Category Archives: social relations

Whither the Family?

Whither the Family?

Feuerbach starts out from the fact of religious self-alienation, of the duplication of the world into a religious world and a secular one. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis. But that the secular basis detaches itself from itself and establishes itself as an independent realm in the clouds can only be explained by the cleavages and self-contradictions within this secular basis. The latter must, therefore, in itself be both understood in its contradiction and revolutionised in practice. Thus, for instance, after the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must then itself be destroyed in theory and in practice.

Karl Marx. Theses on Feuerbach, IV


Mode of Production, Social Relations and Control

Engels writes, in his preface to the first edition of the The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, that…

according to the materialist conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of immediate life. This again, is of a twofold character: on the one side the production of the means of existence, of food, clothing and shelter and the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social organisation under which the people of a particular historical epoch and a particular country live is determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labour on the one hand and of the family on the other. The lower the development of labour and the more limited the amount of its products, and consequently, the more limited also the wealth of the society, the more the social order is found to be dominated by kinship groups. However, within this structure of society based on kinship groups the productivity of labour increasingly develops, and with it private property and exchange, differences of wealth, the possibility of utilising the labour power of others, and hence the basis of class antagonisms: new social elements, which in the course of generations strive to adapt the old social order to the new conditions, until at last their incompatibility brings about a complete upheaval. In the collision of the newly developed social classes, the old society founded on kinship groups is broken up. In its place appears a new society, with its control centred in the state, the subordinate units of which are no longer kinship associations, but local associations; a society in which the system of the family is completely dominated by the system of property, and in which there now freely develops those class antagonisms and class struggles that have hitherto formed the content of all written (F.E. emphasis) history. [1]

In class societies, the means of production are owned and/or controlled by the ruling classes/castes of these societies. In ancient societies, by a slave-owning and landowning nobility (vast areas of land were actually owned by the state powers in Antiquity, especially in Asia) and in the medieval period by an investitured and infeudated aristocracy which, strictly speaking, in Europe, did not actually ‘own’ the land but rather exerted ‘control’ over its use and exploitation (in fief) as a tenanted nobility which subinfeudated the land to its vassals. The Crown in European feudalism owned most of the land. The Crown ‘distributed’ land by means of a process of investiture and subinfeudation which carried with it binding duties (especially military service) and obligations (fealty) with accompanying rights according to the specificity of the nature of the relationship between the different classes and orders. In the manorial unit, the serf and villein held land from the ‘lord’ or suzerain in return for labour and other services but these obligations also carried with them certain rights such as the right of vassals to protection by their liege-lord.  In the modern epoch, of course, the capitalist class owns everything from land, industry, finance, the means of distribution and of exchange. The old distinction between capitalist (profit) and landowner (rent) has become agglomerated with the development of capitalism. Both profit and rent are, of course, realised forms of surplus value.

Through their ownership and/or control of the means of production and distribution, the capitalist class controls the social process of the realisation of the material means of life. This ownership and control becomes institutionalised in the form of its state power which becomes the state power of capital, articulating the interests of the capitalist ruling class. In this epoch, the rule of capital becomes backed up by assorted systems and forms of ideology, especially its print and broadcasting media, serving to maintain the grip of ownership of the capitalist class on the means of production and distribution.

In pre-class tribal societies – based on the communal ownership of the land and mediated by an egalitarian access to the fruits of nature and of human labour – the forms of social control that were necessary were a product of, and reflected, the need to maintain the social cohesion of a people in its collective struggle against nature or other hostile communities. These forms of social control existed in order to facilitate the survival and propagation of a community as a whole; to defend the material interests of the whole community against any natural or human encroachments that threatened its welfare.

The rise of private property and class societies completely transforms the essential character and functions of these antecedent tribal forms of social control. Whilst appearing to represent the ‘general interest’, in essence, the forms of social control in bourgeois society really function to guard the particular interests of its ruling class and, of course, the various and sundry castes that serve its interests. The reality of the class rule of the bourgeoisie becomes presented as a social consensus. The interests of the ruling class are presented as the interests of the whole of society. The ‘general’, ‘social’, ‘public’ or ‘national’ interest becomes expressed in the ‘rule of law’ which serves to mask the reality of class rule by dressing it up in a veil of legalistic and ideological forms. An apparent and ideologically and morally-enforced consensus hides the real class nature of social relations based on the rule of capital and enables the capitalist ruling class to legitimise its reign and embody it politically in the form of the state power.

