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Class concepts, class struggle and racism



In this paper my object is to draw on the theoretical implications of recent internal critiques of Marxist theory with a view to advancing some propositions, in a perhaps more explicit form than hitherto, relevant to the analysis of social structures and conflicts in capitalist societies in which racism is salient.

Before proceeding further, it is important to make quite explicit that throughout this paper the use of the term 'racism' refers, first, to a process of categorisation in which real or supposed physical' differences serve to ground invidious conceptions of social differentiation and, second, to social practices in which the placing of individuals or groups unequally in the social structure entails, as an essential element, those physically based categorisations. That is to say, 'racism' refers to discriminatory practices in which a socially constructed notion of 'race' is implicated.2

In order to specify the issues which are to be discussed, the paper begins with a recapitulation of the old debate between class-based and race-based theories of social structure and conflict in capitalist social formations in which race is pertinent. Paradoxically, both these compet­ing theories depend for their construction, in opposite ways, on notions of class,3 which, while often different, none the less share the common property of being conceived of economistically. In one case, an econo-mistic conception of class is the foundation of a theory which attributes racism to economic interests in the economy: in the other case, it is precisely because class is assumed to be a purely economic concept that it is held to be irrelevant to the explanation of the presence and processes of racism, itself, in turn, conceived of as a phenomenon outside and independent of the economy. In both cases, class as an economic relation and racism as a non-economic reia:;on are defined as standing in an entirely external relationship to one another

So long as these positions are held, it seems clear that there can be no escspe from the limitations of the accounts of racism which are found in the literature. In these accounts, racism is explained either as an external et'lec: of capitalist economic relations or as the autonomous effect of race (whether conceived of as socially constructed or primordial) and, in this event, if class is held to be relevant at all, class and race are treated as two entirely  autonomous systems.  The  limitations of the  reductionism entailed in the first two approaches and of the dualism of the third approach has been widely discussed and will be touched on briefly below. Here the main purpose has been to stress that the source of these limitations lies in the reductionist conception of class common to these approaches.

In this paper, it will be argued that the way out of this impasse requires, to begin with, the abandonment of economistic conceptions of class and, hence, of the reductionism and dualism to which they give rise. This opens the way to a reformulation of the concept of class struggle such that under specific, contingent conditions race can (indeed must) be understood as a form of that struggle, as internal to it. And this will be so, under the specified conditions, whether that struggle is confined to the sphere of the economy or becomes generalised to the sphere of politics. It must be emphasised, however, that to say this is not, at the same time, to imply anything about the cause of the 'interiorisation' of race in the class struggle.

Furthermore, it also does not follow that because race, under certain conditions, may be interiorised in the class struggle, all conflicts which centre on race are, therefore, to be conceived of as class struggles. On the contrary, it will be argued that struggles focusing on race may take on a form in which class is not interiorised within them. Yet, and this is the crucial point, from a Marxist standpoint, the question that has to be posed in relation to these struggles is: in what way and to what extent do forms of organisation and struggle about race have consequences for the class structure; or, to put this more accurately, do they tend to sustain or to undermine the conditions of existence and reproduction of the fundamental classes of capitalist society - capital and labour - and the relations between them?

The reductionism of race relations theory

Characteristically, in race relations theory, racs is conceived of as the irreducible constituent and determinant of social structure and relation and this is sowvhether race is regarded as primordial or otherwise given, or as socially constructed. From this viewpoint, the fundamental unit of anlysis is the racially defined individual, and the social structure is composed of a plurality of racially defined and hierarchically placed orders or groups

In the most extrreme variant of this approach starting from the notion 'rare', a theory is constructed ir, which (a) individual subjects, and the racial orders or groups they constitute, owe their formation, their unity and their homogeneity to a single origin - racial attributes, and (b) the social relations within and between these groups are similarly governed by racial categories - that is, the interests of racial groups are derived from and are formulated in terms of their racial attributes.

Quite clearly there are numerous variations on this theme in the race relations literature.4 Nevertheless, whatever the complexity of the arguments, they demonstrably rest on an assertion which attributes an autonomous and irreducible determinancy to race in one of two ways; either race is conceived of as a real biological division of human groups which, directly, has social effects; or, more frequently, the biological divisions are said to be the foundation of socially constructed categori­sations which then function to establish relations of dominance and subordination and forms of inequality.

This line of analysis has been subjected to wide-ranging and trenchant criticisms which it is unnecessary to repeat here.5 For present purposes it is sufficient to emphasise one feature of this approach which has not been brought to the surface in the critical literature.

