Groups like “the proletariat,” “the working class,” “the people,” “the masses,” “the peasantry,” and “the lumpenproletariat” have all been, at different times, the subject of communist analysis. Each of these terms has had a time in the sun, a period when it is most relevant and necessary. There remains one term, though, that I believe has yet to have its potential usefulness realized: “the multitude.” The most important text for explaining this idea shares its name: Multitude, authored by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in 2004.1 The idea of the multitude has been somewhat ostracized in the nineteen years since the book was published. In short, the multitude is a class concept that goes beyond economic class. Hardt and Negri built it after witnessing the struggles of the left from the mythologized sixties onward, and fashioned it to account for the changes society has seen since those glory days. To quote Negri directly2:
Multitude is first of all a class concept, then also a political concept. In so far as it is a class concept, multitude puts an end to the concept of working class as a simplistic concept, as a mass concept. From the point of view of politics the concept of multitude puts an end to the concept of people, of nation and of all that build by the state, providing it with a fundament of representation.
Hardt and Negri theorize the multitude as being “singularities that act in common,”3 but I would prefer to name the multitude as “a class of all oppressed classes.”4 Some could make the argument that there is an important distinction to make between the exploitation of the proletariat and the oppression faced by disempowered groups within society. I would argue that the proletariat’s experiences of exploitation fall under the larger umbrella of oppression because in order for people to be exploited through the forced sale of their labor-power, they must also be subjected to innumerable attempts at robbing them of what little they can amass and lay claim to. Here I think of the hushed and loathing tones used by a former teacher of mine to describe communist and socialist efforts of the twentieth century. Children are taught to loathe communists and their evil ways just as they are taught to loathe minority groups. “Hustler mentality” functions as a form of internalized self-loathing for the proletarian, who learns to despise their position not because of oppression and exploitation, but because they are not in the position of the bourgeois owner class. The combination of the indoctrinated loathing and the state repression of efforts to improve proletarian conditions seems to produce a combination that meets the threshold required to consider use of the word “oppression.” Hardt and Negri form the idea of a unified class concept from recognizing both the theoretical and practical exclusions that have been made in the use of other political subjects as the base of organizing, as well as the evolution of economic and social relations seen in the twenty-first century.
When I speak of exclusions, I refer to the basis on which the aforementioned terms in the list exist. All groups are fashioned by a series of in-requirements and out-disqualifiers. Take, for example, the proletariat. One cannot be a member of the proletariat without engaging in a particular economic relationship, that of selling one’s labor-power. These exclusions do not have value judgements associated with them in the abstract. In the abstract, they only help us to analyze the society we live in so that we might act to change it. It is when we get to the acting, though, that complications arise.
The proletariat can serve us well as an organizational basis. History has shown this to be the case. It has been the subject of centuries of analysis and struggle, and this history makes looking away from it nigh impossible. We know, sadly, that a great number of the struggles against capital have met unpleasant ends. Whether they ended in capitalist restoration or total annihilation, we have seen that both internal and external forces have led to their demise. The external struggle against capitalist powers has little to do with the choice of subject made by the anticapitalists. The internal struggles, on the other hand, have a great deal to do with the choice of subject made by the communists.
When the communists privilege the proletariat as being the chief (or only) revolutionary subject, the groups that they exclude from this position will naturally have qualms about their exclusion. Hardt and Negri view the Russian revolution as being a revolution conducted for the peasantry while the Chinese revolution was a revolution “with the peasantry.”5 Those peasants who are playing second fiddle (or no fiddle at all) to the proletariat have every right to question the hand being dealt to them. In addition to peasants, communist movements which prioritize the so-called “working class” have frequently struggled to account for groups like prisoners, those with disabilities, and those whose labor is domestic and therefore unwaged. Any organization (and here I have in mind some DSA caucuses) whose primary commitments are to labor unions will have to either expand its horizons or find itself unable to fight well on multiple fronts. While advocates for all of these often-forgotten groups have made important theoretical contributions to Marxism, too much of the practice has yet to fall in line with the theory. Those who have made the case that Marxists ought to factor in those previously excluded have had their causes left as second thoughts to the primary goal of combatting capitalism in the workplace. Tenant organizing functions as a good example of how political organizing can leave the workplace and, as a result, abandon the elevation of waged labor. Hardt and Negri do tip their metaphorical hat to Mao for his theoretical and practical developments with regard to the peasantry, writing6:
This is the primary sense in which the Maoist project is applicable throughout the world: wars and struggles of peasants should no longer be oriented toward the defense of the soil in a strictly conservative relationship. They should instead become biopolitical struggles aimed at transforming social life in its entirety.
They acknowledge that Mao’s understanding of the capabilities of peasants is, in fact, a serious evolution from his predecessors. The peasantry are not doomed to be members of a reactionary force. They can, alongside other members of a greater subject, be part of the movement to upend the present social order. There is a problem with stopping at Mao, though, as seen in Allen Jordan’s “Reading the Cultural Revolution.” Jordan writes, “In both the case of the Shanghai Commune and ‘arming the left’, Mao retreated from these dramatic experiments, walking back toward what was in essence a more conservative, or orthodox ‘Leninist’ formulation.”7 We cannot mimic Mao’s formulations for both reasons of time and reasons of practicality. Elsewhere in the article, Jordan continues8:
The Cultural Revolution terminated the broad arc of a sequence begun by October 1917. The Bolshevik mode, inaugurated by the Russian Revolution, became the schema in which the major communist movements patterned themselves. The Cultural Revolution, having saturated the principal pillars of Marxist-Leninist politics, was thus the end of an era for which the collapse of the decrepit Soviet Union was mere punctuation. Despite the contemporary absence of a recognizable camp of Socialist States, and despite the GPCR’s distance in time from our own, it remains relevant to the world of egalitarian politics today. The most important lessons of the Cultural Revolution are those of the saturation of class politics and the form of the party-state. Any inventive politics in the present must take this as its point of departure.
Not only does this come from a moment quite far from our own in terms of social and economic relations, but the end result of the GPCR was that we saw the limits of what the party-state and class politics were capable of, at least for the time. Not only are we in a vastly different predicament, but we also cannot allow ourselves to take his politics and hope that we will simply do better when faced with challenges. It is (putting it mildly) arrogant to think that we can perfectly trace the steps of our forebears and not stumble where they stumbled.
The disagreement I have with Jordan is somewhat discursive. While he claims it is class politics that is saturated, I would argue that only class politics looking at economic class primarily is saturated. I wholly believe that a class politics which recognizes racial and gender class struggles as equivalent to the struggle of waged laborers has plenty left to give the communist movement. It also happens that it is neither possible nor desirable for communists to simply decide that other struggles are equal to the struggle of economic class. We cannot become more than the sum of our parts if the communist movement is a red coat draped over all classes. The communist movement cannot see itself merely as a proletarian movement that fights on behalf of or with members of other oppressed classes; it must instead be a movement of movements to combat all oppressions, a rainbow coat to shield the world’s downtrodden.
