Shedding Dogmatism Regarding Class with Chris Harman

I think it’s interesting to read through works by other Marxists and sometimes notice when an author stumbles upon a Third Worldist kind of argument without realizing it. In this passage from Zombie Capitalism by Chris Harman, he doesn’t explicitly advocate Third Worldism, but he does remind us of the unscientific way that a lot of Marxists take Marx when it comes to class. They’re usually very superficial when it comes to determining class, they dogmatically grasp what a class appears to be rather than the original spirit of the description of how to determine class.

“An analysis of class in such a situation cannot restrict itself to looking at things as they appear in the official “common sense” of a society as expressed in its juridical definitions of property. Classes, for Marx, depend not on such formal definitions, but on the real social relations of production in which people find themselves. They are aggregates of people whose relationship to material production and exploitation forces them to act together collectively against other such aggregates. In an unfinished final chapter to Volume Three of Capital Marx insists that classes cannot be identified simply by the “sources of revenues” since this would lead to an infinite division of classes, paralleling “the infinite fragmentation of interests and rank into which the division of social labour splits labourers as well as capitalists and landlords”.[1] What makes such diverse groups come together into the great classes of modern society, he argues elsewhere, is the way in which the revenues of one set of groups arise out of the exploitation of those who make up other groups. As he put it in his notebooks for Capital, ” Capital and wage labour only express two factors of the same relation”.[2] The capitalist is only a capitalist insofar as he embodies the self-expansion of value, insofar as he is the personification of accumulation; workers are workers only insofar as “the objective conditions of labour” confront them as capital.”[3]

I agree with the spirit of the text. What Harman is saying is that you can’t take a superficial look at class. One must investigate much deeper than what initially appears to us. We cannot dogmatically hold on to what we have been told, and more importantly what we have traditionally thought class was. Capitalism is dynamic, it grows and evolves as it develops itself and changes as it alters its own environment.

Marxism is the science of revolution, it is not meant to be bogged down in dogma refusing to change as the world changes. We’re not doing “anarcho”-capitalism here, angrily denouncing reality for not conforming to theory. The global capitalist order today is not the same as it was in Marx, Lenin’s, or even Mao’s time. To deny this is to remove the science from Marxism and assume we still live the same as we did in the mid 1800s. You have to look at several characteristics of class, characteristics of a group of people to determine what their position in the global order is. The “working class” in the First World is not a group people who have nothing to lose but their chains. They are not people who have nothing to sell but their labour power. A lot of workers have 401ks (RRSPs) which give them access to financial capital, making them exploiters themselves. Even if they do only have labour power, they have welfare, food stamps and all manner of social programs along with NGOs. All of these benefits are paid for with imperialist plunder. They have much more than their chains to lose, particularly when they have a car and a mortgage.

We have to break from the First Worldist dogma that plagues Marxism arrogantly claiming that the global benefiters of imperialism are actually the victims of it. Their anti-revolutionary action makes nothing but a mockery of those genuinely struggling to survive and trying bring about the new power.

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[1] Marx. Capital, Volume Three, pp 862-863.

[2] Karl Marx, “Transformation of Money into Capital”, Manuscripts of 1861-3, in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volumes 30 and 33

[3] Chris Harman, Zombie Capitalism: The Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx, pp 112-113