Who Makes Class in Class War? (Review)

Mark Steven’s book Class War: A Literary History expands our understanding of class war but completely misses the role of ideology and organizing in class politicization.

October 20, 2023

The cover of “Class War: A Literary History” by Mark Steven. (Verso Books, 2023)

In his new book, Class War: A Literary History, literature professor Mark Steven reads a scene from Bertolt Brecht’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s Mother to show how workers come to an understanding of the term "class war." In this scene, an instructor teaching metalworkers uses the word "hat" in a spelling lesson. The student metalworkers respond with the suggestion that they should be taught using useful words, like "class war," instead, to which the teacher responds with irritation, saying, “There’s no such thing as class war.”

For Steven, this exemplifies a crucial point: class war generates a class consciousness (which the teacher cannot understand). “Their teacher cannot grasp this, it seems, because a life of detached curiosity has rendered him unable to think concretely and experientially, only in rules and abstractions. The semi-literate metalworkers intuit something fundamentally alien to their teacher’s learning.” This moment does not merely demonstrate the need to learn in a language that appeals to the experiences of the student and generates their awareness as a class, but underscores the teacher’s inability to grasp class without a bodily relationship to the extraction of value via manual labor. Though while this example shows that their bodily relationship and shared experience might empower them with a sense of their class position that could manifest in print, Steven argues that it is not enough to unite them as a class. According to Steven, it is only in the moment of mobilization and armed struggle that a class comes together as such—not through the written word.

Literature and Armed Struggle in Shaping Class Consciousness

Throughout Class War, Steven surveys moments of class uprising by examining pamphlets, literature, songs, and more—the stuff of propaganda. He uses historical examples from the Haitian Revolution in 1802, to the Paris Commune in the late 1800s, to the Black Panthers mid-20th century in the United States to chart an ambitious and sprawling history of the letter in Class War. His interest lies primarily in moments that occur beyond traditional industrial workplaces and the nation-state and deal with questions of race, coloniality, and the extraction of value outside the space of labor. What this ambitious—and gorgeously written—work offers is a viewpoint that sutures together moments in history that are rarely placed in conversation together. As other reviewers have mentioned, this ambitious framing overlooks how some of these moments in history failed to achieve real economic change.

However, Steven’s primary interest is showing how the working class came together as such. His literary trek reinstates workers as subjects who are radicalized by their role in armed struggle and not by the literature and propaganda they write, generate, and circulate. While traversing literature to show instances of class war could be an opportunity to show the working class as capable of creating counter-hegemonic unifying discourse, Steven instead depicts the working class merely as subjects who respond to structural conditions through uprising, and not as thinkers and writers that influence action or as architects of their own political programs. He avoids the crucial moments in which the working class formed new worlds without war.

His definitions of class war reveal how he views the working class. For him, class war is something more “militantly combative than class struggle or class conflict.” It is “an affective catalyst” that is “at once a metaphor and a statement of fact.” In this vision, class war is a noun and mobilizing verb, a form of transmutation that forms the working class as a collective. He argues that this mobilization raises class consciousness, teasing out the shared political-economic experience of a given group of people and binding a group together. “War” or armed struggle, according to Steven, is the privileged space where consciousness is raised: “This book seeks to show that a class is forged not only through exploitation and dispossession, which irreducibly shape a commonality of experience, but also through antagonism —and that through antagonism, class is made and remade into something revolutionary” (emphasis added). The working class is thus formed by a shared experience in war, not a successful forging of an alternative world. 

While Steven calls the book “a literary history,” the texts he explores comprise an archive “understood here as an active participant in the revolutionary process.” In his analysis, literature is secondary to the mobilizing and activating force of class war. He classifies the role of literature and discourse as a non-entity in the creation of class consciousness. Steven argues that literature documents these revolutionary moments and provides tools for generating the violent activity that actually does the work of class consciousness. In his analysis, the role of literature and language in raising class consciousness recedes into the background. Armed struggle is identified as a necessary precondition, following in the tradition of Régis Debray, for a class consciousness that leads to action. But the result creates a perplexing reading of some of the letters of class war.

Take for example Steven’s reading of the Cuban Revolution, where the guerilla army is his primary interest. He begins with Fidel Castro and his failed attempt to seize military barracks in Santiago de Cuba in 1953 in a fight against Fulgencio Batista’s rule. Castro was imprisoned by Batista for two years and then promptly went to Mexico, where he and his brother met Che Guevara and Alberto Bayo, a leader in the Spanish Civil War and Fidel’s main advisor in combat. Castro then returned to Cuba and led a rebel army, named the 26th of July Movement, which was eventually joined by the Popular Socialist Party and the Revolutionary Directorate of March 13 to overthrow the Batista government. After explaining the role of the guerilla army, within which one could find the seeds of “the form of a new sociality,” Steven turns to the guerilla movement in a more abstract sense. He traces the guerilla movement as a literary theme that moves outside the Cuban context. In his account, guerilla movements were so pervasive across Latin America that “it became something like a cultural tradition.”

