Class Struggles Having declared in the opening sentence of the Manifesto that all history is the history of class struggles, Marx adds immediately in a footnote “of written history”. For prior to the invention of writing, societies were nomadic, organized in tribes, each tribe made of less than 100 individuals. There was hardly any division of labor, other than sexual. The tribe would designate a chief, and modern ethnology tells us the chief had very little power. His main function was to defuse any conflict among tribesmen, not as a judge, he had no power to judge, but more by using his charisma to talk people out of their quarrels.
His authority would be limited to leading the hunt and, of course, the war. Thats all. In his essay, The Origin of Property, Family and the State, Engels describes social life in these primitive tribes very much as something like “anarchy”. I would like to add here that modern anthropology supports Engels analysis. Primitive societies did not know anything that resembles political power, let alone a state.
They had no use for it. Pierre Clastres, in his fascinating book, Society Against State, notes that the only distinctive feature between “primitive” and “modern” societies is not agriculture, it is not sedentary life, it is the institution of a state. A modern society is a society that is subject to the power of a state. So called primitive societies were not. In economic terms, nomadic tribes (which Engels calls gens) do not accumulate a lot of goods. The only capital they use is what people can carry on their back or on the back of an animal.
Not much. Thus, between tribes, violence is limited, there is not much to conquer and to loot, and war is considered more like a sport, a rough athletic competition. Note that war was a game played by all tribesmen. All valid men went to war, when called for, there were no professionals. How did the state come about ? With agriculture began a process of capital accumulation.
In order to farm, one needs first to clear the land. Trees have to be uprooted, fields have to be irrigated, tilled and planted. Granaries have to be built to store grain for the year, pending the next harvest. All this preparation and construction may take many months, and it is hard work. So people started to think : “Why should we do it ? When we go at war, we take prisoners, let the prisoners do the hard work”. And so, says Engels, society experienced its first division into classes, between a class of masters and a class of slaves, between exploiters and exploited. Of course, the society which has accumulated this capital becomes the envy and the target of its neighbors.
War is no longer a sport, it can pay, and pay big, because if you conquer the enemys land that has already been cleared and irrigated, with a year or more supply in storehouses, it is saving you the investment and hard work. So each society had to organize some sort of permanent defence against marauders and invaders. Each society took out of its surplus enough food to pay for a group of people who would have no other function than protection, i.e., a professional army. Now once the rulers had an armed force at their disposal, the temptation was there permanently to use it against their own people, to consolidate the rulers power. Thus, says Engels, there emerged a new institution, which would maintain “order” in society, and of course an order favorable to the dominant class. This institution is called “the state”.
Let me quote directly from Engels : “In order to maintain this public power, contributions from the state citizens are necessary — taxes. These were completely unknown to gentile society [the so-called “primitives”]. We know more than enough about them today ! With advancing civilization, even taxes are not sufficient ; the state draws drafts on the future, contracts loans, state debts. Our old Europe can tell a tale about these, too.” [Engels was writing this in 1867. What would he have to say about our modern Europe, with states plundering a full 50% of all wealth created in society and running debts equivalent to two years of GNP !] “In possession of the public power and the right of taxation, the officials now present themselves as organs of society standing above society..
Representatives of a power which estranges them from society, they have to be given prestige by means of special decrees, which invest them with a peculiar sanctity and inviolability.” “The state is therefore by no means a power imposed on society from without.. Rather, it is a product of society at a particular stage of development..” The first point I wish to emphasise here with Marx and Engels is that the state is a human construct ; it is not inherent to mankind, as the queen is to an ant colony or a beehive. Human societies existed historically without a state, and there is no reason why we could not organize ourselves again in the future without a state. My second point is that, as Marx and Engels tell us, the state is the instrument of oppression used to keep in check the exploited masses. Without the state, mass exploitation would not be possible.
