A Future for Marxism

Nancy Fraser

[from New Politics, vol. 6, no. 4 (new series), whole no. 24, Winter 1998]

Nancy Fraser is a professor of political science in the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research and co-editor of Constellations: An International Journal of Critical and Democratic Theory.

ON THIS 150TH ANNIVERSARY OF The Communist Manifesto, it is difficult to avoid the sobering question: Does Marxism have any future in our apparently "postsocialist" age?

Here is my answer in a nutshell: Marxism as the metanarrative or master discourse of oppositional politics in capitalist societies is finished. So is Marxism as a totalizing theory of the system dynamics, crisis tendencies, and conflict potentials in capitalist societies. Rather, we have witnessed the rise of a new, postmarxian field of critical theorizing. Prominent components of this field include poststructuralist theories of discourse, feminist theories, and new critical theories of race and ethnicity. To be sure, the final form of this field, including the degree to which it will remain a set of multiple overlapping discourses rather than a single more unified discourse, is not yet apparent. But one thing is clear. The only possible future for Marxism is as one contributing strand among others in this new postmarxian field. This requires a new modesty for Marxism, a willingness to open itself up to other bodies of critical thought, to reconstruct itself in the light of their insights, and generally to enter into fruitful exchanges with them.

That, however, is only one side of the story. The other side is that the insights of Marxism are indispensable to the new postmarxian field. Thus, the other contributing strands in that field need to open themselves up to Marxism in turn. Specifically, poststructuralist discourse theories need to situate their project in relation to macro-sociological structural theorizing, including political economy and institutional analysis. Likewise, feminist theories and critical "race" theories need to attend to class dynamics and to the global political-economic processes that help shape gender and racial inequality. To forget or ignore Marxism, rather than to transform and incorporate it, is to condemn critical theorizing to untenable, pre-Marxian modes of thought.

To grasp this thesis, we should recall that Marxism always insisted on a close connection between theory and practice. It sought, in the words of Marx, to provide "the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age." If we take this admirable commitment seriously, as I think we should, then we need to begin by noting the relative decline of traditional working class struggles in our age and the rise of struggles that don't fit the Marxian story of history. I mean the so-called "new social movements" such as feminism, the movements for gay and lesbian liberation, the peace and ecology movements, anti-racist movements, and various other movements--some progressive and some reactionary--that are organized around ethnicity and nationality. These movements depart from the Marxian understanding of class struggle in part because they focalize aspects of identity other than class. In addition, they evince concerns and aspirations that are askew of, and in some cases at odds with, the Marxist focus on production. Unless we are prepared to dismiss these movements as expressions of "false consciousness" or "artificial negativity," then we must ask some hard questions about Marxist theory.

THE MOST OBVIOUS AND MOST DIFFICULT QUESTIONS CONCERN THE STATUS of the category of "class." Marxism always invoked this category at two levels and in two forms. First, it invoked class as an objective theoretical category that can be ascribed to social actors by an observer irrespective of the actors' self-descriptions and self-understandings; here, the working class, for example, is the class of persons who own no property in the means of production but only their labor power and who play a specific, objectively specifiable role in the circuit of surplus value realization by selling their labor power for wages.

In the Marxian tradition, this sense has been called the "class-in-itself" and contrasted with the "class-for-itself." As the Hegelian locution suggests, the latter conception is supposed to capture the self-understanding of social actors, their collective social identity and participation in a mobilized social group. Here, the working class is a self-identified, mobilized collective entity that seeks to intervene in political and social life.

Having invoked the category of class at these two levels and in these two forms, Marxism had to theorize the relation between them. What is the relationship between the working class as an objective theoretical entity and the existence (or nonexistence) of the working class as a mobilized group with a collective identity? Virtually all versions of Marxism have assumed that the theoretical class should (eventually) call forth or blossom into the mobilized group. If it did not, then the theory had to explain why not. What intervening and interfering circumstances prevented the class-in-itself from becoming the class-for-itself? It was largely in this negative space that Marxism located the problematics of consciousness and culture, ideology and discourse. They were of interest, it seemed, primarily in order to explain why what should be happening wasn't.

In the light of historical developments, East and West, we need to rethink these assumptions. One problem is how to conceptualize the construction of people's social identities and the formation of social groups. Certainly, we should reject the untenable view that collective social identities are somehow secreted by the structural positions of social actors. Instead, we should assume that identities are culturally constructed. By this I mean that they arise from relatively autonomous, contingent cultural processes that escape structural determination. Thus, where Marxism posited convergence between structural position and group mobilization and affiliation, we should assume instead the relative autonomy of identities from structure and the relative contingency of processes by which affiliations are formed and groups mobilized.

