The Internationalism of Capital and Class

Karl Marx’s Alternative to Capitalism – Part 36

Whether we like it or not, the development of the capitalist mode of production has shaped the working class, its organisation and its movement.  It has done so in ways that, in a more or less immediate fashion, assists or retards the organisation of the working class.

In general, however, it is the argument of Marxism that the increasing socialisation of capitalism gives rise to a materially strengthened working class that needs to become conscious of its objective role, and of the potential alternative arising from it that reflect its objective interests.  In all these aspects the process is international, a global one that brings workers of the world together more and more and which must make conscious this mutual dependence through international organisation. 

So today we should be asking ourselves – would the increasing organisation of capitalism on an international basis, today called globalisation, not also be the grounds upon which the working class created should unite? Would workers unity across Europe be assisted or hindered by the increasing international organisation of European capital and its associated political development?  Would workers unity be easier or harder if faced with more and more similar economic, social and political conditions, including laws, institutions and common enemy?  In other words, for example, inside or outside the EU?  Does accepting the international development of capitalism not provide the basis to also organise workers internationally so that the EU similarly can be ultimately replaced by a workers’ alternative?

Far from ‘cosmopolitan’ workers, immigrant workers, young employees of tech firms, working class students who have travelled, part time ‘precariat’ workers etc. etc. being neglected, or worse, in the name of a ‘traditional working class’; these working class fragments are products of the constant reformation of the working class that has always been generated by capitalism and from which previous components of the working class movement have been built.

Only those who want to divide the working class will seek to pose this working class against a separate working class that is supposedly more authentic.  In some countries this ‘authentic’ class will be manual workers. In others those leftists professing such views will only have such workers as a historical reference, their movements in fact based on white collar state employees, for whom widespread state ownership is most congenial to their economistic view of socialism.

So, in digging up the commonplace notion – for a socialist – of internationalism it is not simply a question of ‘returning’ to Marx and Engels but of turning to face the development of contemporary capitalism through the understanding they gave of its laws of development.  This allows us to orient to the political choices, challenges and perspectives that face us.  It is necessary to quote Marx and Engels etc. in order to convey their general approach and remind those who consider themselves Marxists of what this was, while attempting to convince those who do not of its relevance. 

Marx and Engels explained in the fragments of their studies that have become known as ‘The German Ideology” that:

“ . .  this development of productive forces (which at the same time implies the actual empirical existence of men in their world-historical, instead of local, being) is an absolutely necessary practical premise, because without it privation, want is merely made general, and with want the struggle for necessities would begin again, and all the old filthy business would necessarily be restored; and furthermore, because only with this universal development of productive forces is a universal intercourse between men established, which on the one side produces in all nations simultaneously the phenomenon of the “propertyless” mass (universal competition), making each nation dependent on the revolutions of the others, and finally puts world-historical, empirically universal individuals in place of local ones.”

“Without this, 1) communism could only exist as a local phenomenon; 2) the forces of intercourse themselves could not have developed as universal, hence unendurable powers: they would have remained home-bred “conditions” surrounded by superstition; and 3) each extension of intercourse would abolish local communism. Empirically, communism is only possible as the act of the dominant peoples “all at once” and simultaneously, which presupposes the universal development of productive forces and the world intercourse bound up with them.”

While we can question the precise meaning of the demand for “simultaneous” and “all at once” acts to establish communism, it is clear that it can only be the product of international struggle and international success, while it can only be posed given a high level of the productive forces that can only exist at a global level.

“Development of the productive forces of social labour is the historical task and justification of capital. This is just the way in which it unconsciously creates the material requirements of a higher mode of production. (Marx, Capital Vol. 3 Chapter 15).

‘The productive forces of social labour’ is the working class and the mass of fixed and circulating capital it works with.  These must be international so that they can reach the required level that makes a new society without the ‘old filth’ possible.  This therefore means that the relations of production also exist within an international framework, that capital and the working class are both international.  You cannot have international forces of production and purely national relations of production.  Globalisation is not therefore something from without but is a creation within capitalist development, including of its capitalist and working class.

This existence as an international class is not simply a question of workers having a political consciousness of their solidarity with the workers of other countries; consciousness of this as with anything else must reflect their material existence and not simply the apprehension of liberating ideas.  Marxists don’t believe that ideas in such a form can be generated simply out of people’s heads or from accepting the entreaties of others.  They must come out of their lived experience, or as is put in the paragraphs above – it must come from workers who are already ‘empirically universal beings’ and not merely ‘local’ ones.

Since such workers must exist within capitalism in order to overthrow it, its overthrow is not in the first place something to be taught to workers by socialists through ideas, propaganda or programme.  As we all know, the current system is oppressive and exploitative, but just as we need capitalist development before socialism can be a real possibility, so we need this capitalism to be international in scope and organisation before we can expect the working class equivalent.

This means, since the state reflects the dominant form of property relations, that the political organisation of international capitalism will also be oppressive.  However, to believe that we can have international production relations without capitalism seeking international political bodies is obviously wrong, which is why belief that we must destroy such institutions to go back to purely national ones is not only mistaken but reactionary.

The traditional reformist programme of most of the Left, adopted by many calling themselves Marxist, has no traction in these conditions.  Taxation of corporations for example, or of the wealthy, cannot be carried out on a purely national basis.  The current programme of Joe Biden and the OECD recognises what the Left does not – that this can only be carried out internationally.  Without this the resources required by the state to carry out the redistribution of income championed by this reformist perspective becomes impossible.

The idea that socialism is grounded on state ownership is equally adrift from the reality of international capitalism.  The role of multinationals and their operation in many countries with their global production and supply chains, makes seeking any sort of meaningful control at a national level impossible.  Seizing authority over one link does not give control of the whole chain.  At most it is simply destructive of this international division of labour: an ironically appropriate result of a programme that some may consider anti-capitalist but which is not thereby socialist.

The international development of the forces of production does not therefore give rise to merely historical theoretical questions but determines the potential for, and general perspective of, socialism.  Marx of 150 years ago has more to guide us than many of today’s left that claim his legacy.

Back to part 35

The International Organisation of the Working Class

Stating that Marx’s alternative to capitalism is an internationalist one should hardly be controversial were it not for the history of the movement laying claim to his legacy.  Unfortunately, this history includes ‘socialism in one country’ a la Soviet Union; national ‘roads to socialism’; ‘anti-imperialism’ that champions those opposed to (mainly) US imperialism but excuses its opponents regardless of their anti-working class character, not forgetting support for such reactionary projects as Brexit.

Quite happy (most of the time) to recognise that only capitalism creates a working class; that this has involved the organisation of workers in large factories (and now offices etc.) and that therefore that the shape of the class is determined by the particular shape of capitalism at any time or place, these ‘followers’ of Marx will oppose the EU and support Brexit despite the internationalisation of capitalism laying the groundwork for an international working class and therefore the potential for creation of an international movement.

The internationalism of Marxism should mean that opposition to national division of the working class is a cardinal principle, reflected in the history of the organisation of the Marxist movement, and as a precursor of the movement of the working class itself and the social system it seeks to create.

