Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The Class Struggle

The class struggle is usually understood as a struggle between different classes of people, in particular, between proletarians and the bourgeoisie. The other classes of society, the peasantry, petit-bourgeoisie, the middle classes of various sorts, are viewed as transitional classes. They are transitional, because the workings of the capitalist system continually throws some of them down into the ranks of the proletariat, just as it ejects some of the bourgeoisie down into the ranks of the petit-bourgeoisie, and middle classes. On the other hand, a small number of these transitional classes occasionally find their way into the ranks of the bourgeoisie. 

Some of the classes handed down from previous history also continue. For example, Landlords and the Aristocracy continues to exist. But, where Industrial Capitalism, i.e. capitalism proper, dominates, these classes essentially form a part of the bourgeoisie, because the property they rest upon itself becomes capitalistic. Land ownership is transformed from feudal land ownership into capitalist land ownership, feudal rent into capitalist rent. But, also slaves and slave owners also continue to exist. That was most clearly witnessed in terms of slavery in the Southern States of the United States, but slavery continued in Britain during the 19th Century, and various forms of hidden slavery continues throughout the developed world today. 

Consequently, although society is divided into a multiplicity of classes, and other social ranks and gradations, and although at an individual level it is not possible to slot every individual neatly into any one of these divisions, the overall picture is that described by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto,

“Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.”

In other words, the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat constitute the two main classes in society, but clearly not the ONLY classes in society. The other classes, some of which may be very large in their own right, like the Middle Classes, arrange themselves into one class camp or the other, and which one they align with will be dependent upon a whole range of factors, that will vary over time.

The view of the class struggle, as a struggle between all of these myriad of human beings, all of whom are different in their own right, and who each have their own individual life experiences that shape their ideas, but who make up the human material of these classes, itself stems from the Communist Manifesto.

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

In the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank. In ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs; in almost all of these classes, again, subordinate gradations.”

And, of course, on one level this view is unavoidably true, because history is made by real human beings. But, on a more fundamental level this view of class struggle, as a struggle between those real human beings is merely superficial, and disguising the true nature of class struggle. The real nature of class struggle is a struggle between different forms of property, and is manifest only as a struggle between the classes that arise upon those different forms.

Engels was well aware, towards the end of his life, that because he and Marx had had to “bend the stick” as Lenin describes it, towards Materialism, in their attempts to get their new theory of Historical Materialism understood, as against the various types of Idealism that were prevalent at the time, they had caused some of their followers to interpret the theory far too literally, as a theory of economic determinism. That is, that economics, and economic interest override, and determine everything. That can be seen today, by those who argue that class is determined by “relationship to the means of production”. It is undoubtedly, one aspect of class affiliation, and a very powerful one, but it is not the only one. The problem with that approach to class is that it starts from a modern methodology based on formal logic, whereby it begins with the individual, and then tries to stick them in a box marked bourgeois or proletarian, or landlord, and having done so, the requirements of formal logic mean that this individual cannot belong to any other class.

Marx and Engels rejected that approach, or more precisely that approach never occurred to them, because their approach was based on dialectical not formal logic. In fact, in Capital, Marx began to develop an analysis of class that came close to that - Capital III, Chapter 52 – which defined classes according to the sources of their revenues, and abandoned it, because it led him into a vicious circle. But, from another perspective, Marx and Engels themselves were evidence of what is wrong with a purely economic determinist view of class. They were themselves bourgeois. Engels' family owned a textile factory in Manchester, that he ran. But, before them, early Communists like Robert Owen, were also bourgeois, factory owners! The Marxist definition of class, therefore, has to be far more subtle and complex, than a purely economically determined one, and consequently, the concept of class struggle has to be more subtle and complex than simply a struggle between individuals who belong to one of these classes determined by their relationship to the means of production – a relation, which in any case is never that clear cut.

Engels' makes this clear in his Letter To Bloch, where he describes their view of class, class struggle, and their theory of historical materialism.

“According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary...

In the second place, however, history is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between many individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what it is by a host of particular conditions of life. Thus there are innumerable intersecting forces, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant — the historical event. This may again itself be viewed as the product of a power which works as a whole unconsciously and without volition. For what each individual wills is obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one willed. Thus history has proceeded hitherto in the manner of a natural process and is essentially subject to the same laws of motion. But from the fact that the wills of individuals — each of whom desires what he is impelled to by his physical constitution and external, in the last resort economic, circumstances (either his own personal circumstances or those of society in general) — do not attain what they want, but are merged into an aggregate mean, a common resultant, it must not be concluded that they are equal to zero. On the contrary, each contributes to the resultant and is to this extent included in it.”

In other words, there can be a whole series of reasons why people at an individual level decide to line up on one side of the barricades rather than another, and the same people may line up on different sides, depending upon the particular issue being fought over. What does not change, however, are those basic property relations which themselves flow from changes in the productive forces. The class struggle is essentially, then the struggle between these different forms of property, human beings are merely the actors on the stage, by means of which this drama is played out.

