Ellen Meiksins Wood’s recent book, The Retreat From Class, is a formidable and trenchant attack upon the arguments of what she calls the New True Socialists. footnote1 Marx applied the label ‘True Socialists’ to those he accused of having fallen victim to the illusion that socialism was ‘a question of the “most reasonable” social order’ rather than ‘the needs of a particular class and a particular time’. Socialism no longer had anything to do with the struggle of one class against another but with advancing the cause of ‘Truth’, ‘Human Nature’, and ‘Man in General’. Real cleavages were interpreted as conceptual cleavages. Concepts had the power to make or destroy the world. Wood identifies the new true Socialists of the 1980s as a disparate group of intellectuals, many of them with a past in Althusserianism or Maoism, sometimes both. They belong to no single party or faction, but they share a common view of class and socialist strategy. Wood concentrates on those who are on the political right of this current and who have done most to develop the theoretical arguments underpinning it. But she sees the current as a very broad one, embracing journals such as Marxism Today and the New Statesman and becoming increasingly influential in the Labour Party and the British Communist Party, as well as among left-of-centre intellectuals.

This is not the first time this current has been identified. It has been termed the ‘new revisionism’, footnote2 ‘the newer Left’ footnote3 and, more broadly, Eurocommunism. footnote4 Wood’s target is rather narrower than this. She leaves on one side those socialists who, though clearly sharing a Eurocommunist perspective, have not in her view abandoned the key assumptions of the Marxist tradition about the nature of capitalism and the socialist project. She regards Stuart Hall and Eric Hobsbawm in particular as occupying an ambiguous position. She finds fault with their strategic judgements but notes that they still employ a framework of class politics in their political analyses. The same is true of Nicos Poulantzas. Wood argues that although he prepared the way for many of the more radical later revisions, he himself never broke with Marxism.

Wood’s main purpose is to confront those socialists who have developed new conceptions of agency, of democracy, and of socialism by explicitly abandoning Marxism. What unites this new revisionist current is the assumption that ideology and politics are autonomous and in no sense the expression or product of any social basis, such as a system of class relationships. Getting rid of classes is excised from the socialist project. The working class is not seen as enjoying any special status within capitalist society which gives it a privileged role in a socialist strategy. The relationship between economic relations and politics becomes purely contingent. Since social movements can be formed independently of class, the struggle for socialism is redefined as a multitude of democratic struggles in which no single one is in principle more important than any other. Socialism becomes once again defined by universal human goals instead of by material interests. This gives the key role in defining the agenda for socialism to intellectuals.

Wood’s argument against these ideas is a simple one. Recognizing the importance of class is not optional but essential for any viable socialist project. The working class has the central role not simply because it is the most oppressed and exploited group in capitalist society but because its structural position as the class that produces capital gives it a unique revolutionary potential. For Wood it is this claim that distinguishes the Marxist position from other socialist positions and which the new revisionists wish to abandon. If the linking of socialism to the working class depended on its being the most oppressed group in society, then socialism would be left rudderless if large sections of the working class no longer appeared to be the most oppressed group in society. Wood’s argument is that the degree of oppression to which different groups are subject varies historically, but exploitation is a structural characteristic of the capitalist mode of production. The exploitation of the working class, the extraction of surplus labour in the form of surplus-value from wage-labourers, cannot be abolished without abolishing the capitalist mode of production itself.

Wood challenges the new revisionists to lay out the alternative analysis of capitalism which would allow them to say that the exploitative relation between capital and labour is no longer central to the reproduction of capitalism as a mode of production. In fact, the new revisionists show little interest in questions of political economy. The thrust of their analysis denies the linkage between economic and politics which classical Marxism proposes. If politics and ideology are autonomous in the way the new revisionists suggest, then there is no need to debate the character of the capitalist mode of production, since it has no reality except as a theoretical device, and it cannot have real effects. The ground for this shift, Wood argues, is prepared by Poulantzas. In his various attempts at theorizing the capitalist state and the problem of its relative autonomy he shifts the focus from the opposition between capital and labour to the opposition between the power bloc and the people. This then leads in his writings to the displacement of classes and class struggle by political organizations engaged in party contests.

These arguments, however, have been carried very much further by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, and by Paul Hirst and Barry Hindess. They reject classical Marxism on two main grounds: Firstly the working class has no objective interests; secondly there is nothing in the ‘logic of capitalism’ which guarantees the development of a united working class. The first of these claims effectively denies that the working class can be theorized in terms of its structural role within the capitalist mode of production. Instead Laclau and Mouffe suggest that the working class is largely a figment of the classical Marxist imagination. What has existed historically is a fragmented working class, whose identities have often borne little relation to class. Workers have had many interests other than class, and there is no tendency for it to emerge as the dominant factor; rather the reverse. This means that, except during very brief historical periods, it is impossible to identify a working class for whom pursuit of class interests is pre-eminent or to define its political consciousness. This has only ever been true of small groups of workers who comprise a minority of the class.

The working class therefore has always remained a latent rather than an actual force in politics. For Laclau and Mouffe this is certainly not an accident which will be remedied in the future. Class position will never be the factor that mobilizes all workers or even a majority. For Paul Hirst the reason is quite plain: the epistemology of these theories is faulty. All social theories, including Marxism, which suggest that there is an objective underlying reality causing social and political phenomena are false. If general theories of causality are abandoned, then entities like class dissolve. Instead the social analyst is confronted with a myriad of particular circumstances and phenomena.