The class struggle in the economic history of capitalism

Clara Figueiredo, untitled, digital photomontage, 2017


As long as we deny the class struggle category, we will not be able to advance in the fight against the destructive forces of the imperatives of capital.


It is necessary to rescue the conception of social subject and society contained in economic theory, from classical political economy to the dominant contemporary economic thought, in order to reach the real dimension of the resulting economic system and its implications on life itself (society and nature). . As economists, while we deny the category of class struggle, we will not be able to advance in the fight against the destructive forces of capital's imperatives, already all too evident and widely experienced (socially, politically and environmentally speaking) in this historical period of capitalism; despite all technical advances and the currently widespread ideology of technology as our only lifeline.


Class struggle as the key to the historical process

Class struggle is inscribed in historical materialism. In this, the conception of history resides in the development of the real process of material production of immediate life and the forms of exchange associated with it and engendered by it. Therefore, the foundation of history is based on the different stages through which civil society passes in the “succeeding of different generations”, until “history becomes world history” (MARX and ENGELS, 2007, p. 40) . Two powers that are strange to “single individuals”, start to present themselves as commanders of their destinies, due to the social power contained in them, power built from a “fully material” action. On a national level, the State, and on a world level, the world market. However, these powers, although autonomous, are not independent. The configuration and amplitude of their respective forces depend on the stage of development of capital, which ultimately determines social power in the capitalist mode of production.

Historical materialism treats aspects of human activity as historical acts in two ways namely: “the work of men on nature”; and “the work of men on men” (MARX and ENGELS, 2007, p. 39). Therefore, men, in the production of their own material life, always find “[…] before them a historical nature and a natural history […]” (MARX and ENGELS, 2007, p. 31). In short, as formulated by Engels: “The materialist conception of history starts from the thesis that production, and with it the exchange of products, is the basis of the entire social order; that in all societies that have gone through history, the distribution of products, and along with it the social division of men into classes or strata, is determined by what society produces and how it produces it and by the way in which its products are exchanged. Accordingly, the profound causes of all social transformations and all political revolutions must not be sought in men's heads or in the idea they have of eternal truth or eternal justice, but in the transformations wrought in the mode of production and of exchange” (ENGELS, 2005, p. 69).

Thus, the class struggle is presented as a result of the assumptions of human existence and, consequently, of all history. These assumptions, “three 'moments' that have coexisted since the dawn of history and since the first men”, can be summarized as follows: (1) “men have to be able to live in order to 'make history' [...] of material life itself […] a fundamental condition of all history”; (2) “the satisfaction of this first need, the action to satisfy it and the instrument of satisfaction already acquired lead to new needs”; and (3) “men, who daily renew their own life, begin to create other men, to procreate […] the family […] at first the only social relationship, it becomes later, when increased needs [… ] new social relations” (MARX and ENGELS, 2007, p. 33).

Therefore, with production, the division of labor develops, productivity, new needs and the resulting increase in production, increasingly expand the social division of labor over time. This originates from the sexual act and “only really becomes division from the moment that a division between material work and spiritual [work] arises” (MARX and ENGELS, 2007, p. 35).

Consciousness, as an act of individual understanding and experienced social bonds, spiritual work, is thus also a social product. The first form of human contradiction is presented when we relate “the production force”, “the social state” and “conscience”, that is, the separation between material activity and spiritual activity. The second contradiction, derived from the first and its constituent, the basis of the class struggle, is related to the clash between private interest and collective interest, on classes already conditioned by the division of labor: “every class that aspires to domination [...] must first to conquer political power, to present its interest as a general interest” (MARX and ENGELS, 2007, p. 37).

It is interesting to observe the reciprocal implications between class struggle and alienation, since the dominance of one class over the other, the “social power”, depends on the conviction of the dominated class, either through violence or as: “a strange power, located outside theirs, over which they do not know where it came from or where it is going, a power, therefore, that they can no longer control and which, on the contrary, now goes through a particular sequence of phases and stages of development, independent of the will and action of the men and that even directs this wanting and this acting” (MARX and ENGELS, 2007, p. 38).

