1970s >> 1978 >> no-892-december-1978

Production and class

Classes are defined by their respective connections to the productive forces within a certain type of production relation, and arise as soon as it is no longer necessary for everyone to work in order to sustain society. A social division of labour has been transformed into a relation of oppression and exploitation.

Thus, history may be roughly divided into periods characterised by a predominant mode of production and, based upon it, a class structure consisting of a ruling and oppressed class. The struggle between these two classes determines the social relations between people. Further, the ruling class, which owes its position to the ownership and control of the means of production, controls in a subtler way the whole moral and intellectual life of the people. In the period of its ascendance each class is “progressive”: its economic interests are identical with technical progress and its ideas and institutions have a liberating influence. On becoming the ruling class, however, it assumes a reactionary role, resisting attempts to change social and economic organisation. The resulting tensions and conflicts lead to revolution.

This materialist concept of historical change is not to be interpreted mechanistically, however. It is mistaken to imply that only technical and economic factors are important and that the whole social, political and intellectual realm is of secondary significance. Socialist theory is a tool for political action and the materialist approach serves as a guide to the study of, and not as an excuse for ignoring, historical events.

Why do we stress the importance of the organisation of production as a determinant of social class, rather than sociological favourites such as status difference? The reason is simple. Since it is labour that makes history, an understanding of the conditions of production, of man’s struggle to provide for his subsistence, is the key to the understanding of historical change. The satisfaction of basic needs makes work a fundamental facet of human life. The more new needs that are created, the more important it is that the instruments of production are improved and that individuals co-operate socially to this end. This implies the division of labour over and above the techniques of production employed.

The experience gained in the effort of making a living foster common beliefs and actions among members of a social class. Conflict over economic reward, communication of ideas between members of a class, and common suffering (not only material) experienced in exploitation help overcome differences and conflicts between individuals and groups within a class and encourage the growth of class conscious political organisations. Under capitalism this process, arising alongside inherent and growing social contradictions, has formidable obstacles in its way: individual competition for jobs, and between employed and unemployed and, perhaps most important, habitual assumptions about the existence and automatic functioning of capital. Social relations are taken for granted and codified in laws and custom. Transactions between workers and capitalists have the appearance of freedom on both sides, of “fair” exchange. This masking of reality, of things appearing what they are not, is a basic characteristic of class society. In reality, “the wage-labourer is bound to his owner by invisible threads. The appearance of independence is maintained by a constant change in the person of the individual employer, and by the legal fiction of a contract” (Capital, 1, xiii p. 719, Penguin). He is regarded and treated as an adjunct to the productive forces.

If a worker acquires the consciousness of an exploited individual, this is of little significance unless it is part of a collective, antagonistic movement extending outside the work situation. As an individual he may resist exploitation and hence develop “trade union consciousness”, but to the point that he challenges the capitalists’ legal right to expropriate the product of his labour at all, involves the emergence of class consciousness. In that they have common economic interests, wage and salary earners are “already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle . . . this class becomes united and constitutes itself as a class for itself . . . [And this] struggle of class against class is a political struggle” (Poverty of Philosophy, p. 150, Moscow edn.).

Karl Marx did not discover the existence of classes or their historic struggle. The modern notion of class —as distinct from rank—arose in the course of the French Revolution, from an awareness that the removal of legal privileges did not in itself result in social equality. The sharpening of class antagonism by the Industrial Revolution brought to the fore an awareness of the dynamic element of class. Marx’s class concept was a fusion of historical and economic elements, of which surplus value was central. In Capital he summarised it thus: “the specific form in which unpaid labour is pumped out of the immediate producers determines the relation of domination and subjection”, which in turn constitutes “the final secret, the hidden basis of the whole construction of society, including the political patterns of sovereignty and dependence, in short of a given form of government” (Vol. 3, p. 772, Moscow edn.). The class that controls the means of production will wield effective political power.

Capitalism has largely absorbed the remnants of classes from the previous mode of production (land- owners and peasants) and polarised society into two main classes. The enormous increase in wealth production has brought about the integration of the ownership of land and capital. (Marx loosely referred to two other groups as classes: the intelligentsia — “those who make the perfecting of the illusion of the class about itself their chief sources of livelihood”— and the lumpenproletariat—“a recruiting ground for thieves and criminals”. There is no evidence to support the theory that these two groups merged in the course of struggle to give us today’s professional politicians.) Marx’s views on the increasing poverty of the working class follow logically from his class analysis of society. Contrary to common belief, he never claimed that workers would become increasingly poor in absolute terms and could not improve their living standards. His case was that the gap between worker and capitalist would widen and that any increase in workers’ standards would always go hand in hand with increased wealth for the capitalists. He makes this clear in Wage Labour and Capital:

A house may be large or small; as long as the surrounding houses are equally small it satisfies all social demands for a dwelling. But let a palace arise beside a little house, and it shrinks from a little house to a hut. The little house shows now that its owner has only very slight or no demands to make; and however high it may shoot up in the course of civilisation, if the neighbouring palace grows to an equal or even greater extent, the occupant of the relatively small house will feel more and more uncomfortable, dissatisfied and cramped within its four walls.

(p. 32 Moscow edn.)

The class struggle is not a moral assertion about the inhumanity of the capitalist system. Against the background of the failure of humanist ideals and reform movements of all kinds, the last two classes in history confront each other with their needs and interests in direct opposition. The days of both are numbered.

Melvin Tenner