Telling the Truth about Class (Tamás, 2006)
by G.M. Tamas (Socialist Register 42) 2006
One of the central questions of social theory has been the relationship between class and knowledge, and this has also been a crucial question in the history of socialism. Differences between people – acting and knowing subjects – may inﬂuence our view of the possibility of valid cognition. If there are irreconcilable discrepancies between people’s positions, going perhaps as far as incommensurability, then uniﬁed and rational knowledge resulting from a reasoned dialogue among persons is patently impossible. The Humean notion of ‘passions’, the Nietzschean notions of ‘resentment’ and ‘genealogy’, allude to the possible inﬂuence of such an incommensurability upon our ability to discover truth.
Class may be regarded as a problem either in epistemology or in the philosophy of history, but I think that this separation is unwarranted, since if we separate epistemology and philosophy of history (which is parallel to other such separations characteristic of bourgeois society itself) we cannot possibly avoid the rigidly-posed conundrum known as relativism. In speaking about class (and truth, and class and truth) we are the heirs of two socialist intellectual traditions, profoundly at variance with one another, although often intertwined politically and emotionally. I hope to show that, up to a point, such fusion and confusion is inevitable.
All versions of socialist endeavour can and should be classiﬁed into two principal kinds, one inaugurated by Rousseau, the other by Marx. The two have opposite visions of the social subject in need of liberation, and these visions have determined everything from rareﬁed epistemological positions concerning language and consciousness to social and political attitudes concerning wealth, culture, equality, sexuality and much else. It must be said at the outset that many, perhaps most socialists who have sincerely believed they were Marxists, have in fact been Rousseauists. Freud has eloquently described resistances to psychoanalysis; intuitive resistance to Marxism is no less widespread, even among socialists. It is emotionally and intellectually difﬁcult to be a Marxist since it goes against the grain of moral indignation which is, of course, the main reason people become socialists.
One of the greatest historians of the Left, E.P. Thompson, has synthesized what can be best said of class in the tradition of Rousseauian socialism which believes itself to be Marxian.1 The Making of the English Working Class is universally – and rightly – recognized to be a masterpiece. Its beauty, moral force and conceptual elegance originate in a few strikingly unusual articles of faith: (1) that the working class is a worthy cultural competitor of the ruling class; (2) that the Lebenswelt of the working class is socially and morally superior to that of its exploiters; (3) that regardless of the outcome of the class struggle, the autonomy and separateness of the working class is an intrinsic social value; (4) that the class itself is constituted by the autopoiesis of its rebellious political culture, including its re-interpretation of various traditions, as well as by technology, wage labour, commodity production and the rest. Whereas Karl Marx and Marxism aim at the abolition of the proletariat, Thompson aims at the apotheosis and triumphant survival of the proletariat.
Thompson’s Rousseauian brand of Marxism triggered a sustained critique by Perry Anderson, one that is now half-forgotten but still extremely important. Although his terms are quite different from mine, Anderson sought to show that Thompson’s conviction that he was a Marxist was erroneous.2Thompson had participated in a number of movements and intellectual adventures inspired by Marxism, and his ﬁdelity to radical socialism – under twentieth-century circumstances – meant loyalty to Marxism’s revolutionary legacy. But Thompson had to ignore the Faustian-demonic encomium of capitalism inherent in Marx, and so he had to oppose ‘critical theory’, and then theory tout court.3 Anderson later described this decomposition of ‘Western Marxism’ – away from class to ‘the people’ – in conceptual terms,4 a diagnosis that has been proved right by events since.