Ideology developed historically, partially at least, for this purpose. The forms of solidarity ideology of tribal, primitive communistic societies become altered in both content and form with the development of ideologies which correspond to the rise of class societies and express the material appropriation or control of the means of production by a given ruling class or caste respectively.

The historical development of the productive forces in agriculture, the attendant growth in the productivity of labour and the production of a surplus by the labouring producers formed the ground for the genesis of contradictions in earlier pre-class societies and their fragementation into castes and opposed classes. Ideological changes take place in the course of the struggle of a caste or class for social power and hegemony based on its control and/or appropriation and ownership of the means of production. Incidentally, it is entirely possible for a ruling stratum to socially control without actually owning the means of production. This took place not only in ancient formations where a priestly caste controlled but did not actually own the means of production (e.g. in ancient Egypt, Babylonia and the other great river valley civilisations of the ancient world) but also in the modern age where a controlling bureaucratic caste administered production in the Soviet system but did not actually own it.

These forms of ‘non-ownership’ control were associated with certain privileges and rights which were not available to the rest of the populus. Such castes were not classes (if we employ the criteria of ownership and non-ownership to determine ‘class’) in that they did not ‘own’ and could not wilfully dispose of the means of production as they so wished. The ability and right to alienate property is a hallmark of ownership. Where this right to alienate does not exist, it implies either non-ownership (which does not exclude ‘control’) or extreme restrictions on the disposability of property as with the feudal aristocracy in medieval England, France and elsewhere.

The origination and evolution of bourgeois society modified the forms of social control so that they corresponded to and represented the interests of the capitalist class in the ascendant or in power. In lands with a history of feudalism, this implied and necessitated a transformation of the state power and the forms of ideology. But primarily – and this is of fundamental importance – the mechanism of social control of the ‘first order’ becomes the capital relation itself. When this relation moved from being simply a social relation of circulation to one embracing both production and circulation, then the control parameters of its operation became historically dominant. It became established ‘organically’ in society as the controlling relation of the whole social metabolism. In England, this period dates approximately from the commencement of the 16th century under the Tudors but, of course, the pre-conditions were prepared long before that period. In relation to capital’s function as the ‘first order’ mechanism of social control, the state power itself stands as an indispensable and serving ‘second order’ mechanism.

From this period in England, we see the progressively emerging and pivotal role of the family in the capitalist order. The monogamous family increasingly becomes…

the social institution for the perpetuation of private ownership of property, and in particular of capital (Engels). It is, for capitalism, the unit for reproduction of the most important commodity of all, labour-power, i.e., for the continued existence of a propertyless proletariat, of the essential class system.

However, today, in the epoch of capital’s structural crisis…

….as the principal mode of transmission of values and norms to effect control of the younger generation, it is surely collapsing, which is ‘dangerous’ (hence the solemn pronouncements of government ministers and church pontiffs).

(Cliff Slaughter, Bonfire of the Certainties – The Second Human Revolution. Chapter 8, Part (a) Crisis of the Modern Family., p.90. Publisher :, 2012)

In England, the ideological and political conflict between capital and the remnants of the old feudal order becomes expressed in the struggle between different forms of Christianity, Catholicism articulating the interests of the feudal remnants of church and nobility and Protestantism the aspirations of the rising, young revolutionary bourgeoisie. Protestantism is deployed to challenge and sweep away the old forms of social control represented by these remnants which correspond to outmoded social relations.

In challenging these old forms of established social control, ideology is utilised to facilitate the destruction of outmoded social relations and thereby facilitate the transition to different class relations where new forms of social control become established and legitimised by the now dominant or coming-to-dominate ideological forms. In Tudor England, capital in circulation had reached a sufficient position of strength to force itself into complete dominance in agricultural production which the Tudor dissolution of the Monasteries augmented. Once it had captured the realms of circulation and agriculture, the historical stage was set for the final break up of the Guild system and its replacement with manufacture and later the mechanisation of production itself in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The draconian legislation and punishments we see in Tudor England were instrumental in establishing the control and dominance of capital over a population which historically had become accustomed to not labouring for large parts of the year with Roman Catholic saints’ (‘holy days’) holidays, etc. Labour-power itself had to be completely transformed into a commodity at the service of capital at any time of the year. The ideology of the Protestant Work Ethic dates from this period. It was forced into the consciousness of the English people with murder, hangings, massacres, whip and hot branding irons. It was necessary for the revolutionary bourgeoisie to stamp and legitimise the rule of capital. By this time, the state power was already doing the bidding of capital and its new class of owners. To labour throughout the whole year and breed the next generation of labourers for capital facilitated the increasingly important role of the family in this developing system of exploitation. The traditional Catholic social customs which were more suited to a bygone feudal age had to be eradicated. Reformation and persecutions were the political instruments which the rising bourgeoisie used to realise these ends in order to compliment capital’s growing control of the whole social landscape.

