In-itself for-itself: Towards second-generation neo-Marxist class theory.

AuthorNeilson, David


First-generation neo-Marxist class theorists advanced some way beyond the orthodox Marxist account that is grounded in a particular reading of the Communist Manifesto. However, capitalism's changing reality since then has revealed the limited extent of their break with orthodoxy. With the support of Bhaskar's critical realism and Gramsci's philosophy of praxis, this article addresses these limitations to facilitate movement towards second-generation neo-Marxist class theory. Rather than following first-generation neo-Marxist Poulantzas who dismissed the 'class-in-itself'/'class-for-itself' distinction as a non-Marxist Hegelian residue, this article treats it as the central problematic of Marx's class theory. Bourdieu's subjectivist reformulations of the distinction that resonates with Marxist interpretations that run counter to the neo-Marxist social scientific aspiration are also critically engaged. The innovative conceptual framework arising from the article's critical engagement with these diverging intellectual trajectories is applied to sketch 'class effects' in-themselves especially around the theme of the 'relative surplus population'. Expected class effects implied by the core dynamic of the capitalist mode of production, and then contemporary empirical effects generated by neoliberal-led global capitalism, are outlined. This re-conceptualisation is then supplemented by critically examining Beck's argument that individualisation leads to capitalism without classes-for-themselves. The article concludes by reconsidering class-for-itself in the light of the preceding discussion.


class-for-itself, class-in-itself, individualisation, neo-Marxist class theory, praxis, relative surplus population


Neo-Marxist innovation in the 1970s was centrally motivated by the need to explain empirical realities that diverged from the orthodox reading of Marx's account of capitalism. In the field of class theory and analysis, in particular, this new generation of Marxist thinkers sought to explain what Wright referred to as the embarrassing' persistence of the 'middle class' that challenged the narrow two-class reading of the Communist Manifesto central to Marxist orthodoxy (Carchedi 1975; Poulantzas 1975a; Wright 1976). Four decades later, class theory needs to be refitted again so that it can respond adequately to other empirical class effects not considered by the first generation but that are now pressingly apparent in the contemporary context of 21st-century neoliberal-led global capitalism. Such a re-fitting is also provoked by Beck's argument that existing forms of class and stratification analysis are inadequate for identifying or explaining the complexity of contemporary forms of individualised social difference. In 1999, he claimed that 'class' is now a 'zombie category' (Beck 2002).

Neo-Marxism stands for the continuing relevance of Marx's intellectual project for explaining contemporary capitalism. Consistently, the neo-Marxist perspective also includes a critical social scientific disposition towards all aspects of Marx's project. Marx's methodology, conceptual framework and historical analysis--though unsurprisingly both flawed and incomplete--ground a uniquely powerful social scientific critique of contemporary capitalism. (1) His rich and far-reaching oeuvre can continue to be mined, supplemented and innovatively adapted to explain contemporary capitalist realities that ground strategic analysis of 'what is to be done'. Though sharing orthodox Marxism's political commitment to capitalism's progressive transformation, neo-Marxism seeks a path beyond orthodoxy. Following Marx, the neo-Marxist disposition, as I see it, is relentlessly self-critical in its project to develop a rigorous Marxist social science adequate to the task of making another world.

Althusser's (1969) essays collected in For Marx are key to initiating this neo-Marxist project. In this text, Althusser introduces his innovative concept of 'overdetermination', and he outlines his 'epistemological break' argument that aligns with a commitment to the development of a scientifically rigorous Marxism. Only Marx's mature works are viewed as approaching scientific status, while the early writings are labelled as ideological, subjective and non-Marxist. Correspondingly, Marx's mature works are treated as scientific at least partly because, in contrast to the early writings, 'subjects' and 'goals' are absent. An unstated orthodoxy as to what constitutes science is implied.