Class is Class
David Roediger’s 2017 collection of essays entitled Class, Race, and Marxism introduces a myriad of perspectives on the topic of race-class intersections. Roediger contrasts the perspectives contained within the essays with a few Marxist positions that might be called class reductionist, overly simplistic, or wrong – namely positions that assert a separation between race and class struggles and which place class struggles ahead of race struggles. Class, Race, and Marxism delves into the idea that racism and sexism can be part of the logic of capital and not just a part of capitalism. I agree that capital has weaponized racism and sexism in order to continue on the march toward profits, but I also draw a line between saying capital makes use of them and saying that they are part of capital’s logic. Both this and the aforementioned “class reductionist” positions make mistakes, but in opposite directions. Claiming capital’s logic contains within it the logics of sexism and racism paints too pretty a picture of how all might be defeated simultaneously, just as the class reductionists claim that defeating class would solve society’s other ills. Because racism and sexism predate capitalism, the claim that eliminating the proletariat and class society would bring about the end of racism and cisheterosexism does not appear convincing.
Take, for example, the fifth essay in Class, Race, and Marxism, “‘One Symptom of Originality’: Race and the Management of Labor in US History.” This essay delves into the lengthy history of racial categorization and ranking in order to pit workers of different races and nationalities against one another to both prevent the formation of solidarity as well as driving up productivity as each group of workers fought to be the first rat out of the barrel. Roediger uses examples like this to illustrate how race can be viewed as being part of capital’s logic as opposed to just a component of capitalism. But while it is true that capital will use racism as a strategy towards its primary ends (increased profit and productivity), we have seen capitalism use a falsified anti-racism towards the exact same ends, firstly by covering up real differences between the material conditions offered to different races with a narrative that anyone can make it regardless of origin and secondly by selling a hollowed-out radical politics to those who see racism’s survival and seek to combat it. While the argument could be made that this sees capital still relying on racism, I would argue that this is a more evasive approach to racism. Capital is not unified in making an effort to bolster racism, it is hoping that undercutting anti-racist movements means that it can avoid making concessions to the disadvantaged victims of racism it has harmed across history. I would not call this using racism, I would call it denying its legacy.
Though one could fashion a counter-argument focused on the sincerity of capital’s racism and the insincerity of its anti-racism, I think the example seen in the aforementioned essay helps to bolster the case that intention and sincerity may be worth less than people initially believe. The example of factory floor managers allowing for races to work their way up above other groups in the workplace shows that capital’s racist commitments are not based purely on racism, but on racism’s effectiveness as a tool. I believe that capital’s anti-racism is just as hollow and opportunistic. There are undoubtedly racist capitalists who will peddle their racism earnestly and in pursuit of profit, but I believe that there can be anti-racist capitalists who will peddle anti-racism, in earnest or in pursuit of profit, to the detriment of their profits. Racism and anti-racism can both gel and go against the grain depending on time periods and audiences, so it appears difficult to say that racism is an immutable fixture of capital due to its occasional weaponization for purposes of profit. Capital can use racism, but I do not see the two as inextricably linked.
Cedric Robinson’s account of racism’s relationship to capitalism is one which does make a convincing argument in favor of how the two might be linked in such a way that striking one is to strike the other. While the argument concerning capitalism’s use of racism as a tool falls short in that the insincere commitment to racism’s use can be mirrored with an insincere anti-racism, Robinson’s argument is built out of the cases made before him by theorists like W.E.B. Du Bois and C.L.R. James, and the project of Black Marxism works to uncover history as much as it works to direct future action and thought. Robinson writes9:
The Black radical tradition suggests a more complete contradiction. In social and political practice, it has acquired its immediate momentum from the necessity to respond to the persisting threats to African peoples characteristic of the modern world system. Over the many generations, the specificity of resistance - at best securing only a momentary respite - has given way to the imperatives of broader collectivities. Particular languages, cultures, and social sensibilities have evolved into world-historical consciousness. The distinctions of political space and historical time have fallen away so that the making of one Black collective identity suffuses nationalisms. Harbored in the African diaspora there is a single historical identity that is in opposition to the systemic privations of racial capitalism. Ideologically, it cements pain to purpose, experience to expectation, consciousness to collective action. It deepens with each disappointment at false mediation and reconciliation, and is crystallized into ever-increasing cores by betrayal and repression. The resoluteness of the Black radical tradition advances as each generation assembles the data of its experience to an ideology of liberation.
This is all true. Black identity and consciousness holds something greater than any one nation or culture. The contentious portion of Robinson’s thesis, to me, is found directly after. He continues10:
The experimentation with Western political inventories of change, specifically nationalism and class struggle, is coming to a close. Black radicalism is transcending those traditions in order to adhere to its own authority. It will arrive as points of resistance here, rebellion there, and mass revolutionary movements still elsewhere. But each instance will be formed by the Black radical tradition in an awareness of the others and the consciousness that there remains nothing to which it may return. Molded by a long and brutal experience and rooted in a specifically African development, the tradition will provide for no compromise between liberation and annihilation.
Robinson’s arguments rest on this vision of “racial capitalism” as being the system which has evolved out of slavery and subsequent oppressions and burdens placed on black peoples. While racial capitalism has unquestionably been an appropriate title for our era given their simultaneous evolution and symbiotic relationship, this era we currently, regardless of what title it is given, sees capitalism attempting to wean itself from its relationship with racism. Rather than being earnestly committed to a racist project in spite of or in pursuit of profits, capital is attempting to work itself out of mutually beneficial relationships with racism as the returns for capital continue to diminish. New corporate anti-racism is not sincere, it is as profit motivated as the racism has been for the last decades. The height of this insincerity is seen when corporations who threw millions of dollars into advancing racial equality during and after the George Floyd protests turned around to finance Cop City.11 Capitalists acted in the hope that their anti-racist donations would let their commitments to a racist institution go unnoticed, but the donations themselves (if they actually have a positive impact) are hard to criticize. If real material change for disadvantaged racial minorities is caused by the donations of a billionaire, it doesn’t really matter how much I point out their exploitation in the workplace. Not only has some good been done, the image of the companies whose histories are marked by racism has been successfully rendered spotless. We are not working towards a post-racial-capitalism society in which racial capitalism has been left behind, but we are witnessing some factions of the bourgeoisie attempt to navigate their way into greater profitability through appeals not only to anti-racism but other movements demanding equality in society. A tension exists between different sectors of the ruling class as they gauge whether a turn towards support for progressive causes will make them more money than some blatant appeal to reactionary values. Capitalism’s racism has never wavered, but the question of capital’s racism has an ambiguous answer that depends more on quarterly earnings reports than a sincere commitment to anti-blackness. Capital has fashioned a world that promotes racism, but as growing sectors of society begin to stand against oppression in its varied forms, capital is doing its best to scrub its hands of the stains of racism and other ills. It can never successfully remove those stains of its history, but perhaps a few more emotionally-charged advertisements and BLM-supportive posts will be enough to keep money flowing while capital attempts to solve this quandary of its own design.
Siddhant Issar’s book review of Black Marxism, published in DSA’s house magazine Democratic Left in2021, shows that the question of racial capitalism nevertheless sits at the forefront of race organizing, class organizing, and their overlapping domains. Issar writes12:
Rather than homogenizing class antagonisms, per Marx and Engels, Robinson underscores how capitalism operates through a logic of differentiation. This structural analysis makes sense of how “extra-economic” coercion (expropriation) exists alongside wage-labor exploitation. Moving past a tendency in some Marxist thought to abstract and bracket colonization and the Atlantic slave trade as either outside the orbit of capitalist development or a historical phase prior to the emergence of capitalism proper, Robinson establishes the centrality of multiple forms of racialized and gendered expropriation, including racial slavery and super-exploitation, to the expanded reproduction of capital.
