Readings: David Camfield’s We Can Do Better

We Can Do Better

Ideas for Changing Society

by David Camfield  

In We Can Do Better: Ideas for Changing Society, David Camfield presents his “reconstructed historical materialism” as the theoretical key to practical social transformation. It is both concise and wide-ranging, but never becomes so dense that it ceases to be accessible to non-experts. Camfield avoids academic jargon and pecayune analysis in favour of readable prose and familiar, effective examples. At the same time, the book engages with complex philosophical problems and challenging impediments to socialist political organization with enough sophistication to engage the attention of academics and seasoned activists. Philosophically, his reconstructed historical materialism retains the core strength of the original theory while providing novel solutions to older problems of misinterpretations like economism and mechanical theories of historical causality. By stressing collective agency as the driving force of history, Camfield’s reconstruction prepares the ground for a new politics of struggle from below in which class, race, and sex-gender are intertwined rather than set against one another. Camfield thus manages to develop a theory which coherently informs practice, and theorizes a practice that could plausibly produce the sorts of unified and global movements that progress towards socialism will require.

In the first part of the four part book Camfield examines three alternatives to historical materialist explanation: idealism, biological determinism, and neo-liberal market fundamentalism. According to the first, history is driven by ideal entities of some sort: divine will, Platonic forms, or values that exist independently of the people who hold them. According to the second, social history is determined by natural history. Humanity’s genetic structure essentially programs certain forms of behaviour which recur in different forms in different societies. According to the third, human beings are programmed to compete, which means that history is dominated by various forms of market relationships. Capitalism is the final form of society because it perfects and universalises market relationships. Hence, it is both in accord with our competititve nature and the most efficient and just way of utilizing resources.

Camfield shows that each of these alternative explanations fails as a coherent explanation of historical development and social dynamics. Idealists beg the question, asserting that ideas determine historical development but unable to explain how the ideas arise in the first place. Biological determinists have an account of where ideas come from, but their mechanistic and reductionist explanations cannot account for how a more or less identical genetic code can give rise to wildly different societies, cultures, and symbolic beliefs. Market fundamentalism provides sound explanations of prototypical behaviour in capitalism, but cannot explain the dispositions, property forms, and social relationships that typified earlier egalitarian, non-market societies, nor the various forms of cooperation that underlie all forms of social life. Of course people compete, but cooperation, not competition underlies all forms of society, because it is a presupposition of life itself. The shared problem of all three approaches is thus that they reify and falsely universalise one aspect of human nature and society.

The great strength of historical materialism is that it exposes the problem of reification. Reification refers to the process of turning a complex human practice or belief into an independent entity and then positing it as the cause of the practice. Marx’s critique of reification has its roots in Ludwig Feuerbach’s critique of religion. Feuerbach argued that our idea of God is a reified projection of our own essential powers. Just as human beings are really the origin of the idea of God, so too are we the creators of economic value and the agents whose collective activity shapes the ideas according to which we act. Historical materialism can therefore do what none of the alternatives can: explain the role of ideas, genes, and markets in historical context without according them independent existence and agency.

Camfield’s reconstruction of historical materialism is the content of Part Two. He begins– as Marx’s original did– with the natural history of humanity. We are a mammallian species with definite needs which force us to interact productively with the natural environment. However, given our evolved neural architecture and social interdependence, we have developed forms of thought and communication that allow us to create what no other species can create: a social-symbolic universe out of the giveness of nature. History is thus always two-sided, a dialectical interaction between material production and symbolic explanatory reconstruction-justification of material production. Ideas and values are thus interwoven with life-sustaining labour. “Because humans create cultures, our context is never just a physical location. It is always a cultural setting too. The circumstances in which we find ourselves include ways of making sense of the world, giving it meaning and placing values on things. … Such ideas matter, but we must not make the idealist error of treating ideas as if they exist separately from people.”(p. 29)

We must certainly avoid the error of mechanical reductionism, but we also need to solve a trickier problem, (which Camfield’s reconstruction can help us solve, although I did not find myself convinced that the job is fully accomplished here), about the relationship between the ultimate material foundations of social life– reproductive and productive labour– and the histories of ideas, values, identities, and behaviours that develop out of those underlying processes. The problem for historical materialism is how much relative weight to assign to natural as opposed to cultural factors in our explanation of individual behaviour and belief. As an example, consider Camfield’s discussion of gender. He quotes Connell in support of the view that gender “is not an expression of biology, nor a fixed dichotomy in human life or character. It is a pattern in our social arrangements, and in the everyday activities and patterns which those arrangements cover.”(37) On this view biology determines our sex, but gender is a cultural product which is not determined by our biological sex characteristics. While it is true- as the creation of a variety of trans identities prove– that sex does not mechanically determine gender identity, does this mean that biological sex plays no role? Are male and female irrelevant to the ways in which gender has been constructed across cultural time and space?

