Class Struggle Means Forging Broad Coalitions of the Exploited and Oppressed / by Michael W. Clune

People gather in front of the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse in downtown Portland, Oregon on July 26, 2020, during a summer of protest following the police killing of George Floyd. (Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Originally published in Jacobin on April 30, 2023

Review of Mark Steven, Class War: A Literary History (Verso, 2023).

Mark Steven has delved into the history of revolutions to develop a vision of class war for our own time. His analysis would be stronger if he recognized how those revolutions produced broad social alliances through the shared experience of struggle.

The other day, while flipping through radio channels in my car in an effort to find the latest NBA news, I came upon the conservative radio program Clay and Buck. One of the hosts was warning listeners about the probable presence of FBI provocateurs at pro-Trump rallies. Such agents were easy to spot, he claimed. If you saw someone in brand-new Carhartt, and work boots that looked like they’d never been used, they were probably infiltrators “trying to look working class.”

While it has dramatically accelerated in recent years, the movement of the working class to the Republican Party is nothing new. At least since Thomas Frank published What’s the Matter with Kansas? in 2004, progressives and radicals have had a simple answer to the question of why the working class fails to mobilize according to its economic interests: it’s been tricked. The Right, by appealing to various cultural attitudes and racial prejudices, has obscured the underlying economic interests that link workers of all races.

In his new book, Class War: A Literary History, Mark Steven takes a dramatically different approach by arguing that common economic interest — a shared structural position as the exploited — will never serve to motivate radical class politics. His evidence is that it actually never has. Class feeling isn’t the precondition for radical political action; it’s the result.

From Black Lives Matter to Class War

According to Steven, from the Haitian Revolution through the Paris Commune and the Chinese Revolution right up to the present, “the collective agents of revolutionary social transformation have been made and remade, collectively and as individuals, by the nature of their actions.” His thesis is that the history of class war reveals the “discovery of commonality through antagonism.” By identifying and attacking an enemy, disparate groups discover a common interest and a shared identity.

Class war — the call for violent uprising against oppressive individuals, groups, norms, and structures — performs an alchemical transformation on the complex social fabric, simplifying things, precipitating two sides, two classes, from the welter of relations of domination and exploitation. Thus Steven describes class struggle as a “speech act: a performative utterance that, when said, is also a kind of action.” Class war is “at once a metaphor and a statement of fact.”

Such language alerts the reader that violence has taken on creative, even mystic qualities. Class war for Steven isn’t a war between preexisting classes, but a war that creates class — that rescues the key conceptual social category of the radical tradition from the political abyss.

The stakes of Class War can be most clearly seen in its treatment of the form of violence that both opens and closes the book: the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in the summer of 2020. On the opening page, Steven praises the “convulsions” of the BLM movement as “class warfare.” “The defenders of the establishment felt fear,” he writes, quoting one such defender who describes “a violent mob marauding through the streets of Chicago” as “a classic example of class war, not racial justice.”

As he knows, this description of BLM — perhaps the most polarizing phenomenon on the Left in recent years — cuts against a powerful critique launched by writers such as Adolph ReedCedric JohnsonWalter Benn Michaels, and others. Writing in 2021, Reed argued that BLM, by foregrounding race, represented a giant distraction from class:

Those who at this point want to hang onto the fantasy that BLM is a radical force either want to save face or preserve a market share or career trajectory. They aren’t allies; they aren’t winnable. They’re class enemies.

For Marxists like Reed, the instant embrace of BLM by practically every corporation and elite institution didn’t represent the co-option of the movement, but in fact stemmed from its natural fit with the interests of capital. Instead of imagining BLM as a form of class war, radicals needed to “build a mass movement around appealing to the material needs of the broad working-class.”

Creating Solidarity

Steven does not defend his perspective on BLM from attacks like that of Reed, but rather launches into a two-hundred page survey of various scenes of class war over the past two centuries, showing how class in Russia had been “redefined and reclarified through the precepts of war” in 1917, or how the Chinese Revolution understood the revolutionary class as “a combustive entity fueled by shared struggle, common interests and — above all — social antagonism,” or how the decolonization of Kenya revealed the “creation of solidarity through warfare.”

Yet at the end of the book, after completing this tour through revolutionary history and literature, Steven returns to the problem of how BLM relates to class in terms that reveal a striking awareness of and response to the skepticism of writers like Reed. For Steven, the problem with thinking that we can substitute a political movement based on “broad working-class interest” for the messy, racialized struggles of BLM is that, politically, class does not exist.

While the “broad common interests” that link white miners with black service workers and immigrant day laborers may exist as a deep structure, they don’t produce the kind of feeling of shared identity or interests that is crucial for transforming class from a matter of abstract economic analysis to one of concrete political action. On the other hand, what is visible is the uniform of Carhartt associated with the Midwestern, white working-class victims of globalization, or the skin color of black victims of police brutality, or the Spanish vocabulary of migrant farm workers.