Although not a work of political economy, its power lies in the systematic exploration of the fundamental links between racial domination, colonialism, and global capitalism. Foregrounding the “Black radical tradition,” it also highlights how thinkers such as W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R James, and Richard Wright reshaped or broke with Marxism to understand Black struggles against capital and the state. Going beyond wage-labor relations in the industrial center, Black Marxism forces the Left to reckon with resistances that have often been invisible to orthodox Marxists. These include slave insurrections, runaway communities established by those escaping slavery, anti-colonial revolutions (exemplified by the Haitian Revolution), and contemporary struggles against state-sanctioned anti-Black violence. Overcoming racial capitalism thus requires that we bring together, not separate, anti-racist and anti-capitalist struggles, building power across the racialized and gendered exploitation/expropriation continuum.
It is certainly true that Marx, Engels, and their intellectual successors failed to account for the particular relationships between capitalism’s establishment, slavery, colonialism, and gendered oppressions. What I disagree with, though, is that their role in capitalism’s establishment necessarily ties them directly to capital. To claim that striking at capitalism strikes at racism is soundly refuted in the introduction to Class, Race, and Marxism, but the position that striking at racism also strikes at capitalism requires more nuance in refuting. Racism is a core component of capitalist division and oppression, but dismantling both requires a dive into what anti-racism, anti-capitalism, and two-front conflict look like in the present day.
Classes in Conflict
Attacking capitalism in the United States today is typically done through union activity, whether the unions are organized on the basis of renting or working. This strategy is not one which looks to end capitalism any time soon, but the aim is to have small impacts and build the power of anti-capitalism. Attacking racism in the United States today is typically done through protests, civil disobedience and occasional direct action. The two efforts, I believe, have room to overlap, but it appears to me that strategy and tactics have more to do with whether these movements overlap or not than any innate overlap between the two. There exists the possibility for cooperation between anti-capitalist and anti-racist movements, but unity between the two (whether theoretical under one idea or organizational under one party) is impossible.
Attacking the police is the simplest way to fight on both fronts simultaneously, but I am of the opinion that even doing away with the police entirely is only one of the first steps on paths that do not overlap as much as some might imagine. Following the elimination of police, anti-capitalism points to making private property shared in common as a potential next step, while anti-racism indicates that such a step is not the correct maneuver without efforts to eliminate the effects of settler-colonialism and racism. I support both of these measures, and I believe both must be won, but I do not believe that they are as theoretically and practically inseparable as others have claimed. A win for one is not necessarily a win for the other. To me, these are related struggles and questions of class that should be fought and answered together by the multitude.
Marxists.org has a section on class in their encyclopedia of terms which would beg to differ with me on the question of class. The passage reads13:
The notion of class, as it is used by Marxists, differs radically from the notion of class as used in bourgeois social theory. According to modern capitalist thinking, class is an abstract universal defined by the common attributes of its members (i.e., all who make less than $20,000 a year constitute a "lower" class); categories and conceptions that have an existence prior to and independent of the people who make up the class.
For dialectical materialism however, the notion of class includes the development of collective consciousness in a class – arising from the material basis of having in common relations to the labour process and the means of production.
Gender and Race: Gender and race issues are often compared to class, but gender and race struggle have their own material bases in society distinct from class, but exist within the class structure. The existence of the working class is created by the capitalist mode of production – capitalism could not survive without wage labor – therefore the political emancipation of the working class as a whole can only be achieved through revolution. Capitalism can survive, and in fact necessitates the need for completely free labor, with equality between workers of all races and genders; thus women and minorities, through tremendous and painful struggles, slowly gain political emancipation through reformist movements ("women's liberation", "civil rights", etc.). The struggle of gender and race are critical political and social issues, because without these struggles and victories there can be no real unity between workers. Unity is imperative for workers to free all humanity from exploitation, so long as workers are divided, we will continue to be conquered. For further readings see the subject section on Marxism on Women.
Class Struggle: Classes emerge only at a certain stage in the development of the productive forces and the social division of labour, when there exists a social surplus of production, which makes it possible for one class to benefit by the expropriation of another. The conflict between classes there begins, founded in the division of the social surplus, and constitutes the fundamental antagonism in all class.
Here, class is defined on the basis of not just shared characteristics but also a shared consciousness arising from shared relations to the labor process. While the passage disputes the idea that this applies to other, non-economic categories, the definition itself suggests that gender and race are quite easily understood as classes in their own right. Texts like Epistemic Injustice (2007) by Miranda Fricker detail quite well how women (in addition to other minority groups) are wronged in their capacity as “knowers” by the powers of patriarchal (and racist) society. Is being robbed by social forces of one’s capacity to assert knowledge or one’s capacity to be understood enough to constitute a shared consciousness? I would argue that this is only a piece of the puzzle of shared minority consciousness.
Another investigator of this idea of shared minority consciousness has already been profiled by Negation. “Frantz Fanon’s Radical Psychiatry” by Cecelia Opatken-Ringdal highlights the efforts made by Fanon to overcome the challenges brought about by the theories of his day. Taking a stance which rejected both “wholly social” and “wholly biological” visions of mental illness, Fanon crafted a vision of psychiatry that could account for people’s individual differences while not forgetting their health or place in society. Opatken-Ringdal writes:
Fanon’s development of critical ethnopsychiatry is complementary to Shorter’s work. In 1954, Fanon continued to publish psychiatric articles now with his colleague Jacques Azoulay, resulting in (per Gibson and Beneduce) “critical reflections” that “threw off any remnants of the psychiatry of the Algiers School [of Carothers], and set the psychical suffering of many of the patients within the flux of historical events and the net of symbols that contained their existence.” This “net of symbols” that encompassed psychiatric symptoms resonates with Shorter’s concept of the symptom repertoire. For Fanon, the net of symbols was precisely what influenced his patients’ presentation of psychiatric symptoms, much like Shorter’s symptom repertoire provided the set of available symptoms for women with hysterical paralysis. However, while Shorter’s analysis ends by arguing that “something about the logic of capitalism may have been acting in historically unprecedented ways to produce these paralyses.”
Fanon provides a deeper critique of not only capitalism but also colonial domination. Additionally, the structural element of Fanon’s work adds to the idea of the symptom repertoire by providing a method for understanding psychiatric symptoms as collective cultural experiences. While it is useful to understand individual symptoms as part of a reaction to that individual’s social world, Fanon’s structural analysis adds a way to conceptualize collective action in relation to colonial psychiatric symptoms. In other words, patients never experience this subjugation or these symptoms alone: they maneuver through structures that require resistance through collective action. In this way, then, collective political consciousness can only be achieved if we acknowledge psychiatric symptoms in populations of colonial subjects.
Fanon allows us to see another critical component of the idea of shared minority consciousness, the collective cultural experience. Fanon turns ideas of “the black mind” forged out of racism into an understanding of the way that colonization and racism affect the mental well-being of individuals. These shared experiences across black people allow for a shared struggle to form against their oppression. It is through these shared struggles that we can combat the evils of cisheterosexism and racism, acknowledging their role in capitalism without understanding them as either integral or secondary. These classes are epistemic in nature, but their reinforcement through material allowances and deprivations helps solidify them as being something more concrete.
