Vivek Chibber on the Future of Marxist Thought

Vivek Chibber on the Future of Marxist Thought

Vivek Chibber on the Future of Marxist Thought

His new book The Class Matrix: Social Theory After the Cultural Turn is an impassioned argument for centering class politics in both theory and praxis.


The fundamental aim of Vivek Chibber’s latest book, The Class Matrix: Social Theory After the Cultural Turn, is to restore the central role that economic and structural forces play in studying the hierarchies of power and privilege in modern capitalism. This class-based understanding of social relations—one principally influenced by Marx, and which dominated leftist thought until the 1970s—gives pride of place to the material conditions that impose real constraints on people’s economic choices. Marx, Chibber explains, believed that such economic constraints would produce a working-class consciousness in which people engage in collective action centered on their economic interests, leading ultimately to revolution.

Even as Chibber—a professor of sociology at New York University—embraces much of this Marxist perspective, he believes that elements of it need to be updated. For this reason, he is sympathetic to certain aspects of the so-called “cultural turn,” which first emerged in the 1960s and 1970s with the rise of the New Left. Chibber shows that the early theorists associated with the cultural turn initially sought to understand why the working class, far from being the gravediggers of capitalism, as Marx predicted, instead proved comfortable with the economic status quo. They argued that culture—religion, ideology, and so forth—often “blocked” workers from being conscious of their economic interests.

But Chibber appears far less sympathetic to a more radicalized version of the cultural turn, which he sees as dominant in academia. Instead of a Marxist perspective that pinpoints the material conditions that limit people’s economic choices, certain strains of thought in the academy see such choices as reflecting interpretations of the world around us. It presents a vision of society unmoored, Chibber argues, from any underlying economic interests. Ultimately, Chibber sees this version of the culture turn leading to a kind of identity politics that ignores the working class.

I spoke with Chibber about his thinking on Marxism, the working class, the cultural turn, contemporary politics, and the future of the left. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

—Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins: Karl Marx famously saw economic conflict as inherent to a society’s class structure, given that a dominant class obtains its income by coercing labor out of a subordinate class. It was this contradiction of capitalism, Marx argued, that engendered class consciousness and in turn powered the desire for revolution. Given the explosion of working-class rebellions in Europe in the years after Marx’s death, the rise of socialist parties, the Bolshevik Revolution, and anti-colonial movements around the globe, it’s easy to understand why Marxism was the most widely held social theory among progressive intellectuals until the 1970s. And yet many leftists began to turn their backs on Marxism in the 1970s. How, in particular, did the so-called cultural turn of the 1970s specifically push leftist critics away from Marxist class analysis?

Vivek Chibber: Marxist class analysis was always premised on two claims: first, that the class structure was an obdurate fact of social life—it was real and it imposed a set of choices and constraints on economic actors regardless of their culture; second, that the former was the main determinant of class formation, which referred to the conscious organization of class actors around their economic interests. This also implied that there was such a thing as objective class interests, which were derived from structure. This cluster of ideas was the bedrock on which socialist politics was founded. It was why the left always started every political campaign with an investigation of the local or national class structure, because this informed them of what the interests of key actors were, of who their constituency would be, and of how to design a program to attract laboring classes to their side. It all hinged on the conviction that classes and class interests were real and discernible through empirical analysis.

The cultural turn started out by questioning the claim that there was a necessary connection between class structure and class formation. The motivation for this was actually quite understandable. Classic Marxism had insisted that because its structural position made the working class suffer from exploitation by capitalists, workers would eventually organize themselves and overthrow their exploiters. The class in itself would coalesce into a class for itself and usher in a new system. This would happen because the very structure of capitalism had conflict built into it, and this conflict would eventually be carried out as a political struggle between the two main classes.

But by the 1950s, it was clear that the prediction had not been borne out. The exploitation and the potential for conflict was very much alive, but something was blocking the process of working-class formation. So it was natural to ask: What was the cause of this blockage? The answer coming from the New Left and later theorists was “culture.” The working class had been integrated into the system by the force of ideology and cultural institutions. This cultural integration blunted or even overturned the tendency of the class structure to impel workers into an anti-capitalist political consciousness. The problem with classical Marxism, the argument went, was that it took culture for granted, and hence overlooked the possibility that it might intervene in this way.