Ideology Now, the dominant class amounts to only a fraction of the population, sometimes as low as 10-20%. Surely, 10% cannot exploit 90%. How come therefore this small minority manages to stay in power ? For controlling the state is not enough. Maintaining an army of professional warriors to keep in check citizens who very often do not have the right to bear arms is indeed a way of enforcing your power over society, but it is not a guarantee. An insurrection, a massive taking to the streets, a general strike, can overthrow any government, even supported by the military, as history has witnessed so many times.
So the ruling class always used another mean of wielding its power, it is ideology, and understanding how ideology works may be Marx’s greatest contribution to the study of history. Ideologies are the changing ideas, values, even feelings, through which individuals experience their society. Ideologies present the dominant ideas, the beliefs and values of the ruling class, as being the ideas of society as a whole. Thus individuals, because they are thinking by using the concepts, the words and the references of others, are prevented from grasping how society actually functions, and they cannot even suspect that they are exploited. Marxists thinkers, like Gramsci, Lukacs and Althusser, have expanded greatly on Marx’s concept of ideology, and it goes further than Ayn Rand’s sanction of the victim.
For Marx, and especially for Gramsci, I would say ideology achieves the perfect crime. A perfect crime is not when the criminal remains unknown, it is one that nobody even suspects to be a crime, where death is declared purely accidental, and no one will look for a criminal. For Marx, the victims have nothing to consent to, they do not see themselves at all as victims. Quite the reverse. They say “the master is good, he feeds me every day, he does not beat me more often than I deserve to be.” The production of ideology is the intellectuals job, and up until recently, intellectuals were part of a clergy. You know the famous definition given by Marx of religion as being the “opium of the people.” Religion was perceived as a sort of sedative of the mind. So even when people might have become conscious of their oppression, there came the ruling class second line of defense : “Yes, my friend, you are right, God placed you at the bottom of society, but it is for your own good, you will be all the happier in a later life”; “it is Gods plan for society that there exists lords and servants, sorry, old chap, you are one of the servants, but you wouldnt want to rebel against Gods will, would you ?”.
Armed with such powerful tools as the state police and ideology, the dominant class never gives up its power gracefully. Why would it ? It seems it has the means to rule forever. Yet, history shows us that changes did take place. Marx identifies two such transformations in human history, from slavery to feudality, and from feudality to capitalism. Revolutions So what caused these momentous changes ? The answer is : technical innovations, which forced changes in the production process. Marx is often interpreted as a technological determinist on the basis of such isolated quotations as: “The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill gives you society with the industrial capitalist.” It is of course more complicated than that.
But basically, what we can say is that the dominant class power base is the control over certain commodities, over certain sources of wealth. But the dominant class cannot predict, let alone control, the emergence of a new technology. When this technology emerges, it may be in the hands of a group of people who are not members of the dominant class. And suddenly these pioneers generate a transformation in the means of production, in the way society is organized, and therefore in the way society thinks, how it apprehends itself, because, says Marx, the way we work, the function of production, what we do, influences who we are. And the growing number of people who are involved in the new technology see society with new eyes, they start questioning whether the power of the dominant class is legitimate.
This is exactly what happened throughout history, of course. For instance, new inventions in the 18th century, including the steam engine, were both a consequence and a cause of the philosophy of Enlightenment, which exposed the arbitrary of the “divine right of Kings”, and hence of all aristocratic privileges, and led to the American and French revolutions. It is difficult to dispute the relevance of Marxs and Engels analysis of history. I concur with all they say about class struggles and the function of ideology – prior to the Enlightenment. Quite obviously, the slave is dispossessed, he may not own anything, he is clearly exploited.
The feudal serf is hardly in a better condition. He is tied to the land, he cannot leave it and is sold with it. But when Marx goes on to say that workers under the capitalist regime are dispossessed as the serfs were, I have a problem following his reasoning. Marx believes that the new dominant class after the Industrial Revolution is the one made up by the owners of capital, it is the bourgeoisie. But this deduction is wrong, plain wrong.