It follows that the new, postmarxian field of critical theorizing will need to provide a prominent place for the study of culture and, thus, for the study of discourse. Discourse, after all, is the cultural medium in which social identities are formed and re-formed. It is also the medium in which interests are constructed and represented and the medium in which social groups are created and mobilized. Thus, we will need to understand how cultural meanings are produced, circulated, and transformed in society. Insofar as poststructuralist discourse theories offer conceptual tools that promote such understanding, they can make important contributions to critical theorizing.

Moreover, insofar as we begin to theorize not from the movement that Marxism predicted should be politically salient, but rather from the movements that actually are politically salient, then we need to rethink the relationship among class, gender, and race-ethnicity. This means rejecting the untenable view that accords political and theoretical primacy to class over gender and "race," both at the level of collective identity and at the level of social structure. As collective identities that inform social movements, gender, "race," and class are entirely on a par with one another, since all three are constructed outcomes of contingent cultural processes that are relatively autonomous vis-a-vis social structure. (This excludes not only class essentialism but also gender essentialism and racial-ethnic essentialism.)

But it does not follow that class identities, gender identities, and racial-ethnic identities are mutually exclusive and independent of one another. Rather, each focalizes a register of discourse that is pervasively elaborated throughout modern culture. Strands from all three registers are interwoven in the social identities of social actors. Thus, the identity of every social actor is simultaneously gendered, raced and classed. When one of these strands is precipitated to center stage as the focus of some group mobilization and political affiliation, the others do not thereby cease to be operative. Rather, they continue to shape the salient strand in crucial if implicit ways. Thus, the class-focused identities that Marxism treated as primary were always already also gendered and raced. Likewise, gender-focused identities of interest to feminists are also raced and classed, while racially or ethnically-focused identities are also classed and gendered. So none of these movements can be adequately understood through a single lens.

In addition, the structural meaning of class also needs reconstruction. Political-economy, for example, should theorize gender and race-ethnicity as axes of exploitation, given first, the gender- and race-segmented character of labor markets and second, the structural position of people whose labor is either wholly or partly composed of unwaged work that contributes indirectly to the realization of surplus value.

I do not mean to imply that the structural side of critical theory can be limited to political economy. Certainly, the circuit of surplus value extraction is an important subsystem in capitalist societies, and one that is causally efficacious. But it is not the only such subsystem. In addition, there is the subsystem of the state apparatus. Moreover, other areas of life that are not formally institutionalized as differentiated subsystems may nonetheless be profitably subject to structural analysis. Prime candidates for such analysis are domestic arenas, kinship networks, sexual relations, public spheres, and the secondary associations of civil society.

FINALLY, WE COME TO THE QUESTION OF THE NORMATIVE DIMENSION. Marxism assumed that the fundamental injustice of capitalist society was exploitation. The remedy, accordingly, was socialist redistribution, the deep restructuring of the political-economy so as to abolish class divisions and differentials. Today, however, many mobilized groups assume that the fundamental injustice of contemporary society is cultural misrecognition of group difference. The remedy in their view is "the politics of recognition," the revaluation of devalued group identities or perhaps the deconstruction of the very terms in which group differences are currently elaborated. Usually, Marxism and multiculturalism are constructed as mutually exclusive, antithetical alternatives. We are effectively asked to choose between redistribution and recognition, class politics and identity politics, socialism and multiculturalism.

These, however, are false antitheses. Justice today requires both redistribution and recognition, as neither alone is sufficient. Thus, another crucial task is to figure out how to combine them -- both theoretically and practically. This, in my view, is the key political question of our day: How can we develop a coherent programmatic political orientation that integrates redistribution and recognition? How can we develop a framework that integrates what remains cogent and unsurpassable in the socialist vision with what is cogent and irrefutable in the new, apparently "postsocialist" multicultural vision?

My aim is not to propose and defend a specific programmatic conception of how the several kinds of critical theorizing listed here should be linked or integrated with one another. That is not a task for a single individual. But I do mean to claim that all the various kinds of theorizing I have been discussing will need to find a place somewhere on the postmarxian map. In order that Marxism, too, be assured of a place there, it will have to be in dialogue with the range of feminist theorizing, of critical "race" theorizing, and of poststructuralist discourse theorizing. My deeper point is to defend the possibility -- indeed the necessity -- of a future for Marxism in the new postmarxian field of critical theorizing.

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