Letters: The Forum: Does Economic Power Rest Upon Political Power?

Boston Rd, Bronx. 
New York.
July 27,1914.
Sir —

I would like to have your opinion on a certain question to settle a dispute between a friend of mine and myself.

Volume I of “Capital” by Karl Marx, Chapter 3, page 152 (Kerr’s edition), 12th line of the first paragraph, states as follows: “In the Middle Ages the contest ended with the ruin of the feudal debtors, who lost their political power together with the economical power on which it was established.”

I maintain that the line gives the inference that the political power is based upon the economic power. My friend says that the economic power is based upon the political power. What I would like to know is whether Karl Marx was wrong.


J. Brandon.

Our correspondent’s question and quotation leaves several previous questions unanswered. And firstly, the quotation is incorrect. Marx’s statement is:

    “In the middle-ages the contest ended with the ruin of the feudal debtors, who lost their political power together with the economic basis on which it was established.” (Italics ours.)

It is easy to see that this alters the entire aspect of the question; while it is extremely significant that Marx carefully distinguishes between “political power” and the economic basis on which that power rests. In its correct form no such inference as Mr. Brandon gives can be drawn from Marx’s words, and that inference, therefore, falls to the ground.
But there are still other questions left. Every student of Marx knows how frequently he warned his readers against attempting to apply the conditions of one system as an explanation of the facts of another system. Mr. Brandon takes a factor from the feudal system of society and tries to use it as an explanation of a condition of capitalism. Hence another failure in his attempted argument. Karl Marx was right, but Mr. Brandon is wrong.
Briefly stated the matter stands as follows :

Under feudalism the individual’s right of citizenship was based in towns upon his being a master of a craft, and. in the country, upon his being a member of the manor, with certain portions of the arable land for his maintenance, along with rights of common land and woods. When the increasing taxation by King and Government, along with the competition of the new, uprising, commercial adventurers, drove the master craftsman to the money-lender, and he was unable to pay the latter, he lost his position in guild and town and became an outcast. He thus lost his political power along with the basis upon which it had rested.

The peasant in the country had to perform various services for the Lord of the Manor, who, later, began to commute these services for money payments. But here again, money payments meant debts. If unable to pay these debts, then the peasant lost his holdings in the manor, and also became an outcast, thereby losing his political power along with his previous economic position.
Under feudalism the wage working class did not exist. Under capitalism the position is entirely different.
When the capitalist method of production and distribution became the prevailing one, the capitalist class, as such, had no political position they could claim from feudalism Partly they made one by “lending ‘ and “donating” large sums to needy monarchs in return for, first, trading privileges, and later, political power; partly by purchasing manors and the political rights attached. But the old aristocracy still were an important section politically. Hence the agitation against “the rotten boroughs” by the capitalists, who urged the working class—now fully fledged wage slaves, without any political rights at all—to demand the franchise. At first extended to the possessors of any form of wealth, as distinct from the old landed forms, it has gradually been extended to a point where mere tenancy for a given time at a small rental suffices to place a man upon the voter’s register. Here we see political power existing without any economic power at all, with only the tiniest economic basis to rest upon, and even that tending to disappear—in Adult Suffrage without residential qualifications.
The explanation is to be found—as Marx has pointed out—in the economic conditions of modern capitalism, a matter beyond the space at our present disposal to deal with.
Other phases of this matter are dealt with in the “ Socialist Standard ” of May, 1909.
Jack Fitzgerald

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