The First International, which Marx played such a vital role in, sought to organise the working class internationally and, despite its coalition of many political tendencies, established a political legacy much of which is applicable today.  It has been argued that this international movement had its basis in the particular nature of the working class, or at least a part of it, created by the stage of capitalism achieved at that time:

‘If we ask: what were the social bases of this International—and of the wave of popular urban insurgency in 1848—the answer is pretty clear. They did not lie in any factory proletariat, but overwhelmingly in a pre-industrial artisanate. This was a class in possession of its own means of production—tools and skills; which enjoyed high levels of literacy; was typically located close to the centre of capital cities; and, last but not least, was geographically mobile—a mobility symbolized by the famous tours of young apprentices within or beyond their own countries. In 1848 there were some 30,000 German craftsmen in Paris—Heine said you could hear German spoken on every street corner; in London, Marx and Engels were writing their Manifesto for German artisans working in England; Berlin had its scattering of Polish or Swiss craftsmen, Vienna of Czechs or Italians.’

This is, of course only partially true, as the International also had representation from British trade unions but it is much truer of the German workers’ movement in the 1848 revolution.

The Second International succeeded in building a mass working class movement on the back of a common expansion of capitalist industry, at least in parts of Europe, but its destruction by war was not just a reflection of the betrayal of a leadership that had abandoned Marx’s revolutionary politics, it also faithfully reflected the nationalist ideas that dominated the vast majority of the working class.  Since we understand that ideas are derived from the material reality of workers’ lives, we can see the basis of the dual character of working class consciousness in workers’ solidarity within the nation state offset by weakness of its equivalent at the international level.

The consciousness of being workers led not only to militant trade union consciousness and limited political consciousness but also nationalism that reflected the mainly national character of the capitalism that existed at that time; national capitals that were in rivalry and competition with other national capitals and states, which dragged their workers behind them.

The Third International regrouped the most militant and politically radicalised workers repelled by their common suffering in the world war, the experience of shared austerity and political reaction following it, and by the example of the Russian Revolution.

The isolation of the Russian revolution led to its degeneration, a degeneration experienced by the Third international as a whole, which became isolated from the rest of the working class movement.  The isolation of the Third International objectively needed to be repaired – the working class movement could not achieve its aims divided. One attempt was the policy of the united front, the unity of Social Democrat and Communist workers, which was an acknowledgement that a socialist programme was impotent without a working class to fight for it.

The division reached its tragic nadir when both stood separate in front of the rise to power of the Nazi Party in Germany.  The defeat led to no regeneration of either Social Democracy or the Third International and both eventually ceased to exist for any practical purposes.

Many of those who continued to defend Marxism rallied to what became many versions of Trotsky’s Fourth International but these too became evidence of the paucity of programme separated from the working class.  The world-wide capitalist boom after World War II was not the grounds upon which a movement singularly fixed on the immanence of political revolution could build a mass organisation, except in displacing its hopes onto non-socialist revolutionary upheavals.

It can be no surprise that the degeneration of the Second and Third Internationals into nationalist and statist conceptions of socialism reflected the growth in the number of, and the role of, capitalist states in capitalism, or that this too infected many currents of the Trotskyist movement.  It too was a product of the capitalism in which it lived; reflected in its transfer of hope to the ‘third world’ and its ‘national liberation’ struggles, and accommodation with the growing role of the capitalist state through preaching nationalisation, state redistribution and general Keynesian policies as all key elements of the socialist programme.   It reached further extension in support for left-talking Latin American regimes that rely mainly on state mobilisation and support for Brexit or various ‘progressive’ nationalisms such as Scottish separation or Catalan independence.

In all these cases the Left has rallied behind what Marx called a ‘transitional form’ of the capitalist mode of production in which the ‘antagonism’ contained in the private ownership of the means of production is ‘resolved negatively.’ So, while its demands may be an advance on private capitalism, its demand for nationalisation is not a demand to positively overcome capitalism but to bring its forms of ownership more into line with its increasing socialisation. However, because such transformation of ownership does not supersede capitalism but merely extends its development those claiming it is socialist leave themselves caught up in unresolvable contradictions, such as demanding widespread state ownership as well as destruction of the same state.

However, even this programme increasingly became an ossified relic of 1930s protectionism and internationally agreed national-level capital controls.  As capitalist accumulation grew in Europe and further afield these controls were subverted by the changing role of the US dollar and relative US industrial decline.  The capitalist state itself, led by Britain and the US, led the way in openly deregulating and de-nationalising control of money capital while structures like the EU pointed the way to international industrial restructuring and a new international currency.  Freedom of movement, across the EU for example, opened up an important route by which an international component of the working class could grow and influence its wider national sections, undermining nationalist division.

State ownership became a step backward from the growth of global companies and the increasing international division of labour that lay behind these developments.  Much of the left however clings to the capitalist state as potential saviour and finds itself tailing behind various political expressions of the petty bourgeoisie, whether supporters of Brexit or of other fractions seeking new avenues for their advancement in the bureaucracies of newly created states.

State ownership is not a call to the working class to impose its own resolution to the antagonism of the property question through workers’ ownership as one preliminary step towards the whole economy becoming the activity of the working class constituted as the ‘associated producers’.  It reflects an increasingly outmoded mode of capitalist development for which an outmoded nationally limited socialist programme is redundant. It was not Marx’s alternative 150 years ago and there is even less reason to consider it one today.

Back to part 34

Forward to part 36

Is socialism only possible when the forces of production stop growing? – KMAC part 33*

The growth of the capitalist system involves the development of new needs – we did not need the mobile phone until it was invented and many didn’t consider getting one until it got small enough in size and price.  This will be true of the new needs we are currently unaware of, that will also arise from the capitalist development of the forces of production.

The productive forces that create these new needs are primarily “the accumulation of the skill and knowledge (scientific power) of the workers themselves . . . and infinitely more important than the accumulation – which goes hand in hand with it and merely represents it – of the existing objective conditions of this accumulated activity.  These objective conditions [machinery, equipment, infrastructure etc.] are only nominally accumulated and must be constantly produced anew and consumed anew.” (Marx, Theories of Surplus Value Vol 3)

This process is a fundamental feature of capitalism and thus to the development within it of the conditions for its supersession. It evolves through antagonisms, and in the 1859 Preface to ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ Marx states that ‘at a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production.’ At this point there ‘begins an era of social revolution.’

For Marx the creation of these conditions, the promise of a new non-exploitative and non-oppressive society, can no more avoid the antagonisms of capitalism, and all its ills, than humanity could avoid belief that the world it inhabits is the creation of a divine being.

“An oppressed class is the vital condition for every society founded on the antagonism of classes. The emancipation of the oppressed class thus implies necessarily the creation of a new society. For the oppressed class to be able to emancipate itself, it is necessary that the productive powers already acquired and the existing social relations should no longer be capable of existing side by side. Of all the instruments of production, the greatest productive power is the revolutionary class itself. The organization of revolutionary elements as a class supposes the existence of all the productive forces which could be engendered in the bosom of the old society.”  (Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847)

This was written early in Marx’s career and, if the last sentence is to be understood strictly, implies that the organisation of the working class supposes that the productive forces have grown to such extent that they cannot grow further within capitalism.  While some Marxists believe this stagnation or absolute retardation of capitalist development is the case, or rather repeatedly declare that this must be the case, or is impending, this is very hard, in fact impossible, to defend.  The working class continues to grow massively across the world and could not do so, by definition, if the productive forces of the capitalist system were not also growing.

Marx may be thought to repeat this understanding twelve years later in the 1859 Preface to ‘The Critique of Political Economy’ quoted above, and which we looked at over a number of posts in this series as a succinct published summary of his views on these decisive questions.