As I pointed out above, for race relations theory the effect of race is to produce a structure of racial inequality. This, indeed, is why race relations analysis is thought to be important. The relationship between racially defined groups and individuals involves, however, of necessity, even within these extreme versions of race relations theory, a description of their economic, political and status characteristics - characteristics which are normally thought of as belonging to class analysis. Indeed, conflicts between racial groups are precisely seen to be over these class factors. Thus, the reduction of inequality to race has, curiously enough, the unintended outcome for race relations theory of producing a simple identity between racial groups and class position. Yet, class analysis is thought to be irrelevant, since the single determining factor is attributed to race. Van den Berghe (1967: 267), for example, makes the point explicitly:

Social classes in the Marxian sense of the relationships to the means of production exist by definition, as they must in any capitalist country. but they are not meaningful social realities. Clearly, pigmentation, rather than ownership of land or capital is the most significant criterion of status in South Afrir.

Robert Miles, in Racism and Migrant Labour (1952), has remaiked that race relations theory

assumes, but does not attempt to demonstrate, that the predominant active element in the conjuncture is a categorisation by reference to physical variation, and in so doing must lead to monocausal explanation. In other words, by labelling a situation as one of 'race relations', one is implicitly denying that any other force can have an equal or predominant effect. To anticipate a later argument, this approach means that if one labels the participants in a process as 'races', and their interaction as 'race relations', then one is denying either that they occupy a class position or that their class position is of significance to the situation and process.

Accurate as this is as a characterisation of the versions of race relations theory which explicitly deny the relevance of class and/or stratification, is it of equal applicability to the body of literature which, while still based on the principle of race, nevertheless does explicitly acknowledge the pertinence of class? This latter literature, instead of merely denying the significance of class, concentrates upon the way in which the class-race relationship is formulated. The purpose of the discussion which follows is to show that, by starting from an inadequate, economist conception of class, the attempt to accord an autonomous weight to race and, at the same time, to recognise the relevance of class leads to contradictory and incoherent 'resolutions' of the theoretical problems involved. The point may be briefly illustrated through a discussion of the work of Kuper (1974) and Heribert Adam (Adam and Giliomee 1979). Although written from different theoretical positions, their work none the less shares common difficulties which are also widespread in the literature.

Kuper's starting point is quite unequivocal: within Marxist theory, the concept of class is an economic category, and the 'catalyst' of social transformation is to be found in the economy. Consequently, that theory is unable to illuminate racially structured societies:

My initial assumption was that theories of revolution derived from the analysis of conflict between social classes in racially homogeneous societies might not be very illuminating when applied to situations of revolutionary struggle between racial groups. Indeed, I would argue more positively that the theoris may be quite misleading in the context of racially structured societies. (Kuper 1974 200)

The coned approach is to recognise that race and the economic give ic distinct ciders:

In some critical respects relevant to conceptions, class structures and racial structures constitute different systems of stratification, however much they may oveiiap. (61)

And again:

At the level of theory . . . the concepts of race and class are so very different, that it is difficult to understand the justification for the introduction of class concepts as the crucial variable, outside the dogma of the universality of the class struggle. (224)

Kuper, however, accepts the great importance of 'economic factors' in racially structured societies and, indeed, that 'wherever there is racial stratification there is also economic stratification1 (200).

This poses the problem of the relationship between class and race. Kuper says:

There is need to develop a set of propositions concerning the interrelations of economic and racial stratification ... The two main variables would relate to economic development and stratification on the one hand, and to racial structure on the other. (199)

The difficulty which Kuper faces in his attempt to develop these propositions flows directly from his insistence that class and race, or, more broadly, the economic and the political, constitute two entirely separate orders in the society. This, I will show, leads into an incoherent position.

Kuper attempts to establish the separateness of the class and racial orders in the following way:

The essence of the distinction is that class structures are intrinsic to interaction in the society, whereas racial structures are in some measure extrinsic, or have a point of reference outside of the interaction ... To be sure, the racial structure is also constituted by the interaction, but the racial differences which are'socially elaborated, have preceded the interaction. (61; emphasis in the original)

race . .. constitute an independent basis for power ... In the case of ihs subordinate racial minority, race is an independent basis for exclusion from privilege, and economic and political deprivation flow from that exclusion. Hence the situation encourages perceptions of race as the crucial factor in social discrimination. (61-2; my emphasis)

The obvious question that arises from this formulation is: how is it possible to conceive of race as an 'independent basis' for the acquisition of political and economic power without specifying the conditions (including the structures of political and economic power) which make it possible for race to operate in that way?

Kuper deals with this question by the confusing statements both that racial differences have an independent significance (that is, presumably, have causa) efficacy - why else his insistence on their independence of class9) in producing social inequalities and that race has no causal effect whatsoever:

The racial divisions are viewed as phenomena in their own right, and accorded structural significance. There is, of course, no suggestion that the racial difference gives rise to the plural society; or that it has any causal significance. Plural societies are generally established by conquest, followed by the expropriation of resources, and the exploitation of labour . . .