The point is not to argue that biology determines gender identity, or anything at all in any mechanical sense. At the same time we have to avoid cutting culture off completely from natural and biological bases. In the 1960’s the Italian Marxist Sebastiano Timpanaro (in On Materialism) warned against the naive optimism of culturalist interpretations of historical materialism which ignored the way in which our bodies and their infirmities act as frames that limit human possibility. More recently, ecofeminists (for example, Ariel Sallehin Ecofeminism as Politics) have argued that women’s biology makes it possible for them to valorize nurturing relationships in a more profound way than men. They do not thereby claim that women’s biology mechanically causes them to be nurturing, or that men cannot learn to be so, but they do argue for a closer relationship between biology and behaviour than Camfield seems to want to allow. Camfield may not be wrong in his arguments, but there is more discussion to be had about this difficult issue than he is able to explore here.

Nevertheless, his stated position, read charitably, is the right one to take. He argues that while productive and reproductive labour are foundational for human life and function as frames outside of which political, or religious, or artistic history could not exist, none of the forms those institutions and practices take are directly, mechanically determined by the economic structure, but have to be explained by concrete analysis of actual historical development. Thus, from the fact that any capitalist society must exploit labour and create a political-legal structure that justifies and enforces it, no one can predict what state and legal form, beyond the generic necessity to justify and protect the exploitation of labour, any society will adopt. Capitalism can be fascist or liberal-democratic, liberal-democrats can be nationalists or cosmopolitans; the law can enshrine formal equality between the sexes and gay marriage or it can enforce a sexual division of labour and demonize gays and lesbians. The function of law is consistent, we can say, while is content differs given different traditions of struggle.

In this view, the key to understanding historical materialism is the dialectical relationship between context (the result of past activity) and action (interventions into the given reality which produce changes in it and generate a new context). Camfield consistently affirms the agency of people: we reflect, argue, and then act, and those actions are not, strictly speaking, predictable, but give rise to patterns from which we can learn if we study them. However, while the argument he wants and for the most part does make is dialectical and affirms human collective agency as the primary driver of history, there are moments where a more mechanical argument creeps in.

Take his unfortunate claim (which he derives from John Berger) that “traditional Western European oil painting … is a “distinctively capitalist kind of culture.”(55). This assertion seems to me like saying that calculus is a distinctively capitalist kind of mathematics. My point is not that art is an autonomous zone unaffected by social and economic forces. There are social reasons why most known artists prior to the twentieth century were men, and we cannot explain art markets unless we understand how capitalism commodifies everything. At the same time, art has its own history which a complete understanding of its value to human life has to examine, and which is not served well by overly general claims such as the one that Camfield makes. From that sort of mechanical and generic claim no one can say whether “traditional” painting will take the form of Carravagio or El Greco, Rembrandt or Breughal the Elder, Gericault or Courbet, nor account for what is of permanent aesthetic value in them. Clearly, any adequate historical materialist understanding of painting is going to have to actually study the history of painting as a practice, in the different contexts in which it developed, and include the aesthetic debates between artists as they continually pushed traditions in new directions. Of course, these debates take place in a historical and political context, but they have an internal history too, and historical materialists, if they want to have anything to say about the practice, have to study the internal history and not just the social situation of artists. The same would hold true of science, or religion, and other cultural-symbolic human practices.

However, for the most part Camfield avoids the error of mechanical determinism and provides as clear and accessible demonstration of what it means to think dialectically about society as one could hope to read. There is no mystery to dialectical thought. At root, all it really means is that one sees history as a process driven forward by struggles between opposed social forces. Marx argued that the fundamental forms of opposition are between productive and appropriating classes. Camfield does not alter this Marxist fundamental, but in Part Three makes clear, in a way that Marx occasionally noted but most often only implied, that the members of classes are not sexless and raceless abstractions but real people with definite sex, sexual, gender, and racial identities, with wider or narrow ranges of ability, with or without religious beliefs, and that all of these factors play into the contours of political struggle.

