Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 28 – Base and Superstructure

Marx wrote in the Preface to ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ in 1859 that “changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”

“In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.”

In this Marx argues the importance in understanding the transformation of society of the relationship between its base and its superstructure, which, like the rest of the Preface, has been the subject of no end of controversy since.

The analogy, metaphor, or whatever you want to call it – let’s call it conceptual analysis corresponding to real features of a whole social formation – is important to a Marxist understanding of the alternative to capitalism because, at its simplest, changing the superstructure, or rather attempting to do so, without changing its economic base – the forces and relations of production – will effect no fundamental change, effect no fundamental reordering and will effect no fundamental transformation of that social formation.

Without development of the productive forces inequality and destructive competition will continue, while without the abolition of classes exploitation and oppression will also continue.  Social and political programmes that fail to promise the revolutionary transformation of the current economic structure will therefore fail to remove inequality or abolish oppression and exploitation.

Let’s see how such an understanding informs the approach of Marxists to concrete political developments.

In Britain Jeremy Corbyn has captured the imagination of millions of people with his appeal to counter poverty and inequality with a more humane and caring politics.  In relating to him and his polices many people are attracted by his honesty and integrity, that he says what he believes and does not try to triangulate policies to be all things to all people, in the process strangling anything that might be progressive within them.

The Marxist approach however will question just how successful his policies might be, based as they are on the actions of a capitalist state – routinely called the ‘public sector’ –  and not on any revolutionary change in the class relations of society.  Corbyn, lest anyone be under any misapprehension, is not proposing to overthrow capitalism.  The exploitation of labour and the continued domination of the means of production by capital through exclusion of the working class from its ownership, will continue to form the irreducible bedrock of inequality in society, in terms of both economic resources and political power.

In fairness, it should be noted that there have been criticisms of the previous models of state ownership coming from the Corbyn leadership, models based on bureaucratic nationalisation and ownership by the state. This has led to references to other approaches, such as workers’ cooperatives, which offer a much more positive and potentially revolutionary alternative based on the actions of workers themselves.  Whether this will have any real currency in Corbyn’s programme remains to be seen.  Cooperatives based wholly on state sponsorship and support will struggle to attain the autonomy and freedom required to be genuine expressions of workers’ self-activity.

At a lower level of abstraction, we can see the same weakness in Corbyn’s claim that he can have a ‘jobs Brexit’, as if the relative isolation and restriction on British capitalism through exiting the EU would afford similar scope for reforms in a poorer British capitalism.  The alternative available is an international effort to make reforms at an international level, to the EU as a whole, reflecting as it does an increasingly globalised capitalist system.

Claims can be made to Corbyn’s sincerity and honesty, and these have shown themselves on many occasions to be admirable qualities, which they are for all socialists.  But what reforms Corbyn can make to reduce inequality, or take some edges off the oppression and exploitation of British capitalism, will depend not simply and not mainly on his subjective intentions, honest or otherwise.

They will depend on the power and cogency of the changes he can assist in effecting to the fundamentals of the economic system and the class power built upon it.  Failure in relation to the latter will brook no reprieve due to his integrity and sincerest intentions.  Instead this integrity and sincerity will be employed to explain and mitigate his failure, and will be all the more powerful in excusing such failure due to their previous undoubted verification.

This is what Marx meant by the importance of the relation between the base and superstructure of society, but this is not all he meant.

Some Marxists will deduce from this analysis that the duty of Marxists is to warn of Corbyn’s inevitable failure, or his betrayal and the disappointment it will create.  But if this were all that was required, or even mainly required, then life would be a lot simpler.

But it would also have proved Marx’s view of the relation between base and superstructure wrong.  For if denunciations by relatively small political groups could direct the class struggle, win the working class from left social democrats like Corbyn to Marxism, and in the process overthrow capitalism, then just how true would Marx’s claim be that “consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.”

Ideas can become powerful forces in society, and the current ideas about capitalism which have fed working class passivity are just such an example, but these ideas can themselves only become powerful if they find a material force in which and through which they are enacted; and they can only do this when they become consistent with, and express, powerful forces within the forces and relations of production.

Future posts i this series will look at the class struggle, the political programme of Marxism and what are the many ways in which socialism can be embodied in working class practice.  But all these must take account of the consciousness that inevitably arises when workers do not own the means of production, are mere hired labour and must compete with each other both for jobs and the terms and conditions of their employment.  All these are a given in society; are a given when you grow up and have to seek a living; and are a given in almost everything you are taught in school, through the media and before, during and after your working life.

So, as I have argued repeatedly – there must be some development of the forces and relations of production that forms the basis for the development of a socialist consciousness among the mass of the working class, and not just from episodic and voluntarist political struggle led by some vanguard organisation (that must, in order to be a vanguard, be in advance of the mass of workers, who are nevertheless claimed to be the subject and object of revolutionary transformation).

The forces of the working class movement must themselves be solidly based on the relations and forces of production and their actions must reflect not only their own consciousness of the transformation pregnant in society but must correspond to the actual changes that proceed even without their conscious intervention.  While the working class must bridge this disjuncture between what it must seek and what exists, we start from their separation.

As Marx says – “Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness . . .“  I might think I’m God’s gift to the opposite sex when I strut my stuff in the disco (and I don’t even do that anymore) but the opposite sex will be quick to disabuse me of such fanciful notions.  Marxist groups might think they advance the cause of the working class through condemnation of their mis-leaders but these workers have time and time again passed them by in their pursuit of ‘false Gods’.

At least part of the answer is to be part of this working class movement and to fight its battles with and beside them – its battles, not the ones that Marxists would choose that they fight.  For Marxists, this is the ABC of their politics, but too often many retreat into a view that ideas, their ideas, will trump the contradictions of material reality that Marx says determines consciousness.

