Sunday, 11 December 2016

Capital III, Chapter 52


Only a fragment of the chapter on class exists, and this small fragment has caused considerable controversy. One of the criticisms of Marx, from his opponents, is that, given that class is central to his analysis of society, it is rather a serious omission that nowhere does he actually set down his definition and analysis of what class is!

Moreover, in the one place where he does begin to do this, he appears to give up on the task, having found himself going round in circles. Marx’s manuscript, containing this fragment, where he begins to analyse class as being derived from his aforegoing analysis of productive and distributive relations, was written in 1865. Yet, in the next 18 years, of the remainder of his life, he did not come back to it.

This has meant that his critics have been able to claim that Marx was unable to consistently derive the existence of social classes from his own analysis of productive and social relations, and consequently this undermines his theory of historical materialism, and the concept that history moves forward on the basis of a class struggle that derives from the development of those productive relations.

Needless to say, I believe that these arguments are wrong. However, this is not the place to deal with those arguments. In fact, I believe that a careful reading of what Marx says in this fragment, along with the thrust of what he says in the other final chapters, of Volume III, itself deals with those criticisms. However, I will deal with those arguments elsewhere.

In previous chapters, Marx has analysed the existence of wages, profit, interest and rent as the major revenues of capitalist society, and these specific revenues presume the existence of wage labour, capital and landed property. The owners of these forms of property then form the major classes of capitalist society.

The fact that there are other forms of property, and other types of revenue, as well as the fact that some individuals may own different forms of property, and so obtain revenue from multiple sources does not change this. An equivalent way of thinking about this might be that in terms of the total production, some products might be either means of production or means of consumption, e.g. a drill used either as constant capital, or used for DIY, but in aggregate, one portion of output forms means of production, and is part of Department I, and the other is means of consumption and is part of Department II. It is not a matter of being confused by the fact that some individuals might be allotted to more than one box, but of identifying that distinct boxes exist. In the case of classes, the box is defined on the basis of the form of property, not from the starting point of the individual, who is only a personification of that form of property. In the same way, the class struggle is, in reality, a struggle between the objective interests of these different forms of property.

The very laws of capitalist production, increasingly diminish the size and significance of all the intermediate classes, so that it is these three major forms of property that are determinate.

Not only is capital increasingly separated from labour, because the means of production must be increasingly employed on an ever more massive scale, but, as the worker is thereby transformed into a wage worker, the owner only of the commodity labour-power, so too is land separated from the worker. Agricultural production increasingly becomes capitalist farming, undertaken by capitalist farmers, as owners of means of production, in the form of capital, and so land takes on the form of landed property.

In fact, the case of landed property is a good example of the argument made above. As land becomes a commodity itself that is increasingly bought and sold in the market, it is also bought by capitalists. A capitalist farmer, i.e. a productive capitalist, may also own the land they farm, which thereby makes them also an owner of landed property as well as capital.

But, the objective laws that determine the interests of this individual, as the owner of landed property are not the same as their interests as a productive-capitalist. The former has an interest in the rate of rent being high, and the latter in it being low. Yet the fact that some individuals may be the owners of different forms of property, and consequently the recipients of different types of revenue does not change the fact that these different forms of property exist and that different types of revenue are derived from them.

The real class struggle is a struggle between these different forms of property, and individual owners of this property are merely its personification. The fact that the contradiction between the objective interests of these different forms of property can be played out, within one and the same individual, as well as between individuals that, in aggregate, form large social classes, likewise does not change the fact that such conflicts exist, between the interests of these different forms of property, or that these conflicts derive from objective social laws. 

Marx's theory is a theory that seeks to establish how society develops, and how this is determined by objective social laws that operate at the aggregate level. It is not a subjectivist theory that starts with a concern to place each individual in their own exclusive class box, and thereby explain their individual actions, thoughts and motivations.

The reason it is thought that Marx found himself at a dead end, caught in a circular argument, is a failure to understand the nature of what Marx was seeking to do in that analysis.

It is compounded by Marx's own formulation of the problem, which he did not here go on to resolve, but which is, in fact, contained in the rest of his analysis in Capital, if it is put together.

Marx formulates the problem as follows,

“The first question to be answered is this: What constitutes a class? — and the reply to this follows naturally from the reply to another question, namely: What makes wage-labourers, capitalists and landlords constitute the three great social classes?” (p 886)

The answer to this question seems already to have been given. It is that these classes are the owners of the three major forms of property – labour-power, capital, landed property - and it is from these that they derive specific forms of revenue – wages, profit and rent.

“However, from this standpoint, physicians and officials, e.g., would also constitute two classes, for they belong to two distinct social groups, the members of each of these groups receiving their revenue from one and the same source. The same would also be true of the infinite fragmentation of interest and rank into which the division of social labour splits labourers as well as capitalists and landlords-the latter, e.g., into owners of vineyards, farm owners, owners of forests, mine owners and owners of fisheries.” (p 886)

In other words, this seems to be a circular argument. The short answer to this has already been given. The defining condition for class is not the type of revenue received by an individual, but the types of property that exist in society. Class should really be understood as class of property, rather than the class of an individual or social class. It is the objective laws that determine the contradictory interests of different forms of property that constitute the real class struggle, and human beings are merely the actors on the stage that play out this drama.

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