Brecht on “the Concept of Class”


8 Jan 42

the concept of class too, perhaps because it has come down to us as it was framed in the last century, is used much too mechanically today. there is nothing to be derived from a purely statistical concept of a german working class nowadays; yet such a concept is deep-seated. trade-unions and political parties are accustomed to count members. the political concept is devalued too, since it presupposes organisations and ‘democratic forms of state’, a ‘free interplay of forces’ which can be steered by the ruling class. the closure of the labour market in the interests of the war economy has damaged the term ‘class’ as an economic concept. what remains is the class itself. it, happily, is not just a concept.

the fact that wars cannot be waged without the proletariat (as the productive force) does not mean that a war which is disagreeable to the proletariat cannot be waged. a revolutionary situation only comes into being when eg it takes the individual initiative of the proletariat to fight a war that the proletariat favours, or when a lost war can only be liquidated by the proletariat. etc etc.

In this entry from his Journals 1934-1955, Brecht captures the complexity of the class question. The “coming down” of this concept as “framed” in a particular phase in history leads to its devaluation in another phase in history. The statistical, political and economic conceptions were all devalued in the phase of the war economy, but what remained was the class itself, which “happily, is not just a concept.” In this note, he implicitly advances the need for the movement of concept to capture the reality of class.

In the second para, he brings out the reality of the proletariat of which Marx and Engels talked about in their Communist Manifesto – of the dialectic of class formation. Marx and Engels achieved this by critiquing the political economic logic of competition and cooperation as foundational to the formation of classes and class struggle in capitalism. They showed how the negation of classification is immanent in the process of classification. This dialectic recurs in Brecht’s writings at numerous occasions. As an example, we can cite one of his most used and abused poem, General, den Tank, or even his War Primer. In fact, that is why montage is central to his creative writings which captures the dynamics of internal relations that constitute the real, thus reclaiming “the genuine reality [that] has slipped into the functional”. The problem of the proletariat as the “productive force”, as a reification that constitutes capital, as being complicit in wars does not do away with the proletarian initiative. In fact, it is this initiative or art that interrupts the normal exposing what has been functionalised, thus generating “a revolutionary situation.”

This note can be posed as an answer to the dominance of the analytical tradition within the progressive (including the Marxist) circle in our times, which can be broadly divided into two complementary sections. On the one hand, there are those who immediately deploy the analytical concepts trying to straitjacket the concrete to suit those concepts, while on the other, there are those who in reaction stoop down to radical empiricism proclaiming the death of the grand narrative (including class), worshipping relativism. The poverty of both these sections is their tendency to reduce concepts to mere descriptive categories. It is in this regard that we can combine them under the identity of (post) structuralism.

In the above note, what Brecht achieves philosophically is an articulation of the distinction, yet necessary and problematic relationship between the real and the conceptual – “the class itself” and “the concept of class”.

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The Taming of the Shrew: India’s Left in the 2019 Elections


“…the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?”

– Bertolt Brecht

“Procrustes, or the Stretcher …had an iron bedstead, on which he used to tie all travellers who fell into his hands. If they were shorter than the bed, he stretched their limbs to make them fit it; if they were longer than the bed, he lopped off a portion. Theseus served him as he had served others.”
– Bulfinch’s Mythology

1. Elections are procrustean rituals in an institutionalised democracy to contain and channel the social (over)flow and productivise it to manufacture a government and its legitimacy. By recursive re-discretisation of the social flow into manageable units, the citizenry is recomposed. In these elections, it is not the public that elects the government but the state that reassembles the public to produce the government. This reconstituted public gets the government that it deserves.

2. In the elections of 2019, against the right wing politics of communal polarisation, the left liberals in India have been seeking to pose a different sort of polarisation. Either you are on this side or that side. It doesn’t matter even if some who are on this side, earlier they were on the other and next time again they may fall there, whenever the juggling of elections happens and post-electoral alliances are made. For them, the poles are poles, stuck to the ground.

3. Hence, there is more to the 2019 elections for our nationalist left liberals. As they themselves say, it is a historic moment. And it is indeed something historic that liberal manichaeism seeks to achieve. If BJP is, what they say, a fascist party, then the liberals are imagining something unique in these elections – of defeating fascists in the elections. The fascist regimes, classically, might have come through elections, but have never been eliminated in them.

4. Now, the only strategy that seems to achieve this is by ensuring that votes are not divided (for which a Manichean binary is necessary). Marx’s dictum that all such phrases of not splitting votes and that the reactionaries might win because of the split are meant to dupe the proletariat seems outdated for the doomsday New Left. They want to defeat neoliberal authoritarianism through the procrusteanism of liberal democracy, while the right seeks to synchronise them.