Ideological conflict and its role in social control therefore reflects the fragmentation of society into opposed communities or classes and the ever-present possibility of social conflict or warfare. Forms of social control – mediated by ideology –  therefore operate in order to serve the interests of particular communities or classes. In class societies, they serve to guard the interests of the dominant class and, in so doing, perpetuate the class antagonisms of a given society. However, when a class is in the ascendant historically and is struggling for power, the forms of control which it develops can be used in the overthrow of the old order and therefore of the old mechanisms of social control. Social control can therefore maintain the perpetuation of social antagonisms or, according to the different socio-historical needs and conditions of life of contending classes, create the conditions for their transcendence. We can clearly see this if we study the historical development of English society from the beginning of the 15th to the end of the 17th century.

When we investigate the systems of control found in class societies, the proposition that forms of social control predate class society may appear to be unfounded. For, after all, were not the earliest human societies based on common, tribal ownership; on an egalitarian association and a common access to the fruits of nature and human labour? These early primitive communistic societies  – without class structure and class relations – have often been conceptualised as being without forms of social control. The Romantic movement in the 18th and 19th centuries tended to purvey this impression in contrast to the control and misery of the existence of the proletariat in the ‘dark satanic mills’ of the time. However, the primitive character of the relationship of humanity to nature at this early stage of development actually necessitated social consensus amongst a people or peoples. Intrinsic to this consensus were forms of social control which furthered the social cohesion of communities in their daily struggle to survive. Consensus was arrived at by means of the popular democracy of these communities [2]. It is only later, in class societies, that social control becomes institutionalised in the form of the state which embodies and maintains the interests of a ruling class in opposition to those of the subjugated class or classes.

The systems of social control under capitalism inevitably condition the structure and psychosocial character of interpersonal relationships. In their role as a means of social subjugation – which arises directly from the coercive, oppressive nature of capitalist social relations –  they function to maintain the socio-economic dependence of the producer proletarian class within social relations and conditions of exploitation. Such relations continue to characterise society until the conditions are established which render such forms of social control unnecessary. The family itself is an important component in the system of social control found in capitalist society. It existence as a ‘social unit’ for the production and reproduction of labour-power (variable capital in the process of the production of capital) simultaneously makes it an indispensable component for capital. And today, of course, not simply as a source of value-producing labour but also as a ‘consumerist’ source and outlet for the market realisation of this value.

The Family and Human Personality

The state power of capital is a violent power, explicitly or implicitly. Threat is indwelling in its very nature as the defender and facilitator of capital. Its control over society is always and continously referenced back and inextricably connected to the capital relation itself as the primary mechanism of control over people’s lives. Intrinsic to this control is capital’s relationship to the nuclear family which is an exploitative relationship. Because it is exploitative and violent, the possibility remains latent within the family itself as one mechanism and means through which the proletariat becomes motivated to move against capital and its state power. We must not neglect this. The predicaments and dilemmas within which capital places people within their family context can be potentially explosive on a wider social scale.

Hence, resistance to such exploitative relations may actually arise out of the situation in which proletarian families have been ‘cornered’ by capital itself. The life of the exploited class becomes conditional on a coerced subservience to capital mediated by its various forms of social control. The drama of all this actually plays out in the psychosocial dynamics of the nuclear family itself. The nuclear family is vital for capital but this relationship between capital and the family contains embryonically posited within it the actual offensive against the capital relation itself. And this can become very rapidly actualised as capital’s structural crisis worsens. Unemployment, homelessness, debt, penury, etc, specifically illustrate the explosive capacity imminent in capital’s exploitative relationship with the nuclear family.

It is through such ‘second order’ mechanisms of capital, of course, that fear itself can be used as a means of control. However, these mechanisms of control can only be employed, and can only be effective, within definite social parameters, i.e. only under very specific, definite historical conditions. Beyond a certain point of social development, the needs of the exploited can only be realised on the condition of the destruction of those social relations which are maintained and perpetuated by such forms of social control. The conflict here between the needs and interests of opposed classes becomes expressed in the form of the dynamic conflict between the imposition of and resistance to systems and mechanisms of social control. The nuclear family here is caught in the middle of this contradictory movement. On the one hand, it seeks to maintain and consolidate itself in a crisis and endeavours to take the ‘line of least resistance’. On the other, the crisis itself impels it towards struggle against the source of this crisis and this always risks the danger of the dissolution of the family. The dilemma it finds itself in is to accept the detrimental effects of the crisis upon itself and yet strive to maintain itself. Or, the other alternative, to move against capital-in-crisis whilst, at the same time inviting and heightening the risk of break up and dissolution. In the end, as capital’s crisis matures beyond a certain point, the latter alternative is the only possible one.