Here he says that:

“No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”

G A Cohen in his celebrated book ‘Karl Marx’s Theory of History, A Defence’, rewords the first part of the sentence to read “No economic structure (set of production relations) ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed. . .”

We will leave aside his replacement of ‘social order’ by the narrower ‘economic structure (set of production relations)’ and we will come back to his translation of ‘sufficient’ as ‘for which there is room’.

Cohen is right to note that this does not say that once all the productive resources have been developed an economic structure (or social order) perishes; it may ‘fossilise’, or decline or end in ‘ruination’ as Marx once alluded to in ‘The Communist Manifesto’.  The second part also does not mean that if the material conditions sufficient for a new society have developed within the old one this new society will emerge.  It may not, and this will depend on concrete historical circumstances.  Marxists have good grounds for believing that the material conditions for a new socialist society that develop within capitalism will engender its emergence.

These grounds include the earlier statement, noted above, that

“At a certain stage of development, 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. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”

These grounds are verified not only by an understanding of the dynamics of capitalism, which have been verified empirically (repeated economic and political crises caused by the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production within it) but also by the history of class struggle, confirmed by the continued existence of that struggle.

What is ‘up for grabs’ is that these changes “lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”  Given the perennial optimism of many Marxists, which unfortunately (?) I don’t share, I consider this might now better be rephrased by taking out the words ‘sooner or’; although given the relative brevity of mature capitalism’s existence this might only be a reflection of a perspective from a human lifespan that is nearer departures than arrivals.

For Marxists, as opposed to analytical philosophers like Cohen, the real issue here is that the productive forces continue to be developed by capitalism and that this might imply two things.  First, that the idea that previous attempts at socialist revolution could have been successful is mistaken, and second, that current ideas that socialist revolution is on the agenda (in some historical as opposed to immediate sense) are mistaken for the same reason.

As we have seen, it will not do to avoid this potential difficulty by claiming that capitalism is not developing the productive forces.  There are political organisations which have repeated the idea that capitalism has been in crisis more or less the whole period of their own existence but, as I have already noted, the working class has grown enormously in the last period, which means the growth of wage labour, exploitation and the creation of masses of new surplus value upon which capitalist accumulation takes place.

I said I would return to Cohen’s translation of “No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed” into “No economic structure (set of production relations) ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed. . .”

This passage has been translated in a number of ways but it is undoubtedly better that it be understood to mean that the social order of capitalism is insufficient for the development of the productive forces rather than the stage must be reached where there is simply lack of room for these forces to develop.

That latter suggests an absolute barrier which, when reached, will mean that the productive forces will cease to develop.  Since we have not, and do not, appear to be approaching such a stage, this would seem to argue that the destruction of capitalism is not on the historical agenda and certainly has not been in the century in which Marx lived or in the twentieth century either.  The idea that capitalism could have been overthrown at any point during this time would have been illusory – capitalism had the potential to develop the forces of production massively.  It certainly ‘had room’ for them.

The possibility of the overthrow of capitalism rests not on the existence of some absolute obstacle which ceases to provide room for its development but from the contradictions it contains that make capitalism insufficient for the development of the forces of production within it.  This is expressed in crises of overproduction, in which the relations of production impose on these forces the necessity for an expansion based on the realisation of massively increased amounts of surplus value.  In other words, the expansion of these forces is continually thrown into crisis because the need for this to involve a suitable expansion of profit.

When this doesn’t happen crises of overproduction lead to interruptions in the development of these forces through the typical symptoms of crisis – unemployed labour and instruments of production, and unsold commodities that cannot satisfy the consumption needs of workers or of capitalists for continued and expanded production.  The development of capitalism means that this contradiction increases and the capitalist mode of production becomes more and more insufficient for this development.

Each crisis trends towards a greater mass of capital unable to contribute to its own expansion, whether it is expressed in larger and larger numbers of workers unemployed, greater means of production unused or devalued through bankruptcies and reduced capacity utilisation, and a greater number of commodities unsold or sold at reduced prices.

It is not that each crisis must register a successively greater percentage of unemployment or fall in levels of production.  We should not seek confirmation of Marx’s analysis through expecting every crisis of overproduction to be worse in these relative respects, as if industrial production must fall more, and unemployment must always be higher, than the Great Depression of the 1930s etc.

It is that capitalism means the accumulation of greater and greater amounts of capital, and the crises that its contradictions create thus tend to throw back, and tend to the destruction of, absolutely greater amounts of capital.  The grounds for socialism do not arise from only one pole of this contradiction but also from the development of the forces of production that precede crises and subsequently follow them.

This is what demonstrates the fettering of the forces of production by the relations of production.  These relations imply unceasing competition between different capitals and the states they both support and rely upon.  This means economic crises become political conflicts, not just involving suppression of subordinate classes but also war between rival capitals and states.

The bloody history of capitalism, especially in the first half of the twentieth century shows the absolute devastation that the contradictions of capitalism can inflict, as the international development of the forces of production runs up against capitalist relations of production centred on national states and Empires.  Rival capitalists stand behind these states as they seek through alliances and opposition to advance at the expense of others.

*KMAC: Karl Marx’s Alternative to Capitalism

Back to part 32

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism 32 – what’s morality got to do with it?

Most, if not all, people will oppose capitalism on moral grounds, or will at least be motivated by concerns for what they consider fairness and justice.  Marx however was famously contemptuous of morality; it was said by someone who knew him that he ‘burst out laughing every time anyone spoke to him of morality.’

‘The communists do not preach morality at all’, Marx and Engels wrote in the German Ideology, which were early notebooks clarifying their ideas. In the published ‘Communist Manifesto they describe ‘Law, morality, religion, are . . . so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests.’

In the editorial quoted in the last post, the Financial Times states that ‘it is a moral imperative to help the neediest.’  But as Trotsky said of it in ‘Their Morals and Ours’, ‘morality is a product of social development . . . it serves social interests; that these interests are contradictory; that morality more than any other form of ideology has a class character.’  The FT editorial confirms both Marx and Trotsky right by stating that ‘lifting people out of economic precariousness is also greatly in the self-interest of the better off,’ this being a euphemism for the capitalist class and its senior management.

Obviously for Marxists and for workers generally it is not the interests of ‘the better off’ that is their concern.  For the working class their interest lies in determining their own needs and their ability to determine how they may be met.

Moral precepts may exist at a very general level but as Trotsky also says – at this level their extent of application is limited and unstable. The real world does not lend itself to abstract moral imperatives as a guide to conduct in situations of change and conflict, the world that actually exists.  Even looking at a paradigmatic case, in which one thirsty person has a bottle of water and requires all of it to survive, but is joined by an equally thirsty second person.  Should the water be shared equally, kept by the first owner or given to the second in order to satisfy a moral imperative?  Or rather, does any moral consideration arise from examination of the actual circumstances of the case; and what exactly is the moral option to be taken in this one?

Such an example demonstrates that what should be done is very much determined by what is, which constrains what can be done.  Each of these is not subject to timeless moral imperatives but to the concrete interests of individuals in society.  Since society and the individuals within it are made up of classes, these classes will have different interests and different moral perspectives.