Steven then launches into a discussion of the relationship between the guerilla army and Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which takes place in the fictional town of Macondo in northern Colombia, and Fredric Jameson’s discussion of it. (Interestingly, a group of Italian anarchists in Milan in the 1970s called their social project “Macondo” after Márquez’s novel). Steven offers a superficial explanation of how the novel’s mass of characters resembles the cell system, equating the family’s multiplication with the expansion of a guerilla army. Then, narrowing in on the literary expression of the guerilla army, he turns to the field manual. He defines the field manual as a handbook that “combines anecdotal evidence and personalized illustration with lessons from history, technical information about military operations and weapon manipulation, and the explicitly ideological content of political philosophy and revolutionary propaganda” (emphasis added).

In this description, the field manual’s literary quality is emphasized; it is not merely a technical tool, but a form of text meant to inspire and change the minds of those who use it. However, instead of reading the field manual as a tool for uniting across class lines, he reads the politicization of the peasantry as spontaneous, “It is in this way—via the simultaneous militarization of class and the labouring of the military—that an army evolves exponentially and explosively, as though by process of nuclear fission.” A closer look reveals how Steven’s examples betray him and exemplify instead the ideological work that was done outside of armed struggle to destroy class hierarchies and form new socialities.

For example, he observes that “the guerilla’s task is to conduct propaganda by deed through military operations which debilitate the enemy army, but also to apply affirmative measures that are revolutionary in social character: distribution of land to the peasants, the organization of cooperatives, the establishment of a court and an administration, the promulgation of revolutionary laws, so that the guerilla force appears to the people as a desirable alternative to the incumbent state, its economy, and the extant social order.” In this example, the guerilla army reimagines the future and creates a world that inspires solidarity. But it is not through its ability to convince the peasants to join its army and engage in combat that it achieves its goal. What Steven describes here but seemingly does not recognize is actually the remaking of the world—not from armed conflict, but from the ideological material found in the field manuals and in the act of creating new forms of government. In other words, overthrowing the Batistas and generating a shared class consciousness were two separate projects. Steven often combines the two in order to emphasize armed struggle and uprising (the perhaps more exciting moments in these histories) as the space where ideologies are formed, not the slow and tedious work of organizing new social formations.

The Role of Literature and Ideology in Working-Class Mobilization

For a literary history, Class War does very little to argue why we might need to understand class solidarity and action through literature and discourse. The moments Steven tracks have their own rhetorical and literary accompaniments that give an impulse to action, inspire class identification, and create the grounds for transformative change. However, in his analysis, literature merely aids in or records the ways war and conflict were used to unite a class, but is never responsible for generating class consciousness. That class solidarity arises from a moment of action and not ideology offers a depiction of organic mobilization that emanates only from real experience. The political and social movements that are ideologically and deliberately constructed are reduced to purely physical, emotive, and immediate moments. What we might call counter-hegemonic ideology generated by thinkers, leaders, and workers in the Global South like Álvaro García Linera, Augusto César Sandino or Aníbal Quijano is subsumed by “real life” and the supposed material experience of class.

Steven’s reasons for shying away from showing the propagandistic and mobilizing role of narrative, I suggest, are twofold. On one hand, it is part of a belief to see narrative as having the ability to inspire class consciousness. This derives from the idea that the manipulation of truth must be fought with facts and not with an equally inspiring story. This belief also understands narrative manipulation as symptomatic of a sort of top-down antidemocratic impulse and clever marketing rather than central to the way change is achieved—by continually shifting the stories we tell ourselves about our conditions and the possibilities for our future. On the other hand, his reasons are also reflective of an understanding of the working class as a class offering “real experience” but nothing more. The working class in this imagination does not generate the literature, slogans, and pamphlets. These works are actually what generate counter-hegemonic ideology. Instead, for him the working class is limited to their role in history as actors in battle.

Steven’s argument that class is formed through war also overlooks the various moments in history in which the working class or the subaltern formed their own world without war. From the most centralist forms of government like Salvador Allende’s to the more anarchist community land movements in Latin America, people formed socialist and communist communities without centering armed combat. These movements were rich in strategic, literary, and discursive material that formed the basis for their projects (and often used violence in defensive measure). Today, movements such as Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, MST), drawing some of its original ideological basis from the Catholic Church and liberation theology, have created their own robust internal economies and social structures. MST in particular has over 2,000 self-managed schools which they cite as essential to their political project. Moreover, these movements have formed distinct methods of theorizing. As Raul Zibechi explains in Territories in Resistance, in centering pedagogy and growth, they’ve placed “reflection and ongoing evaluation of what is happening at the forefront of activities, to open up spaces of self-reflection.” The “Philosophy workshop” of the Movement of Unemployed Workers and Ronda de Pensamiento Autónomo (Autonomous Thinking Group) are similar groups who turn social movements into laboratories for thought that inspires future action. 

Steven offers a necessary and compelling literary history of working-class uprising, united classes across racial and geographic lines. However, by assuming such a large geographic and historical space, he misses the slow, tedious work of imagining futures and changing minds.

Andrea Penman-Lomeli is a Ph.D. student at Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in MELUS, Aztlán, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Jacobin.

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