When I bring up the existence of minority populations that communists struggle to represent adequately, some might challenge me with the claim that members of minority groups are not only capable of advocating for the groups that they belong to via their status as workers but that they do this quite well. Take, for example, POC, queer, and women workers. These groups, all of which experience oppression both as workers and otherwise, advocate for themselves via workers movements. I do not believe that our present circumstances make it so that workers’ movements are a better option than movements specific to identity groups. Rather, I believe that these identity-focused movements have been so devastated by the forces of reaction that workers’ movements appear as the only option. Though the George Floyd protests and Black Lives Matter protests more generally (inarguably identity-focused events) are, to me, a promising sign of what the multitude can look like,they were quite notably crushed under the heel of state repression. Thousands were imprisoned in response to those uprisings, and though they are undoubtedly a promising sign of what revolutionary events can look like in the United States and the global north more generally, the harsh punishments handed down to those involved are indicative, to me, of just how desperate our rulers are to step on anything that resembles common resistance. The changes to police budgets were quite the opposite of what abolitionists had envisioned. Any defunding was quickly reversed, and the vast majority of cities simply increased their budgets in response. The instances of success from the George Floyd protests seem far fewer in comparison with the wave of unionizations and strikes seen across the United States in recent years. While radical power was flexed in the protests of 2020, the gains of those protests have been met with counter-offensives like the plans for Cop City in Atlanta. Labor history has seen the force of the state weaponized against organization many times across the 20th century, but our recent history has seen identity-focused movements as at least equal (if not primary) targets of violent suppression.
Marine Tucker highlighted the problem of lacking strong identity-focused organizational spaces with regard to the status of women when they wrote14:
feminism in the us in the end of history is depoliticized to an astonishing degree. there exists no "radical" feminist movement (radical in the sense of seeking to abolish the present state of things) remotely comparable even to the pathetic fledgling socialist movement today
So the question appears to me not to be about whether workers’ movements are the best choice when advocating for the betterment of minority groups or not. The question is instead about what the multitude might do so that minority groups need not use a secondary lens to cast light on their oppression. How do we make it so that there is a disability movement capable of destroying ableism? How do we make it so that there is a LGBTQ+ movement that can combat rampant homophobia and transphobia? How do we make it so that there is a black power movement capable of destroying racism? How do we make it so that there is a womens’ movement capable of destroying the patriarchy? All of this is impossible when these struggles are separated, but the proletariat does not seem to me to be an adequate unifier in practice, even if proletarian politics are seeing the most gains right now.
If Not Proletariat
But if the proletariat is not good enough at unifying these struggles, then what term works better? Surely not “the working class” with its reliance on the aforementioned wage-relation. What of the masses? “The masses” also deserves a thorough investigation, one which must start with a clear demarcation of the masses from both “the multitude” and “the proletariat.” Taking Fang Yan’s essay “Althusser’s Maoism-Machiavellianism and the Maoist “People”/“Masses”as a China Question of Western Theory” as an example of a well-developed Maoist description of the notion, we can see that the people/masses is defined in Althusser’s guidelines as, “What, today, comprises the people in a given country (today, because the composition of the people varies historically; in a given country, because the composition of the people changes from place to place).”15 The concepts of the people and the masses rely on an analysis that goes beyond a particular preference toward a type of worker, a preference for those in a wage-relation, and even a preference for the proletariat. This concept’s expanded inclusivity makes it stronger than the proletariat in some ways, but the question of what holds the masses together (aside from somewhat questionable concepts of national inclusion and exclusion) seems to loom over the concept quite significantly. Ajith of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) elaborates on the concept of the masses, writing16:
Though other classes and social sections will be important partners in the historical movement to destroy capitalism (its highest stage of imperialism) they cannot provide leadership. In each instance the issue of liberation is specific – land in the case of landless peasants, caste oppression for Dalits, male chauvinism for women, ethnic oppression for Adivasis, national oppression for oppressed people, religious persecution for minorities and so on. Being specific they are also partial, in the context of the whole revolutionary project. But this is not the situation of the proletariat. Capitalist bondage is different from earlier exploiting systems like caste-feudalism. It imposes no other compulsion on the workers other than the pangs of hunger. And since, in principle, they are free, there can be no specific liberation suiting them. Every form of exploitation and oppression must be ended. Thus the emancipation of the whole of humanity becomes a precondition for the liberation of this class. The leading role of the proletariat derives from this objective social position. It obliges the proletariat to continue the revolution all the way up till realising a world rid of exploitation.
Ajith asserts here that capitalism’s intertwined nature with other oppressions places the proletariat in a position to end them all, should the proletariat fight hard enough. The proletariat is tasked to not only partake in the separate-yet-linked battles against racism, cisheterosexism, and national oppression but to lead them outright. I happen to believe that while an economic overhaul to a different system, dictatorship of the proletariat or otherwise, would change the face of social oppressions, it would not solve them entirely. Entirely eliminating these oppressions is the goal, though, which means that the world needs movements and organizations specifically opposing them, movements and organizations which work together for a shared vision of liberation. Again, the question of national oppression seems hard to solve when the concept of the people/the masses relies on the existence of the nation as a unifier and boundary for the investigation of a country’s classes.
A good example of what a Maoist investigation into the classes of a country can look like is that of Jose Maria Sison’s Philippine Society and Revolution. The text features a section entitled “Classes in Philippine Society” which highlights all of the varied classes and subclasses that are seen in the Philippines.17 These classes include multiple types of peasants, multiple types of bourgeoisie, and multiple types of proletarians in addition to women, national minorities, and youths. I agree with Sison’s decision to list out these particular groups and note their particular oppressions, even if he does not label them as classes in their own rights. Sison’s analysis paints a very colorful picture of Philippine society, avoiding the use of broad brushes as it gives detail to each of the individual subclasses within the major players with which most Marxists are familiar. It shows what good intricacy can do for understanding, but I refuse to abandon the search for a concept and program that realizes communism’s international vision. Though the particulars of a society shape the revolutionary efforts of the people within it, acknowledging national oppressions in one breath before giving legitimacy to the national concept in the scope of the analysis makes for a complication. If the national concept is a cause for oppression, and the inclusion/exclusion dynamic that it is built on causes naught but suffering, then we ought to oppose it through working around national lines rather than focusing on a vision of the masses or the people that is specific to the borders of a particular state. If the masses and the people are too limited by national constraints and lack a particular unifier beyond that, what vision can unite people across all types of oppression? Could it be the multitude? I believe so.
To be clear, the multitude is not an organizational goal or a particular force which can be observed through a single relationship. This means that the multitude is both in a position of having existed before postmodernism and not existing yet. The multitude was glimpsed in every period of resistance to oppression we have seen, but its full potential can only be realized when the different struggles against oppression recognize their commonalities. At the same time, the multitude is not something to focus on creating. It is a byproduct of unified struggle more than it is a goal of unified struggle.
When I say that the multitude cannot be observed through a single relationship, I mean that the multitude is a combination of multiple struggles and, as such, cannot be seen in a relation like employers-employees, men-women, or settlers-colonized. The analysis that Hardt and Negri offer with regard to these relationships is not that the individual struggles are irrelevant when compared to those that are shared by all members of the multitude. What they do posit is that these different struggles (in addition to mobilizing against the shared oppression) fuel the creation of the multitude, making common resistance against the common burdens more feasible.