To attempt to envelope all of them in an all-encompassing morality that is more than abstract generalisation will involve denial of divisions and contradictions, which can therefore only involve denial of the struggle between classes that expresses these contradictions. This necessarily leads to denial of any requirement to discuss how the class struggle should be conducted, since no legitimate class struggle is admitted. Instead, we have appeals from the newspaper of the capitalist class (price £2.90/€3.20 on weekdays) for that class to take a moral stance to avoid class struggle.

For Marxists, the alternative is not to seek some imposed satisfaction of needs as determined by another class but to fight for the separate and independent needs of the working class, as determined by itself.  When discussing the precariousness arising from ‘economic change’ and ‘globalisation’ the ‘Financial Times’ reaches for moral imperatives imposed on the capitalist class.  When Marx discusses the same, in the Communist Manifesto he does so in a very different way and addresses a very different audience:

‘The increasing improvement of machinery, ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious; the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeois take more and more the character of collisions between two classes. Thereupon, the workers begin to form combinations (Trades’ Unions) against the bourgeois; they club together in order to keep up the rate of wages; they found permanent associations in order to make provision beforehand for these occasional revolts. Here and there, the contest breaks out into riots.’

‘Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers. This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry, and that place the workers of different localities in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralise the numerous local struggles, all of the same character, into one national struggle between classes. But every class struggle is a political struggle. And that union, to attain which the burghers of the Middle Ages, with their miserable highways, required centuries, the modern proletarian, thanks to railways, achieve in a few years.’

The moral imperative is not therefore to ‘help the neediest’ but for the ‘neediest’ to help themselves.  And in this, It is not a question of removing what is bad from society with a set of policies and actions that makes it more perfect, or of ‘polishing off the rougher edges’ as the FT would have it.  It is not seeking a solution based on some moral imperative standing above a flawed, defective or broken society that needs fixed.

When faced with the contradictions of capitalist society and the antagonisms arising from it Marx stated that:

“What constitutes dialectical movement is the coexistence of two contradictory sides, their conflict and their fusion into a new category. The very setting of the problem of eliminating the bad side cuts short the dialectic movement . . . from the moment the process of the dialectic movement is reduced to the simple process of opposing good to bad, and of administering one category as an antidote to another, the categories are deprived of all spontaneity; the idea “ceases to function”; there is no life left in it.”

This is not so much an indictment of the ideologues of capitalism but of those who oppose it with blueprints, plans or policies to make from it a good or just society, rejecting the contradictions within it that they think of as only a problem.  For those who see only the bad aspect of capitalism and seek to remove it, through whatever means, Marx says this:

‘So long as they look for science and merely make systems, so long as they are at the beginning of the struggle, they see in poverty nothing but poverty, without seeing in it the revolutionary, subversive side, which will overthrow the old society.’  (Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy)

So, what should be done is very much determined by what is.  The contradictions contained in what is determines social development (of which morality is a product) and determines what can be done.  It is not the application of moral judgements lying outside existing social development but imperatives that arise from the contradictions within it that determines what can be done.

The contradictions of the capitalist mode of production and their further development can be understood in terms of the contradiction between the development of the forces of production and the associated relations of production.  These have been the subject of previous posts and will be elaborated further in the next.

In the meantime, it would be well to note how Marx perceives what is, what should and what can through repeating the quotation above:

‘This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry, and that place the workers of different localities in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralise the numerous local struggles, all of the same character, into one national struggle between classes.’

It was no answer in Marx’s day to simply denounce the exploitation of ‘modern industry’ and call for a return to purely local development, just as it is no answer for the editor of the Financial Times to do so today.  If we slightly reword what Marx said we can see something else:

‘This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry, and that place the workers of different nations in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralise the numerous national struggles, all of the same character, into one international struggle between classes.’

Only three words are changed; but it shows how mistaken it is to oppose, and try to reverse, the current development of ‘modern industry’ because it breaks the bounds of the nation state and seeks to draw closer into an international union purely national economic and social development.

We refer, of course, to those who supported Brexit on the grounds that it would do exactly this and who did so because modern international economic development was bad and exploitative of the working class.  Action by the nation state, or within its confines, was the supposed solution to this particular expression of the development of modern industry.

In Trotsky’s pamphlet on morality much of the discussion revolves around the idea that the end justifies the means, lazily taken to imply that moral ends cannot justify immoral or amoral means.  It is however difficult to see what could justify adopted means other than the ends pursued.  For a Marxist the ends and means are mutually determining and what are means can be considered ends and what are ends are just further means.  As Marx said

‘Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.’

Some on the Left supported Brexit, though the means by which it was achieved was a catalogue of ignorant propaganda over many years; an ever more right-wing Conservative and wider reactionary movement; and a base of support centred on nationalism, xenophobia and racism.  That the purported ends and the actual means were out of kilter is demonstrated by this Left’s inability to tell anyone, including themselves, what is progressive about what has been achieved and how it has propelled the working class forward.

The EU was capitalist, was therefore bad, and so had to be opposed, by what turned out to be nothing much more than good intentions, or at least for some.  Such imperatives have the abstractness of moral absolutes and are certainly not derived from Marxism.  This Left can get its books out and recall its Marx but doesn’t understand what he said and cannot apply it.

Forward to part 33

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 31 – what would Marx have thought?

In a recent book ‘The Marx Revival’ one contributor writes of Marx that:

‘it is highly unlikely that he would ever have supported any of the critiques of capitalism that centre on exorbitant profits, soaring inequalities of income and wealth, perennial insecurity, uncontrolled power of money and finance,  growth without limits, rampant globalisation that devastates traditional social worlds, or ever harsher competition forcing everybody into a rat race to the bottom.’

Since this series of posts is about Marx’s alternative to capitalism, why not kick it off again by giving our own answer to this question.

The answer is that the writer is correct.  Let’s see why.

Profits that are too high?  Well, what constitutes too high?  There is hardly an objective answer to this.

Perhaps it could be said that Marxists should – by arguing that profits are the result of surplus value (labour for which no payment has been received by the worker) and therefore of exploitation – regard any level of profit as ‘too much’.  Except that even under a collective cooperative economy a surplus, not immediately distributed as wages, would have to be achieved to provide for investment in further accumulation and for social insurance purposes.

Even under capitalism, bigger profits should lead to more rapid accumulation of capital, including buildings and equipment etc. (constant capital) and employed workers (variable capital).   The latter should increase employment and contribute to the growth and potential power of the working class, including reducing unemployment and facilitating the organisation and fighting capacities of the class.

Of course, additional profits may lead to unproductive speculation and accumulation, but that is a further and different point; except that it raises the issue of who owns and disposes of the surplus (profit) produced.

“Soaring inequalities of income and wealth” are a common objection to capitalism, and there is no doubt that a society ruled by the working class would have much, much reduced inequality.  However, as is well known, in the first stages of the development of such a society inequality would remain.

So what constitutes unacceptable inequality?  Like the level of profits there is no objective answer.  In fact, it has been argued that the perception of unacceptable levels of inequality is at least partially determined by the level that already exists:

“Even though income inequality has increased, popular concern with inequality (for example, agreement with the statement that inequality is too high) has not grown. In comparative perspective, public opinion in more unequal countries is not systematically more concerned about income differences and does not exhibit stronger demands for redistribution.”

‘The Guardian’ has just reported that “Luke Hildyard, the director of the High Pay Centre, which campaigns for executive pay restraint, said: “Pay for top CEOs today is about 120 times that of the typical UK worker. Estimates suggest it was around 50 times at the turn of the millennium or 20 times in the early 1980s.”