But by the ’90s, the cultural turn had graduated to a more ambitious position. Not only did culture intervene in the connection between class structure and class formation, but it was taken to play a decisive role in the class structure itself. This now became an argument for a full-blown constructivist view. The basic idea was: Class actors don’t just deploy ideology to understand their political interests, but also their economic position. Workers and capitalists have to interpret and understand their class position in order to participate in the structure at all. This interpretive act is a precondition to all action, including economic action. So now the very class structure itself is only activated if actors are socialized in the appropriate way—the class structure itself thus becomes an effect of culture.

So by the end of the century, both pillars of the classical Marxist view had been rejected by wide swathes of social theorists, and class theory had become a neglected corner of cultural theory.

DSJ: Can you elaborate on your claim that “instead of having to answer why the class structure fails to impel workers toward class struggle, the challenge is to explain how working-class associational power and the pursuit of collective class strategies are achieved at all”?

VC: Classical Marxism seemed to predict that their exploitation by capitalists would drive workers to organize and try to overthrow the system. This exploitation, which was supposed to motivate workers to organize, was an artifact of the class structure itself. So, by extension, the class structure not only generated exploitation but also motivated workers to overcome it. When, by the ’50s, this prediction seemed not to be borne out, it raised serious questions about the foundational assumptions of Marxist class theory. But these doubts rested on a profound error—that, if Marx’s description of the class structure is right, then it should be driving workers to build organizations for class struggle.

My argument is that Marx’s description was in fact correct, but the postwar theorists drew the wrong conclusions from it. They misunderstood its impact on workers’ political strategy. It is true that their location in the structure, their experience of exploitation, inclines workers to resist. But it does not follow that this resistance will be collective. The normal response of workers will be to resist individually and to eschew collective action.

The main reason for this is that, under the conditions of the employment contract, it is not only prohibitively costly to organize but also carries grave risks—of being fired, of having the campaigns lose, etc. So workers tend to take the easier option of finding more subtle ways of defending their well-being, all of which are individualistic—foot-dragging, absenteeism, the occasional act of sabotage. Organizers typically find that workers are quite hostile to management, just as Marx predicted, but prefer that the hard work of organizing for collective bargaining is carried out by someone else—what economists call “free riding.”

Now, this is not because of the power of ideology. It’s a rational response to their structural situation. So it means that the very class structure that generates class antagonism also inclines workers to resist their bosses as individuals, not as a collective, organized force. And this is just another way of saying that the class structure inhibits class formation.

So the irony is, Marxists were correct in their description of the class structure, and they were also right that the structure was a determinant of class formation. But they were wrong in their assessment of how the structure determined the latter. They thought that it would generate class formation; my argument is that it actually inhibits class formation. So the puzzle isn’t how the working class was integrated into the system. The puzzle is: How have workers managed to overcome all the obstacles to class formation in those instances where they have successfully organized? The cultural turn was generated by asking the wrong question.

DSJ: Your book ultimately involves an attempt to restore the centrality of class structure and class formation for understanding the realities of social and economic life. What, though, if anything, do you find to be compelling about the cultural turn and its critique of Marxism?

VC: In its early phase, the less ambitious phase, the cultural turn zeroed in on an important phenomenon: that Marxists had not adequately theorized how culture intervenes in the process of class formation. Marxists knew in practice that it does and even wrote about it, but it was more in debates around strategy and tactics, and it wasn’t integrated into the more general theory of class. So the early New Left was right in its observation, and it did, for a time, generate some very good research. But there was a powerful impulse to see the role of culture as a negative one—as a factor that inhibited class formation. This was, as I said, because they accepted the classical Marxist premise that the main role of the class structure was to generate a conflict between labor and capital. And culture was taken as the mechanism that blunted this consequence of the class structure and therefore stabilized the system.

What I am suggesting in my book is that the system’s stability comes from the class structure itself. The structure does generate conflict, as early Marxists explained, but it also channels it into individualized contestation by workers. What culture does is to help turn workers’ resistance from individualized to collective forms. Hence, culture plays a critical role in class formation—so I am reversing the cultural turn’s understanding of it. How does it do that? By being a key ingredient in fostering a common identity among workers; by instilling a sense of common goals and commitments and hence overcoming the tendency to free ride. But as I argue, this doesn’t in any way amount to a constructionism about identities. They are still identities forged around common interests.