Marx makes that clear in a number of places. For example, in Capital, he writes,

“In the course of our investigation we shall find, in general, that the characters who appear on the economic stage are but the personifications of the economic relations that exist between them.” 
(p 89)

Capital I, Chapter 2

This same approach is used by Marx in looking at the production of value. He writes,

“Time is everything, man is nothing; he is, at the most, time’s carcase.”

The Poverty Of Philosophy, Chapter 10

From the beginning of class society that has been true, the real class struggle is a struggle between one form of property, or mode of production upon which that property arises, and the existing one, which has reached its limits. It was private property ownership that emerged as the revolutionary alternative to primitive communist property. It was production based on the ownership of land rather than slaves, which ultimately replaces slave production. It is privately owned Capital that replaces feudal land ownership. It is socialised, collectively owned capital in the form of Co-operatives, Joint Stock Companies, Limited Companies, Trusts, and State Owned Capital that replaces privately owned Capital. It is ultimately socially owned means of production, that replaces Capital itself.

Marx and Engels describe this process.

In Capital, Marx describes the process of dissolution of the scattered means of production of the peasants, and its accumulation in the hands of the private capitalists. As the scale of capitalist production extends, the limits of privately owned capital become a fetter on its further development.

“That which is now to be expropriated is no longer the labourer working for himself, but the capitalist exploiting many labourers. This expropriation is accomplished by the action of the immanent laws of capitalistic production itself, by the centralization of capital. One capitalist always kills many...

The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.”


Capital I, Chapter 32

The private capitalists are then themselves expropriated “the expropriation of the expropriators”, as their capital is concentrated and centralised in the hands of bigger capitalists, and Joint Stock Companies – today limited companies, trusts etc – as well as Co-operatives.

In Volume III of Capital, Marx describes this.

"The expropriators are expropriated", as the private capitalists are
swallowed up by Joint Stock Companies, Limited Companies etc.
which become "social property".  Ownership now takes the form
of stock, available to be bought by all of society - who can afford to
buy it.  But, this expropriation of the expropriators still appear as
 "private property", in the hands of the few.  These companies as much
 as the Co-operatives Marx says represent the transitional form between
Capitalism and Socialism, but it is only the Co-operatives that resolve the
contradiction between Capital and Labour positively.
“In the last instance, it aims at the expropriation of the means of production from all individuals. With the development of social production the means of production cease to be means of private production and products of private production, and can thereafter be only means of production in the hands of associated producers, i.e., the latter's social property, much as they are their social products. However, this expropriation appears within the capitalist system in a contradictory form, as appropriation of social property by a few; and credit lends the latter more and more the aspect of pure adventurers. Since property here exists in the form of stock, its movement and transfer become purely a result of gambling on the stock exchange, where the little fish are swallowed by the sharks and the lambs by the stock-exchange wolves. There is antagonism against the old form in the stock companies, in which social means of production appear as private property; but the conversion to the form of stock still remains ensnared in the trammels of capitalism; hence, instead of overcoming the antithesis between the character of wealth as social and as private wealth, the stock companies merely develop it in a new form.

The co-operative factories of the labourers themselves represent within the old form the first sprouts of the new, although they naturally reproduce, and must reproduce, everywhere in their actual organisation all the shortcomings of the prevailing system. But the antithesis between capital and labour is overcome within them, if at first only by way of making the associated labourers into their own capitalist, i.e., by enabling them to use the means of production for the employment of their own labour. They show how a new mode of production naturally grows out of an old one, when the development of the material forces of production and of the corresponding forms of social production have reached a particular stage. Without the factory system arising out of the capitalist mode of production there could have been no co-operative factories. Nor could these have developed without the credit system arising out of the same mode of production. The credit system is not only the principal basis for the gradual transformation of capitalist private enterprises into capitalist stock companies, but equally offers the means for the gradual extension of co-operative enterprises on a more or less national scale. The capitalist stock companies, as much as the co-operative factories, should be considered as transitional forms from the capitalist mode of production to the associated one, with the only distinction that the antagonism is resolved negatively in the one and positively in the other.”

Capital III, Chapter 27

It is the fact that the class struggle is really a struggle between these two types of property collectively owned, socialised property, and really only of the co-operative property where the contradiction is resolved “positively”, that leads Marx and Engels to write in the Communist Manifesto,

“In all these movements, they bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.”

But, it is also what leads Lenin to write in “What Is To Be Done?”, that trade union struggles can only ever lead to a trade union rather than a class consciousness. A proletarian class consciousness cannot be developed simply on the basis of workers struggling to defend or improve their conditions, because that in itself implies acceptance and the continuation of capitalist property. It can only be built on the back of a struggle for the extension of worker owned property in opposition to capitalist property. What many today consider acts of “class struggle” i.e. struggles for higher wages, or to oppose this or that cut in the welfare state, are nothing of the kind, as Lenin sets out. They are usually only sectional rather than class struggles, and even when they are wider than that, they are struggles only to bind the workers to the existing forms of property by slightly looser bonds. In order to develop a real class consciousness, it is necessary for workers to go beyond these Economistic struggles.