Hardt and Negri paint a very pleasant picture of what this common struggle can look like when they describe anti-globalization protests in Seattle before the new millennium. They write18:
At the 1999 Seattle protests, for example, which we will discuss in more detail later, what most surprised and puzzled observers was that groups previously thought to be in opposition to each other – trade unionists and environmentalists, church groups and anarchists, and so forth – acted together without any central, unifying structure that subordinates or sets aside their differences.
The problem with this picture is that while it shows us what struggle in common can look like, it lacks some of the end goals and potency that communists must demand of our struggles, regardless of whether those struggles are taken on by particular identity-oriented groups or a cross-identity collective. In short, those protests were not effective enough to base a whole model around. So which protests or revolts might give us a better image in our minds of what Hardt and Negri’s vision of struggle can look like?
The most recognizable examples of their vision are the notable protest movements of my lifetime, the 2020 summer racial justice protests and the Arab Spring. In both of these cases, people saw struggles that were not their own, related them to their own struggles, and were able to seize a moment to demonstrate unprecedented amounts of power. When people saw George Floyd murdered in Minneapolis, they marched not only in solidarity with the struggle for justice in his case but also in community for their own local cases of police misconduct and brutality. Marching at the state capitol, we did not just speak and hear of George Floyd’s murder, but other murders including that of seventeen-year-old Joshua Ruffin, who was stopped and then chased through his own neighborhood before being shot dead by a white police officer. The officer was not charged due to the fact that Ruffin possessed a gun, regardless of the fact that Ruffin never fired the weapon.19 We marched not only for the justice needed in Minneapolis, but also for the lack of justice found in our own backyard. Even other nations followed suit, acting in both solidarity with the struggle of the American people and community with others in their country who opposed police violence at home.
The Arab Spring is a well-documented example of community across borders. Following the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, a suicide which was motivated by the confiscation of his wares by a municipal official, nations across West Asia and North Africa experienced significant upheavals. The desperation of Bouazizi was shared by many who had experienced similar abuses and suffered on the fringes of society, and his suicide was a catalyst for a massive conversion of desperation into righteous anger. This conversion ignored artificial lines, as those who lived in other North African and West Asian nations were inspired to take to the streets in protests against the intolerable conditions brought about by their leaders. Regardless of the end results of many of the revolutions and protests of the Arab Spring, we must recognize that they are real proof of the concept of international community. The multitude is fashioned when our oppressions, both economic and social, are recognized and combatted in common. Frankly, it does not matter if the protests were focused on democracy and economic justice instead of opposing the United States and instituting full communism now. The lessons of the Arab Spring are the most important this century has had for us, both in theory and in method.
Unfortunately for us, both of these moments are not characterized by success or remembered for their innovations. Rather, we remember them for things like extrajudicial murders in Seattle’s CHAZ occupation protest, massacres in Egypt, civil wars in multiple countries, and thousands imprisoned for the righteous act of rebellion. To put it simply, the moments were failures. Even Tunisia, the greatest success story of the Arab Spring, has struggled to function as a democracy under the rule of its post-revolution leaders. We can only do as we must with all failures and learn from them. To pull from Badiou20:
It requires particular collective attention, because it is the moment of divisions as well as the one when the enemy (the guardian of slumbering History) seeks to regain the upper hand. If this moment is missed, the rebirth of history is nothing more than a brilliant anecdote, and politics remains apathetic.
We must pay special attention to these two missed moments. In the time that I have been alive, there have been no periods more significant than these two glimpses of political rebirth. Rather than casting these aside as being historical aberrations which reinforce the need for a return to the ways of the past, we must see them for what they are: visions of a future that belongs to a united multitude.
These two uprisings, both in the last decades, give us an idea of what it can mean for resistance to be common. At the same time, though, we cannot say that just because resistance can appear across divides that it will necessarily be so in future. We have no guarantees about which way the winds will blow in terms of people’s willingness to stand up and fight back. Negation writers have repeatedly referred to the trend towards depoliticization following the change in presidents after the 2020 election. With Trump out of office, the stakes appeared lower, meaning that both protesting liberals and protesting communists could sink into routines of complacency. As much as communists would loathe the types that go back to brunch, they slide more into irrelevant discourses when the moment feels less pressing and the movements feel less powerful.
This does not mean that Trump remaining in office would have been a better result. What it does mean is that combating depoliticization is a chief requirement of those looking to make change, whether they plan on doing it through the lens of the proletariat or the lens of the multitude. One complaint that people can correctly voice about the multitude is that it forgoes the typical notions of solidarity in favor of a vision of people bonding over shared elements of their struggles. The idea that people can always see what they share with those in turmoil is unrealistic. Beverly Silver points out what undermines this vision of commonality in her 2003 book Forces of Labor. She writes, “Rather, insecure human beings (including workers) have good reasons to insist on the salience of non-class borders and boundaries (e.g., race, citizenship, gender).”21 While it would be quite simple (and correct) to say that those with race, citizenship, and gender advantages should be willing to cast them aside and cross boundaries for their fellows in struggle, it is not as easy to do as it is to say.
Here, I think back to an older article of ours, “Philadelphia’s Race Traitor.”22 The article details the life and work of Noel Ignatiev, an important figure in understanding American race relations and the creator of the term “white skin privilege.” Ignatiev’s insistence on the importance of white people betraying whiteness was not done without an understanding as to what made them cling to it. He was quite understanding of the reasons people would cling to their privilege, but ultimately believed “that the privileges were not ultimately in the interests of white working-class people but served to subordinate them to the employing class.”23 This belief, while not unchallenged by his peers, is emblematic of what it takes to sell people on betraying what they believe to be in their best interest. We must begin to convince people that not only is it “the right thing to do” but that they will benefit through betraying their elevated status.
This also forces me to return to the Negation Nightly Radio Hour episode with Jason Read.24 In our discussion on desire, the four of us came to a consensus that a new set of desires are needed if we are to have people betray what they believe to favor them. It is not enough to rob people of their existing desires. It is impossible to leave one without a rudder and with nothing to want. We must replace the inappropriate impulses of clinging to race and gender privileges with impulses which recognize our common characteristics. This is no small feat, of course, but it is a project which is advanced every time that people bear witness to the facts of our society. The 2016 police murder of a white man named Daniel Shaver, though frequently weaponized against racial solidarity, lays bare the truth of police violence for white people. When police murders happen, community is first recognized by those most abused by police. It is white people who defend police abuses of power and obfuscate the lessons of this tragedy with statements like “He should’ve followed orders” or “We know why nobody protested after this”. The notion that black people cannot recognize the sufferings they share with white people is a myth perpetuated by those who benefit (and believe they benefit) from their current position within society. The world will be a better place when the only lesson of the Daniel Shaver killing is “Down with the police and the systems that enable them.” But that’s an awkward protest slogan, so maybe just “FTP.”
But even if we can convince people that they should see themselves in common with those society teaches them to despise, can we effectively use the term multitude in place of the alternatives? People can act together, sure, but does that mean we need to replace “proletariat”? Why can’t the proletariat represent all class struggles? What makes “multitude” a good replacement?