In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels shows that the origin and historical development of the family in its different forms – out of the primaeval hunter-gatherer relationships of human prehistory – is inextricably connected with the rise and evolution of private property out of the original forms of common ownership. The inner conflicts which develop historically within the different forms of the family are reciprocally related to the origination and evolution of private property in its different and succeeding forms.

Engels – influenced by the researches and investigations of Lewis Henry Morgan in his writings, especially his magnum opus Ancient Society – traces the origins of the monogamous family in previous forms of the family, reaching its latest nuclear form in bourgeois society.

Today we can see that the nuclear family is starting to deform and break up under the impact of the unfolding structural crisis of capital and the crisis-effects and contradictions which is it generating within bourgeois society as a whole. Even now, people are experimenting with new kinds of relationships, human groupings and communities. This is not novel, of course, but is becoming more prevalent as bourgeois society continues on its trajectory of decay and breakdown  The psychosocial conflicts within the nuclear family are both a contributing part of, and reflect, the wider social crisis of present day society.

The family – in its very earliest forms – foreshadows the rise of private property and – in its later forms – is an intrinsic, organic part of the different social systems based on private property. The transformation of the means of production and distribution into the common property of the whole of society creates the social conditions for the complete dissolution or, at least, the revolutionisation of ‘family’ relationships beyond their currently recognised structure and state in bourgeois society.

The rearing of children within the structure of the nuclear family takes place within an environment of self-enclosed, inward looking, relationships. The dynamic of the family itself exists as a discrete unit in the continuum of social structures and relations. It constitutes, and is constituted as, a medium and means for the reproduction and rearing of human beings and their introduction and ‘socialisation’ into the relations of bourgeois society. This effectively means it serves as a social incubator for the production and reproduction of labour-power to service the needs of capital and its various agencies. In serving these functions, it emerges and evolves as an organic, intrinsic part of bourgeois society, both refracting and functioning to perpetuate its social relations.

Thus the capitalist order needs the nuclear family as the cellular unit of society. However, capital in the so-called ‘overdeveloped’ countries has other ‘needs’ – to have millions of women available as cheap and easily ‘casualised’, exploitable labour, to destroy the optimism and hope of youth through the ruthless, predatory and immoral manipulation of the consumer market, to create enormous problems of ‘affording’ care for the elderly, who constitute an ever-growing proportion of the population, to ignore morality where it interferes with sales. These and many other ‘needs’ systematically undermine the nuclear family as a coherent structure.

First; the family inevitably finds itself at the focus of all the problems of ‘overdevelopment’ and its pathological results, and yet it is the cellular unit where the subsistence of the bearers of labour-power and its reproduction must take place, thus it is structurally necessary to capital, despite the fact that capital at its latest stage must undermine it. And second; the family and its future are necessarily at the centre of that necessary historical change which we have characterised as the ‘human revolution’.

(Slaughter, C. Bonfire of the Certainties, Chapter 8, The Human Revolution..and the Modern Family, Part (a) Crisis of the Modern Family, p.90)

Any consideration of the future of the family compels us to address questions of child development in bourgeois society and beyond. The life of the child in the family and its wider life in society make up the two sides of its life as a whole which are not separate but interpenetrate in these distinct aspects. Implicitly posited in this relation of ‘private’ and ‘public’ are the ambiguities or even conflicts between its private conditions of life and its wider social conditions of life.

In bourgeois society, the initial and informative period of psychosocial development of the child is centred in the family i.e. within the relationships of the social arena where its physical and other needs are met or not met accordingly. This is not to ignore or neglect its life outside of the family. However, generally speaking, the nuclear family, at the earliest stages of child development, is the psychosocial medium within which children form their earliest, most significant psychological attachments and dependencies. The establishment, interplay and development of these ‘attachments’ and ‘dependencies’ form the psychosocial content of the inner relationships of the nuclear family within which children’s needs are supposedly identified and realised.

