1/15/22: the use of "class" in some books i read last year
when we talk about the class of individuals or groups in the present, we intend to say something at once analytic and political. “here’s how this sort of person lives, and here’s what they, or we, should do about it.” in historical writing, the latter aspect can be more difficult to ascertain because (obviously) the decisions in question have already been made. one way to deal with this is to contextualize those political commitments within the time period itself. by analyzing the way people of certain classes took up what they saw as the existential problems of their position (as documented in texts), one can extrapolate the decisions that lead to the creation of the next distinct socio-economic paradigm. perry anderson comes to mind as an example of this approach (in particular "origins of the present crisis"
, and "the h-word,"
which i read most recently), a historian who uses the economic bases of different ruling strata to explain their political and intellectual behavior. "origins"
attempts to locate the cause of england's retarded (lol) pseudo-democracy in the parochial landed interests that dominated its industrial transition. "the h-word"
is basically a gussied up exercise in etymology, charting the rise and usage of the word "hegemony" in relation to increasingly sophisticated interstate systems. many (most?) of anderson's writings focus primarily on the propertied classes and/or their attendant middle class ideologues, which makes sense given what he seeks explain with class: institutions left in place by the victors of prior economic development.
other writers use "class" as a way to delineate patterns in everyday behavior and rituals, often with an eye towards so-called "cultures of political action". andrew gordon (author of "labor and imperial democracy in prewar japan"
, which i also read recently), attempts to reconstruct taisho era japanese working class culture as a "culture of disputations". by this he means the sum of individual grievances aired collectively within the paternalist context of the new japanese factory system, which he distinguishes from peasant protest (more on that later) and from what he deems "western european" approaches to labor action. gordon, unlike some of the post-colonial historians he inspired, is not interested so much in particularizing japan as he is identifying (or, less generously, inventing) a trajectory of “mass” politics distinct from the influence of any socialist or communist party. this is a common preoccupation among left-liberal historians, especially those who borrow concepts (minus ethical commitments) from marx. at pains to distinguish himself from both the “orthodox marxist” school and his less radical contemporaries who failed to appreciate the overwhelming force exerted by workers and peasants on meiji-taisho statecraft, gordon frequently resorts to sophistry, buttressed by lacking or ambiguous archival materials. at various points in his book the japanese working class either opposes imperialism (to prove their distinct nature as a bloc within “imperial democracy”) or supports it (to prove the positions of the proletarian parties were not representative of their class as a whole), apparently within the same year. gordon’s concept of class is primarily occupational, and the key historical process that defines japan’s working class for him is state sponsored industrialization/urbanization (he foregrounds tokyo’s nankatsu, where chemical and textile plants proliferated in the 1910s and 20s, as his sole case study). but in attempting to avoid singling out any one form of class consciousness as desirable, he picks and chooses archival evidence far afield from the workplace (and seemingly at random) to prove his points (especially glaring is his reliance on vote totals in working class neighborhoods, which he freely admits in a different chapter are both unreliable and unrepresentative).
gordon stands in for a strain of japanese history (and really most social history) characterized by a suspicion of official political institutions (in this case unions and parties), but equally unmoored from any partisan outlook towards “the masses” (as in communizer literature) that might ground his attempts to ascertain political motive/intention. nick kapur’s “japan at the crossroads”
is another example of this tendency (this time for the ANPO protest movement), documenting divergence of “everyday” political articulations with the lines and formulations of the JCP, the JSP, and the trade unions. without wanting to prescribe what “should” have happened, gordon and kapur find themselves (no doubt unwillingly) repeating dominant narratives about the japanese state when no true student/worker representative steps in to serve as a mouthpiece for their class.
constantly litigating “who speaks for who” might reveal something more fundamentally off with the methodology on display here: we don’t really know what gordon, and other social historians, mean by “class”. clearly, in his case and kapur’s, the concept is marx-inspired, with occupation operating as an empirical stand-in for role-bearing, and heavy attention paid to development in the labor process. but in marx’s theory a self-conscious understanding of class on the part of historical actors is only as significant as the political ends that understanding commits them to (ideally communism). marx takes pains to stress that the totalizing project of capital is never *actually* complete, and that assigning “productive roles” (often by force) to individuals is an active and ideological process that always needs to be maintained, not an inevitable result of “underlying” economic conditions. gordon’s account of class lacks both these considerations, and as a result he assumes that his subject, working class culture, has some kind of naturalized existence and course of development (influenced and sometimes overcome by outside forces).