Theories and Practices
This circles back to the prior discussion of the potential saturation of the party-form and class politics. While I disagree with the notion that class politics has given all it can to communists, I am inclined to believe that the limits of the party-form as the primary organizational tool have been shown to us. I agree with Marine Tucker when they write, “In the plainest terms, the problem with parties… is that they’re all crawling with rapists.”25 Parties today are the cheapest imitations of the real political organizations that once could be seen as powerhouses of the world’s communist movement. There are plenty of different organizations vying for the title of “The Real Workers’ Party,” and the most relevant of these organizations are at the top of a food chain that starts with sex-pest-prone reading groups and ends with sex-pest-prone local chapters and their larger national organizations. I agree with the analysis that the primary problems of current parties and would-be parties are largely due to the culture inside and outside of the organizations. This is not to say (at least to me) that resolving the cultural issues of these party organizations would eliminate the other problems seen with the party-form both in North America and elsewhere. These cultural problems must be confronted by everyone looking to organize, whether or not they want to organize around a party structure. The organizations which claim to have found alternatives to the party form are still plagued by the same forms of rot, and the need for a change in both our thinking and educating on internal conflicts is apparent. The party-form, though, has been the site of more than just abuse scandals. It also has presided over multiple failed transitional attempts which have resulted in stalling out or changing course, something which I believe is neither coincidental nor purely the fault of malicious actors within these parties.
This has difficult implications, both for those who support organizing beyond the scope of proletarian politics and those who want a proletarian focus. If these cultural problems are endemic to the organizing scene in North America, then dropping the party alone is not enough to avoid having some of the same problems. Even if we stop giving priority to the proletariat, there are no guarantees that organizations promoting different struggles would be any better culturally. What it can help to solve is the opportunism and chauvinism with regard to POC and their struggles. Look to the responses given by socialist and communist organizations to the protests of 2020. Far too many responded by attempting to highlight or even center a class struggle in a moment which so clearly belonged to the struggle for racial justice. While the PSL produced a bail fund for the protesters arrested during the demonstrations in Columbia, they also were present with representatives and signs saying such phrases as “racism is the disease, revolution is the cure.” While I have no problem with the messaging in a vacuum, the fact that there were people attempting to propagandize about their socialist, international-proletariat-focused organization in the midst of protests against racism and police terror fails to present a compelling vision of cooperation. Regardless of how diverse one’s organization is, it seems to me that promoting your vision of socialist struggle at a rally in support of racial justice amounts to ignoring potential differences or disagreements to promote a united appearance. If the multitude ought to function not as a single organization attempting to blend all struggles together but as the aforementioned “class of all oppressed classes,” then we should not let those whose political aims are directed toward the working class attempt to take charge over the movements for other groups’ liberation.
But seeing as we cannot guarantee that our new methods and theories will wash away the culture creating so many of the problems facing organizers presently, it might seem that there is little practical value in the discursive change from proletariat to multitude. Sure, organizing around struggles separately but acting together might offer more autonomy to the groups that workers’ organizing has aimed to represent, but what does that matter if all of the individual organizations and movements are just as riddled with problems as the united workers’ movement has been?
Here I could concede, accepting the idea that a united movement under the proletarian banner would be better than several movements sharing common actions but not similarly united, provided both are to be equally guilty of cultural failings. I do not concede, though, as I believe that establishing autonomy for women, POC, LGBTQ+ people, and those with disabilities is a core step to limiting cultural problems within left-wing organizations. I believe that, if both proletarian movements and multitudinous movements are to be rendered on the fringes of society in the present moment, the multitude is better off when members of these aforementioned communities have the ability to chart their own courses. The multitude should not aim to work as a representative on behalf of marginalized communities, it should aim to enable their self-expression.
Negri’s attempts to assert a new structure to politics have been criticized at every turn. Even before the evolutions of the Empire trilogy, the radical new assertions Negri made about the “socialized worker” and other transformations of society and politics during the 1970s and 1980s were subject to harsh criticism. Steve Wright characterizes the changes in Negri’s thought (particularly with regard to Negri’s claim that the workers cut off from history are more revolutionary) as being part of a “passage to this dismal point beyond both operaismo and Marxism.”26 This scathing analysis of Negri’s evolution was echoed by some of his contemporaries, including one Sergio Bologna, who wrote27:
I have a sense of both fear and repugnance when I see comrades who hate their past or, worse still, who mystify it. I’m not denying my past, for example, my workerist past; on the contrary, I claim it. If we toss everything away, we live in a condition of permanent schizophrenia.
I have talked at length elsewhere about healthy and unhealthy relationships with history, and I agree entirely with Bologna’s assertion that mystification of the past is a repugnant act. Negri, on the other hand, talks about how the individuals released from the failures and shortcomings of the past are more revolutionary. He writes28:
It has no memory because only labour can construct for the proletariat a relation with past history. It has no dialectic because only memory and labour constitute the dialectic…proletarian memory is only the memory of past estrangement…the existing memory of 1968 and the decade that followed it is now only that of the gravedigger…the youths of Zurich, the Neapolitan proletarians and the workers of Gdansk have no need of memory … communist transition is absence of memory.
So Bologna argues that we should not hate the past or mystify it, while Negri argues that those who are detached from their past are capable of escaping this memory of estrangement. While those who have unhealthy relationships to the past might do well to listen to Negri and cast aside these memories, those who would abandon the past should listen to Bologna and recognize that this is an error of arrogance. Loathing your predecessors for not being perfect accomplishes nothing. It will not endear you to opponents or allies, and it leaves you stuck in a condition of having no past and forging no future.
Negri’s more recent critics also have valuable points to make about his relationship to history and appeals to novelty. At every step of his intellectual trajectory, Negri has been reacting to new evolutions and changes within the communist movement and the world at large. While this is a valuable course of action when it comes to responding to failure and adapting for survival, not every mutation made by Negri is a healthy or correct one. Take Alessandro Russo’s criticisms offered in “The Sixties and Us.” Russo writes29:
A great problem for all of ‘us’ – meaning anyone who searches for the possibility of new, inventive politics as a key resource for thought – is how to find a way out of the oscillation that still constitutes one major legacy of the sixties. For instance, when Michael Hardt and Negri theorize the concepts of ‘empire’ and ‘multitude’, which denote not only the conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, they look beyond the framework of class. On the other hand, when they theorize the novelty of a ‘cognitariat’ – i.e. a ‘proletariat of knowledge’ – their pitch becomes hyperclassist. We can find many other examples, since all of ‘us’ experience this oscillation in one way or another. Everyone who welcomes new possibilities of egalitarian politics must cultivate a subjective proximity to the sixties – but this oscillation also represents the inner limit of such loyalty.
Russo is correct to point out that the oscillation of the post-sixties milieu remains the hallmark of the current left. We waver back and forth between these hyperclassist and metaclassist pitches, switching sides with every perceived or actual failure of these analyses. It is Hardt and Negri’s hyperclassism that I find most worthy of rebuke. They speak on metaclassism with their pitch of a movement greater than just the proletariat, but they then turn back to mention the specific section of waged laborers who perform intellectual labor as holding a special position in the current era, which Russo claims is an example of their oscillation back towards hyperclassism. Their investigation into the status of workers in the twenty-first century might appear to some to be an important intervention into class politics of the present day, but I believe the opposite. While the investigation of the changing forms of work and labor is interesting, I will admit, it does little to advance the project of class struggle. Hardt and Negri claim at the beginning of Multitude that their economic-class-focused analysis in the text is because of the large focus on social class in their time, but in reality the focus on analyzing economic class clouds the idea of the multitude with more of this same oscillation.