There is a logical fallacy here. Freedom The logical fallacy is to posit that if two events occur simultaneously, one must be the consequence of the other. This logic reminds me of one of Husserls favorite anecdote : There is this guy who drinks whisky and soda, and he gets drunk, then he takes gin and soda, and he gets drunk, then he takes vodka and soda, and he gets drunk, and he concludes that he gets drunk on soda. I dont want to denigrate Marxs vast intelligence, but he is telling us that slave masters had political power, they exploited their slaves and they got rich. Feudal lords had political power, they exploited their serfs and they got rich. Capitalists are rich, therefore they must exploit their workers, right? Hang on.
Capitalists have no political power. This surely must make a difference. Unlike feudal lords and slave masters, capitalists cannot coerce anybody to work for them, to consume their products, nor to finance their endeavors. Marx feigns to ignore that with the emergence of the industrial revolution came another revolution, which redistributed power within society. It was the classical liberal revolution in the 18th century and it changed radically the political and legal environment.
People were free to work where they wanted, for whomever they wanted. Marx pooh-poohs the achievement of that revolution and what he refers to as “formal freedom.” You know the argument, that Marx will belabor in The Capital : We say the worker “agrees” to work for the capitalist because no policemen are dragging him from his home to the factory, but this means only that “he is compelled by social conditions”. In his treatise, ‘The Poverty of Philosophy’, Marx writes “Indeed the individual considers as his own freedom the movement no longer curbed or fettered by a common tie or by man, the movement of his alienated life elements, like property, industry, religion..” And Marx adds : “In reality, this is the perfection of his slavery and his inhumanity.” This is rather poor philosophy on Marxs part. Freedom is “the movement no longer curbed” by other men, freedom is freedom of property, of industry, of religion. There is none other. Take it away and you get Stalinism. The wealth of kings, slave masters, feudal lords and all their lackeys, was acquired through the exertion of violence, by way of military conquest, tax, confiscation, enslavement.
But not necessarily the capitalists wealth. The capitalist makes money, indeed, and for a few of them, that money may be numbered in billions, but he is not an exploiter. The ownership of the means of production by itself does not make anyone an exploiter. This is where Marx got it wrong. Making money in a trade between consenting parties is not exploiting anyone, how could it be ? Work Marx was a believer in property rights.
It is because his work is the workers property that Marx may conclude the worker is dispossessed of his remuneration. But Marxs crude materialism blinds his vision and prevents him from seeing that it is not work that is remunerated, what is remunerated is work that is of service to someone, and to someone who values this work enough to pay for it. Work by itself is destructive. The Bible already taught us that work is a malediction. Paradoxically, the record of Marxist states proves my point. Armies of workers toiled literally like slaves during dozens of years, not creating any wealth, actually destroying it. They extracted perfectly good copper mineral and crude oil, and turned it into unusable electric wires and plastics.
Many economists calculated that if all the people in the Soviet Union had stopped working and had been content to sell their vast commodity resources without attempting to transform them, they would have been far better off. Work has no value by itself. The value is in the service you render to somebody. It so happens that in most instances you cannot be of service to somebody without performing a certain amount of work, but Marx confuses the end and the means. If someone could bring me clients whilst sleeping, I would pay that someone to sleep.
So it is not work that the capitalist pays, it is the service the worker is rendering. There are people who for whatever reason are able to render a great service to a great number of buyers, and they make bundles of money, and there are others who have not found a way to prove their usefulness, resulting in differences of revenues, sometimes very substantial ones. But the capitalist pays all services exactly the fair price, or the worker, in a politically free society, would immediately check the classified ads to see whether another employer offers a higher price for the same service, and if that other employer cannot be found, then it is evidence that the salary paid is exactly the fair and present value of the service rendered. So if capitalists pay fair wages, and if workers are not exploited by their empl …