The Historical and the Transhistorical in the Conception of Class.

The Historical and the Transhistorical in the Conception of Class.

“Classes are large groups of people differing from each other by the place they occupy in a historically determined system of social production, by their relation (in most cases fixed and formulated in law) to the means of production, by their role in the social organisation of labour, and, consequently, by the dimensions of the share of social wealth of which they dispose and the mode of acquiring it. Classes are groups of people one of which can appropriate the labour of another owing to the different places they occupy in a definite system of social economy”.

[Lenin, June 28,1919. Collected Works, Volume 29. p.421]

Lenin’s conception of class here is transhistorical. It could be used to describe the character of class relations in all societies divided into classes. Societies in which a surplus is produced by labour which affords a ruling section or stratum of society the means of avoiding the performance of this labour.

The first great human civilisations of the world’s mighty river valleys – Nile, Euphrates, Indus, Ganges, Yangtze, etc – were societies based on the production of an agricultural surplus and the rule of a priesthood which managed and controlled the extraction of this surplus and lived off it parasitically.

But to appropriate a more concrete grasp of class relations in the different, particular class societies, we need to identify the parameters and criteria which differentiate class in these specific societies. For example, class relations in the society of the late Roman Republic, of Feudal England in the 12th century, of America at the start of the 21st century, etc.

It is sometimes thought that ownership and non-ownership are the fundamental criteria in all class societies which differentiate classes from each other. Under capitalism, of course, this is the base criterion. The capitalist class owns the means of production and distribution in the form of capital and the proletariat only owns the commodity of labour power which it must sell to the capitalist class in order to survive. In the aforementioned river valley civilisations, neither the land nor the infrastructure of state was privately owned. The animating criterion determining the relationship between populus and priesthood in these societies was control of land and production; not ownership. Control does not necessarily imply ownership. And even onwnership does not necessarily imply absolute control when the state itself can lay down conditions and regulations in regard to the use and operation of the means of production and distribution, etc.

Historically, in different epochs and under widely differing conditions, the intrinsic, endogenous socio-historically posited paradigm against which class relations are determined and measured will always vary but sometimes be repeated in different social forms throughout human history. For example, in the Roman Republic, this paradigm mediating the determination and relationship of classes was ownership, and specifically of land. The mediating criterion of ownership recurs, of course, under capitalism. We have already mentioned this.

But in the high period of English feudalism, ownership – not even of land – was not the mediating criterion. The Crown owned all land but land was not alienable – could not be bought and sold generally and only by the Crown if required and if a buyer could be found – because feudal society was not a society of buying and selling owners but a society of subinfeudated tenants. Land was parcelled out from the Crown at the apex in a process of investiture and subinfeudation down to the villeins and serfs at the base of the feudal pyramid.

Hence, in English feudal society, the class relations within the body of the feudal structure were not determined by the criterion of ownership. They were determined by the control of production for use on tenanted land (fief). The relationship between Lords and Vassals gravitated around this fief in which the grant of land was conditional on labour obligations and other forms of service. The relationship between Crown and Nobility took the form of the granting of land in exchange for military obligations and political support, etc.

When we describe the class relations of any class society we are incorporating Lenin’s transhistorical conception within our historical conception of the specifically animating criteria (ownership, control, etc) which determine the character of different classes and their interrelations and conflicts within a given society in a particular epoch.

Shaun May

September 2014


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