The socio-economic conditions which prevail in capitalist society necessitate, maintain and encourage the continuation of the inner relationships of the nuclear family, containing their contradictions within its determinate boundaries and conditions. However, at the same time, these socio-economic conditions – in the course of their development – create the basis for the introduction and cultivation of antagonisms within the family which point towards its disintegration. Bourgeois socio-economic relations therefore assert and exert these contradictory influences on the nuclear family. The family is not separate from these influences and conditions but is an intrinsic part of them, interrelated and organically moving with and within them.

The differences between the ‘public’ life of the individual within society and the ‘private’ life within the exclusive coterie of the nuclear family is one which can only continue to subsist under the conditions of alienation of bourgeois society. This separation (fragmentation) between the ‘private world’ of the individual and the individual’s ‘public world’ in society is a function of the rise and evolution of private property itself and is not something inherently human. It reaches its highest form of expression in the course of the development of the capitalist mode of production. Marx noted this, in the 1840s, within the context of the division of labour and in relation to occupation when he wrote that…

Individuals have always proceeded from themselves but of course from themselves within their given historical conditions and relations, not from the “pure” individual in the sense of the ideologists. But in the course of historical development, and previously through the fact that within the division of labour social relations inevitably take on an independent existence, there appears a cleavage in the life of each individual, insofar as it is personal and insofar as it is determined by some branch of labour and the conditions pertaining to it. [4]

This social ‘cleavage in the life of each individual’ is reflected in the conflict between the public and private psychology of the individual, this psychological contrast corresponding to the ‘cleavage’ in the social being of each individual. The conflict takes the form of the psychosocial relationship between the public ‘persona’ of the individual on the one hand (embracing occupational/professional relationships, etc) and the inner ‘egoism’ of the private world of thought and feeling of the same individual on the other hand. This antagonism between the private and public sides of human individuality reaches its most antagonistic point of development in the human relationships of bourgeois society i.e. where the social relations of this society actually necessitate the development, cultivation and perpetuation of this antagonism which serves to fragment the personality of the individual in his or her psychosocial relationships. The psychosocial aspects of alienation become deeply embedded within the human personality itself and the relationships of people with each other and themselves. The continuously repeated daily nightmare of conscious existence in bourgeois society for which only our transitory pleasures and pain-alleviating sleep offer some degree of respite.

The dissolution of the nuclear family in classless society will mean and ensure that the rearing and genuine socialisation of children takes place on an entirely different (and indeed opposite) social foundation to the impoverished one we find mediating the existence of bourgeois society.

Children are reared within the social conditions, and through the social relationships, of the commune. This communal process serves  – in its actual ontological character  –  to resolve and abolish the conflict between the private and public sides of the life of the individual. Children become the children of the whole commune – are reared by the whole community – as the psychosocial relationships which characterise the internal structure of the nuclear family of bourgeois society start to disappear.

In the socialist society which follows capitalism, the monogamous family will no longer be required as the reproductive framework for the commodity labour-power or the inheritance of private property. Production will be the production of use-values by free individuals as participants in the working of the ‘social brain’. How these individuals will be reared and formed will be an entirely new question, to be taken up by free men and women.

(Slaughter, C. Bonfire of the Certainties, Chapter 8, part (b), p.91. From the first ‘human revolution’ to the second. Publisher :

A possible implication of this communal process of rearing children will be that biological parents will cease to have the same psychosocial significance which they have for ‘their’ children which they have reared within the monogamous nuclear family in bourgeois society. Each child in the commune naturally has biological parentage but every adult becomes the social parent (guardian) of each and every child and, accordingly, every child becomes ‘the child’ of every parenting adult. If we consider the onward, unfolding development of such human relations, this implies that the very notions of ‘parent’, ‘brother’, ‘sister’, ‘son’ ‘daughter’, etc – which express the social relationships of the nuclear family in bourgeois society – will start to vanish and be replaced by a universal state of ‘brotherhood’ and ‘sisterhood’.

Child-adult relationships become transformed in the commune where biological parentage does not have, or confer, any special, exclusive social role or privilege upon these adults. The child is reared by the whole commune and grows to maturity without any notions of ‘my’ ‘family’, ‘mother’, ‘father’, ‘brother’, etc, which characterised the family structure in previous societies. In a certain sense, all adults become the fathers and mothers of the children of the commune (and therefore all children become the ‘sons and daughters’ of these adults in the commune) and all children become the ‘brothers and sisters’ of each other. But the universality of the transformed relations implies that nobody will be identified as ‘my mother’ ‘my son’, ‘my father’, etc. The narrow, exclusive, alienating mode of rearing children in bourgeois society becomes superseded in the life of the commune.