In a society ruled by workers the level of need will play a greater role in determination of the level of income to be received, which will therefore still give rise to income inequalities.  Until more fully developed, this society will still have income inequalities at least partially determined by skill, knowledge and effort, determined not only individually but also by productive unit and industry etc, not to mention country.  Of course, the direction of travel will be very different, and the social, political and psychological effects of inequality will be taken into account in a very different way than the purely constrained economic calculations of the capitalist market.

It has to be recognised however that the greatest and most socially significant inequalities are determined by inequality in wealth; in particular the ownership of capital from which profit and its derivative revenues such as dividends, rent and interest etc are accumulated.  Equality of income can only realistically become an objective given equality of wealth, that is, the common ownership of the resources now commanded by capital through individual capitalists, corporations and states etc.

“Perennial insecurity” is not an affliction for those whose income is determined by the ownership of capital, or at least not in terms of fear of losing one’s livelihood, job, home or (for example if you are a US citizen) access to health care.  It is a real threat to a civilised existence if you work for a wage (and normally don’t receive enough income from capital) and it’s especially a threat if you are on zero hours, in part-time employment or otherwise have terrible employment contract conditions.

But fundamentally social and economic insecurity arises because you are a member of the working class who lives by selling their labour power and are potentially subject to very unfavourable circumstances when you do.

“Uncontrolled power of money and finance” refers to the simple fact, observable to everyone, that power is very often a function of money and money is power in itself, the power to purchase the resources of society. Most importantly, to employ money to control the production of society’s wealth and then partake of exaggerated levels of consumption.

This seems so common sense that the problem appears to be the ‘uncontrolled’ exercise by money and finance, but since possession of money can determine the level of control this is a merry-go-round.  To rob money and finance of its power would mean robbing it of its power to own and control production, to become capital that employs labour power to produce profit.

This is possible if the resources that are employed to produce society’s wealth, and from which incomes are received, is owned and controlled by the majority in society.  The power of money and finance then becomes a function of the decisions of the majority and subject to its direction, putting it under the control of society as a whole and removing the ‘uncontrolled’ power of its ownership and direction by the capitalist class and its most senior hirelings.

“Growth without limits” is hardly a problem if this growth breaks down barriers and obstacles to the satisfaction of human need.  It is a problem if instead it refers to the logic of capitalism, which is the limitless pursuit of profit and the disregard for un-privatised costs to humanity and rest of nature.

‘Rampant globalisation that devastates traditional social worlds’ is also a problem if these traditional social worlds met human need.  But, as Marx argued in the Grundrisse, “needs are originally confined and only develop along with the productive forces”.   Unfortunately, traditional societies have historically only addressed this by massively circumscribing and retarding the growth of productive forces and hence of the human needs that capitalism has developed.

Even more unfortunately, as Marx also says, “the development of the human productive powers is effected “at first at the cost of the majority of human individuals and even of the entire classes.”  “The higher development of the individuality is brought only through a historical process in which the individuals are sacrificed.”  The answer is not to artificially and foolishly seek to thwart the development of humanity’s productive powers and the potential for emancipation they contain.  It is not to seek to prevent capitalism in the name of less developed social systems, or seek to prevent less developed forms of capitalism from developing.

Finally, would Marx have supported a critique of capitalism centred on ‘ever harsher competition forcing everybody into a rat race to the bottom’?  In so far as this competition is the expression of the development of capitalism “a race to the bottom” in this critique simply expresses outward characteristics of the system.  It paints a damning picture but one, no matter how bright the colours painted, that is a representation of reality and a one-dimensional one at that.  It does not get to the heart of the question and so cannot give rise to an answer.

This is true of all the criticism mentioned.  The critique of capitalism cannot rest on an attempt to restrict profits.  This would simply be an attempt to stop the system working but not to go beyond it.   Inequalities of income and wealth cannot be dissolved through taxation and redistribution since it assumes continuing unequal ownership, while perennial insecurity cannot be eradicated as long as workers have to sell their labour power in the market and own nothing else.

The power of money exists mainly because of its power to command ownership of society’s productive powers without which human civilisation as we know it could not survive.  “Growth without limits, rampant globalisation that devastates traditional social worlds,” and “ever harsher competition forcing everybody into a rat race to the bottom” are simply the dynamics of capital and the pursuit of surplus value extraction from workers.

This is why for Marx, as explained in ‘The Communist Manifesto’, and after listing the various movements in which his comrades were involved, he said that they “bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.”

This means that the concerns that motivate these criticisms are not dismissed; concerns over inequality, insecurity and ‘the rat race’ etc.  It just means that these are not soluble within the confines of capitalism and only a revolutionary alternative can provide a solution.

In the ‘Financial Times’ editorial on the last day of 2020, the paper paid tribute to those who had worked through the Covid-19 pandemic: ‘these unsung heroes are underpaid, over-worked, and suffer unpredictable work opportunities and insecurity . . . and brutalised working conditions – to the point of such grotesque episodes as the woman giving birth in a toilet cubicle for fear of missing a shift.’

The newspaper declares that ‘it is a moral imperative to help the neediest’, as it decries inequality and the existence of a precariat: ‘lifting people out of economic precariousness is also greatly in the self-interest of the better off’.  But it does so mainly because it fears that ‘it is just a matter of time before the pitchforks come out for capitalism itself’; it therefore believes that ‘capitalism’s political acceptability requires its adherents to polish off its rougher edges.’

Many will contend that it is more than ‘rough edges’ that need to be polished off and that polishing off the whole system is required.  It is not therefore, as the FT editorial headline puts it, that ‘a better form of capitalism is possible.’  But what is much less understood is that it is not enough to pick up ‘the pitchforks’ against capitalism; we need an alternative that we can fight for. This alternative is least understood and is the subject of this series of posts.

Belfast meeting discusses Marxism and Brexit

Sixty or so people attended a meeting on Friday night organised by academics and the Slugger O’Toole web site entitled ‘Brexit, Borders and Beyond: Marxism as a guide in turbulent times.’  It was interesting in a couple of respects worth recording.

The first speaker gave a broad description of the Marxist view of the state – “the executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”  It was an instrument of class oppression.  Unfortunately, at the end the meeting in replying to points from the floor, and in attempting to defend the idea of Brexit, she argued that it would allow the working class more say than continued membership of the EU.

The second speaker was an advocate of Green politics and argued that the ecology of the planet could be saved, but could be done in one of two ways.  Through oppression and exploitation or through a progressive and democratic road.  He argued strongly that important to the second was an emphasis on industrial democracy as well as political democracy.  He was also rather dismissive of the traditional Marxist view of insurrectionary revolution and the necessity of social change coming through violence.

A comrade beside me made a comment to the effect that revolutionary change can only come through violence but this ignores the point made by the speaker that the growth of industrial democracy is important, and this does not necessitate violence.  This is something I have argued in this blog in relation to the importance of the creation of workers’ cooperatives.  While political revolution involving the State often requires violence it also often entails no fundamental social change, which requires a change in ownership of the productive forces.

