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Is there an anarchist definition of class?

+5 votes
Or do anarchists take their cue from the Marxian conception of class.
asked Dec 4, 2011 by analfisting (240 points)
Are you asking this as a genuine query or are you asking this as an anarchist who already has an opinion about it?
This is a genuine query. I'm just curious, because I know the Marxian concept of class has pervaded much of anarchist discourse on social and economic stratification. However, there's also a more sociological (sociological knowledge) conception as well (ie. Weber). But since class was so integral to Marx's ideas, and since Marx called for one class to rise up and sweep the other classes away in the pursuit of a classless society ( a seemingly authoritarian project at least on the face of it), I was wondering whether anarchists, who also use the term ubiquitously, might have a slightly different take on class.

2 Answers

+2 votes

I have broken this down by different ideas on this question among anarchists, since they are many.

1. Very many anarchists accept the Marxist definition of class. That is, they accept Marx's analysis of the classes into which society is separated (even if they argue that class composition has shifted since then) as being based on relations to the means of production, they accept the argument for the proletariat as revolutionary subject, and so on. This seems to be the predominant definition, but only when one looks at the most official anarchists, who are actually a minority of anarchists.

2. Many anarchists accept the sociological definition of class, even if at some points they also accept the Marxist definition. This definition of class is the (more or less) official stance of most of the government, its institutions, economists, the educational system, etc. It is the idea of stratification on the basis of relative income, completely ignoring the relations to means of production which according to Marxists are the basis for the common class interests of people who earn vastly different incomes, and antagonisms between individuals who earn relatively similar incomes. This idea of class would be considered problematic by most Marxists and many anarchists because it turns the proletariat against itself and produces false consciousness of the way capitalism functions. But for better or worse many anarchists are very influenced by this definition of class.

3. There are some new and interesting definitions or interpretations of class (the developers of these being more Marxist than anarchist for the most part):

  • Jacques Camatte, coming from a Marxist background, argues that the class distinction is diffused in late capitalism through the total domestication of humans and the establishment of a capitalist human community. This does not mean there are not classes, but their conflict is pacified and their relations are shifted. The relevant conflict (if any) comes to be between humans and capital or individuals and their own domestication, rather than between proletariat and bourgeoisie.
  • The Invisible Committee have said something similar to Camatte but different. One way they put it is the conflict is now between those who refuse work and those who want to work.
  • The proletariat defined as the dispossessed. This is the original definition of the term and it is there in Marx but there's a shift in significance from the industrial proletariat (which in Marx's context was the position most former peasants dispossessed of their land found themselves in) to more accurately reflect the context in "post-industrial" societies where surplus populations have become much larger since technological progress gradually displaces the need for human labor.  


4. Many anarchists accept the Marxist definition of class but not the centrality of its importance.

5. Some anarchists are not revolutionaries. Shocking I know, but definitely true.

In sum, anarchists are too diverse in economic thought to be pigeonholed in this, and for the most part have not developed economic theory independent of Marxism, even if they feel free (a very common tendency for anarchists) to adapt, reject, intersect, play with, or diminish the importance of what they've inherited from the old man. Could any anarchist definition of class be developed that escapes entirely from Marxism (especially as this, whatever faults it may have, is based on real situations that persist today even if in different forms)? I doubt it--except, of course, in the very course of the abolition of the class society whose functioning Marx set himself to describing. To actually realize this abolition in practice so that new relations can flourish is, of course, a worthwhile task which generations of anarchists have striven at--much more so, I would argue, than Marxists as a whole.

[edited for bullets]

answered Dec 23, 2011 by anok (19,080 points)
edited May 11, 2015 by anok
"* Jacques Camatte, coming from a Marxist background, argues that the class distinction is diffused in late capitalism through the total domestication of humans and the establishment of a capitalist human community. This does not mean there are not classes, but their conflict is pacified and their relations are shifted. The relevant conflict (if any) comes to be between humans and capital or individuals and their own domestication, rather than between proletariat and bourgeoisie."

