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

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

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 So we had a transition out of feudalism requiring three classes, being superseded by a capitalist society involving only two primary social classes.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forward to part 2