The Marxist idea of revolution is too often conceived in terms of destroying the capitalist state, leading to a one-sided focus on what is bad for capitalism, while ignoring the much more important concept of revolution, which is a revolution in the consciousness of the working class.  This shifts the focus to what is necessary for the working class and doesn’t assume that what is bad for capitalism must be good for workers.  It also brings to light the importance of the growth of workers’ cooperatives in changing the social life of the working class and thereby its political consciousness.  It addresses the otherwise impossible to answer question how revolutionary politics can be effective in times of peace.

The meeting was in part ill-conceived, since I can’t have been alone in thinking the meeting was about the left case for Brexit.  The third speaker was Costas Lapavitsas, a Greek academic working in London and ex-member of the Greek parliament.  He recently wrote a book entitled ‘The Left Case Against the EU’, which more or less did a reasonable job of achieving the aims of the title but didn’t make a strong case for Brexit.  In speaking at the meeting he argued more forcefully for it.

He argued that the EU was irretrievably neoliberal and could not be reformed since this neoliberalism was enshrined in basic Treaty law, although he did acknowledge, as he did in his book, that the EU was once dominated by a Keynesian approach to economic governance.  Since changes could only be made by unanimity it was impossible to foresee such unanimity and therefore impossible to see how there could be any reform.  He declared that no advocate of ‘remain and reform’ had been able to explain how they could carry it out.  His speech was well received and there was only one intervention from the floor in opposition to Brexit.

This intervention argued that the proof of the pudding was in the eating and that so far Brexit was a disaster. Lapavitsas did reply at the end that Brexit had yet to happen but didn’t go on to explain how the pudding was going to improve on what we had already seen.

The speaker from the floor argued that Costas had come to the wrong country if he wanted to argue that the British State was reformable in a way that other capitalist states were not (otherwise of course we could reform the German and French States and therefore why not the EU?).  It was pointed out that at another recent meeting on trade unions and Brexit one speaker had argued that the EU had held workers back, but that the idea that the EU was the obstacle to workers unity and mobilisation in Ireland was hard to take seriously.

It was the British State that had divided Irish workers and had been responsible for such things as internment, torture, Bloody Sunday etc.  But this was the State that was almost uniquely reformable?  A later speaker from the Socialist Party pointed out that the EU had approved or failed to criticise the actions of the British State in Ireland but this didn’t really answer the point – it hadn’t been claimed that we would or should rely on the EU or that it was in some way expected to have prevented British oppression.

The speaker also argued that the EU did not prevent nationalisation as seemed to be the argument of left supporters of Brexit, and pointed out that, in so far as critical industries were concerned (as argued by Lapavitsas), the energy industry in Ireland was dominated by state-owned companies; the water and sewerage industry was state owned; the banking industry had more or less been nationalised at one point, and the transport industry had a large state-owned presence.

Lapavitsas responded that what was important was not that state industry was allowed to compete with private capitalist concerns but that it was prevented from monopolising an industry. While this is not even strictly true – state ownership enjoys a more or less monopoly position in electricity transmission and distribution, water and sewerage, and railways for example – it avoids the much more central question that ownership by the capitalist state is NOT socialism. This is so fundamental an issue that failure to recognise it shows the complete degeneration and disorientation of the self-styled Marxist left. But we will look at this further in a minute.

This intervention from the floor finished by recalling a debate in which a left supporter of Brexit had mocked the idea of defending the EU’s freedom of movement by stating it showed concern only with the freedom of white Europeans.  It was noted that in that debate, and at the meeting, the participants were mainly white Europeans, and white Europeans had rights too; as did non-white Europeans who had been forgotten about by dismissing free movement in the EU.  It was observed that ‘the free movement of people’ had for some incomprehensible reason become a dirty phrase for some on the left.  And as someone else had remarked – left opponents of freedom of movement in the EU want to extend this freedom beyond Europe by getting rid of it within Europe first.

In relation to this Lapavitsas claimed that open borders was not a socialist position and that the alternative was Marx’s declaration in ‘The Communist Manifesto’ that workers of all countries should unite.  What he seemed to mean was that workers in each country should stay in their country with some sort of fraternity between them, but that the nation state would persist. He claimed that Brexit was not nationalist, but if restricting workers freedoms to within nation states looks like a form of nationalism it is because it is a form of nationalism.  And this nationalism informs Lapavitsas’s and Brexit supporters’ whole conception of socialism.

This involves socialism being ownership by the capitalist state, and since the capitalist state is still primarily a national one it means defending the sovereignty of that nation state. Defence of national sovereignty was another assertion Lapavitsas was keen to make.  But the supreme power, supremacy and authority – sovereignty – of the capitalist nation state is NOT socialism but reactionary nationalism that even modern capitalism is leaving behind.  In this sense Lapavitsas and supporters of Brexit like him are not only wrong about the way forward but are reactionary because they want to take us backwards.  Far from separating the working classes by nationality, as he wishes to do, it is the Marxist view that workers should identify themselves as a class irrespective of nationality.  This is obviously at odds with a political view that the nation state will define their liberation and emancipation.

The true relationship between Marxism, Brexit and Borders is the recognition that the development of capitalism brings socialism closer, that the revolutionising of the means of production ,and society generally, creates the preconditions for socialism, and that the increasingly international character of capitalism creates an increasingly international working class.

Lapavitsas referred to Marx’s remark that “the proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie”, but this was written when a world market had begun and world production had not, when capitalism and the capitalist class and its state were purely national.  The working class could not settle matters with the capitalist class of all countries ‘first’.  But the EU is precisely confirmation that capitalism and the capitalist class are now internationally organised.  The failure of the workers movement to keep up has led some of its political representatives to seek to address this failure by seeking to drag capitalism back to the primitive state the workers movement is still in.

The international organisation if capitalism exists and is therefore what the proletariat faces “first”, and must face as an international class by building up its international organisation and programme.  This is precisely the perspective of reform and remain, although Marxists will of course have their own view of what this entails.

More than this, the purpose is not so much to remain in the EU and seek its reform, but to accept the breaking down of national restrictions as the most appropriate framework for the reformation of the European working class more and more into a single class. For Marxists it is the sovereignty and independence of the working class which is the objective of socialist politics not only in relation to the nation state but in relation to the proto-international EU state, and not the reform of either.

As Marx stated before the line quoted above – “though not in substance, yet in form, the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle.”  The existence of the international economic and political organisation of capitalism through the EU shows that increasingly the struggle of the proletariat must not only be international in substance but also international in form.

As Lenin put it in ‘The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination’– “The aim of socialism is not only to abolish the present division of mankind into small states and all national isolation; not only to bring the nations closer to each other, but also to merge them.”

In seeking to deny this approach the left supporters of Brexit unknowingly deny not only the reality of capitalism but also the possibility of socialism.  No wonder their conception of the latter involves ownership by the capitalist state and not by the working class.

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 30 – base and superstructure 3

In the last post I noted the view that change in the material base of society, its forces and relations of production, cannot be viewed as a result simply of superstructural change, i.e. a change in the nature of the state.

There is an additional reason why this is the case.  This is because the state is not simply a superstructural phenomenon.

At first sight this might seem to invalidate the first criticism – that the state cannot be the agent of changing the material base of the forces and relations of production because it is purely a superstructural phenomenon.

The state is central to constituting and reproducing capitalism both in its economic role of direct state production and also in the many roles that involve supporting private capital accumulation. It is for example, vital to the reproduction of labour power through the provision of health, education and social services in addition to direct involvement in industries typically carried out by private capital, such as energy.