Furthermore, as a result of this rigid epistemological demarcation, both the in-itself/ for-itself distinction and 'praxis' are removed from the first-generation scientific Marxist tool box. Moreover, Althusser's account fails to offer an explicit critical social scientific analysis of the Communist Manifesto prognostic theory of class development under capitalism despite, or perhaps because of, its centrality to the Marxist world view. When combined with his tacked-on reassertion of the economic as 'determinant in the last instance', key elements of orthodox Marxism are circuitously upheld. (2) This article's second-generation neo-Marxist aspiration is both to build on the significant achievements, but also address limitations, of the Althusser-led first generation of neo-Marxist class theorists.

The work of Poulantzas, the leading first-generation neo-Marxist class theoretician, is framed within Althussers reading of Marx. (3) 'Overdetermination' is innovatively deployed to bring political and ideological conjunctural logic into the structural process of class determination, and structural logic is brought into the conjunctural ('social formation') process of class struggle. However, on the first page of the Foreword to Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, Poulantzas (1975a: 9) denies praxis and asserts Communist Manifesto orthodoxy, stating that 'a systematic theory ... could only be the product of the working class's own organization of class struggle'. Furthermore, he circuitously aligns with the orthodox two-class reading of the Communist Manifesto by arguing that for

modes of production alone, we find each of them involves only two classes ... But a concrete society (a social formation) involves more than two classes, in so far as it is composed of various modes and forms of production, (p. 22) In a way parallel to Poulantzas, Wright retains orthodoxy by treating the capitalist class and the working class, relationally defined by the exploitation relation, as the only genuine classes under the capitalist mode of production (CMP). The 'middle class' turns out not to be a class at all but only a set of'contradictory locations' that ambiguously and incompletely incorporate both sides of the exploitation relation (Neilson 2007: 110-115; Wright 1986). Though Wright's innovative argument points towards the widespread ambiguity and overlapping of class effects, this avenue of investigation appears constrained by vestiges of orthodoxy.

Moreover, Wright's, and Poulantzas', progressive innovations are constrained by the circular conflation that capitalism's principal classes are defined by the exploitation relation, and vice versa the exploitation relation defines capitalisms principal classes. In short, structurally at least, class and exploitation are treated as equivalent concepts (see Neilson 2007: 91-93). In contrast, this article contends that while exploitation and empirical class effects are practically imbricated, they are conceptually and causally distinct (see Neilson 2007). Following Bhaskar's (1978, 1979, 1989) 'critical realism', the CMP centrally grounded in the capital-labour exploitation relation is understood as the essential 'generative mechanism' leading to, but rigorously distinguished from, class 'empirical effects', which refer simply to the population's distribution into similar and different circumstances and forms of consciousness. The Communist Manifesto is based in a similar distinction, in that it predicts the unfolding logic of capitalist production relations will generate empirical class effects of increasing similarity of life circumstances for the 'immense majority', and correspondingly, unified forms of consciousness and political organisation. Although facilitated by hindsight, continuing critical empirical investigation of the prognosis is methodologically undermined by conflating capitalist production relations and class effects.

For empirical purposes, positions in the exploitation relation equated with class effects have, in turn, become equated with positions in the labour process. Convergence is thus invited with the Weberian view that, for empirical purposes, classes can be equated with the occupational indicator (see Portes 2000: 251). Especially as class mapping exercises have produced similar empirical results, theoretical differences can seem to be just about preferred terminology (see Livingstone & Scholtz 2016: 9). When such a complacent convergence prevails, embarrassing new empirical realities can be met by a shared silence. Beck is to be commended for trying to break through the silence by claiming provocatively that class is a 'zombie category'. This article also struggles against this 'normal science' (Kuhn 1996). However, in contrast to Beck's conclusion, it aspires to refit Marxist class theory and analysis in ways, vital for acquiring the knowledge required for rethinking political strategy, that identify, explain and politically respond to the specific realities of this 21st-century capitalist world--in particular, the following:

  1. Corresponding with capitalism's neoliberal-led globalisation, class theory and analysis need to be more clearly grounded in a global vantage point. Examining the class structures and formations of industrially advanced countries and particular class groupings in such countries are important (Livingstone & Scholtz 2016). However, such studies are misleading...

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