"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." That is Marx's vision of the history and is one of the fundamental principles that every Marxist adheres to. This declaration of Marx in Communist Manifesto probably is as important to the Marxist theorists as his economic theories. I have dealt with the foundation of Marx's economic theory earlier but the question is how valid is Marx's famous notion about "class struggle" and history. This is a statement that shouts out through the entire Marx's writings. One cannot conceive of Marxism without his perception of the history and the "class struggle".
What does Marx mean? Marx always played on abstractions as part of his dialectical method, as his way of getting to the essence of the question, problem or the matter under investigation. Most of the time these abstractions are so obscure and arbitrary that one had only two choices, ignore it or accept it by faith. The western scientific community by and large ignored it. On the other hand the intellectuals of the undeveloped countries ignorant of the world history and even of their own, in their blind opposition to the West accepted Marx's abstraction by faith. Their resistance to the western influences, cultural, social and economical was translated as their participation in the world "class struggle". An additional contribution to Marxism, codified by Lenin in his theory of "imperialism", is the essence of this blind process. Later I will examine Lenin's theory also, let's stick to Marx for now.
Every abstraction is nothing but a particular approximation. Therefore from the above Marx's statement one could conclude that if we study the struggle between "classes" then we are done with the study of history and the rest is unimportant. If we line up all the struggles between "patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves" and later " feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs" and include in there their "subordinate gradations" then we should have a pretty good picture of our history. All the wars between tribes, clans, federations, kingdoms and states were really the side show and all the epidemics, disease and natural disasters were just flukes of the nature and not that important. Does this make sense?
If you take two sheets of paper and on one you list all the known uprisings, protests as the manifestations of the Marx's "class struggles" and on the other list the less important events, wars and the intervention of the nature. Do we see on the first sheet the "history of all hitherto society", even a blurred one, an abstracted one? One might see a caricature, a bad one at that, but not a history!
But wait, Marx says something more. He says, these classes were "in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden now open fight." Maybe we are missing something from Marx's "class struggle" sheet. We have the "open" struggles on that sheet, now if we only add the "hidden" struggles that would create a "continuous and uninterrupted" connection between the "open" struggles and we would have a well description of our "history" and it should look all right! But how do we know that those fights and struggles were constant and uninterrupted. The secret must be in the "hidden" ones Marx is telling us about. But if they are hidden how could we know about them! Is this a wild goose chase?
How did Marx come up with his "constant", "uninterrupted" fight that were "now hidden and now open"? He does not tell you directly but one has to decipher it from his writings and here is how he reached that conclusion. First he begins with the haves and the have nots; capitalists have and workers do not have; feudal lords have and peasants do not have; kings have and the artisans have less. Marx saw these material wealth discrepancies and for him there was no reason that those "classes" would not be aware of them. After all who knows better than a peasant that he is living in a mud hut and his overlord lives in a castle. This obvious material difference should be as bright as a daylight to the peasant. After all the peasant is facing it every day, something that Marx is observing but could not experience.
In addition what is the use of these "the haves and the have nots" scenario, this design cannot be for Marx's personal intellectual satisfaction, the under classes must know about it also. Marx thinks they do, otherwise why a continuous "fight". According to Marx they, the "have nots", were and are waiting to get into the big action. In his view these under classes get into action and will get into action to challenge their overlords. for him, the uprisings, rebellions and strikes by those under classes are clear indications that the "fight" between classes have always been going on, mostly "hidden"! Marx cannot prove his contention and so it is left to be either accepted by faith or rejected for lack of evidence.
Marx also thought that he had found the ultimate evidence for his "class struggle" theory. As he walks back in history from capitalism, feudalism, slavery, and whatever other stages he finds, Marx eventually finds the primitive hunter-gatherer societies as a "classless" society which there are no "haves and have nots". Simply because at the end of the day of hunting and gathering there were nothing left to "have", pretty much everything was consumed. At the same time Marx saw the hunter-gatherer societies as the evidence of the cooperative nature of man, where there were no need for social differentiation. His view of this primitive man, who has lived for many thousands of years in small societies without "exploitation", contains the essence of man that is shining through all the class societies that followed it.
Marx's view is that trade of material things, something introduced into this early stage from outside, somehow took humans by surprise or off guard. This began a process of class differentiation and accumulation of material wealth by a few to the detriment of many. His picture is gloomy. After the long period of pristine classless societies, humans are caught in a web of class struggle where the overwhelming majority suffer for the well being of a tiny minority. Marx asserts that all the under classes knew about their pathetic situation but all of their attempts would fail since class relationships were "complicated". Their attempts would fail by bringing about new classes with more brazen exploitation.
For Marx there were other factors. For example peasants were not quite propertyless they owned a few material things. They were attached to the land of the lord and they could keep some of the fruit of their labor. The lord could not fire them. This supposedly provided a little social protection for the peasants, a sort of primitive safety net! It was easier for the lord to kill the peasant than to fire him. I am not sure if that was a plus for Marx's moral compass of the history! It should have been since his view is that exploitation became more naked in the direction of the arrow of the time. According to Marx's storyline there was a bit of leftover tribal community in the pre-capitalist era. There were one kind or another form of attachment to the means of production and the product of their activity. This has been the state of affairs throughout the development of the "class societies" until we reach the capitalist stage.
Marx's view is that with the advent of capitalism all these complications went away. We have the laborer who is propertyless and detached from everything. Marx says, capitalism has "simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat." For Marx everything was so obvious and simplified that it made proletarian victory inevitable. Once the proletariat makes its final move the class society will be on its way to be naught. We will reach the end of history, for the rest of the time that true pristine nature of man will kick in and the cooperative man will surface once again, this time on a higher level of productivity without any of the hardships of the "primitive communism".