More generally it is also necessary for the reproduction of the legal framework within which capitalism operates – property law, contract law and the employment of an apparatus that enforces these through courts, police, regulatory bodies and inspectors etc.

The state encompasses economic and social tasks as well as the tasks of defending the existing relations of production through its laws, courts, judiciary, executive and legislative bodies, police and armed organisations.  Marxists propose the destruction of these but not the services the state otherwise provides such as health, education and social services.

But are these to continue to operate in the same way after a genuine socialist revolution, with only the purely political aspects of the state democratised?  The traditional Marxist view is that these political aspects – parliament, local government, quangos etc. are not to be democratised but replaced – by workers councils or other workers’ delegate or representative structures.  So what about direct state industry and services?

Marx’s answer would be to ask why these should be provided by the state at all?

As I have argued before, state ownership is not socialism and many of the tasks currently carried out by the state today would not be carried out by the state in a society arising from working class emancipation.  The provision of education, health and social services would not be carried out by the state but by the workers involved in delivering these services alongside those in receipt of them.

So not only is state ownership not a model of socialism within capitalism today; state ownership would not be a model of socialism so tomorrow.  It would not constitute socialism – the direct rule of the working class.  In such a worker-governed society these services would not be under the direction of the state’s bureaucracy and its executive.

By definition the state is a body standing separate and above society, at least partially insulated from its demands and requirements. None of these services should be in such a position, legally or organisationally.  They are part of the structure of society, of its forces and relations of production, as much a part of society’s productive powers as any other, consisting of production and services that should be provided by and for the working class itself.

It is only the incapacity of capitalism to socialise them through anything other than state direction, or then damage them through outsourcing aspects to private capital, that leads many to believe that only the state can represent society as a whole and provide such services on behalf of all within it.

Marx’s analysis was that the state does not represent society as a whole.  In fact, its role in suppressing subordinate classes can be seen in how it provides all of its services, from health, education and welfare to policing and application of the law.

It is consciousness of the necessity for these services to be carried out by the workers themselves directly that requires the material development of workers’ cooperatives that anticipate and point the way forward to workers replacing the current relations of production, including state owned production.

The power of the state cannot be the means of changing the material base, the relations of production, because it is not the objective of this transformation to increase state power.  In other words, the state cannot change the relations of capitalist production to one upon which socialism can be constructed because state ownership itself is not socialism and workers direct management and control cannot be carried out through a separate body but only directly by workers themselves. That is the experience of the Soviet Union and all other experiences of state-led ‘socialism’, and in any case was Marx’s vision of socialism.

The view that smashing the repressive arms of the capitalist state while maintaining its control of the services it provides is therefore mistaken.  The view that it can leads to two further mistakes.

One is the emphasis often put on the new cooperative economy being a centrally planned one.  The second is the underestimation of the complexity of modern capitalism, what is involved in its operation and therefore required of any alternative.

Marx has been criticised many times for not leaving a blueprint of the new society and how it would work.  If he had thought that a state would be the basis of introducing and constituting a new socialist society, or its transitional proletarian dictatorship, then this would be a valid criticism.  But he didn’t, so it isn’t.

He did not envisage a state planning all production and did not consider this to be the foundation of human emancipation.  This is clear from his earliest writings, which makes identification of Marxism with state control wrong from the start.

For him the new workers’ society was not an ideal and therefore static state (in any sense of that word) but a movement which starts from workers’ cooperative production, with a state body to defend that production, and the increasing role of cooperation in allowing humanity to control its own material circumstances and thereby its own development.

This involves planning in the sense that conscious decision making takes the place of exploitation and alienation, with alienation arising from commodity production in which the success of commodities determines the lives of those who created them.

The role the market plays in this is one that will more and more come under such conscious direction, but on its own such markets do not constitute the continuation of capitalism, nor does their increased marginalisation necessarily constitute socialism.

The emphasis on smashing the state and its replacement as the vehicle for determining the new society, including its planned economy, also leads to a chronic underestimation of the complexity of modern capitalism and the idea that it can be controlled by a central mechanism.

This was true in Russia in 1917, including Lenin’s expectations, and is even more true now.  In fact, the complexity of society is one very important reason why those that construct and reproduce it, the working class, its highest paid members as well as its lowest – including what is often considered the middle class – are required directly and consciously to ensure that its reproduction provides for the welfare of the majority of its people rather than the gross and excessive consumption of a tiny elite.

Marx’s view of the state should be well known but the influence of the massive growth of the capitalist state on socialist thought (a real example of the power of the material base to determine the consciousness even of its enemies!) has been lost on many of his followers.

In his ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme” Marx said that:

“First of all, according to II, the German Workers’ party strives for “the free state”. Free state — what is this?”

“It is by no means the aim of the workers, who have got rid of the narrow mentality of humble subjects, to set the state free. In the German Empire, the “state” is almost as “free” as in Russia. Freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it; and today, too, the forms of state are more free or less free to the extent that they restrict the “freedom of the state”. “

“The German Workers’ party — at least if it adopts the program — shows that its socialist ideas are not even skin-deep; in that, instead of treating existing society (and this holds good for any future one) as the basis of the existing state (or of the future state in the case of future society), it treats the state rather as an independent entity that possesses its own intellectual, ethical, and libertarian bases.”

Back to part 29

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 29 – base and superstructure 2

The distinction Marx made between base and superstructure may seem tangential to elaboration of his views on the alternative to capitalism but this is not the case.

Most people calling themselves socialist think that the state, which is part of the superstructure (as explained in earlier posts), will make progressive changes to the base – the economy.  This is either through taxation and increased state expenditure or through more radical measures such as nationalisation, or even sponsorship of workers’ cooperatives.

Reformist socialists see this coming about through elections and a new governing party, using the existing state machinery to effect the required changes.  Many Marxists see it coming about through destruction of the existing (capitalist) state and creation of a new one.  It is argued that this superstructural change will then effect revolutionary transformation of the economy.

Accusations that this is simply the failed model of the Russian Revolution are rebutted by statements that the new workers’ state will be more democratic than the existing one, and certainly more than the Russian one, with workers’ councils rather than a parliament – with rights to recall delegates, regular replacement of these delegates and their payment at the average workers’ wage.

Of course, the latter has a lot more going for it than the former; Marx believed you could not simply take over the existing state machinery to create a new society that is based on the working majority.  He believed that the state was:

“the form in which the individuals of a ruling class assert their common interests and in which the whole of the civil society of an epoch is epitomised.”  The modern state is thus the “form of organisation which the bourgeoisie are compelled to adopt, both for internal and external purposes, for the mutual guarantee of their property and interests.”

The Marxist view of the state will be the subject of later posts in this series.  For now, it is important to establish something fundamental about Marx’s understanding of the state and what this means for his alternative, for it is not the case that Marx foresaw any sort of state carrying out the transformation of capitalism into a new workers’ society.

The Russian Revolution has given us an experience in which the working class was so small and weak that the state became not only the main actor in that revolution, but became the main reference point in deciding whether this was indeed a socialist revolution and should be defended as such; whether it was considered healthy, and the home of genuine socialism, or unhealthy – product of a process of deformity or degeneration – but which should be defended nonetheless.

