This post has two follow-up posts: “Will Socialism End Racism?" and “Jewishness Abstractly and Concretely”.
A friend asked me the others if I believe in the Marxist idea of class above all else. I.e., a class struggle to the exclusion of a women’s struggle, struggle against racism, etc.
This is an answer to that question. My disagreement with the question is that class is not of the same kind as gender, race, etc. That is not to say that one of these things is “better” than the other, they just do not exist at the same level of abstraction. Class is an extreme abstraction of people’s realities – it is a category in a very simple abstract model of society. A class is a position in a schematic description of economic processes.
In any concrete social formation, this abstract economic model is instantiated in reality. When it is, the abstract position in social relations implied by a class position in the simple model are frequently grafted onto existing categories which make sense to human beings (or can be made to make sense through “proper” education).
This is essential to reproducing the abstract economic model in reality, since its functioning must be somewhat compatible with human culture and psychology. To use a somewhat bleak sounding metaphor: humanity is the silicon on which the abstract program of class society runs. Therefore, society finds ways to “compile” the abstract logic of an economic model into the concrete kinds of thought processes employed by human beings. Among these thought processes (at least at this point in history given our historical development) are classification of others into “ethnic” and “gender” categories based on recognizable physical and behavioral characteristics.
So to sum up:
There have been historical attempts to give class (the abstract economic category) a corresponding “quasi-ethnic” identity that exists at a similar level to race/nationality/ethnicity. Indeed at this level identification with the “class identity” may conflict with identification with an ethnic/racial group.
Such an example would be the “new Soviet person” of the USSR, or the idea of the “real working class person” in the US (usually a manual worker, usually white, essentially always male, etc.)
National liberation struggles also often attempt to reify a class-like abstraction into a more concrete identification.
To some degree such constructions may be useful in mobilizing a segment of working class people, but they will always be in only partial correspondence with the class itself.