this is one problem with the idea of “class” as an “explanatory category”. since, like i said at the start of this blogpost, the political dimensions of class (in historical writing) are something that come to us already determined, from a marxist POV what’s explained by invoking class, either intentionally or not, is that the bad guys won. louise young and her theory of the “new consumer class” in taisho-showa society is a good example of this. by using the marx-derived framework we’ve discussed to analyze a sector of society traditionally neglected by marxists (at least in her framing) she locates varying degrees of both fascist ideology and resistance to imperialism created and enabled by a boom in white collar work, access to cheap consumer goods, and the rapid industrialization of japan’s transportation system. the problem of course is that this “consumer” identity is definitionally captive to the narrative of japan’s modernization. while gordon goes to a great deal of effort to establish the existence of a workers’ politics beyond the immediate concerns of industrial production, young’s interest lies in tracing lines of novelty (new writing, new art, new politics) contingent entirely on commercial expansion. this sort of analysis crops up all the time in j-studies, where contemporary scholars take cues from “modernology” (word made up by japanese sociologist kon wajiro in the 1920s to render all debate impossible etc etc), treating the late meiji-taisho transition as an almost total break with everything that preceded it. while the actual modernologists were obsessed with the utopian/futurist potential of the modan
, most academics nowadays sees japan’s breakneck social realignment as fundamentally unstable, with the possibilities created by limited but real gains in independence for young women, westernization, and rising incomes inevitably provoking reactionary sentiment and ultimately the corralling of these “unpredictable” social forces by the state (this whole position is basically a dumbed down version of what our dear friend, harry harootunian, wrote in “overcome by modernity”
). so while young tries to construe the *discourse* of modan
as a second order effect of the social behavior of these new middle classes, her writing must culminate in that discourse either becoming, or at least giving way, to uniform, unrepentant militarism. her investment in class is essentially meta-political: we need to pay attention to X social formation because it has been neglected in other literature. but because she (rightly) does not share the material concerns of that formation, she investigates the economic situation her protagonists find themselves within as a set of givens they can only interpret, not a field of domination they actively try to make, unmake, or transform. her methodology ends up ironically more deterministic than the “orthodox marxists” both she and gordon attempt to distance themselves from.
in my experience the sort of book people usually think of (and complain about) when it comes to “class history” is the opposite of what i’m kvetching about here: books that exaggerate the revolutionary/political impact of a revolution or revolt by imagining “what could have been” based on the stated commitments of the historical actors in question. many people (rightly) fault these books for being unsatisfying, both in terms of their attempts to construct an alternative to capitalism (mired in obvious nostalgia) and their ability to convincingly explain why what they imagine didn’t come to pass. usually, the purpose of counterfactuals in historical research is not to extrapolate “what if” scenarios but to isolate a single chain of causality (by determining why other possibilities failed to obtain). ergo, building a book around a counterfactual is invariably a mistake: in order for the lines of flight you imagine to seem in any way convincing or alluring, the objects of your analysis have to be restricted to the point that your accounting for historical processes will fail to be empirically coherent.
as marxists, we definitely want to avoid the pitfalls of this approach, without forgetting that (unlike the books i’ve discussed above) our reasons for adhering to rigorous principles of causality and historical investigation are relentlessly partisan. unlike someone like gordon we do believe that the process of struggle by which matters of everyday subsistence become political has a definite desirable outcome. without letting ourselves imagine that everything we write about is the result of our ideal style of consciousness formation (something anderson faults works like “class struggle in the ancient greek and roman world”
for) we should extend our belief in the capacity of ordinary working people as far as it can go. our goal is not to naturalize class as a social category in a specific place and time, but to understand precisely why these institutions and practices appeared and became natural, so that we can hopefully soon destroy them.
addenda: i wrote most of this blog at the end of last year. since then i’ve been reading “china’s motor”
by hill gates, which i think in many ways represents exactly the paradigm of marxist historiography i talk about wanting to see more of here. iris already wrote some really great notes about that book on her blog
, which you should check out!