seeking to avoid exploitation, may offer lower wages and less attractive terms of employment out of financial necessity.

  12. Cheers, Geoff. The person who would normally get those doesn’t have a home computer at present. I saw him yesterday and he’s got a new computer ordered. But in the meantime, I’ll check whether someone else has access to the email address and can answer queries.

    Thanks for mentioning it.


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