The character of the state became key to the debate, but shifted focus away from the basic truth of Marx’s alternative, which was that socialist revolution is not simply a political revolution but a social revolution. This social revolution could not depend on any state, except in so far as it was a mechanism to defend what made the transformation a social one, which is a reordering of the relations of production. It was this changed relations of production – changes to the material base – that would make a revolution socialist and make the superstructure, including a workers’ state that defended them, also ‘socialist’.

It is not the democratic content of the state that is the fundamental determinant of the healthy nature of any society issuing from socialist revolution but the relations of production.  In Russia in 1917-18 the workers very quickly became dependent on the state to reorganise production after early experiences of workers’ control, and the state very quickly became dependent on capitalist and managerial middle class expertise to run it – a very clear demonstration of the fundamental importance of the base over the superstructure.  No amount of democracy in the organisation of the state will compensate for a productive base lacking the necessary level of development.

Anarchists are therefore only partly right to blame the Bolsheviks for their policy of limiting direct workers’ control of industry after the revolution.  A fundamental mistake was to make the necessity of adopting state ownership and bourgeois experts a virtue,so that state ownership became socialism and the problem just one of the use of experts and lack of democracy in the state.

Marx believed that the state should be as small as possible and wither away, as Lenin so famously put it.  Unfortunately, no one has been able to explain how a revolution whose aim is widespread state ownership and control would lead to the state withering away. How could it, if the state becomes the means by which the economy is managed and developed?

Transformation of the productive forces and relations of production, the base, requires the transformation of the relations of production in which the capital relation is replaced by workers’ ownership of production and the removal of capitalist monopoly ownership of production, whether this is in the form of individual capitalist ownership or of shareholder capitalism in terms of trusts, monopolies etc.

The role of the state in these circumstances is reduced to legal title over the physical means of production, which could not, within limits, be bought and sold by individual workplaces or cooperatives; and general coordinating or regulatory activities.  It would also assist in society’s deliberation over its overall priorities in terms of material production and alternatives to it such as reduced working time.

The effective coordination of society’s production and its development would be less and less the role of the state and more and more the outcome of the growth of cooperative production, i.e. by the workers involved in production themselves.  That it should be thought to be the role of a workers’ state is only a legacy of social-democracy in capitalist countries and the dead hand of Stalinism.

This mistaken view of socialist revolution – that it primarily involves state ownership and a workers’ state, and its reflection in terms of the base-superstructure distinction – can be seen in an interesting article by Chris Harman on this subject.

He says, for example, that:

“Old relations of production act as fetters, impeding the growth of new productive forces. How? Because of the activity of the ‘superstructure’ in trying to stop new forms of production and exploitation that challenge the monopoly of wealth and power of the old ruling class. Its laws declare the new ways to be ille­gal. Its religious institutions denounce them as immoral. Its police use torture against them. Its armies sack towns where they are practiced.”

Of course, this is true, as far as it goes, but as the answer to the question posed it is not true, or rather the actions of the superstructure are not the main reason that the “Old relations of production act as fetters, impeding the growth of new productive forces.”  It is obviously the relations of production themselves – the capitalist monopoly of ownership of the means of production and the working class’s ownership only of its own labour power – that is the greatest impediment to the growth of cooperative ownership by the workers and a new cooperative economy.

This mistake of isolating the role of the superstructure in the role of defending the relations of production is carried further through believing that the superstructure is the only or primary means of transforming the base of society, the forces and relations of production. It leads to the following statement:

“The massive political and ideological struggles that arise as a result, decide, for Marx, whether a rising class, based on new forces of production, displaces an old ruling class. And so it is an absolute travesty of his views to claim that he ‘neglects’ the polit­ical or ideological element.”

In saying this however, it is rather that Harman neglects the transformation at the ‘base’ which is required to effect socialist revolution.

So, in speaking (correctly) of the increasing parasitical role of a growing state, evident in previous modes of production before capitalism, but also true of it, which led to the collapse of previous societies he states:

“But none of these developments take place without massive political and ideological struggles. It is these which determine whether one set of social activities (those of the superstructure) cramp a different set of social activities (those involved in main­taining and developing the material base). It is these which decide, for Marx, whether the existing ruling class maintains its power until it ruins society, or whether a rising class, based on new forms of production, displaces it.”

He goes on – “‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle’, wrote Marx and Engels at the beginning of The Communist Manifesto. But the class struggle is precisely the struggle between those who use the political and ideological institutions of the superstructure to maintain their power over the productive ‘base’ and exploitation, and those who put up resistance to them.”

“The superstructure exists to defend exploitation and its fruits. Any real fight against the existing structures of exploitation becomes a fight against the superstructure, a political fight. As Lenin put it, ‘Politics is concentrated economics.’”1

It is as if the superstructure can define the base, which is the opposite of what Marx intended but which informs the conceptions of small Marxist groups, who conceive of revolution essentially as involving smashing the capitalist state by a vanguard revolutionary party.  What is missing is the actions of a whole class transforming the relations of production through its own activity by directly transforming these relations themselves.

This is not to reject the need to destroy the capitalist state, or need to create a workers’ state, or the various mechanisms identified by Marx to ensure its democratic functioning, or the need to create a working-class party to fight for such things.  It is just that all these must rest on a conception of revolution which places these things into their proper context and perspective.  Otherwise relatively superficial – ‘superstructural’ phenomena- become misinterpreted as prefiguring socialist revolution when the material basis for such a revolution – at the level of the relations of production and the consciousness to which they give rise – are not in place.

This is reflected in repeated misinterpretation of purely political revolutions as either involving or immediately heralding socialist ones, or misguided optimism that social struggles involve proximate socialist revolution – think Venezuela and Chavismo, Castroism, May 1968 or events in France today etc. etc.  Not only does this lead to unnecessary disappointment but it also mis-educates everyone, including those who argue it, how exactly socialism can be expected to come about and even what it is.

At this point it is necessary to recall, using the base-superstructure distinction, just what gives rise to workers’ consciousness.  In the Communist Manifesto Marx says:

“Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man’s ideas, views, and conception, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life?”

It is often assumed that the realm of ideas belongs to the superstructure, which may be correct when we think of schools, media etc., but it is not true that people get their ideas about how society works, what the constraints on changing it are, and what an alternative might be, only or even mainly from these superstructural institutions.  In fact, the most basic ideas about society come from the forces and relations of production, the base, including ideas about what capitalism is and how it might be changed.

As Marx says above, a change in material conditions changes people’s consciousness and these material conditions are also economic and social as well as political and cultural.  According to Marx the most fundamental are the economic and social and it is changes to these that will have the most effect on people’s consciousness.

Among many Marxists however, as I have noted above, it often appears that it is only political struggle that matters or is decisive, and it is argued that changing the relations of production can only be achieved, or even only begun, after seizure of political power.

This conflicts with Marx’s support for workers cooperatives, which can and do precede political revolution, but which will ultimately require the latter to defend them and confirm them as the starting point of a new socialist mode of production.  Otherwise what is missed is that their prior growth under capitalism can both materially and politically strengthen the working class in its future conquest of political power.

 

1 It is ironic that Harman employs this quote from Lenin, who used this phrase in the debate on the role of Trade Unions inside the Bolshevik Party after the Russian revolution. In this debate Lenin was referring to the need to evaluate the way forward in political terms, but the context also showed the determining role of the level of economic development, which handicapped the revolution and ultimately led to its thorough degeneration.  Lenin’s aphorism isn’t very helpful in our context.

Back to part 28

Forward to part 30

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

Forward to part 29

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