Idealism, voelkischness, and working class politics

Marx and Mussolini

Karl Marx (left) and Benito Mussolini (right)

Fascism and socialist symbols

One of the political/historical problems that is consistently problematic for bourgeois theorists is providing an analysis of fascism; what it is and how to fight it, to appropriate Trotsky’s famous subtitle.  I’m going to focus on the “what it is” for now though.

From a Marxist point of view, the question of fascism is a relatively simple one to answer.  Fascism is a last-ditch consolidation of the capitalist mode of production in the face of an immediate and powerful socialist challenge.  It will use ideological bombardment, significant changes to the status quo, plenty of brute force, and even socialist rhetoric to preserve the essentially capitalist economic structure.

Since fascism is a response to a powerful socialist challenge, and since as Marxists we know that the proletariat is the revolutionary subject, any fascist response to such a challenge will have to somehow safely redirect the energy and demands of the working class into safe outlets.  The main ideological weapon in this mission is class-collaborationism.  Fascism seeks ultimately to defeat the socialist challenge by trying to make class cease to be a salient category, usually in favor of “the nation,” so-called blood and honor.  But unless there is already a strong material pretext for nationalism and/or class consciousness is already at a fairly low level, fascism is going to need another tool to redirect the proletariat’s momentum indirectly.

It does this by appropriating the rhetoric of socialism, and handing out token reforms of capitalism to placate the workers.  Here I’m going to specifically examine rhetoric about “the working class,” a strategy often used by conservatives and reactionaries in countries that aren’t necessarily full-on fascist (yet).

The objective working class and the abstracted “working class”

The support by communists of the working class, our taking of its side in the war of history, comes from our having correctly discerned its general trajectory, its historical movement, and our understanding of what this working class is stems from our analysis of productive relations; the working class is a dialectical moment in the organic totality that is society.  The subjective beliefs of many members of the working class at a given time and in a given place are, therefore, largely irrelevant, and certainly do not impinge on our support for the working class as a world-historical entity.

One of the most potent ways that reactionaries mitigate the socialist challenge is by creating a subtly idealist inversion of this analysis.  Rhetoric of support for the working class is maintained, but with a change in what “the working class” means.  ”The working class” is turned from a concrete, material factor in the structure of society into a thin abstraction, an idealized “working class” that really resembles little of the actual “working class,” and deliberately excludes many members of it (queer people, people of color, and women primarily).  Instead of subjective beliefs, cultural practices etc. of the working class at any one time and place being largely irrelevant, such secondary characteristics are made the defining feature of the “working class.”

“Working class” comes to be a sort of mythology which plays off anxiety generated by legitimate contradictions in the capitalist system.  Since there really is a material antagonism between the interests of the bourgeoisie and the interests of the proletariat, if a mythology is created that pits the morally uncomplicated (white, heterosexual, male) worker against effete and decadent elites, it is little surprise that the legitimately oppressed worker would, offered only this dichotomy, come to identify with the former rather than the latter.  Of course, by defining “working class” according to such a mythology and redirecting the workers’ power into dividing themselves at a superstructural level, the bourgeoisie at worst can obscure the proletariat’s actual status/historical role, and at best can even wield the material force of those grabbed by such a mythology as a battering ram to bolster their own status, then leaving the workers to rot once their dirty work has been done.

Voelkischness and the communist movement

This is one of the reasons that building solidarity between workers of all sexes, gender identities, colors, and sexualities is so critical, for it is the knife that will cut through the haze of the bourgeoisie’s mythological “working class” archetype, defined by income and taste and cultural practice rather than objective status.

There are certain elements on the left, and they were sadly common in the socialist movements of many more backwards countries (not to blame them, they cannot magically completely transcend the conditions which capitalism has imposed upon them), who in a certain ultraleftist misunderstanding of the idea “no struggle but the class struggle” take it to mean that all other issues of oppression should be ignored, or at least but on the backburner until socialism has been brought about.  While they are right to fear degenerating into opportunism and liberal identity politics, their approach in practice means they often end up becoming supremely un-materialist, and buying into the voelkisch bourgeois mythological “working class” rather than the actual working class.  They recoil at calls for sexual liberation, for gender liberation, for true racial solidarity and consistent internationalism as examples of “bourgeois decadence,” leaving aside the fact that this is supremely undialectical and makes not even an effort at a historical materialist argument in its favor.  What exactly “bourgeois decadence” is and how it can be identified is rarely offered, instead falling into a trap which weakens their movement in the long term. Thus, ultraleftism comes full circle and locks hands with opportunism.

This is not to say that movements which make this error can never have successes, far from it.  Furthermore, not all examples of backwards positions on some of these issues are evidence of this ultraleftism/opportunism.  For example, many communist parties in underdeveloped and materially backwards nations, victims of the ruthlessness of global capitalism and imperialism, will have positions that while extremely progressive in their national contexts, will appear reactionary or insufficiently progressive with regards to certain questions.  That is acceptable and understandable, as we are all just people embedded in a historically specific context and ultimately still limited by it in some ways.  Friedrich Engels, for example, was quite hostile to the early calls for homosexual emancipation by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs in Germany, but while we can rightfully criticize him for being wrong, we should keep in mind that he was writing in the 19th century.  As Marx eloquently put it:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

-Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

This does not mean, however, that we can or should let these nightmares operate unchecked, for the sake of expediency.  A perfect example is the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), who in the wake of a heroic and bloody people’s war seized a great victory for that country’s workers (though it must be noted that their task is far from complete).  Up until about 5 or 6 years ago, the CPN(M) held the position that homosexuality was an example of bourgeois decadence.  But through a combination of the friendly criticism/critical support of their comrades and their own concrete experience in fighting for and with the people, they reversed their position and are now making gains for LGBT people that would have been inconceivable under the royalist government, and indeed were inconceivable in the region at all at any time in the near future to most bourgeois observers.  Walking the line between opportunism and dogmatism is difficult, else successful socialist revolution would be easier.  But the correct line can only be, sad as many internet communists who buy into thevoelkisch image of the working class may be to hear it, gained through extended revolutionary practice, not bashing queers on message boards.

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