The accumulated historical evidence is against Marx on all accounts. Let's begin with the real workers. Do you think when the GM workers go to their auto plant they enter the plant to conduct their "hidden" struggle or is this hidden agenda on any of their minds? All evidence show that they enter the plant to produce cars and at the end of the pay period they expect to get a paycheck. Do you think when they leave the plant, they assemble in a dark corner to plan their "hidden" struggle for the next day, or they simply go home to spend time with their family and plan for their family life – how to educate their children, when to take their next vacation or outing? All evidence testifies to the latter. So where does all this "hidden" struggles take place? Auto workers in this country have gone on strike many times in the past for their particular interest and each time the "class" spirit of the socialists have soared with the promise of the coming socialist revolution, and every time the workers go back to work with a new agreement, leaving the leftists behind in their cycle of deep depression. They wail a sigh of grief that if those workers would have stayed out on strike and invited others to join them, then they could have entered the promise land with the socialists happily leading them. In their eyes every strike is a capitalist crisis, the same as each social moral turpitude is a sign of rupture for Christian devout, both are signs to the promise land.
The labor strikes or threat to a strike in the US or Europe is routine and only the wishful thinking of the leftists reads more into it than what they really are. These strikes for the workers are to gain more advantage in terms of pay and the working conditions but for the socialist these are the prayer sessions of the coming class pandemonium.
Even in the more contested social upheavals in the undeveloped world we do not observe such attributes of Marx designation to the capitalist system. In the anti Shah upheavals of 1970's in Iran workers played little to none in the overthrow of the Shah. More or less the workers continued to show up for work until the last few days of 1979 insurrection. The strikes were mainly among the educated and well to do layers of the society, the broad governmental bureaucracy, intellectuals, students and office workers. Industrial workers did not show any interest until the actual insurrection, which by all means forced the participation on them. It seems they had more sense than the intellectuals who imposed the Islamic regime on themselves.
Maybe the peasants of the middle ages did what American workers does not seem to be doing, conducting a "hidden" struggle and then augmenting it with occasional "open" uprising. The question is why a peasant child who sees his social status as a given would even contemplate any kind of struggle with the lord. We know that Marx's perception about the American workers and for that matter for all of the today's workers was just a figment of his imagination. Now the question is, if workers of the modern society in a more open environment do not have the appetite for the struggles that Marx perceives why would the peasants of the middle ages would feel such a need in their guts for "hidden" struggles.
We cannot go back and measure the mindset of the peasants, but there are indications that Marx only has been projecting his moral judgment on society and its history. NY Times (12/22/2011) has a report on the openings for the untouchables in India. Part of this report is a conversation with Ashok Khade. He was an untouchable when he was growing up and at present is a successful entrepreneur. Untouchables are the lowest cast or class in the traditional Indian hierarchy. At one point Khade points to the school he was attending when he was a young boy and says because he was an untouchable he had to sit on the dirt floor at the foot of the higher cast children. The interviewer asks him "how did you feel sitting down there below the upper cast children." He replies "No one thought otherwise actually…" his whole response is that it was not about how I felt, the situation was the norm.
It is the nature of human condition throughout the ages, we are borne to a situation which was the norm and those norms would carry from generation to generation with little change. One of the problems of our modern society is that these norms hardly last one generation and creates challenges for our social organization. I will come to this point later.
The more important point of the Khade story is that he broke through that cast system and the moral codes associated with it not with his "hidden" struggle but through his education and if we look at it closely he was successful because of the capitalist penetration of India, and the latter is fundamental. His success has turned that whole cast system, around his village, upside down. At times when Khade returns to his village people of all casts rush over to greet him and shake his hand.
Millions of Indians and Chinese have moved out of the poverty for the first time only because of the expansion of the market system, capitalism. The socialist systems that was implemented in China, or in case of India it was aspired to, did not alleviate the poverty. The Chinese workers are not clamoring for the communist central planning. Are there protests? Yes there are we hear about them every day, but they are not for a return to communist central planning. They are for an end to the corruption and against the new cast system of the communist hierarchy which hampers the social mobility.
At no time in the history of mankind the social mobility have been easier than today. Social mobility from an almost impossibility under feudalism or Indian cast system has found more fluidity under a market system. No anti market rhetoric has found a substitute for it. We cannot find the irreconcilable "class antagonisms" or division of society into two contending "classes" that Marx saw and prophesized.
Instead of laborers and the capitalists being at each other necks, as Marx foresaw and Marxists are hyperventilating for it every day, we do find antagonisms between backward societies and the modernity. At times this real antagonism, which stems from the resistance of the undeveloped societies to progress, have taken on a tone of irreconcilable struggle – the struggle against affluent societies, struggle against "stronger" states, struggle against "imperialism". Interestingly enough, this "irreconcilable" confrontation happens only when this resistance to progress gets captured into an ideological intransigence by the intelligentsia of the same undeveloped societies.
There were important struggles over the working conditions in the modern societies but none was an "irreconcilable" struggle. The left and socialists in these countries probably did some harm to those struggles by subverting them toward a mirage. They tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to convert those struggles into "irreconcilable" ones – a revolutionary fuel for their "egalitarian" society.
The above piece is part of a book that I am developing. If you would like to follow, please read the blogs titled "Perspective..." and then read all the blogs which the title name ends with " -- Book". As you might have guessed, you have to read from the earlier posts moving to the present.