To give but one example of this that has been mentioned many times on this blog – the supporters of Lexit want British workers to fight racism and xenophobia and overthrow membership of the European Union and its ‘fortress Europe’ immigration policy.  They want to oppose austerity by opposing the organisation that has stood behind it in member state after member state.  Yet this is a colossal failure because their myopic comprehension of Marxism fails to register the material reality of the international centralisation and concentration of capitalism and the political forms that have accompanied it and which are the real material contradictions that Marx says we must stand upon – not seek to run away from.

We cannot oppose international capitalism by seeking to exit its political structures when the only concrete alternative is a less advanced economic and political formation based on a national economy and a single national state.  If this were so then the advance of capitalism, contrary to the expectations of Marx, is an advance away from the possibility of socialism.  Such reactionary socialisms were severely criticised by Marx early in his political development in ‘The Communist Manifesto’.

Terry Eagleton in his book ‘Ideology: An Introduction’ states that:

“The base-superstructure doctrine has been widely attacked for being static, hierarchical, dualistic and mechanistic, even in those more sophisticated accounts of it in which the superstructure reacts back dialectically to condition the material base. It might therefore be timely and suitably unfashionable to enter a word or two in its defence. Let us be clear first what it is not asserting. It is not out to argue that prisons and parliamentary democracy, school rooms and sexual fantasies, are any less real than steel mills or sterling. Churches and cinemas are quite as material as coal mines; it is just that, on this argument, they cannot be the ultimate catalysts of revolutionary social change. The point of the base-superstructure doctrine lies in the question of determinations— of what ‘level’ of social life most powerfully and crucially conditions the others, and therefore of what arena of activity would be most relevant to effecting a thoroughgoing social transformation.”

In the next post we will look some more at the nature of the base-superstructure distinction.

Back to part 27

The 17th World Congress of the Fourth International (4) – a return to Marx?

The FI majority has opened up the question of what sort of party the militants of the Fourth International should be building, and it is not the traditional answer of a ‘revolutionary party.’  Any objective evaluation of the experience of it in practice would judge it a failure, but it isn’t the practical experience that I want to review.

I want to consider the views of the leaders of the Fourth International in light of those of Marx and his understanding of the building of a workers’ party and the role of communists within it.  This was set out a long time ago in the Communist Manifesto –

“In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole?”

“The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties.

They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.

They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.”

“The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.”

“The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.”

And –

“The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.”

“In short, the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things.”

“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.”

Marx and Engels realised that achieving the aims of the Communist Manifesto would take time.  So, for example, after the revolutions of 1848, they considered that German workers would need to go through “a lengthy revolutionary development”, through a process that involved “clarifying their minds as to what their class interests are.”

In this process he would rely “for the ultimate triumph of the ideas set forth in the Manifesto . . . solely and exclusively upon the intellectual development of the working class, as it necessarily had to ensue from united action and discussion.”

How these principles were, and are today, to be applied depends on the circumstances pertaining in a particular country and at a particular time, but it is clear that for Marx the working class was to be as united as possible and that the communists were not to separate themselves from them or from their movement on account of “any sectarian principles of their own.”

Their role included being “practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others”.  And this image of “pushes” is in some ways better than that prompted by the more often used word “leads”, since it leaves little room for believing that the party will overthrow capitalism with more or less aware workers in tow behind.

Instead communists would, with their “advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement”, help the working class in “clarifying their minds as to what their class interests are”, based “solely and exclusively upon the intellectual development of the working class, as it necessarily had to ensue from united action and discussion.”

This approach to the creation and building of a working class party may be described as one “useful” to workers, as embodying as wide a gathering of workers as possible in defence of their interests, even if yet imperfectly understood.  But if this approach of Marx is clearly not consistent with the conceptions of the FI opposition in relation to the nature of the party that must be built, it is also not the approach proposed by the majority either.

This is because the majority also does not propose to accept the working class and its movement as it exists and fight within it “In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through”, including “for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class . . .”

It may be argued that both the working class movement and the approach to building working class parties has evolved and developed since these early conceptions of Marx and Engels, and this is true.  But it is not true that these principles were discarded by them, and for all their apparent elementary, if not rudimentary, nature, they are still more developed than the formulation of the FI majority text, which may be considered consistent with Marx and the Manifesto only through some addition to the FI formulation and not through simple interpretation.

Marx and Engels made clear that their approach held good, not just by repeatedly standing by the Communist Manifesto in their later political careers, but by their intervention into the evolution of the workers’ movement subsequent to its writing.

Both argued the necessity of a separate working class party opposed to the bourgeoisie and both recognised the different circumstances and evolution that such a party might go through in each country – “our theory is not a dogma but the exposition of a process of evolution, and that process involves successive phases”, said Engels.  In France at one point, in relation to a party with roots in the working class, they believed it would be a step back to seek to scrap their more or less developed socialist programme for the sake of greater numbers.

On the other hand, in relation to America Engels stated that “a million or two of working men’s votes . . . for a bona fide working men’s party is worth more than a hundred thousand votes for a doctrinally perfect programme.” And “anything that might delay or prevent that national consolidation of the working men’s party – no matter on what platform – I should consider a mistake.”

This did not mean that the theoretical gains of Marx and he should be ‘parked’, as it would be described now.  When Marx wrote that “every step of the real movement is more important than a dozen programmes” it did not prevent him simultaneously defending the theoretical gains he had made in the “Critique of the Gotha Programme’.  He favoured unity between the two German working class parties meeting in Gotha but did not approve the programme on which it was to be based, writing that “if, therefore it was not possible  . .  to go beyond the Eisenach programme, one should simply have concluded an agreement for action against the common enemy.”