According to historical materialism, the State appears as a “practical-idealist expression” of certain production forces that are used as a condition for the domination of one class over another. That is, the form of the State, as a social power, derived from the very degree of material wealth attained by a given society. In this way, we arrive at the ideas of class and class domination: “the ideas of the dominant class are, in each epoch, the dominant ideas, that is, the class that is the dominant material force of society is, at the same time, its dominant spiritual force. The class which has at its disposal the means of material production also has the means of spiritual production at its disposal, so that at about the same time the thoughts of those who lack the means of spiritual production are subject to it. The dominant ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relations, they are the dominant material relations apprehended as ideals; therefore, they are the expression of the relations that make a class the dominant class, they are the ideas of its domination” (MARX and ENGELS, 2007, p. 47).

From the perspective of historical materialism, history is the movement of productive forces through the development of “the forces of individuals themselves”, within the division of labor. The social relations derived from the latter become autonomous and subject individuals “to the most complete dependence on each other”. “[…] Through the division of labor, the division of working conditions, tools and materials is already given from the beginning, which generates the fragmentation of capital accumulated in different owners and, with this, the fragmentation between capital and work, as well as the different forms of property. The more the division of labor develops and accumulation increases, the more acute this fragmentation becomes. The work itself can only subsist under the assumption of this fragmentation” (MARX and ENGELS, 2007, p. 72).

It is interesting, by way of illustration, to observe the historical process of autonomization of social relations, the State and the world market. According to Marx and Engels (2007), this autonomization can be understood from the following historical development: (1) the separation between city and countryside or between capital and land ownership; (2) the need for administration, police, taxation, etc. (general and state politics); (3) the separation of production and commerce, the formation of a particular class of merchants, and a consequent division of production between several cities, each with a predominant industrial branch; (4) from (1) and (2) resulted the birth of manufactures; 4) passage from estate-natural capital to movable capital and its consequent change in property and production relations; (5) the extraordinary impulse of manufactures from the commercial expansion with the discovery of America and the maritime route to the East Indies; (6) creation of the big bourgeoisie by commerce and manufacture, this class starting to have political significance; (7) from the previous conditions, there is the creation of large industry, which represented the coming of age of capitalism.

Big industry revolutionized both the production process and made capital and its accumulation process autonomous. This autonomization, in turn, implies subsuming product and factor markets, technical progress and the workforce, solely, to the process of capital accumulation. In general, as Marx and Engels (2007, p. 60-61) explain, large industry: “universalized competition [...] created the means of communication and the modern world market, subjected commerce to itself, transformed all capital into industrial capital and thus generated rapid circulation (the development of the monetary system) and the centralization of capital. It created world history for the first time by making every civilized nation and each individual within it dependent on the whole world for the satisfaction of their needs, and it did away with the former exclusive and natural character of individual nations. It subsumed natural science under capital and took its last semblance of naturalness from the division of labor. It has destroyed naturalness in general, in so far as this is possible within work, and has dissolved all natural relations into monetary relations. In place of the naturally formed cities, he created the great modern industrial cities, born overnight. It destroyed, wherever it penetrated, crafts and, in general, all previous stages of industry. It completed the commercial [city] victory over the countryside. Its [assumption] is the automatic system […] it has everywhere created the same relations between the classes of society and thereby suppressed the particularity of different nationalities. And finally, while the bourgeoisie of each nation still retains separate national interests, large industry has created a class which has the same interest in all nations and in which all nationality is already destroyed; a class which, in fact, is free from the whole ancient world, and at the same time confronts it. Big industry makes unbearable for the worker not only the relationship with the capitalist, but the work itself”.

In turn, the bourgeois class was born from the different local bourgeoisie of different cities, from the bond that these cities established with each other, thus generating the conditions for the formation of a class. Based on the division of labor, it was divided into distinct fractions according to their respective capitals: mercantile, industrial, banking. For Marx and Engels (2007, p. 63), “individuals form a class only to the extent that they have to promote a struggle against another class; for the rest, they position themselves against each other, as enemies, in competition […]”. In the Middle Ages, the burghers united as a class against the feudal nobility. In the eighteenth century, “the century of commerce”, we witness the struggle between manufacturing capital and commercial capital. On the other hand, the proletariat, as a class, the “revolutionary class”, is already confronted from the beginning with the capitalist class, thus, it “appears not as a class, but as a representative of the whole society [...] because its interest […] it coincides with the collective interest of all other non-dominant classes” (MARX and ENGELS, 2007, p. 49).