This strikes me and has always struck me as humanism. A related question is what was Camatte's class background? I'd like to know.
see also "From proletarian to individual: Toward an anarchist understanding of class" by Wolfi Landstreicher

http://theanarchistlibrary.org/HTML/Wolfi_Landstreicher__The_Network_of_Domination.html#toc4

@sabotage: I don't know Camatte's class background. All of Marxism is founded upon humanism, I guess it's arguable whether or not Camatte is heretical in this regard.
anok - can you say more about point 5? what is the relation of that comment to the rest of your answer/the question? (also you using the phrase "false consciousness" about class definitions is evocative, intentionally so?)
It's been a few months and now point 5 seems kind of excessive, but it is there to point out that there are many different kinds of anarchists. On this question, there are anarchists who aren't revolutionaries, so they aren't really concerned with the question of class. Particularly, in analfisting's comment they mention that there could be a conflict between Marx's concept of revolution and anarchism. Anarchists have responded to this in a variety of ways, one is by not being revolutionaries. This could overlap with point 2, point 4, but could be worth considering on its own. Revolutions have often been class-based, more often they are national, but anyway a lot of anarchists have an idea of anarchy independent of revolution, for a lot of different reasons which would warrant their own separate question to be explored.

My use of the phrase "false consciousness" should be evocative, yes. I was indicating the position of proper revolutionaries. If you want to know what I really think, I do think the idea of class that people are encouraged to internalize (striation by income) is idiotic, but then I'm far from uncritical of the proper class consciousness and what goes along with it.
I should add (I can't believe I didn't think of this before) that Bonanno and other anarchists developed a different idea of class in which the position of the proletariat is not central to revolution. The terminology generally used refers to the exploiters and exploited.
I would add that in the sociological perspective it is a little bit more complicated than just boiling everything down to income.  Socio-economic status is a pretty common term since there are interrelated forces that influence someone's class.  Race, gender, health, appearance, disability, and experience being a few.  Income still being a pretty huge factor.  There is also much disagreement over the definition of class.  Income, education, occupation, and wealth are just easier things to measure for studying.  Sociologists can be real jerks sometimes though.

Don't forget about character class and alignment too!
@Jouiss: Chaotic neutral thieves and druids.
+2 votes
First of all, as I'm french, please excuse my possible mistakes in english.

Then, I would like to plebiscite Anok's intervention as it summarizes really well the various positions anarchists stand for about the twisted question of classes and class analysis.

However, I also have to confess that to me, it also reflects a lack of criticism towards the marxist or marxian analysis.

First of all, the idea that society is divided into antagonist classes is not instrisically marxist in itself. What defines the basic marxist stance about its class analysis is that the most revolutionnary class is the industrial working class. Which is only a part of the proletariat, even when defined by its relations to the means of productions in general. But to Marx and marxists (and some anarchists who share this view, especially the anarcho-syndicalists and most of the libertarian communists) the supposed revolutionnary role of the industrial working class is not only linked to his relation to the means of production, but to the idea that its the only "class" able to take over the means of production (especially because of its supposed "discipline" and its respect of the "work ethic")  and consequently "provoke" the revolution.

This conception offers to a lot of revolutionnary anarchists an bunch of critics to make. To sum it up : the idea the society and class structure has changed so much all over the world that this analysis is obsolete for the greatest part of humanity, or at least for the western society (including the old europe where I live); that the deep changes in the wage system, technological progress and in the whole society also redifined the structure of class society so much that we simply could not specify a clear "revolutionnary subject" as the revolution shall be now more than ever the fact of all the dispossessed, workers of not.

Othewise, a lot of anarchist (including myself), considere that if class conflict, class struggle on a traditionnal social and economic point of view is still an important part of social antagonism and at the very heart of the revolutionnary struggle, this question leads to two important conclusions for anarchists who are supposed to confront all kinds of oppressions and dominations.