5. However, by posing and making these elections as a two party contest, our marginalised left liberals are binding themselves to the dangerous game of attracting the median voter. In a bipolar contest the result is a more and more identity of opposites. And when much of the opposition is already centred on non-oppositional disagreements rather than based on any principled opposition, the difference is internal. You are but an image of your opponent.

6. They identify the hindutva brigade as a fascist pole, against which they want to see everyone else together. However, this ideal has never been realised, perhaps fortunately for the benefit of the left liberals themselves. The divided regional forces whether in NDA or outside are the only respite against homogenised authoritarianism in the country. From within liberal democracy, the intensification of regionalist localism, along with institutionalised parliamentarianism are the only safeguards left against the hindutva brigade. This is what left liberals don’t realise when they indulge in their anti-fascist rhetoric. Anyway, with this rhetoric they don’t impress anyone but themselves. The major regional forces whenever they take up this rhetoric seriously, they use it merely as a bargaining chip against centrism.

7. The right wing forces have been the main agencies to recompose the relationship between state and civil society across the globe – of combining authoritarianism with liberal democracy. Only by a complete profanation of institutions that emerged in earlier regimes of accumulation that capital can reproduce the state in the neoliberal conjuncture. The barriers must be broken time and again to refinancialise the social factory – the neat divisions between different socio-economic spheres, between productive and reproductive regimes are obsolete and costly. These barriers that managed the surplus/ superfluous population through much-acclaimed welfarism are not required now – they must integrate to form a continuous reserve army. The desacralisation of liberal social-administrative spheres is part of this process. In recent years the right wing attack that directly concerned the left liberals has been in academia. The academia is increasingly made market friendly, not allowing any section of population to take perpetual “study leave”. It is not the quality that matters but quantity – production for production’s sake. Ultimately all of us produce data, and are data ourselves.

8. The left in the name of defending the “gains” is caught up in a contradictory position of defending the status quo. The right-wing forces, on the other, by attacking those gains show far more clear understanding of the contradictions that they expose. They defend the status quo by eliminating those contradictions and expose the brutal structure in its naked form. But this naked coercion would need a new regime of legitimation, because a long-term overexposure of its coercive apparatus can be a doom for the whole system. One of the gains of the right wing onslaught is to regiment the progressive forces and make them complicit in preserving the status quo, by bringing legitimation back to the structure. The cover-up of gains and incremental progress provides the structure a long life. ‘Defending the gains’ doesn’t always need to be a defence of the socio-administrative structure that provisioned those gains. They can be a ground to recognise, expand and generate more cracks in the structure, and create more crises for its reproduction. And in this negation develops a new grammar of social relations. But for left liberals there is no alternative (TINA) – Liberal democracy or Fascism!

9. In an interview to New Left Review in 1975, Communist thinker and leader K Damodaran lamented the failure of Indian left to differentiate between state and government, and hence, their inability to understand their relationship too. There are some who confuse between state and government to pose the impossibility of immediate political actions and there are others who find this confusion very productive, when haloed as the relative autonomy of the state and the political, to justify indulgence in bourgeois polity.

10. In fact, this confusion is one of the means through which the state avoids an overexposure. It is how it camouflages itself in the everydayness of governmentality. The state’s mood fluctuations, given a constant reshuffling in the relationship between the political and the economic, emerge as multiple political fetish-forms, as political forces, and even regimes. You can worship the state in whichever form you like – if nothing suits you, you pronounce it, you will get what you need – a new form! The spirit of state is fathomless and boundless – all political forms, their enthronement, dethronement or re-enthronement combine to constitute “the rhythm of the spirit”. The magic of capitalist state works on only one principle, which Prince Tancredi Falconeri pronounced –

“Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga com’è bisogna che tutto cambi” (“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”) – Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard (Il Gattopardo)

“If you can’t change the world, change yourself.”


“While Butler, needy wretch, was yet alive,
No generous patron would a dinner give;
See him, when starved to death, and turned to dust,
Presented with a monumental bust.
The poet’s fate is here in emblem shown,
He asked for bread, and he received a stone.”

