Class and Class Struggle
Unlike the classical school of economics (e.g. Adam Smith and David Ricardo) who believed in the harmony of classes, Marx emphasized the importance of class, class conflict and class struggle. In the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO the class struggle was, for Marx and Engels, “the motor force of history”. Class and class struggle were defined in an objective way with respects to the ownership or otherwise of the means of production and distribution.
In capitalism, Marx considered the social and historical existence of two major classes. First there was the class of capitalists who privately owned the means of life like factories, offices, land, tools, machinery, transport, communication systems’ distribution points, raw resources and second, the working class majority who were excluded from ownership. Workers could only sell their ability to work as a commodity in exchange for a wage or salary. A class of power and privilege daily confronted a class of wage slaves.
As in every other class system there was class exploitation. Marx explained the technicalities of class exploitation in his three volumes entitled CAPITAL. Workers produced more value than they received in wages and salaries. Workers produced what Marx called “surplus value”. It was from surplus value that the capitalist class received its unearned income in the form of rent, interest and profit as well as the financial support for the day-to-day running of the capitalist state; an institution of class coercion and control.
The class struggle goes on all the time. The class struggle takes place over the intensity and extent of exploitation. Politically, it is a struggle between a world capitalist class and a world working class about the control and use of the means of production and distribution. That is production for profit or, alternatively, production directly and solely for social use. Politically, the class struggle is about the retention of capitalism as opposed to the establishment of socialism.
Is There an Alternative to Capitalism?
Ever since the former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, claimed that there was no alternative to the market , to buying and selling, an absurd dogma has arisen, (subsequently endorsed by Tony Blair and Keith Starmer) that capitalism is the only viable and rational social system in town. Capitalism, we are told, is going to last forever, however, no social system lasts forever and capitalism is no exception.
Socialists reject the conservative dogma that there is no alternative to capitalism and that the working class is not cut-out for socialism. Capitalism is a social system with a beginning in class struggle and a potential end in class struggle through a socialist revolution. Socialists have confidence in the working class to take democratic and political action to end capitalism and establish socialism. The weight of history is on our side. A socialist politics is a revolutionary politics using a revolutionary vocabulary or it is nothing. If servility is a vice then so is political cowardice; capitalism is a social system not a natural state of affairs. And social systems come and go.
At the end of the crushing defeat of the rebellion in 71 BC, with Spartacus dead on the battlefield, 6000 slaves were crucified along 200km stretch of the Apia Way to Rome. Crucifixion was a cruel and painful death recently brought back into barbaric fashion by Isis in its short-lived feudal Islamic State.
Rome’s symbolic exercise of crucifying the slaves was to demonstrate to this class the imperial power of Roman society; the power of its ruling class and the perennial glory of ancient Rome. But within a few centuries that Empire had been swept away. No Empire lasts forever and this is a fact equally applicable to countries today like the United States as it once was to Imperial Rome.
Shelley put it this way in his poem Ozymandias
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."
Marx and Engels even contemplated the “destruction of the contending classes” (COMMUNIST MANIFESTO). Climate change poses an existential problem for capitalism it is unable to resolve within the confines of international rivalry between competing capitalist countries. Potential nuclear war as an outcome of the war in Ukraine is a possibility. The US could be ravaged by civil war and in the film, the PLANET OF THE APES, there is the powerful image, equal to Shelley’s Ozymandias, of the ruined head of the Statue of Liberty with astronaut Colonel Taylor (Charlton Heston) slamming his fists into the sand shouting, “You maniacs! You blew it up! …Damn you all to Hell!”
Here is another example from history. At the end of the failed Peasants Revolt in 1381, Richard II reportedly told the serfs that “serfs you are and serfs you shall remain forever”. John Ball, one of the leading thinkers of the Peasants Revolt was tried in front of the King at St Albans and then hung drawn and quartered with the King’s retort to the failed uprising ringing in his ears.
There is no blue plaque to John Ball in the old market square of St Albans where he was executed. However, his protest: “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?” lived on in the Peasants’ Song (anon.) and later in William Morris’s romance THE DREAM OF JOHN BALL (Lawrence and Wishart, 1977). But the class to which he preached his sermons of liberation has long since disappeared – the peasants have left little or no written history of their class struggles with the feudal order.