The “absence of ready-made class categories” ready to do political work is in part a result of the complexity of contemporary capitalism, Steven writes:

Ours is a world that requires us to know class as something other than cultural identity bound up in the reliable structures of formal labor. This is why so many of today’s movements have been described as undertaken by movements for which class remains the inconspicuous undercurrent adjoined to the differently prominent variables of age, gender, geography, and religion.

Yet, as his history of class war shows us, this has always been the case. Radical political organizers have always recognized the need to turn theoretical common interests into practical shared struggle. And the catalyst is violence. The visceral experience of war, of terrorism, of riot, of protest, forges new disciplines, new communities — it turns the various social groupings of the oppressed into a class at war with its enemy. Violence motivates class.

The response of Steven to Reed is that if we wait for a sense of shared economic interests to give rise to common political action, we will be waiting forever. Instead, wherever social violence breaks out, we should encourage the precipitation of two sides: “us” versus “them.”

And when one camp gathers the victims of capitalism alongside it — hey presto! That’s your class, revolutionary. It’s the only revolutionary class you may ever get. You better join it.

The Missing Link?

The analysis of Class War points out the virtual absence of a social identity in the United States that corresponds to anything like a common economic class interest. Its historical overview suggests that the “material needs of the broad working class” referred to by Reed always require some supplement if they are going to become radically active in political terms.

In this respect, Steven explains the form that broad-left political activism has taken in recent decades, and also shows the serious problems that a Marxism of the variety articulated by Reed will need to overcome. But his belief that violence can provide the necessary supplement, and that the identities social antagonism precipitates can be made into the agents of a social transformation that will benefit oppressed people, merits skepticism of its own.

At times, the enthusiasm of Steven for bloodshed and mayhem can resemble the unseriousness of academics like Joshua Clover, author of the middle-class professor’s guide to rioting in poor people’s neighborhoods, Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Age of Uprisings. While it’s kind of refreshing to see a writer in 2023 quote Joseph Stalin on a point of theory without anywhere acknowledging his status as a mass murderer, or celebrate Mao’s revolutionary leadership without noting his responsibility for millions of Chinese deaths, it does raise some questions about the author’s judgment. By the book’s end, I was a little surprised not to see Pol Pot quoted for his insights into the revolutionary power of raw violence. If the author has a reason for preferring the writing of some genocidal maniacs to others, he doesn’t share it with the reader.

I was also disappointed by the literary examples Steven chooses to highlight. While the book presents itself as in part a history of class war told through literature, the dullness and pedantry of much of the literature chosen made me wonder what creative writing really adds to his account.

In many cases, the author’s own writing — marked by an engaging swiftness, verve, and earnestness — compares favorably with the block quotes he includes from various social realist novelists and pedantic poets. In the chapter on Latin American revolutions, I was tantalized by a few brief wonderful quotations from the works of Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar before being plunged into a dreary tour through revolutionary field manuals.

There are two ways literature can serve a history of this kind. The author might use literary quotations as examples of the revolutionary link between class and violence he has already gleaned from nonliterary sources. Or he might use literature to illuminate this relation: to show aspects of violence or class that one couldn’t know before encountering the literary work.

In his interpretation of a writer like Márquez, Steven takes the latter — and to my mind, more interesting — path. Too often, however, he takes the former one. As a telling assessment of the kind of literature that dominates much of the book, I’ll just say that the quotations from Stalin’s essays or Mao’s poems never tempted me to seek out those works myself, to see what I had been missing.

Forging Coalitions

If these problems concern the book’s execution of its thesis, rather than the thesis itself, a final issue touches upon Steven’s core argument. I take the point of his insistence that shared economic interests are not enough in themselves to practically motivate political change. And I learned from his historical demonstration of the extent to which earlier generations of revolutionaries saw violent struggle as a means of forming, rather than simply expressing, class feeling. However, I couldn’t help noticing a dramatic break between the historical revolutionary activists Steven surveys, and his own defense of BLM as class war.

Defending the relative absence of appeals to the working class in BLM, Stevens writes that the working class has become “an identitarian category that renders as synonymous with white, male, industrial workers” — it is a class that has “effectively decomposed.” It is certainly true that a certain segment of the working class possesses a racial and cultural identity that renders it susceptible to right-wing populism. Yet this class as a whole is comprised of millions of people.

While the opening gambit of Steven consigns these millions of workers to the dustbin of history, every historical example he uses in the book takes the opposite tack. The Russian, Chinese, and Latin American revolutionaries, for example, sought to forge broad coalitions through the experience of struggle. The whole point of creating a new class feeling through the experience of revolutionary violence was to merge such dramatically disparate and even antagonistic cultural groups as peasants and workers. Is it no longer possible to imagine a site of struggle that could link rural and urban workers today?

Stevens believes that the Hail Mary pass of revolutionary violence is our best hope to save class feeling from the wreck of the radical tradition. But the fact that his best contemporary example of such violence serves, in his own account, to further divide the oppressed, leaves one wondering whether Steven’s politics ultimately represents a link with past radicalisms, or their abandonment.

Michael W. Clune is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in publications such as Harper’s, Granta, and the New Yorker. His books include Gamelife, Whiteout, and A Defense of Judgment.