Ultimate!!! Marxism is really going big and funny – academic and publishing monopolies, and now this!!! We danced every time a mainstream publication or newspaper or liberals called Marx’s this or that theory relevant. In fact, this has been the job of Marxist academia and publishing businesses, of convincing the mainstream of the prescriptive, descriptive and analytical relevance of Dr Marx. In the name of rigour, the great sanitised figure of Marx the theoretician is built, who cannot be charged of Leninism (well, Leninology too is there to do similar with Lenin) and of the “crimes” of the Georgian and other Orientals. The Melancholic figure of Prof Marx, instead of Bacchanalian inclinations of Herr Marx. Marx’s father tried hard to achieve this by forcing him to transfer from Bonn to Berlin, the “workhouse”, but he eventually failed and died. But now it is different, it does not matter if his spirit rebels, the high priests of academic and publishing Marxisms can easily exorcise “the spectre of Marx”.

If this was not sufficient, there are already some new moles in the market who are prepared to take on capitalists with AltMarxist cryptocurrency, Marxcoin, our own money. Of course, “money cannot overthrow capitalism”, but with money we can win capitalism. Who cares about Marx’s attacks on “artful tinkering with money”? These have been sufficiently academicised, or reduced to policy and economic issues. The spirited science of Marxist polemics is gone. Who cares about Marx’s form and content dialectic?

Time to rewrite the Eleventh Thesis: “If you can’t change the world, change yourself.” Or perhaps in the context of 100 years of the October Revolution (and what we have been doing after 1989), we can further innovate, “We have been interpreting ourselves in various ways, the point is to change ourselves.”

Notes on Materialism in Earliest Marx


1. Marx’s “Reflections of a Young Man on the Choice of a Profession” that he wrote for school-leaving Examinations in August 1835 (when he was 17 years old) is quite revealing. We find some definite traces of his social materialism in this otherwise idealist text.

2. Nature and deity in these Reflections are forces of necessity. They determine the sphere of activity for animals, which animals cannot transcend. But for humans they provide “a general aim” towards which they must seek their own roads and means.

3. But this open-endedness of human activity is a source of both fulfilment and frustration. It is here experience, knowledge and conscious learning become crucial.

4. However, the “deity” or force of necessity does not leave human totally helpless – it “speaks softly but with certainty.” She must know how to recognise it, without self-deceiving.

5. This recognition of necessity can easily be lost in immediate and momentary inspirations, imaginations, emotions, phantoms acting on our impetuous instincts – thus the voice of the deity is drowned and we suffer.

6. In the choice of profession one needs to hear the true calling (the voice of the deity, the necessity). Once you give yourself to the demon of ambition, you lose sight of the “deity” and start relying on “chance and illusion”. You still remain an object of necessity, but obviously not as a master navigating through the narrow escapes provided by necessity to your destination. Instead you walk without a guide and without any knowledge of the pathways, hitting the walls of necessity. And the result is failure and “self-contempt”. Now not just our physical and intellectual constitution, but also already established social relations act as the given structure of necessity. It is here that even the Earliest Marx stands united with the core of early and late Marx’s materialism:

“our relations in society have to some extent already begun to be established before we are in a position to determine them.”

Engels’ “theoretical moment”?


In Marx and Engels’ Collected Works volume 47, I found a very interesting letter written by Engels to August Bebel. It was written about a month and half after Marx’s death, April 30 1883. Bebel seems to have suggested Engels to move somewhere else in Europe. Engels’ justifications to continue staying in England is quite remarkable.

Dear Bebel,

There is a very simple answer to your question as to whether I might remove to Germany or Switzerland or somewhere else on the Continent, namely that I shall not go to any country from which one can be expelled. But that is something one can only be safe from in England and America. I should at most go to the latter country on a visit, unless otherwise compelled. Hence I shall remain here.

Moreover England has another great advantage. Since the demise of the International there has been no labour movement whatsoever here, save as an appendage to the bourgeoisie, the radicals and for the pursuit of limited aims within the capitalist system. Thus, only here does one have the peace one needs if one is to go on with one’s theoretical work. Everywhere else one would have had to take part in practical agitation and waste an enormous amount of time. As regards practical agitation, I should have achieved no more than any one else; as regards theoretical work, I cannot yet see who could take the place of Marx and myself. What younger men have attempted in this line is worth little, indeed, for the most part less than nothing. Kautsky, the only one who applies himself to study, has to write for a living and for that reason if no other can achieve nothing. And now, in my sixty-third year, up to my eyes in my own work and with the prospect of a year’s work on the second volume of Capital and another year’s work on Marx’s biography, along with the history of the German socialist movement from 1843 to 1863 and of the International from 1864-72, it would be madness for me to exchange my peaceful retreat here for some place where one would, have to take part in meetings and newspaper battles, which alone would be enough to blur, as it necessarily must, the clarity of one’s vision. To be sure, if things were as they were in 1848 and 1849, I would again take to the saddle if need arose.