The class struggle in the economic history of capitalism

Like Marx (2017), we take the capitalist era as starting in the XNUMXth century. The idea of ​​this item is to present the phenomenon of class struggle and its transformations throughout the economic history of capitalism. In this sense, our first task concerns establishing a relationship between types of class struggles and historical periods of the development of capitalism. At first, there seem to be two specific dynamics related to class struggles, one before big industry and the other after. What we are saying is that the class struggle itself becomes subsumed to the autonomization of capital since then. However, this does not mean the loss of its revolutionary character, because as long as there is social conflict around the partition of the economic surplus, the class struggle will continue to act as a core element in the transformation of social processes, as well as it will continue to be a central category of economic analysis. .

Marx and Engels, each in their own way, clearly recognize this distinction. Marx's historical-political works reflect the class struggle before the advent of large-scale industry and, Capital, reflects the dynamics that the class struggle assumes with its implementation. Similarly, when writing the preface to Class struggle in France, in the 1895 edition, Engels contextualized the class struggle after the 1848 revolution from three aspects: (1) that the revolutions up to that moment were carried out by “small minorities” of the ruling class, remodeling institutions according to the your interest; (2) the novelty represented by the participation of workers in State institutions, via elections; and (3) the monopoly of violence by the State, formation of national armed forces, provided by economic growth itself. The arguments of each of the authors deserve a few words about it.

Let's start with Engels. The first argument presented by him is that all revolutions up to that moment were bourgeois revolutions. For him, the economic development of the time had not yet provided the majority of capitalism nor completed the formation of the proletariat. As Engels reports, the economic revolution that installed large industry across the continent was taking place precisely in that historic court. It was only from that moment on that it was possible to speak of a general bourgeoisie and a real proletariat, both arising from large-scale industry, shifting the question of “social development” to the forefront.

“All revolutions resulted in the removal of a certain class domain by another; however, all the ruling classes hitherto have always constituted small minorities vis-à-vis the dominated mass of the population. Thus, a dominant minority was overthrown and another minority took the helm of the State and reshaped its institutions according to its interests. It was, in each case, the minority group that was empowered and called upon by the state of economic development to exercise dominion, and it was precisely for this and only for this reason that the dominated majority participated in the revolution in favor of this group or accepted it. quietly. However, if we abstract from the concrete content of each case, the common form of all these revolutions is that they were minority revolutions. Even when the majority participated, it was - consciously or not - only in the service of a minority; this, however, gained in this way, or already due to the passive attitude of the majority that offered no resistance, the appearance of being representative of the whole people” (MARX, 2012, l. 164-168).

Analyzing the Revolution of 1848 in France, Marx thus concludes: “After the July Revolution […] it was not the French bourgeoisie that reigned under Louis Philippe, but a faction of it: the bankers, the stock exchange kings, the railway kings, etc. the owners of coal and iron mines and the owners of forests in collusion with a part of the land-owning aristocracy, the so-called financial aristocracy. She occupied the throne, dictated the laws in the chambers, distributed public positions from the ministry to the tobacco agency”. (MARX, 2012, l. 466-471)

For Engels, the forms of struggle of 1848 have become antiquated in every respect, for all the conditions under which the proletariat has to struggle have been revolutionized. However, as he himself recognizes, even with the spread of the industrial proletariat throughout Europe, forming a great “army of the proletariat”, it was not possible to conquer the revolutionary victory with a single blow. The proletariat was "obliged to advance slowly from one position to another through hard and close struggle, this demonstrates once and for all how impossible it was to achieve social reorganization in 1848 by means of a surprise attack". (MARX, 2012, l. 209)

However, the imperialism that was established in Europe after 1851, as analyzed by Engels, inaugurated “a period of revolutions from above”, but also provided a new, broader organization of the proletariat gathered in the International. In 1871 France revived the proletarian revolution through the Paris Commune. However, once again, for reasons that it is not the place to analyze here, but which were amply analyzed by Marx and Engels, the government of the working class proved to be an impossibility: “as fruitless as the sudden attack of 1848 remained the victory received in 1871” (MARX, 2012, l. 237).