The development of children into adults becomes a function of the life of the commune as a whole and not a function of the narrow and stifling confines of the nuclear family of bourgeois society. Marx points out that…

the ability of children to develop depends on the development of their parents and that all this crippling under existing social relations has arisen historically, and in the same way can be abolished again in the course of historical development. Even naturally evolved differences within the species, such as racial differences, etc,…can and must be abolished in the course of historical development. [5]

….‘the ability of children to develop depends on the development of their parents’. The social development and psychology of children is a most sensitive indicator of the general character of the social relations of the epoch. Marx asks, in the final paragraph of the Introduction to the Grundrisse, ‘Does not the true character of each epoch come alive in the nature of its children?’

The internal relations, dependencies and attachments found operating within the bourgeois nuclear family –  which bind children to this narrow and confining mode of development – start to become obsolete as humanity begins to create and re-create a communal mode of life for itself developing on the basis of its own self-reproducing foundations.

As do all those notions and affectations which are intrinsically associated with this existence within the nuclear family. The establishment of a communist life on its own self-created, evolving foundations and the constant reproduction and evolution of this mode of human life in continuously deeper and higher forms serves to dissolve the psychosocial ‘bonds’ (‘family ties’) of the nuclear family. Primarily, in the commune and commencing from birth, the needs of human individuals – which become historically created needs – become unconditionally guaranteed (‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs’) and, as such, attainable and realisable outside the traditional confines and conditions of the bourgeois nuclear family.

The maturation of children in the commune outside the relations of the nuclear family will facilitate a higher degree of personal independence and realisation as ‘social individuals’ than can ever possibly exist in bourgeois society. This is in accord with the higher forms of human freedom that necessarily result from the establishment and development of communist relations. The fears and mentalities that are associated with the possible or actual non-attainment of needs – food, shelter, clothing, etc – in capitalist society will inevitably disappear and this will, further, serve to dissolve the traditional ties of the nuclear family. The psychosocial relationships of the nuclear family – which grow out of the necessity to satisfy human needs under the conditions of exploitation of capitalist society – become historically unnecessary and gradually disappear in the onward evolution of classless society. It will, accordingly, be only within the commune that each individual has….

the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; hence personal freedom becomes possible only within the community. In previous substitutes for the community, in the state, etc, personal freedom has existed only for the individuals who developed under the conditions of the ruling class, and only insofar as they were individuals of this class. The illusory community in which individuals have up till now combined always took on an independent existence in relation to them, and since it was the combination of one class over against another, it was at the same time for the oppressed class not only a completely illusory community, but a new fetter as well. In the real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association. [6]

In the commune, the identification, cultivation, refinement, development and realisation of the comprehensive historically-created needs of human beings become socially and unconditionally guaranteed. This unconditional, ontologically-existent, guarantee arises from the actual nature of human relationships in the commune. It is neither a question of wilful disposition nor of ‘good faith’ or intention.

The exploitation and forms of social control of capitalist society vanish and, accordingly, all those forms of human behaviour, characteristics of interpersonal behaviour, modes of thinking and ideology which are the outcome of, and correspond to, these forms of exploitation and control in capitalist society.

In the transition to a global, stateless, classless society, the forms of human consciousness corresponding to this period of transition will, inevitably, continue to reflect a disappearing connection to and with bourgeois society and especially with the alienation characteristic of this dying society. This will merely illustrate that society – in this transitional phase – has not yet completely disentangled itself from the various legacies of bourgeois society as a historic formation.

So long as the historical umbilical cord connecting human society to the legacies of bourgeois society – and the human memory of them – has not been completely severed, then human society will not have re-founded and re-developed itself as an association of free human beings and freely associated human beings. At such a stage, the legacies of the relations of bourgeois society would continue to exert their influence, partially binding humanity – and even psychologically to a certain degree –  to the forms of social antagonism of the past.  Accordingly, under these conditions, the thinking, feeling, behaviour and interpersonal relationships of people would continue to be conditioned by the legacies of the exploitative relations of the dying capitalist society until the new society firmly and irreversibly establishes itself and starts to evolve on the basis of its own self-created foundations.

Interpersonal relationships in capitalist society are conditioned by the character of its exploitative social relations. Even the psychologically-internalised character of the relationship which people have with ‘themselves’, their ‘self-relation’, is conditioned by their relationships with others and vice versa. Marx writes that..