But peoples do not establish domination over each other because they are of different race, but in the pursuit of quite concrete interests in power and other resources.

The foundation, then, is the inequality of the racial groups in the access to the means of power. This infrastructure is the basis for a superstructure of inequality, as the original political inequality is extended to other institutions and structures. The elaboration of inequality is most marked in the economy and in education. In the economic sphere, it is the relationship to the means of power which appreciably defines the relationship to the means of production ... (269; my emphasis)

On inspection of the above passages, it is quite clear that the contention that race and class are two quite distinct social orders which are simply externally related gives way to the argument that there are, rather, two different paths to unequal political and economic power- an economic path and a political path based on race. On what possible grounds can it be further argued that the resulting entities (whether they be rich or poor, or owners or non-owners of means of production) do not constitute class or cla:-s fractions which have a particular socially defined racial composition?

Kuper simply does not deal with this problem, and nor car. he. except by insisting that classes which acquire power (including means of production- on the basis of rare are racial entities and by ignoring their place in the class system. Thus, he can speak of the 'ruling' and 'subject' races and can argue that this relation of subordination-domination is organised around control of the means of economic and political power and. yet, escape from the implications of this for his attempt radically to separate class and race by the simple expedient of invoking race to the exclusion of class. And this despite the fact that at various points he ad hoc recognises that racial groups may be internally divided into classes and that classes themselves may be racially fragmented.

He is forced to deny the class content of his analysis because he defines this as economic and race as non-economic and he is unable to provide the theoretical means for articulating the two orders. The path to the formation of classes is through the economy; the path to the formation of racial groups which acquire or are dispossessed of economic means is via the political on the basis of race. We do not have to accept Kuper's simplistic dichotomy between the political and the economic to hold that, within a social formation, there may well be alternative paths to class formation and that this may result in the internal fragmentation of a class on the basis of racial categorisations. This result may be due to something which Kuper cannot recognise: class struggles conducted through the medium of racial discourses. Thus it would seem that Kuper has no means of dealing with situations of the type in which workers, who are categorised as white, strike against white capitalist employers in order to protect their occupational monopolies against workers defined as black. In Kuper's terms, is this a racial or a class struggle?

He does recognise that class and race may 'overlap', but, none the less, he insists throughout, as I have already pointed out, that race cannot at all be explained in terms of class:

At one extreme, raciallond economic divisions tend to co-incide. as in the initial stages of colonial domination. At the other extreme, perhaps purely hypothetical, there has ceased to be stratification by race, and racial differences, though present, are no longer salient in a system of stratification based on differences in economic status. Between the two extremes fall those societies in which both racial and economic stratification are present, but do not fully coincide. This is the more general case in the contemporary v-o''d. and the one wiii'i which I deal in the present chapter. (200)

But if race and class do coincide (even if not fully) how can it be argued that theories of class struggle are misleading and irrelevant1 Further­more, whether race and class do or do net coincide may be quite irrelevant to the pertinence of class struggle. Once Kuper acknowledges the coexistence of racial structures and class structures, it is not open to him merely 10 assert that race is both independent and dominant to the exclusion of class.

For Heribert Adam in Ethnic Power Mobilized (1979), a racially structured society must be understood as 'a synthesis of the interplay between ideology and economy' (50). Unlike Kuper, he assigns to class an explicit importance in the structuring of the society and he rejects the emphasis on 'racism and prejudice' which, he says, dominates the literature. This then poses for Adam the question of how to relate class and race, but because of the theoretical inadequacy of his position he is only able to slide from an economistic reductionism to an unexplained or conjectural account of the autonomy of race.

He begins by locating race in relation to the economy, that is to class, as follows:

labour, capital and markets, while never sufficient as monocausal explanations, do determine the organizational needs from which ethnic ideologies emanate and with which they dialectically interact, (x; my emphasis)

Later in the book he elaborates this:

In summary, Marxist analysis succeeds in penetrating beyond the symbolic structures with which groups interpret their changing reality. By not taking such ideological expressions as given or 'primordial' innate sentiment, the changing function of cultural identity can be discerned. The decoded symbols mostly reveal class interests hidden behind the proclaimed ethnic unity. Thus Marxist analysis can pinpoint the constituents of ethnic agitation. But this is where the usefulness of class analysis usually ends. (50)6

The reason why class analysis loses its usefulness at this point is because it is unable to explain the process of ethnic mobilisation

by which mere particularistic interests become a common cause ... Adherents mobilize for sacrifice, group action, and the promise of a better future in the name of a common bond (language, religion. race. ancestry, sex) . .. intragroup conflicts are portrayed as minor... Class conflict, for example, is subjugated to the propacated need of group uni'y. (61)