The second aspect highlighted by Engels is the following: “The proletariat has discovered that the State institutions, in which the rule of the bourgeoisie is organized, still admit other manipulations with which the working class can combat them. He took part in elections for state assemblies, for communal councils, for professional courts, disputing with the bourgeoisie every post in which he had the right to demonstrate. And so it happened that the bourgeoisie and the government came to fear legal action more than illegal action by the workers' party, to fear the success of the election more than the success of the rebellion” (MARX, 2012, l. 286-290).

This second aspect was already present in the Communist Manifesto, when the authors proclaimed as one of the “first and most important tasks of the militant proletariat” the conquest of universal suffrage. However, it is worth noting the introduction of universal suffrage also as a weapon of the bourgeoisie. In Germany, in 1866, for example, universal suffrage was instituted “[…] when Bismarck was forced to institute this right to vote as the only means of interest the popular masses in his plans” (MARX, 2012, l. 270) .

The third and last aspect highlighted by Engels concerns the growth of the armed forces defending the State: “[...] if the big cities became considerably bigger, proportionately even bigger became the armies” (MARX, 2012, l. 324). Engels then makes a comparison between the situation of the military and the situation of the insurgents.

“With the help of the railways, these garrisons can be more than doubled in 24 hours and, in 48 hours, become gigantic armies. Armament […] has become incomparably more effective […] today there are percussion grenades, one of which is enough to shatter the best-built barricade […] On the side of the insurgents, on the other hand, all conditions worsened. It will be difficult to achieve a revolt again with which all popular strata sympathize; In the class struggle, it is certain that all the middle strata will never rally around the proletariat so exclusively that, in comparison, the party of reaction clustered around the bourgeoisie practically disappears.” (MARX, 2012, l. 324-328-331-335).

That's all about Engels' analysis regarding the class struggle. Marx, in turn, offers us the class struggle as a category of economic analysis in Book I of The capital. It begins with an analysis of the commodity and its contradictions. The commodity is presented as a cell of capitalist wealth and the set of commodities as the total wealth. The substance of this wealth is presented as work, more specifically the expenditure of labor power quantified in the socially necessary working time category. The category of value is derived from the relationship between labor power and merchandise. Therefore, in any historical period, value is transformation. But, in capitalism, in addition to transformation, it becomes an object of accumulation, as it dematerializes. It is separated from the commodity by the process of generalization of exchanges, starting to be represented by a universal equivalent that is totally foreign to it, money.

After the analysis of the commodity Marx presents the analysis of the production of the commodity. At this point, the presentation is carried out considering the singular individuals in the figures of the capitalist and the salaried worker. In Chapter 4, “The Transformation of Money into Capital”, Marx has before him the revelation of a secret. He reveals to us that the creation of value in capitalism is at the same time a process of exploitation and expropriation of the workforce. He reveals to us that the ideals of equality and freedom among men, established in the form of a declaration, are nothing more than a “legal fiction”. This is how the theory of exploitation is defined through the category of surplus value or surplus value, as you wish to refer to it. So far, we have revealed how the production of economic surplus takes place in capitalism and the form of its appropriation (the specifications of surplus value, in its absolute and relative forms, are carried out in sections III, IV and V, which contemplate chapters 5 to 16).

At the end of chapter four Marx announces a change in dramatic personae [theatrical characters], from the moment that mercantile capital penetrates production and productive capital begins to dominate the former. The possessor of money becomes a capitalist and the possessor of labor power his worker. The passage from an analysis centered on singular agents to an analysis centered on social classes is open, introduced in the emblematic chapter 8, “The working day”: “[...] a struggle between the set of capitalists, ie, the capitalist class, and the set of workers, ie, the working class” (MARX, 2017, p. 309).