On Rights Politics and Migrant Workers


These notes were prepared for a discussion in Delhi on a report on the condition of migrant workers in Delhi, Uttarakhand and Tamil Nadu (October 6 2017).

REFORMS & REVOLUTION

1. The two significant aspects of demand and right politics are – firstly, they are grounded in the immediate social needs that are framed within a structure. Secondly, they are attempts to establish a discourse with the state machinery – hence they are discursively circumscribed within the field of social relations. Thus, they are necessarily reform oriented, but they need not be reformist. The questions of rights, reforms and demands are unavoidable guerrilla struggles, which build the capacity of workers to organise larger movements. But do these struggles mean deferring the final movement that targets the very structural and superstructural setup that give language to those social needs? No, because they also test the vulnerabilities of the system and can become endeavours to burrow through it the final escape or emancipation. Every moment is a moment for both reform and revolution, and also reaction. When a movement is able to transcend its initial demands, to go on to attack the present social relations and to reorganise them then it becomes revolutionary. When the movement attempts to take the leap, but fails, then reaction happens. When the movement is not ready to take any leap beyond or reneges at the last moment, reform and/or reaction can happen, depending on the level of crisis in the system.

2. However, because the rights politics in itself is concerned with achievements of the rights and demands, at its own level will be geared towards negotiations and bargains, and impressing upon the state machinery, rather than changing the social relations themselves. Even the trade union politics is embedded in this kind of relationship. There is nothing in these forms that makes them question the structure of that relationship between workers and capitalists, or in the former case between workers and the state. The danger of reformism comes from this. But once again, as a conscious part of the larger movement against the structure of present social relations they play a crucial role of waging guerrilla struggles. But what does this signify? Then how do we define the working class politics? Also what will be the organisational question which balances between reform and revolution?

3. When we talk about workers’ politics, it is grounded in the dialectic of competition and collectivity. Marx captured this very aptly, when he said: “Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by their revolutionary combination, due to association.” The politics that is premised upon the segmentation of the workers vs the politics of ever-expanding combination and association, that is grounded in the everyday interaction among workers. The latter is not a mechanical aggregation or unity of isolated workers with similar grievances or demands, but a combination or network that is built in their daily conflict with state and capital. Only an expansion of this network has the capacity to refuse to be subsumed by capital and its network. In this, demands are definitely raised but are incidental. In this framework, demands and rights play the role of testing the system’s vulnerabilities and the organisational strength of the expanding combination.

ON MIGRATION

4. Migration is not just a fact, but also an act. It is not fully incidental that a word for migration in Hindi is पलायन (the more formal word is प्रवास). The former is very rich, often used as a stigma – one of its meaning being running away or an escapist act. In my view, it is this sense that renders the act of migration politically rich. Migration is not just a spatial fix, a response of the weak to the immediate contingencies of life. It is also a rebellious withdrawal, an escape, a long march against “the current state of affairs.” It is an act of refusal, non-acceptance of the lot. As an immediate spatial fix it demonstrates the weak agency of the migrant – a weakness in mastering the system. But it also has a utopian element that makes any human agency restless, that may come one time as an escape, another time as an emancipation, especially when individual weakness becomes a ground for collective subjectivity. Wasn’t this Ambedkar’s intention when he advised dalits to escape villages?

5. Legal Unionism is bound to consider migrant and mobile workers unreliable for their purpose – it simply cannot rely on them. On the other hand, social unionism which seeks to overcome the limits of traditional unionism is caught up in the discourse of non-conflictuality and negotiations with state (which in turn is problematically conceptualised). Hence for this school too it is always about accommodation – creating space for the migrants, not about problematising the whole space itself which is the etatised field of labour-capital relations. Therefore the vagrancy and mobility of proletarians are something to be shed off, not to be made a ground to imagine an overhauling of social relations and ideologies. Hence migrants as migrants are suspects, to be always put in the peripheries of organised politics. But different revolutions have shown how it was mostly settled workers’ organisations, afraid of losing their accumulated privileges, developed petty bourgeois tendencies and were unable to go beyond the legal fights when required, unless workers revolted and autonomously organised themselves.

