The working class is exploited and oppressed. This is the central premise for any genuine socialist consciousness. It’s possible to argue whether young Marx‘s notions of alienation, and similar ideas before his complete break with German idealist philosophy and Feuerbach in particular are developed, ignored, or contradicted by his later scientific economic work, but it is difficult to argue that Marx ever became indifferent to human suffering.
So if that’s the starting point, what’s wrong with deploying the language of victimhood? Aren’t we, and those unfortunate people living in more intensive and extensive extraction regimes, true victims of the bourgeoisie’s penchant to subordinate every principle, every scruple, to the realisation of surplus value–to the maximisation of profit?
After all, if we consider some of the socialist literature, such as Engels’ Conditions of the Working Class in England the use of such language is common. The Internationale, which still is an emotional touchstone uniting our movement, speaks of “servile masses”, “victims of oppression”, and so on. The problem lies not with the admision that the proletariat is oppressed, which it undeniably is, but with the arising narrative that the class is powerless, helpless, in sum, inert.
Such questions as narratives and ideology belong to the superstructure, and Marxists have often refrained from examining them due to a combination of factors which include the actual difficulties in dealing with such airy abstractions, but also far less laudable motives, which I’ll summarise in the notion of “superstructural cooties”. (Yes, I know, it sounds childish, and that’s precisely the point.) The notion that historical materialism is too ‘grown-up’ and above that sort of thing, and that psychosocial matters are fully determined by the economic base–a position which is often quickly disclaimed in words only to be just as quickly internalised by many Marxists–has left us with an inadequate and half-hearted analysis of such things which stands out as a necessary hole to fill. There are many bad things one can say about the Frankfurt school, and I’ve probably said them all, but at least they tried to deal with such topics instead of merely ignoring them and sweeping them under the proverbial rug of “ideology”.
Conceiving of the working class as a mere victim creates a narrative which robs us of agency. Everything that happens, happens due to the machinations of an inaccessible and impervious apparat of capital, constituted by people as far beyond our power as we are of worms’. This narrative doesn’t improve much when we add in the vanguard party: the class is still quiescent and asleep, a mere human ferment, nothing but raw materials for the cadre to infuse with revolutionary consciousness. Substitutionism is one of the failure modes of this thinking, and one which Marxists have historically been highly prone to.
Another even worse outcome is developing illusions in the bourgeois state. Hence the left’s–broadly understood–affinity for “civil society”, the discourse of human rights, the UN–which is nothing but a gang of bourgeois states–, and philanthropic institutions. While the first failure is that of the vanguardist that sees in the masses nothing but an undifferentiated clay to stamp his own programme on, the latter has turned them into wards: dependent on their betters to subsist, they’re reduced to the level of children, needing a firm hand if they’re not to be naughty to each other. Such is liberal paternalism. And we all know parents aren’t perfect, and sometimes punish the wrong child, but that is simply what must be born to have domestic peace, is it not?
What’s true for class politics becomes also true when assessing the role of imperialism. Thus on the substitutionist side, we have those leftists who proclaimed the need to subordinate all struggles to Soviet foreign policy and its convenience. Now they lack a workers’ state to substitute for the class, they often take up reflexive nationalist positions, or the notion that all that happens in the world happens by the will of imperialism. No regime is corrupt or brutal enough, no repression of our own class–including the use of murder and state terror against communists–suffices to indict them. They defend the national bourgeoisie from the onslaught of imperial power, and that gives them a blank cheque, which they will honour at any price, including the utter bankrupcy of their own parties and reputations. All opposition is tainted, managed, funded and determined by empire. Truly, is Asad worth all that? Is anyone?
The liberal reverse of this substitutionism is, of course, the well-named cruise missile left: there’s no intervention grounded on weak enough evidence that can’t be supported. After all, we have good intentions here! Why can’t they see what this costs us, and what they make us do? Shift the ground to the plane of motives, and they will quickly recognise that while imperialism intervenes due to regretable material self-interest, its outcomes are good, so never mind our good intentions after all. And so on, and so forth; in an infinite loop which can justify any atrocity.
We are the international working class. Many of us, perhaps soon most of us, are no longer illiterate, no longer uneducated, and no longer imbued by that thoughtless reverence for the superior classes Engels discusses referring to the English precapitalist farmers. What few illusions we have in this system of swindle are being demolished every day, as the property forms which constrain us stand as the most formidable obstacles to the abolition of want. What few illusions we may have in the bourgeoisie, its vaunted virtues, and that justice which emanates from them is being demolished, week by week, scandal after scandal, in a ledger which has long been in the red. If it is true that many of us have more to lose than our chains, we understand in full the world we may win. So let them tremble in fear, and not snear in condescension, when we proclaim: workers of the world, unite!