This too might seem not inconsistent with the view that the working class party must be ‘useful’, as the FI majority text puts it, except that, as I have said, this can only be the case for a party that can be considered a genuine section of the working class; not one defined solely in relation to it being an ‘advance guard’ or some unclear consideration of ‘broadness’; and what is useful is what is useful to the working class in its immediate and long-term struggle, as noted above.

Such an approach may seem closer to Marx and Engels’ collaboration in the First International and its explicit expression as an organic development out of the existing working class movements in various countries.  Such a template might seem more fitting for an international organisation.

Of course, Engels considered that the next Workers’ International would be “directly Communist and will openly proclaim our principles” (those of Marx and himself).  This proved not to be the case, although the Second International was heavily influenced, at least initially, by them.

However, it should not be expected that mass phenomenon, such as a mass workers’ movement, can escape the material basis on which it is to be built and the political weaknesses of the Second International ultimately reflected the growth and development of imperialism and nationalist division.

Subsequent attempts to build an International arose out of a world-wide crisis occasioned by World War and based itself on the initially successful revolution in Russia.  The subsequent Fourth International was based on a view of the irrevocable, immediately tangible decline of capitalism and a more or less proximate socialist revolution.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case and the material basis for the party as envisaged by Trotsky did not exist.  The mass of the working class in Europe did not move to a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism; so the FI shifted its attention to where there were struggles that appeared to offer something comparable, in what was known as the third world and to other layers and components of the population.

For Marx and Engels however the development for a workers’ party could only be a product of the development of the working class itself. The role of Communists was to work with them at all times – “it is possible to work along with the general movement of the working class at every one of its stages without giving up or hiding our own distinct position or even organisation”.  What mattered was that any working class party was a “distinct workers’ party”, reflecting the masses “own movement – no matter in what form so long as it is their own movement.”

In the Communist Manifesto this meant that in France the Communists allied with the Social Democrats and in Switzerland they supported the Radicals.  In the First International it meant uniting Proudhonists and English trade unionists amongst others. Their judgement depended on the criteria we have just set out and at what stage of evolution they considered the working class and its movement was at, not from the criteria of a revolutionary programme in itself, divorced from where the working class had reached.

It would seem obvious today that we do not unite the most active parts of the working class and its movement by positing the unity of small revolutionary organisations, which is entirely inadequate, or of creating “broad’ parties which are broad only in their political heterogeneity and not in their mass.  It should be obvious that you do not go to the working class by first seeking new “broad” parties that do not yet have its allegiance, at least not unless it can be reasonably confidently said that this is where the working class is, or shortly will be.

Engels gave this advice to Marxists in the US:

”….It is far more important that the movement should spread, proceed harmoniously, take root and embrace as much as possible the whole American proletariat, than that it should start and proceed from the beginning on theoretically perfectly correct lines. There is no better road to theoretical clearness of comprehension than “durch Schaden klug tererden” [to learn by one’s own mistakes]. And for a whole large class, there is no other road, especially for a nation so eminently practical as the Americans. The great thing is to get the working class to move as a class; that once obtained, they will soon find the right direction, and all who resist, H.G. or Powderly, will be left out in the cold with small sects of their own.”

Taking this into account, the sense in which being ”useful” makes most sense is being organised as part of the broader working class movement; being useful not only, or even mainly, in practical terms but also in theoretical and political terms.  But this will only be so if the working class itself finds the workers’ party a useful instrument for defending and advancing its interests.

And yes, “the ultimate goal of such a party’ would “obviously [be] to get rid of the existing (capitalist) system, in whatever general terms this may be expressed.”  These general terms to be worked out and developed by the workers’ party, with input from its “most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others.’  This advanced section has “over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.”

From such a vantage point the majority view makes more sense seen from the perspective of the First International, updated and modified by a clear understanding of the evolution of the working class and workers’ movement from this time.  As this series of posts has been at pains to argue, it is from the latter that any programmatic and organisational lessons must be drawn and applied.

The next post will look at the documents of the minority opposition.

Back to part 3

Forward to part 5

An exchange of views on Marx’s relations of production 2

The previous post raised a host of issues and it would take a great deal of time to address all of them adequately. Instead I’ll limit myself to only four, which I will still only touch upon.

1.In Marx’s time the main form of the petty bourgeoisie was the peasantry.   This class has declined dramatically across Europe, North America and Japan and is declining relatively in the rest of the world.  By contrast the working class, those that live by their wage labour, has grown enormously, and continues to do so, most recently in East Asian countries including China.  An ILO report from 2013 reported that in 2011 the world-wide labour force employed in agriculture was 1.208 billion, while that working in industry and services totaled 2.057 billion.  There may be more recent figures and more detailed analysis but the basic point would only be reinforced.

These trends are important because they reveal not just class numbers loosely defined but property relationships and class relationships as understood by Marxists. They reveal the growth of the class that Marx held was the grave-digger of capitalism and reduction in that class which owns, or is otherwise tied to, the means of production as land.  It also reveals the increasing role of capital and the class that personifies it. After all, the growth of wage labour and the working class implies the growth of capital that employs and exploits this wage labour.

2. It is argued that there is an emergence of a petty bourgeoisie and the example of Britain is referred to, where “the number of small firms paying taxes to the State as documented by government statistics is 5.7 million. a small firm in the statistics is defined as employing 250 people or less. Many of the 5.7 million we can presume to have families of at least one other person, so the number of people belonging to the petty bourgeoisie could be said to be about 11. 4 million.” Given that the population of the UK is 65.6m the petty bourgeoisie would be over 17% of this population.

But who are these petty bourgeoisie?  Well 76% of these small firms don’t employ anyone.  In Marxist parlance, they don’t exploit labour power. Of the remaining small businesses 96% employ an average of 1.6 workers.