Chapter 8 therefore introduces class struggle as a category of economic analysis. It will serve as an element of analysis in the process of moving from manufacturing to large-scale industry. First through the struggle between capitalists and corporations, then through the intercapitalist struggle between the various capitals in function (mercantile capital versus productive capital, productive capital versus productive capital), and also between capital and labor. This last relationship is only developed in Chapter 23, “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation”, when Marx examines the effects of technical progress on the working class.

Marx could have closed chapter 23 with the item “Historical tendency of capitalist accumulation”, from the end of chapter 24 entitled “The so-called primitive accumulation”. However, it seems that he made a point of showing, both from a logical point of view (chapters 1 to 23) and from a historical point of view (chapter 24), that the capitalist system is simply indefensible, as it constitutes a system of exploitation and exploitation. permanent expropriation between social subjects. For if the general law of capitalist accumulation is to produce capitalists on the one hand and wage workers on the other, the historical tendency of capitalist accumulation is to raise the fundamental contradiction of this system to an intolerable level. Its overcoming as a historical system will also take place through the class struggle.

However, this breadth of class struggle is not recognized by some Marxists. Moishe Postone's interpretation, for example, is to deny the importance of class struggle as an instrument for overcoming capitalism. He even claims that “[…] Marx's conception of socialism does not involve the realization of the proletariat” (POSTONE, 2014, p. 378). But how did he reach such a conclusion?

Moishe Postone in Time, work and social domination: a reinterpretation of Marx's critical theory, from 1993, made important considerations about the work category. Mainly when formulating its function as the “[…] of a directionally dynamic, totalizing and historically specific mediation […]” (POSTONE, 2014, p. 463). However, when it deals with class struggle, its starting point is the denial of the very object of analysis of capital: the exploitation of the workforce based on the capital relationship. For, he states that “the objectified forms of social mediation”, “expressed by the categories of value and surplus-value”, “[...] cannot be understood only in terms of relations of class exploitation [...]” (POSTONE, 2014, p. 364). For him, the theoretical character of class relations is not at all obvious in the development made by Marx, when presenting and analyzing the surplus-value category.

However, we demonstrated just the opposite a few paragraphs above. His confusion seems to reside in the separation “[…] between class and the specific character of social mediation in capitalism (POSTONE, 2014, p. 366). For, his interpretation is that for Marx the constitutive mediation of capitalist society (the social forms of the commodity and capital) cannot be expressed simply by the class struggle. But, also, as we showed above, this separation proves to be false.

It is that even the complete subsumption of the class struggle by the autonomization of capital, that is, the internalization of the class struggle as a “normal” and legal process of conflict resolutions between capital and work, does not authorize Moishe Postone to deny the analysis of Marx of the proletariat as a revolutionary force. Much less to claim that Marx wanted to conclude something other than that the class struggle “is the history of all hitherto existing societies”. That the commodity-form acts as a social mediation between capitalists and salaried workers is nothing new, it is there in The capital, running through chapters 9 to 23.

That the class struggle does not represent a disturbance of the system, as stated by Moishe Postone, we cannot accept. For, Marx clearly demonstrated that given the general law of capitalist accumulation his historical tendency would inevitably be the class conflict that would result in the “expropriation of the expropriators”. If the historical development of capitalism circumvented or made this outcome unfeasible, due to its extreme elasticity, this does not authorize Moishe Postone to deny the class struggle as a way of overcoming the capitalist mode of production. Mainly, “that overcoming capitalism does not involve the self-perception of the proletariat [and that] Marx's logic does not defend the notion that the proletariat is the revolutionary subject” (POSTONE, 2014, p. 376).

In fact, as Moishe Postone shows, the class struggle has been taken “as a description of social groupings in capitalist society”, as “a description of a historical tendency of the population to polarize itself into two large social groups” and, still, as a form of 'circulatory-administrative accumulation' (emphasized by the growth of the middle class). But, from what has been exposed so far, the class struggle is much more than that. It is the category of economic analysis that accompanies Marx's reasoning from chapters 8 to 23 of The capital. It shaped capitalism, made it possible to explain its historical development and announce its overcoming.

