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New Left Review I/157, May-June 1986


Peter Meiksins

Beyond the Boundary Question

Class politics, once the unquestioned centre of the socialist project, has became the object of intense controversy. There have been many reasons for this startling development—the appearance of the so-called new social movements and the continued failure of traditional Left parties to effect fundamental social change are just two. But at the heart of most critiques has been the notion that the working class is no longer a viable basis for socialism. Pointing to the contraction of the manual working class and the proliferation of ostensibly different strata, a number of socialists have argued that it is time to bid farewell to a social group that is anyway primarily turned to material preoccupations. For the advance of socialism, it appears, an alternative agency or agencies will have to be found. [1] See, for example, André Gorz, Farewell to the Working Class, London and Boston 1982, and E. Laclau, Ch. Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Verso, London 1985. What is striking, though perhaps not surprising, is that this abandonment of the first principle of Marxist political practice has not been rooted in a solid theorization of contemporary capitalist society. In fact, most recent contributions to the debate on class structure have rejected the older orthodoxy (as expressed in the writings of Poulantzas, Carchedi and Wright) that there exists a relatively large group of workers who cannot be regarded as either capital or wage-labour. Instead, there is now a majority view that much of the ‘new middle class’ is virtually indistinguishable from manual labour in its conditions of work and existence. The social structure would thus include a small capitalist class, a privileged middle class that is much narrower than previously thought, and a large and growing working class of manual and non-manual labourers. These theorists have, on balance, taken a step in the right direction. Their analyses seem far more consistent with contemporary reality—mass unemployment, declining real wages, erosion of the economic position of the traditional middle class, even the decline of the professions—than do those of the critics of class politics. They also recall Marx’s own basic insight that socialism is not a mere utopia, with no material basis in social reality, but the self-emancipation of an actually existing and exploited working class. [2] For more extended rebuttals of the challenge to class politics, see Ben Fine et al., Class Politics: An Answer to Its Critics, London 1984; P. Meiksins, E. Wood, ‘Beyond Class: A Reply to Chantal Mouffe’, Studies in Political Economy (fourthcoming); and E. Wood, The Retreat from Class, Verso, London 1986. As will be argued below, however, what is still missing is a consistent Marxist definition of the nature of class and class conflict in contemporary capitalist society.

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