Sex, Race, and Class

I just finished reading Selma James’ Sex, Race, and Class. The article makes interesting arguments of how we understand class, and its relationship to struggles around youth, gender, and race.

Essentially it seems to be a cleaned up version of "The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community". There is some funny anachronistic stuff in that book that reads as pretty dated activisty theory from the 60s and 70s. The text seems particularly woobly when it veers from class issues to make activisty statements about power, love, and freedom. At one of the discussions Selma said there was stuff in there now that she considers "not marxist enough", and I assume that that’s why a lot of that got cut in Sex, Race, and Class.

What is strongest is the argument about class. Essentially it argues that a number of struggles provide apparent contradictions to the Marxist thesis of the primacy of class (if you can call it that). The struggles of blacks, students, and women (in the mid 20th century) were at the forefront and indeed the primary force of social struggle. There were two replies in contemporary (authoritarian marxist and activist) discourse: the struggles are outside and independent of class and moreover we don’t need to deal with capitalism as such, and that class struggle is primary and these others are secondary.

Her reply is that these struggles are in fact related to class. I say related because the text seems like it is ambiguous between two positions I see:

1. Race and gender are autonomous forces that are systematically interdependent with class 

2. Race and gender are (autonomous forces) constituted by class relations

The first would be arguing a view wherein race and gender are systematically bound up and interdefined by class (i’d say in a complex adaptive way), but have independent content which requires an analysis and praxis that goes beyond class alone.

The second would be arguing that though race and gender might have in previous epochs been autonomous on some level, they are now defined and constituted by relations of production and class relationships under capitalism. As such their solution lies in the abolishment of capital, and their content can be understood historically through capital (though are perhaps a species of class relations). You could see this as being a view adopted by someone who thinks that there is worth to Marx’s distinction between the base and the superstructure (I don’t).

I’m increasingly thinking it is the first. The only things counting against it is that her argument is only directed at convincing that indeed these sections of the population are waging class struggle (which makes sense since that’s most contentious to the marxists she was writing to), and she doesn’t utilize, develop, or point to concepts that go beyond class (as far as I can tell). 

Her argument is that these sectors which have organized don’t necessarily fall into what we think of as class since they may not have a wage (housewives, students, systematically un/underemployed), may be systematically excluded from sectors, etc., but that this is in fact one of the primary relations that defines capitalism and how it constructs class. She cites Marx’s Capital Volume I

"Manufacture… develops a hierarchy of labour powers, to which there corresponds a scale of wages. If, on the one hand, the individual labourers are appropriated and annexed for life by a limited function; on the other hand, the various operations of the hierarchy are parceled out among the labourers according to both their natural and their acquired capabilities." 

All sectors of the working class have a role in the full production of value throughout society, just not necessarily in the factory or workplace. For example women traditionally cooked, cleaned, took care of the children and men, etc., all necessary tasks to be done if the men were to be able to work (and hence producing value for capital). Women in many third world countries do the majority of subsistence non-market based agriculture, hence non-waged, but that plays a crucial role (or maybe the crucial role) in the economy none the less.

Moreover with this in view it becomes clear why different sections of the working class will have different struggles, will be liable to struggle under different circumstances, and likewise that the potential for revolution depends upon the relations between these divisions. One can think of it as one way to ground the assertion put forward by Selma that struggle tends to emerge from the community and the most marginalized sections of the working class. Her argument about venezuela (that it began in the community and spread to the workplace) seems solid in this regard.  

One weakness I see in these particular texts is that organization is left partially addressed in my mind (which I conceed may just be me not getting enough of the parts, if so please help :). I don’t mean this as a criticism, that would be unfair. I just think there’s something missing that comes along with the argument she gives. She says at the end of Sex, Race, and Class

"How the working class will ultimately unite organizationally, we don’t know. We do know that up to now many of us have been told to forget our own needs in some wider interest which was never wide enough to include us. And so we have learnt by bitter experience that nothing unified and revolutionary will be formed until each section of the exploited will have made its own autonomous power felt." 

She rejects political parties as they tend to serve their own interests, and unions likewise. These traditional organs of power have systemically disempowered women and people of color. These groups found power in self-organization, though as Selma points out we have only seen self-organization in its embryonic form (especially since it constantly reinvents itself across time). Coming from a position of class struggle and organization though we need to avoid sitting on our hands and being spontaneist (something I don’t think Selma would endorse on any count), and likewise we need to avoid merely throwing together some bad schema and calling it a praxis.

Still I wonder if there isn’t some piece that comes together with having a theory of revolution grounded in power relations rather than the Marxist theory which I take to have at its core the primacy of class (class is the base which the superstructure of political relations grows out of).

Selma’s theory broadens the scope of class struggle. It could be that she believes class is sufficient for revolution, even though race and gender have their own content and struggles. If this is the case I think there are a number of objections that could be put forward. If she doesn’t though we still need a way of understanding, critiquing and making concrete how we deal with power.

Anarchism can give us the vocabulary and abstract models for describing how it is that hierarchical power relations are mutually interdefining, how they perpetuate one and another, and how it is that we can dismantle the root causes of emergent hierarchy. This would require not merely a definition of hierarchy and empty organizational formalism, but instead a social analysis of power (and a revision of class struggle theory) and the development historically grounded praxis. I’m not pretending to smooth over any of the massive issues involved here, but am hoping to explore some directions we can look to in trying to solve the very real problems that are contained here.


4 thoughts on “Sex, Race, and Class

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