Dissatisfaction with oneself is either dissatisfaction with oneself within the framework of a definite condition which determines the whole personality e.g. dissatisfaction with oneself as a worker, or it is moral dissatisfaction. In the first case, therefore, it is simultaneously and mainly dissatisfaction with the existing relations; in the second case – an ideological expression of these relations themselves, which does not at all go beyond them, but belongs wholly to them. [3]

The individual ‘self’ is a specific ‘ensemble of the prevailing social relations’ which are themselves a product of human historical development. Even the forms of psychological self-evaluation and the characteristics of individual personality are socio-historically grounded, formed and evolved.

The human personality in its many expresssions is a historical creation which is both the outcome of pre-societal natural history and human social development. It is the outcome of this whole, this totality of development over many millions of years. However, the keynotes of the human personality of the epoch of capital, its fundamental orienting content, structures and relations arise out of the social being of the individual in this age of capital, an age of social oppression, exploitation, subjection and subordination. Individuals are an active social product of this epoch of capital-in-crisis which is conditioning and developing the content and character of the specific human personality types of the age.

The psychology of interpersonal relationships in the epoch of capital is becoming increasingly brutal. Since we are all participants in this system, do we appreciate how brutalised people have already become or are becoming in their interpersonal relationships with each other? And, moreover and most disturbingly, in their relations the wonderful, majestic creations of nature? A crass, brutal individualism ‘assaults’ us everyday and a kind of insidious, nihilistic hedonism seems to be suffocating every aspect of human culture and interpersonal relations. All this is becoming expressed in the most disturbing, gut-wrenching and nightmarish forms as capital’s structural crisis broadens and deepens.

Nature’s creation is being subjected to the most horrendous and cruel forms of torture, pillage and annihilations. Personal gratification and the mad rush for ‘pleasure’ presents itself as the pre-occupation of the age at the expense of anything and everything. All this arises organically out of a society in crisis whilst being a feeble attempt, at the same time, to blunt its edge.

In everyday life, an undercurrent of brutality flows – taking a multitude of forms – intrinsic to which is viewing and ‘appropriating’ or ‘cultivating’ people as mere objects for use, mere objects of utility to serve pre-calculated ends. This has, like a plague, invaded every aspect of human life and relationships and is encouraged by the capitalist media. This raises a very important question, a paradox. The epoch of capital-in-crisis is generating all this in people’s relationships and this motivates us to oppose its rule. However, at the same time, by totally corrupting human relationships, it actually hinders the capacity to end this epoch of capital. Within the historical framework of the global transition from and beyond the capital order, we need to consider how people can actually drive this transition forward, to transcend the epoch of capital, as the human creations of this epoch and, simultaneously, as the creators of the new society. The transition is the active transcendence, the overcoming of the effects of the age of capital on people by these self-same people who are its creations.

In other words, the exploitative character of capitalism finds its psychological correlates and expression in the life, personality and interpersonal relationships of human individuals in this class society. The life and relationships of the individual reflect, embody and personify the exploitative character of these relations and, indeed, are an intrinisic, contributing part and aspect of these relations. In the course of their development, individuals tend to replicate and exhibit – in transmuted, often highly convoluted and distorted, personalised forms – the social content and characteristics of the determinations and features of bourgeois relations. Thus, for example, its coercive, oppressive and violent social relations tend to engender interpersonal relationships which are mediated by these characteristics and yet may undoubtedly give rise to antithetical aspects of them in the human personality. The men and women of bourgeois society are its products but they are its humanly active and thinking products which contains all the possibility of opposition to bourgeois society not simply on the political level but also in people’s interpersonal relationships.

The life of society as a whole dominates and permeates the life and interpersonal relationships of the individual but not, of course, deterministically.  Bourgeois society – which is, nevertheless, most definitely a class society – is a complex system of relationships which, taken as a whole, is qualitatively distinct from a mere summation of its socially-acting individual human parts. The human personality of each individual is formed and develops within this complex network of relationships and reflects them in both its structures, conceptual content and emotional mediations. But it does not ‘reflect’ them passively or ‘mechanically’  but rather can articulate them humanly, actively, ethically, in opposition to the alienation of capitalist relations.

The dissolution of the class relations of bourgeois society constitutes the ground and pre-condition for the emergence of the higher classless human relationships and personality in the commune. In the commune, the comprehensive needs of human beings become socially and unconditionally guaranteed. This itself arises out of the ontological nature of human relationships in the commune. ‘Activity’ itself becomes established as a ‘vital need’. The oppression and exploitation of previous class societies comes to an end and with them also those characteristic forms of behaviour in individuals and in their interpersonal relationships which are the product of and correspond to these antecedent relations.

