Marx and Engels’ theory of the end of class society

by Jehu

Marx and Engels’ theory of classes in bourgeois society is detailed in the German Ideology. I want to examine it in some detail, because I think it raises fundamental questions about the strategy of the radical Left as this strategy is commonly understood.

Wikipedia defines a theory this way:

“In modern science, the term “theory” refers to scientific theories, a well-confirmed type of explanation of nature, made in a way consistent with scientific method, and fulfilling the criteria required by modern science. Such theories are described in such a way that any scientist in the field is in a position to understand and either provide empirical support (“verify”) or empirically contradict (“falsify”) it. Scientific theories are the most reliable, rigorous, and comprehensive form of scientific knowledge, in contrast to more common uses of the word “theory” that imply that something is unproven or speculative (which is better characterized by the word ‘hypothesis’). Scientific theories are distinguished from hypotheses, which are individual empirically testable conjectures, and scientific laws, which are descriptive accounts of how nature will behave under certain conditions.”

To be a valid theory of classes, Marx and Engels’ theory must be

  1. “a well-confirmed type of explanation of nature”;
  2. “described in such a way that any scientist in the field is in a position to understand and either provide empirical support (“verify”) or empirically contradict (“falsify”) it”; and
  3. provide an empirically testable account “of how nature will behave under certain conditions.”

I think the theory of classes outlined by Marx and Engels fulfills these conditions on all three counts. This conclusion will not be welcomed by most Leftists since, as I will show, this theory of class contradicts almost every assumption of radical strategy.

The theory itself

The class that ultimately becomes the bourgeoisie began as a collection of local corporations of burghers during the feudal period. Trade and communication between towns made them aware of each other. Their common conflict with the existing feudal organization of society led them to assert the same interests against what was for them a common enemy.

Because of their common conflict with existing feudal conditions and the labor process as it was organized under those conditions, the conditions of life of this early bourgeoisie became, first, conditions common to them all and, second, independent of them all. Their material conditions thus were, in first place, in conflict with existing feudal condition, yet independent of the burghers themselves.

The early bourgeoisie created these new material conditions by tearing themselves free of existing feudal conditions. And these new material conditions were their unique creation insofar as they were created in antagonism to existing feudal conditions. As relations between the various burgher corporations deepened and developed, these conditions became the conditions of a new class.

This new class develops only gradually. It is differentiated internally as it splits up according to the division of labor. It is cancerous, i.e., it invades and absorbs the existing propertied classes it finds already in existence. It creates a new class, the proletarians, out of the members of society who own no property and part of the existing propertied classes. And it converts all existing property into industrial and commercial capital.

Uniquely, the members of this class form a distinct class only to the extent they carry on a conflict with another class. In absence of conflict with another class, the members are on hostile terms as competitors among themselves. For this reason, the conditions that have developed into class conditions, have an independent life separated from the members of the class. The individuals in turn find their conditions as member of the class already in existence before them. They become subsumed under their class.

Marx and Engels conclude:

“This subsuming of individuals under definite classes cannot be abolished until a class has taken shape, which has no longer any particular class interest to assert against the ruling class.”

Implications of the theory

Thus Marx and Engels arrive at the conclusion the proletarians, because of their unique attributes, will put and end to class society.

To understand why this must be true, recall that members of a class form a distinct class only to the extent they carry on a conflict with another class. Absent this conflict, they are not a class, but a collection of hostile competitors. If a class has no interest to assert against another class, it no longer counts as a class, even if it shares common material conditions.

In their unique theory, Marx and Engels explicitly define a class as one that shares common material conditions and carries on conflict with another class. Then they explicitly argue that the class that puts an end to all classes no longer has the latter attribute. This non-class shares every other attribute with other classes except this one attribute — a conflict with another class.

Why this class in particular does not share this attribute with other classes must be explained. Again, we have to go back to the previous discussion. The early bourgeoisie created these new material conditions by tearing themselves free of existing feudal conditions. And these new material conditions were their unique creation insofar as they were created in antagonism to existing feudal conditions.

However, for the proletarians, unlike the bourgeoisie, this is not true. The proletarians neither tear themselves from existing (bourgeois) conditions, nor create new condition in antagonism to these conditions. Instead, they themselves are the product of bourgeois conditions.

For their theory of classes to be internally coherent, abolition of classes must be predicated on the unique attributes of the proletarians. What makes proletarians uniquely qualified to abolish classes if they were just a class like every other class? It cannot be labor, because peasants do just as much labor as proletarians. It can’t be the fact that they are propertyless, because slaves had no property. Neither labor nor the absence of property make the proletarians unique.

What makes the proletarians the class that puts an end to class society is that already they are not a class in the sense of the term as Marx and Engels employs it, i.e., although they share the same material conditions, these condition do not put them into conflict with the bourgeois mode of production.

Thus, as bourgeois social relations metastasize throughout society like a cancer, it constantly reproduces this non-class on an ever larger scale. The proletariat doesn’t have to “do” anything to put an end to classes, because it is already the end of class society.

Application of the theory

People wrongly think there is something else that has to be done, so they are always trying to figure out how to “create” communism. You can take exception to this argument based on historical grounds, the way some take exception to Marx’s theory of money. Perhaps later research shows Marx and Engels did not get things right historically. I think this is unlikely, but it is possible.

One thing that cannot be done, however, is argue Marx and Engels believed the mechanism for the end of class society is anything but the emergence of a class that has no class interest to assert against the ruling class.

Which means the entire strategy of most of the Left is deeply flawed. That strategy assumes the proletarians have some class interest that brings them into conflict with the other class. This may be true, but it would mean Marx and Engels were completely wrong about how bourgeois society works. If Marx and Engels were right we are dealing with a class that is more likely to look on other members of their class as competitors than as comrades.

This hostility, of course, is the simplest explanation for the persistence of misogyny, racism, national chauvinism, etc. within the class. In an attempt to insulate themselves from competition, the proletarians employ every means at their disposal to lock their competitors out of the labor market. This can give rise to the most ugly, disgusting behavior imaginable.

The assumption of a common class interest among the working class blinds us to the deeply incoherent character of its politics. At the same time it leads us to think the “common interests” of the working class can be brought to it from outside through socialist education. In fact, no amount of socialist education by us will overcome the impact on the class of the competitive struggle among them to sell their labor power.

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