The real strength of Camfield’s book, its major contribution, is to provide a new theoretical and in practical synthesis of the efforts of a number of thinkers over the past twenty years to develop a model of class struggle that is adequate to the real complexity of the working class: the fact that most workers are non-white women, that class exploitation also exploits existing racial and gender hierarchies and any other means of dividing the working class that it can find or invent; that, therefore, anti-racist struggle, for example, is not some “extra” outside of the main class struggle, but is class struggle, because white supremacy has been essential to capitalism from the beginning, and that the same can be said for patriarchy and struggles against all sorts of oppression.

Thus, if one wants to revive the old Marxist slogan that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself, one must remember that this self-emancipation is not only from the capitalists, but also from sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and so on. “The goal of a self-governing society could only be reached through a process controlled by the great majority of people acting in their own interests. All the way along, such a transition would have to be a process of self-emancipation. No minority, such as a party or armed force, could be a substitute for the democratically self-organized majority.”(126) When we combine this principle with the concrete explanation that Camfield gives in the third part of the book of the ways in which class exploitation, patriarchy, and white supremacy have intertwined in the history of capitalism, we are presented with a hopeful program for movement building which respects the contextual need for autonomous organizing within a non-dogmatic commitment to ultimately unified struggle.

Camfield’s hopeful politics is never naive but honest about the real challenges this politics faces. He concludes Part Three with a chapter whose title faces the problem squarely: “Why isn’t There More Revolt.” He answers the question with admirable candor: “Because the working class has become more decomposed, collective action by workers to address their problems does not see very credible … ordinary people have become more prone to directing their anger against other people who suffer social inequality in one way or another. Muslims, migrants, poor people, foreigners, women, people who face racism, Indigenous peoples– the victims of scapegoating are many and varied.”(107) How far we travelled away from Marx’s belief that the dynamics of capitalism would themselves produce working class consciousness and that all workers would realize that they “have no country” and that all that they have to lose in revolution “is their chains!”

False theory is false theory and it has to be rejected no matter who formulates it. At the same time, one worries that Camfield is holding on to the goal of the theory– an ultimately unified movement against capitalism– without replacing the materialist foundation which provided the explanation of why that unity would happen. What we have seen in the two major waves of revolt provoked by the 2008 crisis of capitalism, the Arab Spring and Occupy, is not ultimate unification but sudden mass mobilization followed by fragmentation and division, The door was thus opened to reaction and repression. This opposition was not only structural, as between Islamists and liberals in the Arab Spring, but also divided all variety of subfactions in Occupy whose members all shared broadly similar goals of resistance and anti-capitalism.

That division is worrying because it seems to suggest that the left faces a problem first identified by John Rawls with regard to liberal society in general: that unanimity is impossible because of the fact of reasonable pluralism. In modernity, Rawls argued, where people are educated and allowed to speak, they will do so, and they will disagree, and nothing can ever overcome the fact of disagreement about political issues. The ease with which anyone can broadcast their voice on social media today has amplified the problem–if we want to call it a problem– of pluralism. Marx’s structural theory of class consciousness could be read as one way of solving this problem: capitalist crisis will awaken different workers to their shared objective interests. I agree with Marx and Camfield that there are objective interests, but the facts from the most recent round of struggles suggest that these interests will always be interpreted differently by different groups, which means that the moment of unity may not arrive.

Or it could mean that it will arrive in a different form than the one that Marx expected. The fact of reasonable pluralism on the left seems to rule out the possibility of reviving vanguard party building, and that is not bad, given its obvious failures. At the same time, it poses a problem that the left has not thought through fully enough: how does a unified movement allow the expression of different interpretations of objective interests and remain coherently unified? Where there is a disagreement about particular momentary demands the problem is easy enough to solve: take a vote and majority rules. But when it is over deeper questions like the relative weight of different histories of oppression, for example, with the question of whether white members can adequately comprehend their own privilege, or whether Islamic dress codes are compatible with women’s liberation, final answers that will prove satisfying to all members might be more difficult to attain.

I would have liked to have seen more reflection on this sort of problem, because I think Camfield’s reconstruction might yield important insights about how it can be addressed. He does not go far enough along that road here. However, theory, like practice, is open-ended, and I look forward to further developments of his productive reconstruction of historical materialism and socialist practice.

— Jeff Noonan, Oct. 2017



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