On the other hand, seven thousand large businesses employ 40% of the labour force and account for 49% of total turnover of business.  The rest of the labour force, and just over half of the turnover, is accounted for 5,687,000 businesses. We therefore have a position in which 96% of businesses have fewer than 10 employees.

Over the 15 years from 2001 to 2016, in each year, 10% to 12% of businesses die while 10 to15% of businesses are born. Over ten years the odds aren’t good on surviving, although obviously, many do.  Not so far the makings of a powerful social class.

So over three quarters of the “petty bourgeoisie” don’t employ labour power.  They are self-employed.  So who are these self-employed?

It is first necessary to note that this group has grown in the UK over the last number of years from 3.3 million people in 2001 to 4.8 million in 2017, or from 12% of the labour force to 15%.  However, this growth has been driven by those self-employed who employ no one but themselves, accounting for 2.4 million in 2001 and 4 million in 2016.

The level of earnings among the self-employed is lower than those in employment.  The most common level is £400 per week for employees but only £240 per week for the self-employed, and the difference in the median earnings between the two groups has grown during these fifteen years.

Earnings of part time self-employed male workers were only just over half of their total income while almost 34% came from pension and retirement income, which was also the second most important source of income for female part-time self-employed workers, who also relied on benefits and tax credits for over 17% of their total income. Many of the self-employed are therefore at an age to collect their pension, or rely on welfare benefits and tax credits.

In terms of wealth just over 25% of the self-employed do not own property, while a slightly greater proportion (26.9%) of employees own no property.  The proportion owning less than £125,000 is less than 30% but around 35% for employees.  At the highest end about 10% of self-employed have property wealth of £500, 000 and over, while the share is only just over 5% for employees.

Just over 45% of the self-employed have no private pension wealth and the self-employed lag behind employees in all the income ranges of such wealth, from those with private pensions worth less than £25,000 to those that have pensions worth more than £500,000. If we look at financial wealth there is little difference between the two groups in the 35 to 54 age group, although 19.4% of the self-employed fall into the £100,000 and over range while only 12.2% of employees do so.

So even if we took, as a crude estimate, the top 20% of the self-employed as owning significant wealth, wealth that is however not enough to save them from working – as we have seen many still do so after retirement, we are talking about roughly 20% of 4.8m, which is nearly 1 million.

If we repeat the exercise of adding one additional family member, which may be on the low side, we get 2 million people.  If we add the number of small and medium businesses that actually employ people, and also add one family member to each, we get 2.7 million people.  In other words, this method of estimating the petty bourgeoisie gives us a total of 4.7 million, not 11.4.  If we round this figure up to 5 million (this is hardly a scientific exercise anyway) we get a percentage of 7.6% of the UK population. Even if we made a crude estimate to work out this group as a proportion of the adult population, the percentage would be something like 10% of the total population. By no means insignificant but less impressive when we consider the tiny fraction of the population that can be considered as consisting of the capitalist class and the vast majority who can be considered as the working class.

The point of this exercise is only to show that this approach to trying to show the power of a new petty bourgeoisie is faulty.  For example, many of the self-employed are construction workers enticed into such status through tax incentives, while many are described as ‘dependent self-employed’, who have none of the advantages of workers’ rights such as employment protection, holiday and sickness entitlements.  In these ways they are exploited more than many employed workers.

Of course, there are self-employed finance consultants, some making do after redundancy from the City; and others are IT consultants, journalists, engineers, accountants etc.  We have seen that many earn less than ordinary employees and could be more accurately classified as such.  The self-employed include in their ranks taxi drivers, plumbers, hairdressers, lorry drivers, musicians and other artists, as well as a host of others.  Legal definition should not get in the way of class analysis.

3. Belfast Plebian makes reference to the idea that the petty bourgeoisie “lived off a surplus extracted from the manual proletariat.”  So far as Marx was concerned the distribution of surplus value involved the payment of state employees out of the surplus created by workers in the productive sector of the economy through taxation.  By productive sector we mean productive of surplus value.  In this case cleaners in the NHS, civil servants in offices and teachers in schools are all paid from surplus value created by other workers.

Most people would understand these people as part of the working class, and they would be right. Irrespective of legal definition, this is also true of many self-employed workers.

Productive workers (productive of surplus value) are not by that account exploited by these workers, since the latter are paid a wage, not out of capital but out of taxation of surplus value.  Their labour is not exploited but the productive labour from which their wages originate is exploited by capital, which is taxed.  They are paid a wage that generally represents a value equal to their labour power, which may be less than the value that their labour time worked might otherwise produce in the productive sector.

Those self-employed, or highly paid state employees, or even more highly paid managers of capitalist enterprises, may be paid a salary that is so high it would not involve any exploitation, where they productive workers.  That is, their salary would cover not only the value of their labour power, the assumed value created by their necessary labour that corresponds to a normal wage, but also any potential surplus value that they could create, that normally would be appropriated by the capitalist as profit.

It should be recognised that many workers described as middle managers or even senior managers are not in any real sense allied to capital in the suppression of their fellow workers, in their assurance of the social reproduction of the capitalist system.  In the state sector in the NHS for example, you can be a ‘senior manager’ but have little control over the organisation you work for, and such control as you have is simply supervision of more junior staff, and if you’re lucky, some minor control over your own work.

Many professions are being proletarianised, with accountants and lawyers more and more divided between those training and earning a pittance; those qualified and hoping for a decent wage; and those earing smaller or larger fortunes at the top of the profession.

That a worker therefore lives off the surplus value created by another worker, either in the state or private sector, does not therefore make them part of the petty bourgeoisie; just as in the contrary case, someone earning a salary could be paid so much that they are amassing capital through savings. The latter might move from well-paid worker creating surplus value, to a petty bourgeois that isn’t exploited, to a manager aspiring to becoming a capitalist. As we have seen, most self-employed are not in the last camp, not in the second camp either, but are in the first – they are effectively working class.

