Ellen was also a very important influence on my own intellectual development. I've written before about the long bath I took in PoMo social theory as an undergrad, but Ellen's Retreat from Class (among others) helped dry me off. She was able to demonstrate that the conception of class, historical materialism, and the idea post-Marxists - such as the celebrated Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy fame - had of them were caricatures that bordered on bad faith. Using the trusted-but-busted method of quote chopping out of context, Laclau and Mouffe argued that Marx possessed a clunky, mechanical, determinist understanding of what class was. Worse still, reading off these positions one could extrapolate a socialist/communist future more or less guaranteed by the blind operation of history. They argued that Lenin and Gramsci progressively modified this mechanical outlook by allowing for the play of accident and politics. Both argued that the party, as the expression of proletarian class interests, would have to forge its own hegemony to counter that of capital and the ruling class and pull in its train the other popular classes, the peasants, the petit bourgeoisie, the lumpens and the middling elements, to win and maintain power. However, as far as Laclau and Mouffe were concerned Lenin and Gramsci still operated with "economistic" notions of the working class and believed there was an unproblematic correspondence between (schematically-arrived at) working class interests and socialism. They argued there was no such thing. Instead, hegemony has to be liberated from a Marxist approach to politics and be used for drawing together disparate groups of oppressed people somehow "beyond class" to change the world.
Ellen destroyed this argument. In the first place, anyone with a passing acquaintance of the Communist Manifesto, let alone Marx's Capital knows that capitalism is a dynamic system constantly seething with creativity, destruction, promise, and conflict. This fluid social environment is more than just an effect of competition between capitals as they duke it out for markets, it's because the whole system teeters on an antagonism between two broad categories - classes - of people: those who own capital, and those who do not. Both these groups enter into an interdependent social compact of sorts. To accumulate capital and stay in business, labour power has to be hired to make stuff or dispense services for the firm. To make a living, one has to sell one's capacity to labour for a set number of hours to an employer in return for a wage, or salary. On the surface, it looks like an exchange between equal parties. Both have what the other wants. In reality, the mechanism of the wage relation hides the fact that those selling their labour power are not receiving the full value of the goods or services they produce. The gap between what the worker receives and what accrues to the employer renders the relationship a fundamentally exploitative one that is a focus of sometimes hidden, sometimes open social conflict. The employer has a clear interest in increasing the amount of value they appropriate from the workers' labour time, and this can be done by extending working hours without a proportional rise in pay, or by intensifying the labour process through the introduction of methods designed to boost productivity. Workers on the other hand have a clear interest in ensuring the value they make stays with them, as well as resisting measures that increase the working day, reduces their control over their work, and threatens jobs as increased productivity renders certain roles obsolete.
The problem for post-Marxism, as far as Ellen was concerned, is they treat this as a free-floating schematic argument, of "class essentialism". In one sense, of course it is. But as Louis Althusser once observed, philosophy is the class struggle in theory. Marx's view of capitalism, of the source of profit in surplus value and that in the difference between what a worker makes and receives was based on observation of how the system worked and innumerable protests, strikes, and machine-breaking. Class is a concept derived from studying how a dynamic, antagonistic worked and one that ultimately explained it. Therefore, it follows that the organs of class struggle developed by workers - the co-ops, the trade unions, the mass workers parties, and the revolutionary parties suggest there might be something to the notion of class struggle, class interest, and the organisational forms that broadly correspond to them. It followed from this that socialism was more than just a nice idea, but the culmination of a set of interests present in and engendered by the daily operation of capitalism. It's a real potential waiting to be realised by collective action, made possible by generations of collective action. "Socialism was ... viewed ... in the sense that the objectives of socialism was seen as real historical possibilities, growing out of existing social forces, interests, and struggles" (p.90). There is no essentialism or schematism here. Marx's views and the concept of hegemony used by Lenin and Gramsci, whatever one thinks of them, were the accomplishment of real social forces and were used to effect social change. Contrast this with the post-Marxist approach and hegemony is nothing but an empty concept lacking social weight and radical political purchase. It's a needless, especially when the experience of class even today provides opportunities for unity across diverse social locations.
I am therefore saddened that, in Ellen, our movement has lost one of its best brains. But that doesn't mean her contribution is at an end. Not only will her Marxist historiography continue to be read decades from now, her restatement of class remains pertinent at a time when too many radically-minded people are drawn to zero-sum identity politics, or woolly "values politics" that smacks more of consumerism than collective action. The greatest tribute to Ellen is to introduce new audiences to her work.