It is to be noted from the above passages that race, or in this case ethnic, mobilisation necessarily stands outside of, masks and cuts across class relations - the latter are economic and entail economic interests, whereas race and ethnicity relate to something else. But if class cannot account for or explain this, what does? Earlier Adam argued that 'ethnic ideologies emanate' (x) from the economy. Now, however, he ascribes them to an apparently universal 'Utopian yearning' or Monging' for 'harmonious and secure human relationships' (62). Why .this should lead to ethnic soli­darity is not explained. Be that as it may, at the same time ethnic attachments are said to change according to changing circumstances (including changes in class relations?) and to serve new goals (implying an instrumentalism?) and, yet, to persist if a need for ethnicity is perceived. Thus:

But what happens if the situational context... changes so that racial beliefs no longer serve the group interest but amount to an obstacle for new goals and strategies? The concept of ethnic mobilization suggests thai because racial sentiments are not acquired biological dispositions of individuals and groups they can be adjusted and discarded according to changing circumstances ... ethnic and racial mobilization depends on its suitability and expediency in a specific sociopolitical environment in permanent flux ... To consider racial perceptions as immutable qualities ignores their changing functions. Ethnic attachments persist, but only as long as they serve a purpose . .. Above all it depends on whether there is a perceived need for ethnic identification and how mobilizers capitalize on these needs. (63; my italics)

Ethnic identification, then, stems from universal yearnings outside of the economy, and yet it persists as an instrument serving particular, changing goals, including economic interests. But this is merely to repeat the problem - the relationship between race and class - without offering a coherent theoretical means to deal with it. As I have already argued, the difficulty stems, in an important respect, from the utilisation of an economistic conception of class. It is this, as 1 shall try to show later, which leads to an overdrawn and inadequate formulation of the race-class opposition.

Class reductionism

A contrast with the race-based and race reductionist theories discussed above is provided by class-b^sed theories which are derived from Marxist theory. The contrast lies in fact that, in this approach, the central role ir, the. structuring of tlie society is attributed to class relations, rather than to race relations. Classes are not discrete entities; they are defined in terms of relations of production and cannot be conceived of outside those relations. Thus, in capitalism, for example, the capitalist class is concep­tually constituted in its relation to the working class That, fundamental, relation is a relation of exploitation - the capitalist owners of the means of production organise the workers in a labour process to produce surplus value which the former appropriate.

The problem with reductionist Marxism7 is not this starting point but rather the path which is then followed. The fundamental error lies not in the fact that classes are first defined abstractedly in terms of relations of production but in the fact that it is then assumed that the abstract economic content of that definition is carried over into the concrete and that classes are formed, unidimensionally, as concrete social forces expressing that economic content.8 Hence, the classes and the individuals who inhabit them owe their formation, their homogeneity and their unity to a single, economic, origin.

Clearly, this provides the foundation for a conception of given, objective class interests. The interests of the unitary classes derive directly and entirely from the concept which defines them - the concept of the place they occupy in the relations of production - and these given interests govern all social relations, including the ideological and political superstructure. At the level of the superstructure, economic interests take on ideological and political forms. The latter are generated by the economic relations and the economic interests they embody. Thus, to the extent that conflicts in the political and ideological superstructure focus on race relations, these are nothing other than the (mystified) form of the economic class struggle determined by the clash of economic interests.

Obviously, the problem which arises for a reductionist class theory is how to explain why the class struggle takes on the form of a struggle over race relations, and here the theory has little to offer since it assumes that the explanation is that this emanates directly from the economic relations of the classes in the economy. The theory cannot explain the diverse ideological and political forms which arise on the basis of capitalist relations of production or, indeed, within the capitalist economy itself. It merely invokes the notion of false consciousness and attributes the salience of race to the machinations of the ruling class which depicts it to divide the working class, i he theory, therefore, allows no space for the possibility that a complex combination of conditions may contribute to the racial content of the class struggle ia the political and. indeed, also in the economic sphere.

But this has important consequences, since race is then Sett unexplained or is treated in an ad hoc and.-or a functionalist manner. Therefore, the specific conditions in which racial categorisations come to provide the content of class struggles and/or the basis of organisation, of interests in a manner which both cuts across class divisions and ; et may serve to sustain, amend (for example, racialisation or deracialisation) or undermine them, are neglected.

In recent years, in an attempt to escape from the weaknesses of this line of argument, a Marxist literature has emerged which has been concerned with the development of non-reductionist concepts of class, ideology and politics. It is not my intention to survey this literature here; rather, as I indicated earlier, I want to use aspects of it to advance a theoretical position which departs from both the reductionist and the dualist perspectives outlined above. The essential starting point for this is a non-reductionist concept of class.

A non-reductionist Marxist conception of class

It is, of course, the case that the theoretical starting point for a Marxist analysis of a social formation is the economy - the mode of production -and the classes that are defined in the concept of the particular mode. Does it follow that, because the economy is privileged in this way, an economism is necessarily entailed? That is to say, is the argument that the social relations and processes of production are central to the characterisation and explanation of a social formation to be construed as meaning that the 'economic', abstractly defined as a 'purely' economic sphere, is determinant?