6. Right from Karl Marx, Marxists have understood the relationship of workers mobility and their political consciousness. Lenin provides an insight into the poltical meaning of migration and demonstrates how to think about workers beyond their victimhood and our philanthropist vanguardism:

“There can be no doubt that dire poverty alone compels people to abandon their native land, and that the capitalists exploit the immigrant workers in the most shameless manner. But only reactionaries can shut their eyes to the progressive significance of this modern migration of nations. Emancipation from the yoke of capital is impossible without the further development of capitalism, and without the class struggle that is based on it. And it is into this struggle that capitalism is drawing the masses of the working people of the whole world, breaking down the musty, fusty habits of local life, breaking down national barriers and prejudices, uniting workers from all countries in huge factories and mines in America, Germany, and so forth.”

“Thus, Russia is punished everywhere and in everything for her backwardness. But compared with the rest of the population, it is the workers of Russia who are more than any others bursting out of this state of backwardness and barbarism, more than any others combating these “delightful” features of their native land, and more closely than any others uniting with the workers of all countries into a single international force for emancipation.

“The bourgeoisie incites the workers of one nation against those of another in the endeavour to keep them disunited. Class-conscious workers, realising that the breakdown of all the national barriers by capitalism is inevitable and progressive, are trying to help to enlighten and organise their fellow-workers from the backward countries.”

7. In recent years, Negri (and Hardt) repeats the same in the language of our times:

“Traditionally the various kinds of migrant workers, including permanent immigrants, seasonal laborers, and hobos, were excluded from the primary conception and political organization of the working class. Their cultural differences and mobility divided them from the stable, core figures of labor. In the contemporary economy, however, and with the labor relations of post-Fordism, mobility increasingly defines the labor market as a whole, and all categories of labor are tending toward the condition of mobility and cultural mixture common to the migrant. Not only are workers are forced to change jobs several times during a career, they are also required to move geographically for extended periods or even commute long distances on a daily basis. Migrants may often travel empty-handed in conditions of extreme poverty, but even then they are full of knowledges, languages, skills, and creative capacities: each migrant brings with him or her an entire world, Whereas the great European migrations of the past were generally directed toward some space “outside,” toward what were conceived as empty spaces, today many great migrations move instead toward fullness, toward the most wealthy and privileged areas of the globe…

“Part of the wealth of migrants is their desire for something more, their refusal to accept the way things are. Certainly most migrations are driven by the need to escape conditions of violence, starvation, or depravation, but together with that negative condition there is also the positive desire for wealth, peace and freedom. This combined act of refusal and expression of desire is enormously powerful…. Ironically, the great global centers of wealth that call on migrants to fill a lack in their economies get more than they bargained for, since the immigrants invest the entire society with their subversive desires. The experience of flights is something like a training of the desire for freedom.

“Migrations, furthermore, teach us about the geographical division and hierarchies of the global system of command. Migrants understand and illuminate the gradients of danger and security, poverty and wealth, the markets of higher and lower wages, and the situations of more and less free forms of life. And with this knowledge of the hierarchies they roll uphill as much as possible, seeking wealth and freedom, power and joy. Migrants recognize the geographical hierarchies of the system and yet treat the globe as one common space, serving as living testimony to the irreversible fact of globalization. Migrants demonstrate (and help construct) the general commonality of the multitude by crossing and thus partially undermining every geographical barrier.”

Russian Revolution and Luxemburg’s Approach


Even being a direct observer of the happenings in Russia and being critical of Bolshevik practice, Rosa Luxemburg could keep a far more objective and materialist understanding of the problems of the Russian Revolution, in comparison to the theo-sectarian polemics around facts and counter-facts that is being exercised today globally during the centenary celebrations. In a letter to Adolf Warski written less than a couple of months before her assassination, Luxemburg comments on the two most crucial problems of the Russian Revolution and Bolshevik practice, refusing to subjectively analyse them. It is this objectivity that generated her revolutionary “optimism of will”. She writes:

The use of terror indicates great weakness, certainly, but it is directed against internal enemies who base their hopes on the existence of capitalism outside of Russia, receiving support and encouragement from it. With the coming of the European revolution, the Russian counter-revolutionaries will lose only support [from abroad] but also – what’s more important- their courage. Thus the Bolshevik use of terror is above all an expression of the weakness of the European proletariat. Certainly, the agrarian relations that have been established are the most dangerous aspect, the worst sore spot of the Russian Revolution. But here too there is a truth that applies – even the greatest revolution can accomplish only that which has ripened as a result of [historical] development. This sore spot also can only be healed by the European revolution. And it is coming!

George Adler, Peter Hudis and Anneliese Laschitza (ed), The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, Verso (2011), pp 484-85