DSJ: Let’s talk about your thinking concerning ideology. Part of the culturalist explanation for why workers are willing to tolerate the harms and indignities of their employment conditions is that they are blinded by the ideologies of the dominant institutions of which they are a part—that is, they are socialized into accepting the status quo. How, though, does the culturalist possess the ability to discern this ideology that is blinding the worker, while the worker does not? Isn’t this a bit elitist?

VC: Yes, I think it’s profoundly elitist. That’s exactly the point I am trying to make. One of the virtues of materialism is that, if you proceed with the assumption, as materialists do, that people are basically rational and tend to be sensitive to their interests, it inclines you to assume that there must be reasons that they are pursuing strategies that, to you, seem odd or even irrational at first glance. It forces you to give them the benefit of the doubt and see if there’s something about their circumstances that you are missing. It doesn’t demand that you see their actions as legitimate or worthy of support. But it does demand that you not treat them as idiots. Now it might turn out that in this case or that case, they are in fact idiots. But on basic matters of agents’ well-being, this is pretty rare.

DSJ: You argue that the great Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci’s thinking about cultural hegemony has been misappropriated by cultural theorists. Why is this? How do you interpret his thought in a different light?

VC: In my view, Gramsci was a pretty straightforward materialist, as was every other important Marxist leader of his generation. The culturalists, if there were any, were all professional intellectuals. It’s really very hard to read his Prison Notebooks and conclude otherwise, unless you’re reading them with blinders on. The view that is attributed to Gramsci is that capitalism is stabilized because the capitalist class acquired a cultural hegemony over the laboring classes. The latter come to accept their position in the system because their worldview is shaped by political and ideological institutions, and they are socialized into giving capitalism their consent. So Gramsci is the first great Marxist culturalist on this reading.

I argue, as some others have before me, that this interpretation of Gramsci is deeply flawed. He did argue that the ruling class acquires the consent of the masses. He did have a theory of hegemony. But he did not suggest that hegemony was a cultural construct. He was quite clear that it is based on the material benefits that capitalism gives to workers, as long as it is a dynamic, growing system. Workers consent to the system as long as they see improvements in their well-being. So it was a consent based on material interests, not on the power of ideology.

So I advocate for a materialist Gramsci. But I also argue that this materialist Gramsci was mistaken. He was right to observe that consent is based on material interests, but wrong to suggest that the acquisition of consent is the key to capitalist stability. The stability, in my view, rests not on consent, but on workers’ resignation to their situation. They typically know they are getting a raw deal, but because of the constraints on class formation, on their collective action, which we outlined in a preceding question, they see little chance to do anything about it. So they acquiesce to their situation, seeing no other choice.

Capitalists do at times acquire consent, and sometimes it is widespread among workers. But it is always precarious, always uneven at best, and there have been long periods when it is largely absent. The neoliberal era is one such episode in the US, while in the Global South, it has been the norm. Still, the absence of consent has not resulted in workers rising up. Why? If consent was the bedrock of the system’s durability, then its absence should trigger massive instability. But it has not. This should give us pause to at least consider the possibility that capitalism never rested on consent, that this was a secondary mechanism at best.

DSJ: You make a very strong case for how particular the historical conditions were for the rise of working-class movements and socialist parties from the late 19th century until the mid-20th century. Given those historical circumstances, in what sense would it be misguided for those interested today in reviving working-class institutions to look to the past for inspiration?

VC: We need to distinguish between broad principles and strategies and more specific tactics. At the level of basic principles of organizing and political strategy, I think the past has plenty to offer. Any ambition to really roll back neoliberalism and move toward a more egalitarian society will still need the political leverage that the labor  movement once provided; any political party that seeks to effectuate such an agenda will have to build a working-class base; the program will still have to be a universalist one, not the kind of elite-driven identity politics we see today; working-class organization will still have to be centered around unions; and unions will have to strive for real democracy and mutual respect within their ranks, as the left unions did in earlier decades. That is all still very relevant.

But obviously the landscape has changed so much that the tactics used toward such a strategy will have to be very different. I think everyone understands that. That is not the big intellectual challenge. The challenge is first to defend the relevance of old-style socialist principles within a left intellectual culture that has been ravaged by a very narrow, very elite identity politics, and then to figure out concretely what the new tactical orientation will need to be. This is very hard right now, because that sort of tactical knowledge is a kind of “learning by doing”—and since the left isn’t “doing” very much, it can’t really “learn” either. The left is so divorced from any connection to the working class that its debates take place entirely on the level of theory, with no real practical experience to use as a testing ground for the theory.