This oscillation resulting from the political experiments of the sixties is read as being a symptom of a complicated and potentially unhealthy relationship to that period in time. We could follow Negri’s decree from the eighties and divorce ourselves from that period in history. Plenty still attempt to do just that, returning to pre-sixties Leninist models of politics and organization. Hardt and Negri, specifically Negri, are undoubtedly a byproduct of the sixties. Though he might have written that the subject without history possesses the most revolutionary potential, he and Hardt are quite attached to that period. I would not argue that Hardt and Negri are guilty of believing these two contradictory notions: that we need to wholly abandon the estrangements of the past while also learning through an analysis of our predecessors. I would instead argue that Multitude shows Negri’s more developed relationship to history. In Multitude, Negri is not working mid-collapse of the workerist movement. His previous evolutions in thought, while not all negative, were quite blatantly the byproducts of his reaction to the situation in Italy. Multitude shows a more refined approach to dealing with history when Negri and Hardt write30:
We should note before turning to the criticisms that we have used the concept of multitude in this book and elsewhere in two different ways to refer to different temporalities. The first is the multitude sub specie aeternitatis, the multitude from the standpoint of eternity. This is the multitude that, as Spinoza says, through reason and passions, in the complex interplay of historical forces, creates a freedom that he calls absolute: throughout history humans have refused authority and command, expressed the irreducible difference of singularity, and sought freedom in innumerable revolts and revolutions.
This is Hardt and Negri’s first vision of the multitude. For them, in their new outlook on history, the multitude is glimpsed at every point in which injustice and authority are opposed in the name of freedom and equality, and this could reasonably include the period of the sixties he had previously forsaken. This outlook allows us to see the multitude in the political uncertainties of the past rather than running from times like May 1968 in the hope that our newest inventions will solve our problems in ways that previous theories and models could not. The second vision of the multitude regards its future potential. Hardt and Negri write31:
The other is the historical multitude or, really, the not-yet multitude. This multitude has never yet existed. We have been tracking in part 2 the emergence of the cultural, legal, economic, and political conditions that make the multitude possible today. This second multitude is political, and it will require a political project to bring it into being on the basis of these emerging conditions.
So the multitude has existed and been visible to us at every point in which oppression is resisted, but it also has yet to exist in its entirety and must be brought about through political action. This twofold relationship to history and possibility is emblematic of an evolution in Negri’s thought, but as long as the hyperclassism seen in Hardt and Negri’s investigation of what they call “immaterial labor” and its new hegemony contrasts with the metaclassist approach of the multitude, the oscillation continues. One vision spells out a class vision that is broader than any one group of laborers, and the other appears to place a new group in a position of particular importance. Though they write that these immaterial laborers are not to be seen as the new revolutionary vanguard, the demarcation of immaterial labor from material labor (a distinction different than productive labor versus unproductive labor) still provides us with a hyperclassist turn stuck in the middle of this otherwise metaclassist innovation. I believe that it is possible to understand and effectively work with the multitude as a concept, it just needs to be extricated from the hyperclassist elements of Hardt and Negri’s twenty-first century economic analysis. One element of their analysis can serve us well in providing a new way to understand more than just economic struggles, and the other does just the opposite, pushing us towards a vision of the world that puts the immaterial laborer subgroup on a pedestal. Privileging intellectual laborers and their supposed hegemonic position in the global workforce does little to contribute to the revolutionary vision of the multitude. I do not believe that my vision of the multitude aligns entirely with Hardt and Negri’s, and consequently I do not find this portion of their theory particularly useful. Not all theoretical innovations are created equal.
While it might seem that Hardt and Negri’s concepts of multitude and Empire require this hyperclassist element in order to explain why they exist, that is only half-true. Concepts like immaterial labor are used to illustrate the changing nature of economic relations that has occurred under what they see as a uniquely postmodern form of capitalism that is more connected than ever before. These economic elements are a component of the case for why the multitude and Empire exist, but they are just that, only components. When Hardt and Negri spend several pages detailing the shape of Empire within Multitude, going over private corporate agreements, international regulations, and global norms, they also look into forms of Empire that are not purely economic. When they speak of a system of “global apartheid,” this is not separated from racial and ethnic implications. They write32 of demographic panics as being the “basest form of biopower”, highlighting how Empire’s systems of domination are not without their racial biases.
This is particularly clear when we link the talk of population crisis to the catastrophic announcements that white populations, especially in Europe, are declining both in absolute terms and more dramatically relative to nonwhite populations in Europe and worldwide. The fundamental crisis, in other words, is that the color of the global population is changing, becoming darker. It is difficult to separate most contemporary projects of population control from a kind of racial panic.
So there are elements to their image of Empire’s dominance that go beyond just the rich attempting to dominate the poor without elements of racism and cisheterosexism playing important roles. Hardt and Negri state multiple times within Multitude that the text focuses on economic relations primarily due to a lack of scholarship on their evolution in the postmodern era. As previously mentioned, this undermines their analysis, muddling their metaclassist developments with hyperclassist economic elements. Race and gender relations under postmodernism are not unchanged, even though Hardt and Negri neglect them in favor of the supposedly under-addressed economic aspects of the present era. Think of the common conservative complaints about businesses supporting “radical leftists” whenever they pay pride month lip-service to the LGBTQ+ community. Think of nightmarish corporate-speak black lives matter statements and Pepsi ads wherein racism is solved through soda. The work of Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism does a good job of depicting the cultural shifts of postmodernism, even though Fisher prefers the titular concept to the concept of postmodernism. Fisher writes that “nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV”. In this same vein, we could write that “nothing runs better on racist television than a protest against racism”. Capitalist twenty-four-hour news networks, both liberal and conservative, thrive when outrage is sweeping the nation, even if the outrage has a cause that implicates them as part of the problem. When people smashed the CNN Center’s windows in Atlanta racial justice demonstrations, CNN could still use that to drive up viewership. The money made through reporting on the protests against the system they represent undoubtedly made more than enough to cover repairs. Such is the cultural evolution of postmodernism: Stomp out dissent, co-opt what remains, and sell faux-radicalism back to people.
That said, I follow the line Alain Badiou takes with regard to political action at the end of history. In his 2011 text, The Rebirth of History, Badiou takes the position that what he calls “historical riots” are a breakthrough, starting politics from the beginning in our uncharted territory. Recent years (Badiou specifically wrote in the midst of the Arab Spring) show us evidence of what historical riots can look like in our own time, but these historical riots feel incomplete without clear lessons learned. Hardt and Negri, though, saw the Arab Spring as a validation of their analysis for the same reason that the previously mentioned Seattle WTO protests inspired their analysis: disparate groups worked together after recognizing common ground. The George Floyd protests gave us yet another opportunity to learn new lessons about the political projects of the communist left in the twenty-first century, but it remains a question of whether or not we will take advantage of this opportunity.
Though it may seem largely analytical, Hardt and Negri’s concept of the multitude isn’t without political implications. It is here where my own essay, “Some Assembly Required,” ought to be introduced.33 While the essay was penned without the multitude in mind, it makes far more sense once connected with an idea that the twenty-first century’s class looks like the aforementioned “singularities that act in common”. In “Some Assembly Required” I wrote:
I believe that the blend of a commitment to democracy, opposition to oppressive state structures, belief in the necessity of organization and creating institutions, and a commitment to the end of private property makes for a concoction that can function as a catalyst for real societal changes that have not been seen elsewhere.