4. Belfast Plebian states that ‘the division of mental and manual labour is directly bound up with the monopolisation of knowledge, Those ‘Marxists’ who do acknowledge the mediating role of the petty bourgeoisie try to save the two class schema of Marx by classifying the new petty bourgeoisie in terms more akin to high skilled workers and therefore still make them receptive to a future socialism, but what sort of socialism?”

Belfast plebian is right that what he calls the petty bourgeoisie are often skilled workers, as I have argued above.  In contrast to many socialists today, who equate socialism with the interests of simply the poor, it has often been reactionary conservatives who have appealed to skilled workers as a means of dividing the working class.

But Marx makes clear that capitalism makes the working class fit to become the ruling class of society and it has done so by increasingly destroying any basis for the monopolization of knowledge.  As this post makes clear, capitalism has created and is still creating an educated working class, and without it no socialism is possible.  Only a view that socialism arises solely from crisis and oppression can fail to recognise and welcome this development as, far from postponing or calling into question the potential to create a new society, the increasing education of working people makes it more likely.

And what sort of socialism does this make workers receptive to? Well, one in which they can develop to the full their existing freedom, knowledge and capacities, that capitalism has promised and given potential to, but which it frustrates and limits.  That is, not the experience of the Russian revolution, where workers found themselves reliant on ‘bourgeois’ experts, but rather the situation more prevalent now, in which they increasingly find the experts from within their own ranks.

Lenin never made the mistake of thinking socialism relied on the most oppressed, otherwise he would have stood on the ground of the peasantry.  Marxists believe the working class is the potential creator of a single class i.e. a classless society, because it is much more than an oppressed class but has the interests and capacity to liberate the whole of society.

Back to part 1

An exchange of views on Marx’s relations of production 1

In response to an earlier post on Marx’s views on the contradiction between the forces and relations of production, which gives rise to the potential transition to socialism, a comment questioned the relevance of Marx’s views on the relations of production for understanding current society.  This comment is reproduced below and will be followed by a reply in a further post.

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The historical scheme that Marx was familiar with is barely credible for us today. He argued that in the pre-capitalist era there existed two primary social classes the landed nobility and the peasant serfs. Then a third class emerged that developed the productive forces to a higher degree than was normal for feudalism, this class he called the bourgeoisie. The economic activity of the bourgeoisie really quite quickly brought into play a new class of wage labourers called the proletariat. So we had a transition out of feudalism requiring three classes, being superseded by a capitalist society involving only two primary social classes. The argument then goes the further development of the productive forces within capitalism requires another transition into a society consisting of only one social class, the ‘associated producers’. So we start with three social classes and end up with only one social class, this is not of conscious choice but due mainly to the economic rationality implicit in the act of developing the productive forces. 

The problem is that the schema leaves out the emergence of another social class that we like to dismiss all too readily, called the petty bourgeoisie. It has been a fixed point or Marxism to refer to this social class as a declining or disappearing social class, it is often referred to in the language of harsh politics as the reactionary or conservative social class, Trotsky even spoke about fascism in terms of the petty bourgeoisie having gone wild. The empirical evidence for the gradual disappearance of the petty bourgeoisie is based on economic criteria and not actual sociological numbers, what one could call a political criteria. In Britain for example the number of small firms paying taxes to the State as documented by government statistics is 5.7 million. a small firm in the statistics is defined as employing 250 people or less. Many of the 5.7 million we can presume to have families of at least one other person, so the number of people belonging to the petty bourgeoisie could be said to be about 11. 4 million. This is close to the 12 million who for about one hundred years have been voting for the Conservative Party.

One economic argument that is deployed to downgrade the social importance of the petty bourgeoisie is that the numerically large small business class is in the last instance dependent and subordinate to the real bourgeoisie that in numerical terms is very small, the so called 1 percent. So despite the large numbers, the petty bourgeoisie is responsible for a falling portion of the GDP. The assumption is that small businesses are by definition less efficient than large businesses, small farms and small shops etc. are sure to be eliminated by the larger efficient firms. 

The historical argument is that the petty bourgeoisie is bound to decline and disappear because they stand as an obstacle in the way of the further development of the productive forces. This was taken as basic to Marxist analysis until Nicos Poulantzas in his book Classes in Contemporary Capitalism proposed an account for an emergent class standing between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat that was qualitatively different from the historic property owning petty bourgeoisie, he called them the ‘new petty bourgeoisie’. He used three criteria to differentiate the new petty bourgeoisie, the most important being their supervisory and management position role within the monopoly firms. They were the numerous senior and junior managers, work supervisors, scientists, engineers, accountants, technical and legal staff advisers that the absentee bourgeoisie needed to maintain their portfolio owned firms :

‘The division of mental and manual labour is directly bound up with the monopolisation of knowledge,the capitalist form of appropriation of scientific discoveries and the reproduction of ideological relations of domination/subornation, by the permanent exclusion on the subordinated side of those who are deemed not to know how’

One revolutionary characteristic of this new petty bourgeoisie was their interest in developing the productive forces to the highest degree possible, maybe this might make them a potential resource for a transition to socialism but experience suggested otherwise. This looks like the very same class of ‘knowing people’ that Lenin had to call on to maintain and modernise the factories, and the same class that Stalin had to offer special economic privileges to keep them loyal, and the same knowledge class that eventually overthrew ‘socialism’ in the Soviet Union.