In the analyses discussed above, this was precisely what was assumed and here I want to argue that this assumption, and the difficulties which were identified as following from it, have their roots in a conflation of different levels of abstraction such that a highly abstract economic concept of class becomes transformed into an economistic or reductionist determinant of the concrete.

By conflation of levels of abstraction I mean a mode of analysis comprising two elements. First, as 1 suggested above, an abstract concept, in this case class, is made also to be an empirical description of the concrete form in which the class exists. Thus, for example, the concept of the capital class as owners of the means of production and of labour-power a; the clas? of direct producsri «:;icli is exploited in the process of production is assumed to exhaust the characterisation of the ellipse's S'l'j their relations in the concrete. As they arc defined, so do these phenomena exist. Second, however, since classes ;nd the relations between them oast as 'purely' economic entities due to the con'lation referred to, it follows, if primacy is pivcn to classes and class struggle, that the 'purely' economic is assigned a determining role not only in the economy but in the structuring of all social relations.

Viewed in this way, privileging the mode of production does entail, simultaneously, an essentialism - all social phenomena are merely an expression of the economic essence of class -and a corresponding failure to view the concrete as the outcome of multiple determinations, as Marx expressed it in the 1857 Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. This provides the key to an alternative, non-reductionist approach.

It has already been implied that the concept of the relations of production provides a necessary but not sufficient basis for the analysis of classes and class struggles. It is a necessary basis in two senses. First, because it points to and defines, in terms quite specific to Marxism, a terrain of analysis, the mode of economic production and reproduction. Second, that terrain includes the 'places' where the classes are, as it were, brought into existence - the productive enterprises - and the relations between them established. Clearly, without capitalist enterprises, there could be no capitalist or working class.

But, at this level of abstraction, both capital and labour are, neces­sarily, conceptualised as unitary and homogeneous classes and the relation between them as an undifferentiated relation of exploitation. It is precisely for this reason that the abstract concept does not provide a sufficient basis for analysis. For, while at one level classes must be conceived of as unitary entities, concretely, to the contrary, their internal unity is always problematic. In the sphere of production and exchange, classes exist in forms which are fragmented and fractured by politics, culture, ideology and, indeed, the concrete organisation of production and distribution itself A class, that is, is constituted, not as a unified social force, but as a patchwork of segments which are differentiated and divided on a variety of bases and by varied processes. It is true that a more or less extensive unity may be brought about when, for example, a trade union movement or a working-class party is able to articulate the demands of different fractions of the working class and to win their support in the sphere of production and exchange. Similarly, when representative organisations articulate demands as class demands in the political sphere (whether these demands relate to state politics or to the sphere of the economy), the unification of a class or class fractions as socicti forces mav cfcur. Bu:, arid this is the fundamental point, that unity is not give:) by the concept of labour-power; it is constituted through practices. One might say that class unity, when it occurs, is a conjunctural phenomenon.

There ire at least two important conclusions which follow from this argument. The first of these is that, once we reject the notion that classes are formed as simple economic unities, we must also reject the so-called class-theoretical approach which conceives of classes as entities with pre-given economic interests, which, acting out of these interests, constitute the social formation. On the contrary, classes, defined by the relations of production, are formed as social forces by heterogeneous conditions which they are implicated in producing. At the concrete level, then, social classes are simultaneously economically, politically and ideologically shaped.

The second important point which emerges relates to the meaning to be given to the notions of class conflict and class consciousness. In the literature, class consciousness and conflict are said to exist when 'class issues' are involved. But what are class issues? If classes are defined as economic entities, then class issues, it seems, must relate directly to the economic elements that define classes - presumably the relations of production, wages and the like. Therefore, from this standpoint, class consciousness and class conflict can only be, in some sense, purely economic. Thus, race, for example, must be excluded from and opposed to class.

If, by contrast, it is accepted that classes are formed, even in the sphere of production, simultaneously through politics, economics and ideology, then race may well become the content, under specific conditions, of the class struggle. As Stuart Hall (1980b: 341) has observed:

Race is thus ... the modality in which class is 'lived', the medium through which class relations are experienced, the form in which it is appropriated and 'fought through'.

Capitalism, class struggle and race

A major conclusion which follows from the above discussion is that it is not possible to make a concrete analysis of the relations and processes within the economic sphere of a capitalist social formation as if they were subject to 'purely' economic determinants and calculation. The mode of production is privileged, but the economy is not autonomously formed. This is not to argue that it is unimportant to analyse the conditions of the economy .n economic terms. Analyses of rates of jrcfit, the nature of technological innovations and the 'technical' division of labour these give rise to, the level of the balance of payments, rates of interest, investment patterns, labour distribution, unemployment figures and so forth are obviously of great importance. They provide an account of one set of conditions which are quite indispensable to an understanding of the economic sphere and which provide a context for, pose issues for and set limits to struggles within that sphere as well as in the terrain of state politics.