In 1539, during the Reformation, the Abbey of St Albans in which John Ball was imprisoned some two centuries earlier was dissolved. Henry VIII appropriated its income, disposed of its assets and expelled the successors to the monks who had once thought their future secure.
The chronicles against John Ball were written by Jean Froissart’s in THE ANONIMALLE CHRONICLE - a detailed account mainly of Wat Tyler and his end, which is now considered mere propaganda for Richard II [See Spokesmen for Liberty ed. Jack Lindsay and Edgell Rickword.] The Treasury and cloisters of the Abbey are now ruined fragments - symbolic references to a feudal order no more permanent than capitalism.
Four centuries later no serfs were to be found in Britain at all. Instead, there was a propertyless working class whose children were sent to the mills and where women were forced down the mines. Peasants had been thrown off the land by enclosures, journeymen in towns became mere wage slaves and a new working class was forged in the new cities of the industrial revolution. A different exploited class existed in place of the old feudal one; a class of workers imprisoned within the exploitive wages system and forced to sell their ability to work for a wage and a salary.
Richard II was wrong. The ruling class he represented had also been swept away, first, in the 17th century, through a Civil War which disposed of the doctrine of the divine right of kings with the swing of an axe along with feudal tithes, and the feudal power base of the monarchy. Then in the 17th century the Glorious Revolution which took political power from the monarchy and gave it to a cabal of landed aristocracy, City bankers, merchants, and the early industrial capitalists. With the imposition of the Reform Act of 1832 and the consolidation of capitalist power in the reforms of the Liberal government at the beginning of the 20th century the capitalist class became the exploiting class in human history.
From Capitalism to Socialism
The capitalist class came into being through class struggle establishing “new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of old ones” (COMMUNIST MANIFESTO) calling into existence the working-class with a revolutionary potential to make history by becoming a class “for itself”. From the perspective of history, the working class movement is relatively young. Its movement is not smooth and linear. Mistakes have been made and there are periods when this movement has been stronger than others. At what point the working class as a revolutionary force is situated within capitalism’s history we do not yet know.
The working class movement in Britain has passed through three political stages in its development. First, an incoherent stage around the actions of groups like the Diggers and Levellers (1649), the Swing riots and rick burning in the 18th century and the Luddites in the early 19th century. Second, a more coherent phase which saw workers identifying themselves as a class with their own distinct political interests such as the Chartist movement and then another phase with the formation of The First International (1864 – 1876), informed by the scientific writings of Marx and Engels among which was stated “That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves” (GENERAL RULES, October 1864). Third, following bitter political disagreements within the Social Democratic Federation, there was a development of a political movement of workers who became transparently aware of their revolutionary class position. These workers recognized that it could only be furthered by their own political effort, democratically within a principled political Party and with only one object: socialism.
This mature political development was reached at the turn of the last century in 1904 with the establishment of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. The Object and Declaration of Principles, drawn up by working class men and women, presented a sound Marxian critical analysis of capitalism. It also set out a practical political programme through the revolutionary use of the vote and the capture of the machinery of government by a socialist majority to achieve the socialist object: the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.
As the Socialist Party of Great Britain wrote in 1948:
In 1904 a new era in working class politics commenced with the formation of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. The Object and Declaration of Principles that were laid down by the founders of this party…have remained to this day a clear and concise statement of the basis of the organisation, admitting of neither equivocation nor political compromise with the enemy for any purpose however alluring. Here is no flirting with reforms nor false and soothing catchwords to enlist the sympathies and support of those who lack political knowledge but, instead, a straightforward statement of the essentials of the working-class position under Capitalism and the only road to its solution – the capture of political power by a working-class the majority whose members understand what Socialism means and want it (THE COMMUNIST PARTY AND THE LAST HYNDERD YEARS, Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1949 pp 28-29).
There is an alternative to the profit system: socialism. There is a world still to win.
Object and Declaration of Principles
The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.
Declaration of Principles
THE SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN HOLDS:
1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.
2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.
3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.
4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.
5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.
6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.
7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.
8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.