DSJ: You cite the economist Thomas Piketty when arguing that social democratic parties in the West no longer look to the working class as their base and are far more reliant on the professional, college-educated strata. How much do you think this alienation from the working class is the result of the cultural turn that you have described? And how might the intervention you are making—one that involves taking insights from the cultural turn in developing a new material approach to class—might provide resources, if any, for bridging the divide?

VC: I don’t think the shift in the class base of labor parties was because of the cultural turn. It’s quite the opposite—the cultural turn was the result of the increasing isolation of critical intellectuals from the working-class movement. This is what I try to argue in the final chapter of the book and have done so more pointedly in other articles. And it is widely accepted today among what few socialists there are in the intellectual world. What, then, explains the divorce of the labor parties from the working class? Frankly, we don’t have a good answer to that. Piketty also kind of throws up his hands, which is very admirable. I haven’t seen any successful analysis of it. We know that, since it’s happened across the board in so many settings, it is connected to very deep structural changes in capitalism and not tied to this or that local transformation. We also have a broad idea of what those shifts might be: the deindustrialization underway since the 1960s, the spread of higher education, the tremendous growth of white-collar work, the change in urban social ecology—and all the electoral pressures that these changes put on social democratic parties. But we don’t yet have a good understanding of how these factors interacted, what the causal hierarchy was. In other words, we can list them, describe them, but we can’t analyze them.

How might my approach help us bridge the divide? Well, it’s not really my approach per se; it’s just my articulation of the approach that, in my view, was typical of labor organizing for decades. You cannot organize people if you don’t respect them, their needs, their worries, their ambitions. You can’t organize them if you treat them like idiots. What the assumption of rationality does is to impose a principle of charity—you start out by assuming that workers are motivated by real concerns and are not dupes. It forces you to be attentive to their circumstances and how those circumstances might be responsible for the choices being made. In essence, you are supposing that you are the one lacking in knowledge, not them. And then you figure out a political program to address their interests and their concerns. That was at the heart of labor organizing for decades, and it all rests on the assumption of rationality. I really don’t see how you can organize people and mobilize them if you view them as ideological ciphers.

DSJ: One does not get the impression, based on the last chapter of the book, that you are confident that labor will figure out how to solve the puzzle of class organizing in today’s social, political, and economic setting. You state, for instance, that “the new populist wave of the past decade is the new face of the working-class rebellion.” Much of this rebellion is manifested in right-wing nationalist movements. You make it clear that the solution will demand class organizing for a new setting, but that the left has yet to figure this out. Is there anything that gives you hope? What, if anything, can mitigate the forces that make organized resistance so difficult? How, for instance, can solidarity be cultivated?

VC: What gives me hope is that, for the first time in 40 years, political debate has gone beyond the parameters of neoliberal discourse. For the first time since Reagan’s election, the left—such as it is—is talking about real politics again. And in the broader public, people have realized that it’s possible to imagine alternatives to neoliberalism. This is a huge step forward, and really, Bernie Sanders played the catalyzing role in this. But as you say, the frustration with the barbarism of the past few decades is mostly being channeled into right-wing movements. It’s pretty clear why: They’re the only organized force appearing to take the frustration of the working class seriously. The mainstream left is seen—correctly, in my view—as elitist and openly disdainful of working people, as more concerned with culture wars than class wars. Until this changes, there’s no hope. There is no way forward until the left learns to respect ordinary working people as they are, take their interests and their preferences seriously, and then work within them, as they did for decades.

There are real signs that people on the left are realizing this. Not among people my age or the older remnants of the New Left—I think these two generations are a spent force. But you really do see in the younger activists a realization that without the labor movement, there’s no real hope for political change. And seeing the Biden administration crash and burn has no doubt galvanized them. My hope is that the accumulated experience of the past five or six years has incubated a layer of organizers and intellectuals that will roll up their sleeves and start a new cycle of institution building. Part of that challenge will be intellectual—shedding the baggage of the cultural and postmodern turn. But at its core, it will have to be organizational and political.

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