In short a third social class emerged between the two classes of bourgeois and proletarian, Poulantzas called them the ‘new petty bourgeoisie’, and this class does have an interest in the further development of the of the productive forces. It is because of the obvious presence of this social class that bourgeois commentary assures itself of the long term stability of capitalism, bourgeois commentary in academia and journalism operates under the assumption that we inhabit a class divided yet solid bourgeois society. The working class is an integral part of bourgeois society but it is not the only the real stakeholder, the big bourgeois in the form of the bankers and the global bond holders can be hated and despised without fear of social instability because they also are not the solid part, it is the the political solidarity of the old and the new petty bourgeois that really preserves the private property basis of capitalism.

Those ‘Marxists’ who do acknowledge the mediating role of the petty bourgeoisie try to save the two class schema of Marx by classifying the new petty bourgeoisie in terms more akin to high skilled workers and therefore still make them receptive to a future socialism, but what sort of socialism? Could it be the socialism of a new class society that became the Soviet Union? The class that came to organise the Soviet Union seems to fit with the three criteria Poulantzas used to define the new petty bourgeoisie that emerged out of monopoly capitalism:

1 They lived off a surplus extracted from the manual proletariat. 2 They conducted supervisory activity over other workers. 3 They performed mental labour and possessed specialised knowledge of a scientific kind.

Forward to part 2

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 27 – forces and relations of production 10

The endorsement of workers’ cooperatives by Marx with which the previous post in this series finished needs emphasis because all too many of today’s Marxists fail to acknowledge their place in Marx’s alternative to capitalism. To take just one example: the Irish Marxist Kieran Allen, in his ‘Karl Marx and the Alternative to Capitalism’, references workers’ cooperatives under the heading of ‘Marx and Utopianism’, and with a view that appears to see these cooperatives as ‘islands of socialism’ within a capitalist sea, that “could not break with the logic of capitalism.”  The endorsement of workers’ cooperatives by Marx is not referred to by him, which is more than remiss given the title of the book.

Instead trade union organisation is endorsed and the perspectives of Marx described thus:

“Marx’s approach, therefore, was not to build alternatives within the existing mode of production but to overthrow it”

This is a view common to many of today’s Marxists.  However, by using this example of this approach, a number of points can be made, by way of illustration how it may be contrasted to the approach set out so far in these posts.

First, it might be pointed out that while cooperatives may not break completely with the logic of capitalism, this was well understood by Marx, as the first sentence of the extensive quote from the last post makes plain – “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.”

Second, it may be noted that not only do trade unions enforce the logic of capitalism, by bargaining the price of labour power in the labour market, but they are obviously built within the existing system and generally do not seek to overthrow it, a criticism levelled at cooperatives.

In this sense, it is equally obvious that unless the alternative is built “within the existing mode of production” there will be nothing with which “to overthrow it”.   Something as true of a working class party as of cooperative workplaces.  Without material foundations for example, there will be no revolution, certainly not one that is successful.  This will be the case because it is not just a question of overthrowing capitalism but of replacing it, and the replacement cannot be conjured out of nothing.  It cannot arise from empowering the state to take control – because this is not socialism, as the series of posts on the Russian revolution demonstrated.  But it will also not arise from within the heads of the working class unless the real world outside their heads, the’being that determines consciousness’, propels them to it.

Both within workers’ consciousness and the real world that creates this consciousness there must be a viable alternative, one that the creation of workers’ cooperatives within capitalism can represent.  In this sense, such cooperatives can be made, if not islands of socialism, then sites of struggle to win workers to ownership of the means of production right across society, and a giant step towards it within the existing system.

Allen argues that “unlike the capitalist class, workers need direct political power to begin the process of liberating themselves” (emphasis added), but this confuses the requirement for revolution, and the conquering of political power by the working class, with the process to get there, and what the working class needs to do afterwards in order to rule, not just in the political sense but as a ruling social class.  Much of the Marxist movement has been handicapped by failure to properly understand the necessity to advance the economic, social and political power of the working class, in the way Marx sought to do, within capitalism, as a prerequisite of, and prior to, overthrowing and replacing it.

Since this is a necessity whether one believes it is required or not, the vacuum created by lack of such understanding is filled by reformist and statist conceptions of working class struggle and socialism, which are as routinely condemned as much as they are advanced in practice.  These statist conceptions of socialism were opposed by Marx, as by many Marxists today, but he had conceptions of the alternative, which many of today’s Marxists do not. They thus lapse into Keynesian remedies and calls for nationalisation, ignoring experience of the latter when it happens and results in enforcement of the logic of capitalism – as in Ireland with bank nationalisation and creation of an enormous property development company by the state – NAMA.

This yawning gap in the conception of how the working class prepares itself to be the ruling class, to carry out a revolution, has all sorts of other deleterious consequences, leading not just to reformist capitulation but alternatively to ultra-left isolation, and retreat into vanguardist conceptions that amazingly can include reformist politics as well.  Since the real prerequisites for socialist revolution are ignored, the experience of heightened episodes of class struggle are continually misapprehended as revolutionary outbreaks when they are not.  Their failure leads to a search for scapegoats, for villains who have betrayed, without pausing to ask how this betrayal could have been allowed if the working class was already revolutionary.

It means that even those parties with the purest revolutionary programmes will be compelled to retreat and betray their revolutionary beliefs because the working class they seek to lead, and may even succeed in leading for a time, is simply not in a position to make a revolution, a weakness inevitably reflected in their political consciousness.  Retreat in such circumstances is inevitable regardless of subjective wishes and intentions.

In practice, such realisation affects the most radical parties long before they are in a position to claim outright leadership of the majority of the working class, whereupon the left section denounces the right as betraying socialism and the right denounces the left as lacking in realism.  Meanwhile the decisive question is how the working class has prepared itself for political power, because it is the class that creates the party, not the other way round.