However, and this point is crucial, these conditions of the economy are the outcome of relations and processes which are in no sense purely economic, even when they occur in the economic sphere. Thus, for example, if the rate of profit depends in part on the rate of exploitation, then the former will be the outcome of political, economic and ideological determinants to the extent that, in the struggle for wages, economic calculation will incorporate considerations of status, gender and race, contingent upon the power and character of political, employers', trade union and other organisations. Or, again, attempts by management to introduce new technology which would have radical effects upon the division of labour and would threaten certain jobs may be obstructed by workers, struggling to protect their employment, who become mobilised around interests defined in gender, religious or racial terms.

The process of capital accumulation, then, is a social process entailing, within the sphere of production and exchange, economic, political and ideological determinants. It follows from the non-economistic concep­tions of class and the economy which have been outlined above that the simple opposition between race and class must be rejected. Race may, under determinant conditions, become interiorised in the class struggle.

In making this point, however, it is necessary to distinguish between the different spheres in which these struggles occur, the relationship between these spheres and the effect of this upon the content of these struggles.

First, it is essential to note that the 'politics of production' (Burawoy 1985) and politics in the sphere of state politics occur in terrains which are structured in radically different ways and that this has significant effects upon the nature and content of the struggles conducted within them. What differentiates the struggles within these diverse spheres is that they are mediated by distinct institutional and organisational matrices which structure their form and, in large measure, their content. Burawoy (1985: 253-4), formulates the point as follows:

we must choose between politics defined as struggles regulated by specific apparatuses, politics defined as struggles over certain relations, and the combination of the two. In the :irst, politics would have no fixed objective, and in the second it would have no fixed institutional locus. I have therefore opted for the more restrictive third definition, according to whicn politics refers to struggles within a specific arena airmed at a specific set of relations.

Thus, in the sphere of production, the apparatuses of management, trade unions,  the organisation of the  labour process and so  forth structure class struggles over relations in production (the labour process) and over relations of production (the relations of exploitation). In the political sphere, on the other hand, state apparatuses and the relations between them (for example, judiciary, executive and legislature), political parties and so forth structurethe mode of struggle fo state power. Burawoy's formulation is, however, too restrictive, for it is clear that the objectives of political struggles in the different arenas may not be as clearly segregated as is suggested by his formulation. The objectives of struggles in the sphere of state politics may include attempts to impose a specific regime of control within productive enterprises; by contrast, to the extent that relations in and of production are believed to be sustained by the state, production politics may make state power its objective. None the less, the apparatuses within each sphere will continue to structure the form in which these struggles occur.

In the sphere of production, individuals are allocated to positions in the production relations. In so far as this allocation takes place on the basis of racial and gender categorisations, the result is the formation of classes or class fractions which are characterised both by the place they occupy in those relations and by these categorisations. Thus, individuals and the classes they form are constituted by a complex of 'factors' of which position in the relations of production is a sine qua non. Regarding this process Miles (1982: 185) says:

the process of racialization (which occurs at the level of ideological relations) has effects on, but is also structured within and by, economic relations. By this I mean that although the process of racialization has an independent effect on production relations in so far as, for example, it directly assists in the allocation of persons to positions in those relations, it does not in itself determine the existence of the positions. The existence of the positions is determined by the mode of production.

The last sentence seems to reintroduce an economic reductionism which Miles is at pains to avoid in his book. To ascribe the existence of economic positions simply to the mode of production overlooks the fact that at least in so far as the focus is on relations in production, the labour process, the positions themselves are the outcome of class struggle-which arc infused with political and ideological content. Be thai as it may, Miles's formulation appears to pose the question of the 'origins' of racialisation in the economy, but he. correctly, refuses this question and. instead, argues that the concern should be not to establish the origins of racism but rather to

explain the generation and reproduction of racism. By the former notion I mean that we should trace the conditions for and the manner in which certain ideas and arguments were and are articulated by certain groups (conceived of as classes or class tractions). In saying this, I make no assumption that these ideas are necessarily novel. Rather, the concern is with the fact that they have appeared and given social support in a given context. By the latter notion. I mean that we should trace the conditions under which these ideas are repeated and spread beyond the group that articulated them. (102)

Reformulated in the terms which have been the focus of this paper, the question which arises concerns the effects of the relationship between the sphere of production (or more generally the economy) and the sphere of state politics on racialisation or de-racialisation in either arena. Once we abandon the iron law of economic reductionism, it is possible to recognise that the relations between the sphere of production and the sphere of state politics may be complementary, contradictory or both. The point can be illustrated by two examples.

