Paul Fussell has written an interesting entertainment that examines the American class structure. It is basically descriptive and impressionistic and espouses no cause. It is filled with keen insights and amusing anecdotes and is consequently a relaxing, nontaxing book. In essence, it meshes with a vast Western literature—both scholarly and pedestrian—that enthrones class as the object of study.
Much of 20th-century scholarship involves a preoccupation with class. This is perhaps the legacy of Karl Marx, who viewed class as the Rosetta stone that enabled historical interpretation and prediction. Marxist ideology sees history as a panorama of class struggle. History unfolds in a progressive pattern through class conflict; there is movement from one dominating class to another until the chain is broken. The industrial proletariat is, of course, the messianic class that is destined to triumph. Hence, according to Marxists, to focus on class—class interests, class control, class exploitation, class conspiracy—is to focus on political reality. Other considerations involve the superficial or mere “superstructure.” To concentrate primarily on nation or culture is but to demonstrate one’s naivete. Paradoxically, once the MarxistLeninists seize power in a state and consolidate their control, they seldom tolerate a class critique of the new establishment. How many leaders of the contemporary communist world stem from the proletariat? More than 60 years after the Russian Revolution, how many sons of the proletariat have joined the “new class”? Class interpretation of reality, like the appeal of Marxist ideology, seems to thrive only outside the Marxist-Leninist sphere of control.
Why have so many interpreters of politics succumbed to the obsession with class? Social scientists in the West have been wedded to class interpretation for reasons in addition to the influence of Marx. The values of most Western interpreters are disproportionately those of the Enlightenment. There is confidence in the intelligibility rather than the mystery, ambiguity, or amorphous nature of objective reality. There is a faith in human universality that gives one’s limited experience a transcendent meaning. The emphasis is upon reason, science, progress, and secularity. The eventual hope is to enable the social sciences to emulate the physical sciences by discerning laws or patterns of human behavior and thus move toward prediction. Consequently, the Marxist dogma of class primacy offers a temptation since it suggests intelligibility and universality, and simplifies, facilitates quantification, and promises prediction. Class becomes a key offering gnostic-wisdom to the initiated.
Often a scholar’s academic fortunes are linked with his success in discerning regularities in human behavior. To bestow one’s name upon a theory or even a hypothesis is an envied coup. There is, of course, an element of public relations in all of this, since perceiving a “law” is not enough. One must convince one’s peers of its value. Ideally, one would inspire a following of disciples. Veneration of Marxist dogma helps achieve this end as it not only provides a tool for conjuring regularities in human behavior, but also links the ambitious scholar with a school enjoying academic credence.
The intellectuals who interpret the political realm are often “marginal” men. Their academic training estranges them from traditionality. Often their lives are spent in academic seminaries—first as students, later as teachers and researchers. They are shielded by an academic ethos that sets them apart from the surrounding world and which often becomes more important than their inherited culture. Basically secular, it tends to deemphasize the traditional loyalties to turf, family, ethnicity, and religion. It privatizes these primordial loyalties and, further, suggests that they are very secondary or even an embarrassment destined to oblivion. Perceiving the world in terms of this acquired academic value system, the intellectual often finds it difficult to appreciate the force of tradition. The obvious and rational interpretation of many contemporary events must consequently be rejected for the esoteric. The end result is that important traditional concerns and loyalties that might serve as counterweights to class and class obsession are deemphasized or eliminated. Hence, the intellectual finds it difficult to understand and appreciate persons motivated differently than himself.
In addition to the class-oriented academics, there are aspiring politicians who have a vested interest in redefining politics. It serves their objective to eliminate cultural factors from political relevance. Ambitious persons who seek power but who are outside the cultural mainstream must redirect the political focus, and emphasizing class is a way to do it. A Greek atheist, seeking power, obviously must center attention on something other than Greek nationalism defined religiously. An Arab Christian will have little political future in an Islamic Republic. An Israeli Gentile will be unable to maneuver in Zionist politics. Each of these persons can aspire to political success only through redefining politics away from the cultural. Class offers such an opportunity. The formula is often employed: relegate tribe, ethnicity, religion, etc. to the private realm or make them irrelevant; appeal to those believed economically exploited. (Of course, the primordial loyalties will inevitably return.)