The prevailing general conception of many Marxists is presented by Allen this way:

“It was only in the process of revolution that the mass of people learnt to clarify their own interests and develop a different understanding of their society. In normal times, the majority accept the legitimacy of their rulers and at least some of their ideas.  This cannot be changed simply through preaching, teaching or good example.  A new consciousness cannot emerge on a mass scale by workers ‘waking up’ and then passively following the teachings of their intellectual masters or clever television presenters.  Experience of class struggle is the only way in which people can learn, and, as Draper put it, ‘revolution speeded up the curriculum and enriched the course.’”

What this says is that only revolution can bring about the consciousness within workers that a revolution is required, which is actually partly true but obviously hardly adequate; in other words inadequate.  Read in reverse, the paragraph quoted above makes the weakness of this conception clearer; for it reads – revolution becomes the means of ‘waking up’ the workers, while revolution is the result of their ‘waking up’.

As a more or less sudden and abrupt process, of greater or shorter duration, a revolution alone cannot equip the working class with the consciousness that society must be organised by themselves and that they have the capacity to do so.  Marxists often note that consciousness lags behind material changes in the real world, and stand firmly on the ground that such material reality is the soil upon which consciousness grows.  It is therefore the case that anticipations of the new socialist society must appear within capitalism for the consciousness of the new society to also appear and grow, and to achieve hegemony within the working class.  As we have noted, of all the developments of the forces and relations of production under capitalism, it is cooperative production, working class control of the means of production – even within the capitalist system – that Marx notes should be considered one of the“transitional forms from the capitalist mode of production to the associated one.”

The creation of workers’ cooperatives raises the potential for increasing numbers of workers to understand the possibility of working class ownership of the means of production.  Such ownership also has the potential to demonstrate the benefits of increasing the scale and scope of cooperative production within capitalism – the benefit of cooperative enterprises cooperating with each other.

It also has the potential to demonstrate the ultimate requirement to defend this working class control through rejecting a capitalist state that exists to defend capitalist ownership and control.   The need for the working class to have its own state can be demonstrated when it becomes clear that it needs it to defend its own cooperative property.

Cooperative production has the potential to burst asunder the existing relations of capitalist production and release the fetters on the forces of production increasingly under strain from the limitations imposed on the socialisation of production by capitalist property relations. So, for example, the savings of workers, including their pension funds, can be mobilised using the existing system of socialised capital to provide the funding for workers to create their own cooperatives.

Workers’ cooperatives are not however a ‘magic bullet’ and do not replace the various other means by which workers must organise, in trade unions and political parties etc. as the example of Marx and Engels’ own lives demonstrates.  Cooperative factories were however important for how they conceived of the transition from capitalism to socialism and clearly fit their conceptions relating to the forces and relations of production that we have reviewed in these last number of posts.

Back to part 26

Forward to part 28

Karl Marx’s Alternative to capitalism part 26 – forces and relations of production 9

In the previous series of posts I have set out Marx’s views on the contradictions of capitalism, between its productive forces and the relations of production, and have gone to some length to explain the concepts involved.

Much of this might seem rather tenuously related to the issue of Marx’s alternative to capitalism.  Previously, however, I have explained that this alternative can only arise out of existing society, and not from any sort of blueprint, either based on high moral values of equality and justice etc. or more or less elaborate plans for the a society, for example how a planned economy might be made to work more efficiently than capitalism.

More particularly, this alternative cannot be conceived as simply political revolution, for such a revolution presupposes the grounds for its success – on the development of the forces and relations of production as set out in these previous posts, this one and the next one.

The development of the forces and relations of production explains how the alternative that grows within capitalism and will supersede it might be conceived, and on these grounds that political revolution might be considered a reasonable objective.

In this way, Marx explains how the development of capitalism creates the grounds and tendencies of development of an alternative society:

“The conditions for production become increasingly general, communal and social, relying less on the individual capitalist. We have seen that the growing accumulation of capital implies its growing concentration. Thus grows the power of capital, the alienation of the conditions of social production personified in the capitalist from the real producers. Capital comes more and more to the fore as a social power, whose agent is the capitalist. This social power no longer stands in any possible relation to that which the labour of a single individual can create. It becomes an alienated, independent, social power, which stands opposed to society as an object, and as an object that is the capitalist’s source of power.”

“The contradiction between the general social power into which capital develops, on the one hand, and the private power of the individual capitalists over these social conditions of production, on the other, becomes ever more irreconcilable, and yet contains the solution of the problem, because it implies at the same time the transformation of the conditions of production into general, common, social, conditions. This transformation stems from the development of the productive forces under capitalist production, and from the ways and means by which this development takes place.”

Marx sets out “Three cardinal facts of capitalist production:

1) Concentration of means of production in few hands, whereby they cease to appear as the property of the immediate labourers and turn into social production capacities. Even if initially they are the private property of capitalists. These are the trustees of bourgeois society, but they pocket all the proceeds of this trusteeship.

2) Organisation of labour itself into social labour: through co-operation, division of labour, and the uniting of labour with the natural sciences.

In these two senses, the capitalist mode of production abolishes private property and private labour, even though in contradictory forms.”

Marx notes that the bigger, more concentrated and centralised capital becomes, the less important is the role of the capitalist himself, while this process simultaneously involves the centralisation of capital in a few hands including through the decapitalisation of many.  Although “this process would entail the rapid breakdown of capitalist production, if counteracting tendencies were not constantly at work alongside this centripetal force, in the direction of decentralisation.” (Capital Volume III, p 354 – 355)

Ernest Mandel, in his introduction to Volume III of Capital, sets out a flow-diagram putting forward the elements of Marx’s analysis and placing them within separate boxes, with the end point being ‘socialism’, and with the penultimate box the ‘tendency towards collapse of capitalist system’.

While useful as a graphical presentation of the elements of Marx’s analysis, it is misleading if it is assumed that socialism is simply a result of capitalist collapse, rather than capitalist collapse being the result of socialism, in other words the actions of the working class.