It can be shown that over a long period in the development of capitalism in South Africa, the structures of racial domination in the political sphere provided a legal framework and coercive state appara­tuses enabling racial structures and practices to be imposed within production. In recent years, a restructuring of the division of labour, white labour mobility, the struggles of the black workers in the factories and other changes have begun, in part, to erode the dominant and monolithic character of racial categorisations in the economy. One effect of this has been to set up pressures for changes in the political sphere which emanate from the economy. So far, in the political sphere, these pressures have generally been resisted: over one or two issues - for instance the recognition of black trade unions and the abolition of job reservation - the state has yielded; but elsewhere - for instance in the tricameral parliament and on the issue of urban black representation although the form has been altered  the imposition of racial catergorisations continues.

Racialisation of one sphere may become the condition for the same process so occur in another sphere, as. for example, in the case of colonial rule. Here, the establishment of administrative structures over already existing and spacially separated 'tribal' communities, and the subordination of indigenous law, politics and culture and so on, provide the political, ideological and legal foundations for the racial positioning of subjects in the arena of production as capitalist production develops. In this case, by contrast with the first illustration, pressures for change may originate in the political sphere with the anti-colonial national liberation struggles. The success of the struggle may result in the more or less rapid de-racialisation of the political sphere, yet, despite this, change may be resisted in the economy and may occur more erratically and much more slowly.

It was argued earlier that the relations which become the object of contestation and the mode in which that contest is conducted within the different spheres is mediated by their particular institutional and organi­sational structures. At the same time, the relations in one arena may become the object of struggle in the other, but the form of struggle will be conditioned by the specific institutional and organisational matrices of the latter. For example, in the political sphere, parties and organisations with particular class social bases and articulating specifically class inter­ests may struggle to maintain or eliminate the racial positioning of subjects in the relations in or of production and to secure or undermine the conditions external to production which may sustain the racial positioning. In this event, the racial struggle is simultaneously and directly a class struggle.

Does it follow from the fact that class interests may entail race that, therefore, race should be considered only as an element in class for­mation and class interests? This seems to be the conclusion of a rather ambiguous formulation by Miles (1982):

What will be argued is that the analytical problem is to locate the place and impact of what I shall term the process of racial categorization on class relations. This process is an ideological process and has its own determinate effects on political and production relations and, hence, the constitution of and struggles between classes. (4)

And what of the conceptual fate of 'ethnic relations'? There can be no place for it as a distinct area of investigation per se for the reasons argued arcve. However, a place has to be found for the notion of 'ethnic group' in se far as one must recognise the sense of common identity amongst groups of people who wish to recognise and maintain their cultural differences vis-a-vis others. This phenomena! process has real political and ideological effects on, inter alia, the development of ciass struggle and the formation of class consciousness. But, equally, one must recognise that the persons who constitute a group which is formed and identified on this basis also have a position in essential relations. That is, they have a position in production (and, thereby, class) relations. It is this fact that 'ethnic relations' studies cannot recognise, account for and assess the significance of. (71)

The ambiguity in this argument lies in the fact that, on the one hand, a place has to be found for the notion of 'ethnic group' (despite his contention earlier in the book that race - and in this respect ethnicity is no different - has no analytical utility), yet, on the other hand, there can't be no room for it as a distinctive area of investigation because the individuals who constitute the group are, simultaneously, class subjects. It is, of course, true that individuals, whatever their ethnic position may be, also have a class position (as van den Berghe, for example, recog­nised). But merely to state this appears quite simply to invert van den Berghe's dental of the pertinence of class and thus to reduce all relations to class relations, and in a manner which simply conflates the sphere of production with the political sphere.

The point is, however, that classes and class fractions are directly constituted and reconstituted in the sphere of production through economic, political and ideological processes which operate through the changing institutional and organisational apparatuses of production. In so far as struggles over the economy, in the sphere of state politics, intrude on the economy, they are mediated precisely by those apparatuses which constitute the capital-labour relation.

By contrast, in the political sphere, despite the fact that individuals do not shed their class positions, none the less the institutional and organi­sational structure does not operate directly to constitute classes within that sphere, although it may serve as a condition of the reproduction of classes in the economy. As Poulantzas (1971) argued, the political structure, law and ideology function to categorise individuals as citizens, legal subjects and so on, but not as class subjects. This may be too sweepingly stated, but none the less the integration of class position with other positioning categorisations may occur, in the political sphere, in a mode in which class position is more vulnerable to subordination. That is to say.the location of"class subjects in the politics! sphere may lake place in such a way thai racial positioning and hence racial interests become dominant.

In the sphere of production, the class basis of politics tends to be clear enough even when racial positioning is the dominant issue -- ihus, as I indicated earlier, struggles here take place on the basis of organisations whose membership is drawn from a class or a fraction of a class, and the question of racialisation relates directly to positions in production.