First, class division in society is not only strictly economic but also social and multiple, and various oppressions and dominations reinforce the class structure and  complexify it. Or to say it in another way, there is other major divisions in society that are not less important than Capitalism and/or its class division and older than it in most of case. Like Patriarchy (and what some anarcha-feminist define as a division in sexual social classes, that isn't only a question of "gender binary"), white supremacy and racial segregation (even it often appears today as an "invisible" social apartheid -invisible for people who don't experience racism-), etc... And that depends of cours on where you live and what is your history).

Plus, the traditionnal marxist conception of class analysis and the class struggle, as it's only considered on its "work place" aspect (the industrial working class, the means of production, the discipline, the work ethic, etc...) tends to define itself as central in social problematics and political organisations, and then to give prominence to decisions of economic nature. And this analysis and proposition tends also obviously to cancel or upstage other aspects of class antagonism : for exemple the struggles around housing, squats, evictions, etc... or the situation of margins and populations disaffiliated from the wage system and formal economy that constitute an ever larger share of what is today still called the proletariat. And of course, this analysis tends to hide others aspects of domination and exploitation in society.

To support these contributions, I should only advise you to steer (in addition to the references already given by others) to the italian insurrectionist and autonomous anarchist texts written since the 70s, especially because they are related and linked to struggle practices, critical reflections and theorizing arround this praxis.

- "A question of class", by Alfredo Bonanno : http://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/alfredo-m-bonanno-a-question-of-class
- "Class war", also by A. Bonnano : http://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/alfredo-m-bonanno-class-war
- "Worker's autonomy", by bonanno and other comrads : http://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/alfredo-bonanno-and-the-comrades-of-kronstadt-editions-worker-s-autonomy
- "Listen Marxist!" by Murray Bookchin, for it's important contribution to the criticism of  the work ethic and the supposed role of the industrial working class (and the kind of organisation that this conception suppose).

Enjoy yourself folks ;-)

-------------------

As an appendix to my intervention, I would like to emphasize the fact that class analysis of the Invisible Comittee (or the authors of l'Appel and Tiqqun's journal, who clearly share similar views on this question, not to say exactly the same) that found it conclusion in "The Coming Insurrection" is really poor and credulous.

Credulous insofar as it mostly ignore this question in going much further in confusion than AndrĂ© Gorz, Jacques Camatte or a lot of other french post-situationnists or anti-industrial tendencies (who defend similar positions) : that is to say that classes have disapeared (how ? where ? we never know), or have "merged" into some kind of Totality (the "Spectacle", the "authoritarian commidity", the "bloom", the "Bio-power", the "Empire"... and why not the "666 New World Order 666"). Which leads, as it seems to me, exactly to the same.  And I insist on the capital T as all these concepts that merely designate the same thing, are very close to the hegelian idea of Totality. And the influence of Hegel on this tendency is absolutly undeniable.

But this confusion, as the claimed influence of such things as metaphysics or the jewish kabbalah (where the name of the journal and concept -Tiqqun-  come from), leads Tiqqun, the invisible committee and their disciples to some sorts of mysticism and philosophical esoterism in terms of social analysis. And the tendency to use spooky langage and strange words everywhere are unfortunately too reminiscent of the religious methods to subjugate and control people.

And this poor conception linked to very arrogant pseudo-philosophical profusion of references could explain that upper middle class and petit-bourgeois intellectuals, college teachers, students, and part-time squatters constitute the essence of the background of most of its "partisans" (as some of them define themselves).

Finally, I wanted to add that if this analysis may seems attractive or interesting on certain points, it's at least not enough. I would not say what I say only to shot a bolt on any people who read or appreciate these readings (or certain aspects of it) but to be very critical with its authors and a lot of people who take this shit too seriously in france.

So as to support this last intervention, I would like to refer you to this masterpiece of modern critical and revolutionnary though :
- "10 commandments", by comrad George Carlin : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-RGN21TSGk
answered Apr 25, 2013 by okapy (2,120 points)
edited Apr 28, 2013 by okapy
hi okapy, welcome to the site.
thanks for the thoughtful post.
Hey ! thank you.
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