It is however useful to sum up the last few posts by itemising these different elements that are  included in Mandel’s schematic, with the understanding that socialism is not the result of the automatic working out of any or even all of these factors, but rather the conscious intervention of the working class, not in a voluntarist way, but arising out of (at least some of) the factors set out below, and in particular ways that we shall later explore.

  • Growing difficulty of maintaining market economy, value realisation, under conditions of growing automation.
  • Periodic crises of overproduction.
  • Tendency to growing centralisation of capital in fewer and fewer hands.
  • Tendency of average rate of profit to decline.
  • Tendency to growing objective socialisation of labour.
  • Growing contradiction between socialised labour and private appropriation.

The contradiction between capitalist relations of production and its productive forces is evident every day, in the inability of capitalism to secure permanent full employment, in fact its inability to function without a reserve army of labour that helps regulate its functioning.

The tendency to the socialisation of production through, for example, the growth of monopoly might be seen as anticipation of socialism, which in a negative fashion it is, but while it entails increased planning within enterprises, it does not otherwise prevent capitalist crises.

Likewise, increased state ownership and intervention also anticipates resolution of the contradiction between the forces and relations of production, but does not resolve it and does not represent a model of future society.  As Engels notes:”

“But, the transformation — either into joint-stock companies and trusts, or into State-ownership — does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces. In the joint-stock companies and trusts, this is obvious. And the modern State, again, is only the organisation that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists.”

“The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine — the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers — proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is, rather, brought to a head. But, brought to a head, it topples over. State-ownership of the productive forces is not the solution of the conflict, but concealed within it are the technical conditions that form the elements of that solution.”

The true anticipation and herald of the new mode of production is contained in the development of workers’ production, anticipation of the associated workers’ mode of production, through the growth of workers cooperatives, as argued by Marx:

“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 Volume III)

Back to part 25

Forward to part 27

Karl Marx’s Alternative to capitalism part 25 – forces and relations of production 8

For Marx in the 1859 Preface “the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.”

At this stage, it is useful to let Marx’s writings themselves set out what he means.  Explaining the nature of this conflict in Capital Vol III: “the contradiction in this capitalist mode of production consists precisely in its tendency towards the absolute development of productive forces that come into continuous conflict with the specific conditions of production in which capital moves, and can alone move.”

“On the other hand, too many means of labour and necessities of life are produced at times to permit of their serving as means for the exploitation of labourers at a certain rate of profit. Too many commodities are produced to permit of a realisation and conversion into new capital of the value and surplus-value contained in them under the conditions of distribution and consumption peculiar to capitalist production, i.e., too many to permit of the consummation of this process without constantly recurring explosions.”

“Not too much wealth is produced. But at times too much wealth is produced in its capitalistic, self-contradictory forms.”

“The limitations of the capitalist mode of production come to the surface:

“1) In that the development of the productivity of labour creates out of the falling rate of profit a law which at a certain point comes into antagonistic conflict with this development and must be overcome constantly through crises.”

“2) In that the expansion or contraction of production are determined by the appropriation of unpaid labour and the proportion of this unpaid labour to materialised labour in general, or, to speak the language of the capitalists, by profit and the proportion of this profit to the employed capital, thus by a definite rate of profit, rather than the relation of production to social requirements, i.e., to the requirements of socially developed human beings. It is for this reason that the capitalist mode of production meets with barriers at a certain expanded stage of production which, if viewed from the other premise, would reversely have been altogether inadequate. It comes to a standstill at a point fixed by the production and realisation of profit, and not the satisfaction of requirements.”

The barriers to development of the forces of production that would threaten its continued existence are explained.

“The rate of profit, i.e., the relative increment of capital, is above all important to all new offshoots of capital seeking to find an independent place for themselves. And as soon as formation of capital were to fall into the hands of a few established big capitals, for which the mass of profit compensates for the falling rate of profit, the vital flame of production would be altogether extinguished. It would die out. The rate of profit is the motive power of capitalist production. Things are produced only so long as they can be produced with a profit. . . . Development of the productive forces of social labour is the historical task and justification of capital.”

“At any rate, it is but a requirement of the capitalist mode of production that the number of wage-workers should increase absolutely, in spite of its relative decrease. Labour-power becomes redundant for it as soon as it is no longer necessary to employ it for 12 to 15 hours daily. A development of productive forces which would diminish the absolute number of labourers, i.e., enable the entire nation to accomplish its total production in a shorter time span, would cause a revolution, because it would put the bulk of the population out of the running.”

“This is another manifestation of the specific barrier of capitalist production, showing also that capitalist production is by no means an absolute form for the development of the productive forces and for the creation of wealth, but rather that at a certain point it comes into collision with this development. This collision appears partly in periodical crises, which arise from the circumstance that now this and now that portion of the labouring population becomes redundant under its old mode of employment. The limit of capitalist production is the excess time of the labourers. The absolute spare time gained by society does not concern it. The development of productivity concerns it only in so far as it increases the surplus labour-time of the working-class, not because it decreases the labour-time for material production in general. It moves thus in a contradiction.”

Marx contends “that the bourgeois mode of production contains within itself a barrier to the free development of the productive forces, a barrier which comes to the surface in crisis and, in particular over-production – the basic phenomenon in crisis.”  (Theories of Surplus Value Vol !!)

“In world market crises, all the contradictions of bourgeois production erupt collectively; in particular crises (particular in their content and in extent) the eruptions are only sporadical, isolated and one-sided.  Over-production is specifically conditioned by the general law of the production of capital: to produce to the limit set by the productive forces, that is to say, to exploit the maximum amount of labour with the given amount of capital, without any consideration for the actual limits of the market or the needs backed by the ability to pay . . . “

back to part 24

Forward to part 26