Despite its ubiquity, there are significant problems with class interpretations. Historically, class obsession is but a remnant of the 19th-century European search for one factor that would explain reality. Some opted for race, some geography, and others for class. The search was parochial in its assumption and its application. There are serious empirical problems associated with class interpretation. Generally, class is not a meaningful concept for the average person. Only the occasional eccentric identifies emotionally with class. Few people, even in the most developed societies, have a clear concept of their own class. Most Westerners, their income notwithstanding, claim middleclass status. Despite generations of Marxist polemic, there is no international class loyalty. During the two World Wars, nationalism proved stronger than class; the workers of each country fought for the national flag. During World War II, Stalin aroused the Russian masses in the name of Holy Mother Russia and in opposition to Western aggression; he conveniently closeted the classist ideology. Today, Marxist-Leninist movements reap success only when they cloak themselves in nationalism. They are especially formidable when they forge a united front that monopolizes the symbols of nationalism, resists a foreign foe, and promises both democracy and socioeconomic reform.
Despite the Marxist-Leninist claim for class, class-oriented cultures are hard to locate. A comparison of the high culture inspired by love of religion and love of nation with the lack of a classinspired culture is all-revealing. Can one discern an art, music, poetry, literature, and architecture inspired by love of the proletariat? Haven’t the Marxist-Leninist cultural feats been mainly plagiarized? High culture in Eastern Europe is based on past capital, while the genuinely creative defect in ever-increasing numbers.
An interesting arena of distortion due to class obsession is the vast field of religion. So much in the contemporary world relating to or inspired by religion is overlooked, unappreciated, or misinterpreted. Often, the religious element is interpreted away. The intellectual’s secular focus has cost him dearly in understanding the nonsecular environment. Nineteenth-century predictions concerning the withering away of the spirit have failed to materialize except in the daydreams of the literati. The view of religion as a conservative/reactionary force can be entertained only by the most dogmatic.
Classist orientation and expectations meant that most social scientists were surprised by the Western Europe that emerged from the World War II trauma. Few of them had predicted the unprecedented rise of Christian Democratic parties throughout the continent and their vital role in creating the European Economic Community; moreover, they were unable to understand it. Few realize even today that religious practice has been as strong a determinant of voting behavior as class in France, West Germany, and Italy. How can one understand Latin American politics or culture without a knowledge of the Latin American religious tradition? Today, the Church supports a vast system that encompasses education, media, political parties, and interest groups. Despite the excessive media coverage, “liberation theology” does not represent the totality of the Latin American religious experience, nor is it the novel break with tradition that is contended. Those who carry on about liberation theology should be informed that the two most prominent revolutionaries of the 1810 Mexican Revolution—Hidalgo and Morelos—were priests.
Throughout Eastern Europe one can find impressive evidence that indicates that creative persons are drawn to religion more than they are to class relations. Numerous dissenters have rallied to the Church despite—or perhaps because of—the penalties involved. Dialectical materialism inspires, essentially, the careerists. Groups that were estranged from their religious tradition during the 19th century have come to a new appreciation of that tradition due to their experience with the secular alternative. Is it accidental that Russia’s two greatest 20th-century novelists—Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn—are religious men? Can one disentangle Solidarity and the Polish Renaissance from Catholicism?
Even in the United States the impact of religion is not without significance—media noncoverage notwithstanding. Few secular intellectuals have appreciated the role of churches in the civil rights, antipoverty, and peace efforts. Who predicted the decline of “mainstream” Protestantism and the rise of fundamentalism? Who clearly understands the role of fundamentalism in presidential politics? These and other questions remain to be answered.
I’m not suggesting that religion replace class as our key to understanding, but simply pointing out the limitations of interpretations based solely on class. Class is merely part of human reality—and certainly not the most important one.