Therefore, in Marx, the category of class struggle has two distinct (but interrelated) connotations. It is as much a category of historical-political analysis as it is a category of economic analysis. The latter, in a dominant form, is presented and discussed in Book I of The capital, from chapters 8 to 23. As a category of political analysis, it reflects the need for a social revolution, beyond the limits of established legality (chapter 24 of book I). As a category of economic analysis, it reflects both the process of exploitation of the workforce and a “legal” struggle around the limits of the working day (chapter 8 of book I).

For, as Marx himself clarifies, we are facing an antinomy: “a right against another right, both supported by the exchange of goods. Between equal rights, force decides. And so the regulation of the working day presents itself, in the history of capitalist production, as a struggle around the limits of the working day - a struggle between all capitalists, ie, the capitalist class, and the set of workers, ie., the working class” (MARX, 2017, p. 309).

In summary, the class struggle, as a category of economic analysis, was also treated by Marx within the limits of capitalist legality to explain the struggle of the working class in the context of the autonomization of capital. From the conclusions reached by the class struggle as a category of economic analysis, in which social reproduction in capitalism always occurs producing capitalists on the one hand and salaried workers on the other, according to the conclusion of chapter 23 (“The general law of capitalist accumulation”) , we reach its last political meaning at the end of chapter 24. This last meaning appears as a logical conclusion of the analysis developed throughout Book I, being presented as “The historical tendency of capitalist accumulation”, synthesized in the formula: “the expropriation of the expropriators by the expropriated”.



The class struggle was vigorously announced in the Communist Manifesto, already demonstrating, then, all its strength as a category of historical analysis: “The history of all societies until now has been the history of class struggles”.

Whether the class struggle always ends in revolution is another story, another misunderstanding. A revolution is a transformation that occurs due to a multifaceted combination of factors and that changes a form of sociability, it is not an instantaneous rupture, but a social process that occurs in a certain period of time. When dealing with the English Industrial Revolution, for example, Eric Hobsbawm (2009) is quite enlightening: “the Industrial Revolution was not a mere acceleration of economic growth, but an acceleration of growth due to economic and social transformation ‒ and through it [ …] occurred in and through a capitalist economy […] through perpetual technological revolution and social transformation” (HOBSBAWM, 2009, p. 33-34).

The English Industrial Revolution is certainly the result of a class objective. In order to consolidate his objective, the industrial capitalist had to establish himself as the dominant class in relation to other classes, such as the agrarian and mercantile oligarchies, for example. The association between profit and technical progress reflects the economic character at the base of such a revolution: “[…] we have to explain why the pursuit of private profit led to technological transformation, and it is not absolutely obvious that this happens automatically” (HOBSBAWM, 2009, p. 33).

We can say that the English Industrial Revolution is the result of another revolution, the Glorious Revolution, the English bourgeois revolution. But, for that, we would need to establish a set of historical mediations that runs through the period of time, between the two events. In any case, a revolution is a direct result of the class struggle, be it a social revolution (such as the establishment of capitalism itself), or an industrial revolution (transformation of the regime of accumulation).

For Marx and Engels, it is true that class struggle, as a historical process, will lead to socialist revolution, but a broad set of mediations needs to exist between these two events. And the certainty that capitalism is a historical stage of economic development authorizes Marx and Engels to state that the result of the class struggle is socialism. However, subsuming the class struggle under the process of capital accumulation (a process of reification so brilliantly analyzed by Lukács) can make the fundamental contradiction of the capitalist mode of production so elastic that it can make one lose sight of the dimension of the class struggle. classes as the only possible way to overcome the system itself.

Another truly frightening outcome was posed by the new technologies that made possible the development of a capitalism with financial dominance. That it is nothing more than a sophisticated global system of loan sharking, expropriation of rents, appropriation of the State itself, of criminal predation of natural resources, of precarious work and total domination over the working class; which puts life itself and its contents (society and nature) at risk.

*José Micaelson Lacerda Morais is a professor in the Department of Economics at URCA. Author, among other books, of Capitalism and the revolution of value: apogee and annihilation.

Article extracted from the book On the validity of class struggle as a category of economic analysis. São Paulo, Amazon (Independently Published), 2021.



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