Monday, August 21, 2006

OSE Chapter 16: The Classes

Popper’s critique of Marx’s theory of the classes follows the lines taken up in the last chapter. He accepts that the formula ‘all history is a history of class struggle’ is valuable as a reminder to look into the important part played by class struggle in power politics as well as in other developments. But he went on to point out that dissention within the Marxian classes is at least as important as the conflict between the classes (even allowing the dubious assumption that there is some kind of fundamental conflict between the rich and poor, which I do not accept). Consequently the Marxist theory of classes is a dangerous over-simplification.
One of the dangers of Marx’s formula is that if taken too seriously, it misleads Marxists into interpreting all political conflicts as struggles between exploiters and exploited (or else as attempts to cover up the ‘real issue’, the underlying class conflict). As a consequence there were Marxists, especially in Germany, who interpreted a war such as the First World War as one between the revolutionary or ‘have-not’ Central Powers and an alliance of conservative or ‘have’countries—a kind of interpretation which might be used to excuse any aggression. This is only one example of the danger inherent in Marx’s sweeping historicist generalization. On the other hand, his attempt to use what may be called the ‘logic of the class situation’ to explain the working of the institutions of the industrial system seems to me admirable in spite of certain exaggerations and the neglect of some important aspects of the situation; admirable, at least, as a sociological analysis of that stage of the industrial system which Marx has mainly in mind: the system of ‘unrestrained capitalism’ (as I shall call it) of one hundred years ago.
This last statement signals a fundamental error that Popper has brought to his critique of Marx, namely his assumption that the so-called unrestrained capitalism of the mid-nineteenth century was indeed a system that exploited the workers. More on that later chapters.

Returning to the start of the chapter where Popper describes the Marxist theory, before his criticism; the most important function of the theory is to explain the increase in productivity which is an integral part of Marx’s story to account for the revolution and the advent of freedom under socialism.
An important place among the various formulations of Marx’s ‘historical materialism’ is occupied by his (and Engels’) statement: ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is a history of class struggle.’ The tendency of this statement is clear. It implies that history is propelled and the fate of man determined by the war of classes and not by the war of nations (as opposed to the views of Hegel and of the majority of historians). In the causal explanation of historical developments, including national wars, class interest must take the place of that allegedly national interest which, in reality, is only the interest of a nation’s ruling class. But over and above this, class struggle and class interest are capable of explaining phenomena which traditional history may in general not even attempt to explain. An example of such a phenomenon which is of great significance for Marxist theory is the historical trend towards increasing productivity. Even though it may perhaps record such a trend, traditional history, with its fundamental category of military power, is quite unable to explain this phenomenon. Class interest and class war, however, can explain it fully, according to Marx; indeed, a considerable part of Capital is devoted to the analysis of the mechanism by which, within the period called by Marx ‘capitalism’, an increase in productivity is brought about by these forces.
Popper did not accept the idea that class interest is a psychological phenomenon. He argued that Marx pursued an his institutional analysis (rejecting of psychologism).
We need not assume, as Vulgar Marxists do, that class interest must be interpreted psychologically. There may be a few passages in Marx’s own writings that savour a little of this Vulgar Marxism, but wherever he makes serious use of anything like class interest, he always means a thing within the realm of autonomous sociology, and not a psychological category. He means a thing, a situation, and not a state of mind, a thought, or a feeling of being interested in a thing. It is simply that thing or that social institution or situation which is advantageous to a class. The interest of a class is simply everything that furthers its power or its prosperity.

Marx gives some indication of how this process of determination works. As we learned from him in the last chapter, we can be free only in so far as we emancipate ourselves from the productive process. But now we shall learn that, in any hitherto existing society, we were not free even to that extent. For how could we, he asks, emancipate ourselves from the productive process? Only by making others do the dirty work for us. We are thus forced to use them as means for our ends; we must degrade them. We can buy a greater degree of freedom only at the cost of enslaving other men, by splitting mankind into classes; the ruling class gains freedom at the cost of the ruled class, the slaves. But this fact has the consequence that the members of the ruling class must pay for their freedom by a new kind of bondage. They are bound to oppress and to fight the ruled, if they wish to preserve their own freedom and their own status; they are compelled to do this, since he who does not do so ceases to belong to the ruling class. Thus the rulers are determined by their class situation; they cannot escape from their social relation to the ruled; they are bound to them, since they are bound to the social metabolism. Thus all, rulers as well as ruled, are caught in the net, and forced to fight one another. According to Marx, it is this bondage, this determination, which brings their struggle within the reach of scientific method, and of scientific historical prophecy; which makes it possible to treat the history of society scientifically, as the history of class struggle. This social net in which the classes are caught and forced to struggle against one another, is what Marxism calls the economic structure of society, or the social system.
The system evolves as the conditions of production change, so each historical period is characterized by the means of production and the consequent class system (according to Marx’s “economism”). Marx wrote:
“The hand-mill gives you a society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill gives you a society with the industrial capitalist ... In the social production of their means of existence, men enter into definite and unavoidable relations which are independent of their will. These productive relationships correspond to the particular stage in the development of their material productive forces. The system of all these productive relationships constitutes the economic structure of ociety” [i.e. the social system].

Only in so far as the capitalist is personified capital does he play a historical role ... But exactly to that extent, his motive is not to obtain and to enjoy useful commodities, but to increase the production of commodities for exchange’ (his real historical task). Fanatically bent upon the expansion of value, he ruthlessly drives human beings to produce for production’s sake ... With the miser, he shares the passion for wealth. But what is a kind of mania in the miser is in the capitalist the effect of the social mechanism in which he is only a driving-wheel ... Capitalism subjects any individual capitalist to the immanent laws of capitalist production, laws which are external and coercive. Without respite, competition forces him to extend his capital for the sake of maintaining it.
Back to Popper's commentary:
This is the way in which, according to Marx, the social system determines the actions of the individual; the ruler as well as the ruled; capitalist or bourgeois as well as proletarian. It is an illustration of what has been called above the ‘logic of a social situation’. To a considerable degree, all the actions of a capitalist are ‘a mere function of the capital which, through his instrumentality, is endowed with will and consciousness’, as Marx puts it, in his Hegelian style. But this means that the social system determines their thoughts too; for thoughts, or ideas, are partly instruments of actions, and partly—that is, if they are publicly expressed—an important kind of social action; for in this case, they are immediately aimed at influencing the actions of other members of the society. By thus determining human thoughts, the social system, and especially the ‘objective interest’ of a class, becomes conscious in the subjective minds of its members (as we said before in Hegelian jargon). Class struggle, as well as competition between the members of the same class, are the means by which this is achieved.


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