We do not, here, have reasons listed as to why some of these are deemed necessary ingredients for the communist blend. The “commitment to democracy” I mention makes far more sense if one sees the left as a conglomerate of classes with potentially diverging paths rather than as a unified front under one class’s red banners. If the world is to be moved, it is to be moved by a combination of all oppressed classes, a democratic conglomerate that does not submit itself to being led or steered by one leader or set of leaders. All of Hardt and Negri’s insistence on democracy makes far more sense once contextualized with the fact that their vision of the movement to abolish the present state of things is not dominated by one class or subclass in particular. It is for this reason that Assembly makes less conceptual sense when detached from Multitude, but Multitude feels quite useless without the political project outlined in Assembly.
In “Some Assembly Required” and the other Specter of the Party essays, we worked to take advantage of the learning opportunity provided to us in the aftermath of the historical riots of 2020. Some of us had conclusions that gave favor to the party-form,34 and some of us were convinced that it had shown us its limits.35 My essay fell in between, lacking some of the strong convictions found in other essays. This lack of conviction was largely due to the lack of knowledge and experience I had on the topic. I felt it was inappropriate to speak out with a clear voice when I would have been speaking out of ignorance. That said, the democratic principles I gave credit to then are even more important to me now. Group after group flounders trying to organize the proletariat of the United States into a workers’ party that follows the correct line. Some of them flounder due to harboring cultural rot like misogyny that enables abusive actions. Others flounder, I would argue, trying to put square proletarian pegs into round multitudinal holes. While the proletariat’s oppression is connected to the oppression of all other groups victimized by capital, it is not enough for us to solve oppression only or even primarily through the lens of the proletariat or working class. As was mentioned earlier, Noel Ignatiev and his contemporaries gave Marxist accounts of race that treated it with the appropriate concern without putting it behind or directly alongside economic class. It is Ignatiev’s account of the necessity of white people betraying their race that I find most compelling as a Marxist narrative of how other oppressions must be handled. White people must betray whiteness, abled people must betray ableist society, men must betray masculinity, and so on. In “Philadelphia’s Race Traitor”, Quinn McGarrigle’s profile of Ignatiev, McGarrigle does a wonderful job of extracting the core of this idea behind the statement “Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity”. He writes:
The demand is intentionally controversial, almost polemical, but it is nonetheless sincere — Ignatiev and Garvey insisted that just as groups such as the Irish and Italians had been integrated into whiteness, it was possible for a social revolution to result in the divorcing of whiteness from white people. And they did not only believe it was possible: they thought that any genuine proletarian revolution in the United States would simultaneously be a process of abolishing whiteness, since, they argued, whiteness as a caste is the greatest stumbling block for the American working class, and many poor white people would need to renounce the privileges and obligations of the caste for such a revolution to be possible.
Following the footsteps laid for us by Ignatiev, we must also recognize and renounce the privileges and obligations of the other superior castes to which we may belong. In this way, we might adjust Ignatiev’s saying to “Treason to privilege is loyalty to humanity”, as we have many other castes and subcastes that we must cast off if we are to develop anything resembling a genuinely communist movement.
It is for this reason that the multitude is a vital concept in my eyes. Even if we refuse to accept the claim that the multitude is the class of all oppressed classes around which we must organize all of our efforts, we can still recognize the sharp critique it can represent of political models that do not properly account for these many castes in need of dismantling. Each caste is to be dismantled not only through the destruction of capitalism but the destruction of privilege altogether. The multitude represents a class which is ready-made for a democratic politics centered around this task. There are hard limits to what the proletariat can accomplish alone. The class of all oppressed classes, I believe, hands us an opportunity to break free of our political limitations and begin the unending task of ending oppression.
- Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (The Penguin Press, 2004).
- Antonio Negri, “Multitude or Working Class?,” libcom.org, September 11, 2006, https://libcom.org/library/multitude-or-working-class-antonio-negri.
- Hardt and Negri, Multitude, p. 105.
- The use of the word “of” rather than “for” in “class of all oppressed classes” is meant to indicate that the multitude is more of a mutual understanding about the need for all struggles to be represented than it is a organization or body that presumes to do the representation on behalf of oppressed populations.
- Multitude, p. 124.
- Allen Jordan, “Reading the Cultural Revolution,” Negation Magazine, May 15, 2022, https://www.negationmag.com/articles/reading-the-cultural-revolutions-unspoken-discourses.
- Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism, Revised and Updated Third Edition: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (University of North Carolina Press, February 1, 2021), p. 317.
- Tia Brown, “Meet the Major Corporations and Cultural Institutions Helping Build Cop City in Atlanta,” LittleSis.org, November 15, 2022, https://news.littlesis.org/2022/11/15/meet-the-major-corporations-and-cultural-institutions-helping-build-cop-city-in-atlanta/
- Siddhant Issar, “BOOK REVIEW | Black Marxism Today,” Democratic Socialists of America, June 18, 2021, https://www.dsausa.org/democratic-left/black-marxism-today/.
- “Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms: CL,” Marxists.org, https://www.marxists.org/glossary/terms/c/l.htm.
- Marine Tucker (@marineluvr69) May 9, 2023. https://twitter.com/marineluvr69/status/1655618032444616727?s=20.
- Fang Yan, “Althusser’s Maoism-Machiavellianism and the Maoist “People”/“Masses”as a China Question of Western Theory,” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture Volume 22, Issue 5 (December 2020): https://doi.org/10.7771/1481-4374.3831.
- Ajith, “The Maoist Party,” Marxists.org, 2009 https://www.marxists.org/subject/india/cpiml-naxalbari/2009/maoist-party.htm
- Jose Maria Sison, Philippine Society and Revolution, Marxists.org, 1970 https://www.marxists.org/history/philippines/cpp/guerrero/1970/psr.htm#ch3
- Multitude, p. 217.
- Laurel Mallory, “Teen Killed in Officer-Involved Shooting in Columbia Identified,” WIS News, April 10, 2020 https://www.wistv.com/2020/04/09/teen-killed-officer-involved-shooting-columbia-identified/.
- Alain Badiou, The Rebirth of History: A Time of Riots and Uprisings (Verso Books, July 1, 2012) p. 70.
- Beverly Silver, Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization Since 1870 (Cambridge University Press, 2003) p. 177.
- Quinn McGarrigle, “Philadelphia’s Race Traitor,” Negation Magazine, September 2021, https://www.negationmag.com/articles/philadelphias-race-traitor
- “Negation Nightly Radio Hour,” Negation Magazine, Patreon https://patreon.com/posts/negation-nightly-82424131
- Marine Tucker, “The Party is Fucked,” Negation Magazine, Patreon, https://patreon.com/posts/negation-monthly-82568697
- Steve Wright, Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism (Pluto Press, 2002) p. 174-175.
- Alessandro Russo, “The Sixties and Us,” In The Idea of Communism 3: The Seoul Conference, ed. Alex Taek-Gwang Lee and Slavoj Žižek (Verso Books, July 2016).
- Multitude, p. 221.
- Multitude, p. 166.
- Sean Alderson, “Some Assembly Required,” Negation Magazine, May 19, 2022, https://www.negationmag.com/articles/some-assembly-required.
- Andrew McWhinney, “Totality and the Vanguard Function,” Negation Magazine, May 17, 2022, https://www.negationmag.com/articles/totality-vanguard-function/.
- Allen Jordan, “Reading the Cultural Revolution,” Negation Magazine, May 15, 2022, https://www.negationmag.com/articles/reading-the-cultural-revolutions-unspoken-discourses.