As Marx put it, in his response to John Weston,

“They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society.”

Those forms were the worker co-operatives. Their relationship to the building of that class consciousness was set out in his Inaugural Address To The First International.

“But there was in store a still greater victory of the political economy of labour over the political economy of property. We speak of the co-operative movement, especially the co-operative factories raised by the unassisted efforts of a few bold “hands”. The value of these great social experiments cannot be overrated. By deed instead of by argument, they have shown that production on a large scale, and in accord with the behests of modern science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters employing a class of hands; that to bear fruit, the means of labour need not be monopolized as a means of dominion over, and of extortion against, the labouring man himself; and that, like slave labour, like serf labour, hired labour is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labour plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart.”

But, in the same address Marx describes how the bosses, of course will not allow the Co-operatives to simply develop in opposition to capitalist enterprises, any more than the feudal landlords simply allowed capital to develop in opposition to landed property. The workers, as the bourgeoisie had done, would have to organise themselves into a political party, and win political power for themselves. Then they would be able to use the backing of the state, so as to use commercial credit, to spread the co-operatives on a national basis. As Engels described this process, Letter To Von Boenigk

“To begin this reorganization tomorrow, but performing it gradually, seems to me quite feasible. That our workers are capable of it is borne out by their many producer and consumer cooperatives which, whenever they're not deliberately ruined by the police, are equally well and far more honestly run than the bourgeois stock companies.”

Lenin too, described a similar process that he saw developing in Russia, as he recognised the mistake they had made in promoting state owned industry, and the bureaucracy that rose upon it.

“Indeed, since political power is in the hands of the working-class, since this political power owns all the means of production, the only task, indeed, that remains for us is to organize the population in cooperative societies. With most of the population organizing cooperatives, the socialism which in the past was legitimately treated with ridicule, scorn and contempt by those who were rightly convinced that it was necessary to wage the class struggle, the struggle for political power, etc., will achieve its aim automatically. But not all comrades realize how vastly, how infinitely important it is now to organize the population of Russia in cooperative societies. By adopting NEP we made a concession to the peasant as a trader, to the principal of private trade; it is precisely for this reason (contrary to what some people think) that the cooperative movement is of such immense importance.”

Lenin - On Co-operation



As Lenin goes on to say here, such a condition would not constitute Socialism, but it would create all the conditions necessary for Socialism. It is not Socialism, for the simple reason that under these conditions the class struggle continues in the sense I have described above. Marx sets out how the social role of the private capitalist disappears. Capital is not provided by individual capitalists but by the the Stock Exchange, by the State, by Credit. Yet, even as capitalists disappear, most strikingly within the Co-operatives, Capital itself, defined as a social relation, whereby Capital-employs wage labour, continues. It continues, because for a long time, commodity production continues, and those commodities are sold on the market, which continues to be the means by which the Law of Value is expressed. That is all the more apparent where Capital assumes its most mature form as State Capital. As Kautsky pointed out, in this form the exploitation of the worker too can take its most extreme form, precisely because State Capital has all of the power of the State behind it, which no individual capital has.

Lenin recognised this problem even with the State Capital in the hands of the Soviet State. Writing against Trotsky, he says,

“Comrade Trotsky speaks of a “workers’ state”. May I say that this is an abstraction. It was natural for us to write about a workers’ state in 1917; but it is now a patent error to say: “Since this is a workers’ state without any bourgeoisie, against whom then is the working class to be protected, and for what purpose?” The whole point is that it is not quite a workers’ state...

Our Party Programme—a document which the author of the ABC of Communism knows very well—shows that ours is a workers’ state with a bureaucratic twist to it. We have had to mark it with this dismal, shall I say, tag. There you have the reality of the transition. Well, is it right to say that in a state that has taken this shape in practice the trade unions have nothing to protect, or that we can do without them in protecting the material and spiritual interests of the massively organised proletariat? No, this reasoning is theoretically quite wrong. ..

“We now have a state under which it is the business of the massively organised proletariat to protect itself, while we, for our part, must use these workers’ organisations to protect the workers from their state, and to get them to protect our state. Both forms of protection are achieved through the peculiar interweaving of our state measures and our agreeing or “coalescing” with our trade unions.”


We have here from Lenin perhaps the clearest example of the idea that the class struggle is a struggle between competing forms of property rather than between human beings, because he is arguing precisely for the need for a continuing class struggle, even after the old ruling class has been destroyed, a struggle not just against the remnants of those classes, but against the continuing role of the old forms of property, as represented by that State Capital.

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