In the political sphere, the situation is not so clear, but, nevertheless, the politics of race may take on a class form. This will occur when organisations, drawing their membership explicitly from a particular class or classes, conduct their struggles in terms of discourses in which class-belonging is an important ingredient. Naturally, the content of that struggle may vary - at one pole racialised fractions of a class may struggle politically to defend or improve their positions in the division of labour through state intervention in the economy and/or through the protection of supportive political conditions; at the other pole, the struggle to end racialised class relations may entail the attempt to abolish those relations as such rather than the attempt to de-raciaiise them.

But what of the situation in which (a) the social basis of an organisation or a mass movement is not restricted to a particular class but incorpo­rates, as it were at random, a range of different classes and (b) that organisation or movement, in its struggles and discourses, defines the issues exclusively in racial terms? In this situation there is a discursive isolation of racial categorisations from class relations, and. although it may be argued that the linkage between race and class in fact persists (for example, the individuals do not lose their class positions), yet as I argued above there is an institutional and organisational foundation for the expression of racial interests.

The racial structure has been conceived of, by some writers, as an ideological phenomenon - it is produced by ideologies of self-identity and by the identification by others of individuals as bearers of that identity. But it is necessary to understand the development of these identities as the product of a complex intersection of various institu­tional, organisational and other conditions and processes. What these are is, of course, a matter for empirical analysis. Historically, they have involved, inter alia, conquest and the political subordination of people who have come to be categorised in racial terms, the imposition of colonial administrative structures on existing 'tribal' units, ghettoisation and so forth.9.

The crucial issue which arises is whether it is possible to analyse the production of these entities without being forced into a class or race reductionism or a dualist position. Clearly, simply to recognise that the raciai 'segments' comprise individuals who aiso have class positions does not take the nrgvirnent very far. The argument in this paper allows a number of propositions to be stated by way of conclusion.

First, the racial order, including 'corporate' racial groups, has to be analysed ns the outcome of multiple determinations of which the operation of an economy characterised, in an non-economistic way. by the capital-labour relation and the structure of state power arc essential elements - the account cannot be reduced to race, although the process of racial categorisation cannot be reduced to 'pure' economy.

Second, conversely but inseparable from this, the decisive question for a Marxist analysis is how, in what way and to what extent do the reproduction, transformation and disintegration of the racial order serve to maintain or undermine the relations of capital accumulation? Thus, for example, the racial structure may facilitate, through political mechanisms, the capacity of a petit-bourgeoisie to become a racialised fraction of capital. Again, the preoccupation with race may serve to confine political struggles to changes within the existing system.

These are rather obvious examples but. in fact, the analysis of the effects of politics which is confined to race on the fundamental relations of the social formation is extremely complex. But that such an analysis is indispensable to an adequate account of racially structured societies, and hence to political practice, is the necessary conclusion of the argument in this paper.


  1. For the purposes of this paper it is unnecessary lo draw a distinction between the terms 'race' and 'racism' as used here and terms such as 'ethnicity', 'nationalism' and 'tribalism'. Although the latter terms do not necessarily entail the use of notions of biological difference, none the less, given that'race' is here used in the sense of a social categorisation, the theoretical arguments addressed in the paper apply, in principle, to other social categorisations. Obviously, important differences do arise at the level of concrete analysis.
  2. Miles (1982) contends that 'race' is not a theoretical concept capable of grounding a theory of race relations. He argues that race is to be thought of under the concept of ideology.
  3. A great deal of the race relations literature uses the concepts 'class' and 'social stratification' interchangeably. Clearly, however, the Marxist conception which insists on class as designating a social relation and the notion of an hierarchical ordering of strata in stratification theory are quite different (see Ossowski 1963). However, it is unnecessary to pursue the point here, since, despite the close use of the terms 'class' and stratification in the ritique of class-based explanations of racism, race relations theory normally has in mind. however impricisely some vrsion of the Marxist conception of class. Consquently, in what followsI will use only term class.
  4. See, for example, Siirpson an-J Yinjer 1985. Schermerhcrn 19~0. Cashrr.ore andTroyna 1SS3, Rex !9i?c. M'.les 19S1. Kuoer and Smith 1969.
  5. See. for'exampli. Miles 1982. Wolpe 1970, Hall 1980
  6. The similarity of this argument to the 'false consciousness' argumnent of reductionist versions of Marxism is patent, yet, curiously enough. Adam rejects such a position on the same page'
  7. There is an extremely large literature written from this perspective, but since my purpose is not to review this literature or, indeed, to draw out much of value in it, it is sufficient to refer by way of example to Cox 1948, Davies 1979, Legassick 1974.
  8. This is discussed more fully below, pp. 120-2.
  9. See Bates 1973, Kuper and Smith 1971.