The state power of capital, of course, is the political guarantor of the exploitation of labour by capital. Herein lies its historic role in the imposition of systems and forms of coercion and control. The state power of capital is the consummate political expression and embodiment of the coercion and control which safeguards the rule of capital. This is its class nature representing and articulating the interests of the class of capitalists; the owners of capital. Its very existence is therefore the direct political expression of the antagonism between capital and its historic structural antagonist which is labour.

Historically, the state comes into being as the expression of the emergence and growth of class antagonisms and, accordingly, must disappear with the dissolution of the final historic form of these antagonisms between capital and labour. The state – in whatever form – always represents the interests of a ruling caste or class. The first forms of the state arose as the primaeval forms of communism in tribal societies were supplanted by the first class societies. These first forms of the state therefore become necessary as these tribal societies were superseded with the differentiation of society into opposed classes. Where there are no class or caste interests to defend, the state is rendered historically unnecessary. The character of social relations in the commune no longer gives rise to or necessitates the existence of a state power hovering above society as an alien body.

Lenin used the existence or non-existence of the state as a criterion for the existence or non-existence of the freedom prevailing in the commune.Thus, he writes, somewhat formally, that…

so long as the state exists there is no freedom. When there is freedom, there will be no state.

(State and Revolution. Progress, Moscow, 1969. p.87)

We say ‘formally’ because ‘freedom’ is not, as such, an absolute state to be reached once and for all but rather more a state of being for humanity to continuously expand to wider horizons and deepen to more profound states of existence, once the fundamental pre-conditions for such a development have been established in a classless, stateless, global communal human life.

The very notion of freedom cannot exist in such a society. When the state perishes, notions of freedom vanish with it. The hankering after ‘freedom’ is itself the product of enslavement. A truly free human being is not capable of having and cultivating concepts of freedom. They are the creations of the unfree within the various forms of enslavement. Accordingly, a truly free human being cannot have any awareness of ‘being free’. Communist humanity will see itself as ‘free’ no more than it will see itself as ‘communist’. ‘Communism’ is for the enslaved. Those of the ‘true realm of freedom’ have no need of it.

As with notions of freedom, family and commune, the very notion of property itself disappears with the negation of private ownership and the emergence and onward development of social relations based upon common ownership. If everything belongs to the whole of society and to every single human being, then there is no ‘ownership’ as such and no conception to correspond to it or to actually describe it. Marx writes that..

From the standpoint of a higher economic form of society, private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite as absurd as private ownership of one man by another.

(Capital. Volume 3. Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1974. p.776)

Those human characteristics which are intrinsically associated with the rule of private property will disappear. Human relationships become free of their psychosocial presence and effects.


Notes and References

[1] Engels, F. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Preface to the First Edition. (Penguin, 1985) pp.35-36

[2] For example, see the work and studies of Lewis Henry Morgan in his book Ancient Society amongst the indigenous American Iroquois.

[3] Marx. The German Ideology. Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol 5. (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1976) p.378

[4] Marx. The German Ideology. p.78

[5] Marx. Ibid.,  p.425

[6] Marx. Ibid., p.78


Shaun May

March 2016 (revised)


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On the Historical Nature of the Determination of Class

Note on the Historical Nature of the Determination of Class

In feudal society at its zenith, the Crown owned the land and this gave it the capacity to buy and sell land. The subinfeudated classes of the feudal order did not actually own the land from the nobility down to the serfs at the base of the social pyramid. Feudal society was essentially a society of subinfeudated tenants who received land by a process of investiture which carried both rights and obligations. The grand nobility and their “lower orders” controlled but did not actually own the land. Therefore privilege was based on control not ownership.

The capitalist class in the United States owns the means of production. It can transfer ownership by selling as it sees fit or acquire further ownership on purchase. In the Soviet system, the ruling bureaucratic stratum was not an ‘owning class’ as such. It could be described as a ‘controlling class’  which managed production and distribution with an eye to its own separate caste interests.

The feudal nobility’s control of the land – beneath the jurisdiction of the Crown – enabled it to extract a surplus from bonded labour. It was not the actual ownership of the land which enabled it to do this. This was also the case with the ruling priesthoods of the first great river valley civilisations such as we find in India, China, Egypt, Mesopotamia.

What is fundamental here for the producing class is not whether the ruling stratum owns, controls or both owns and controls the means of production. Rather, it is the fact that the producers are not in control of the production and distribution of the total products of their collective labour. And this is manifest in the relations through which the ruling stratum or class confronts the producers as an alien, self-interested social layer rising above them and whose interests are distinct and opposed to the producers. Priesthood, Ancient land-owning patriciate, feudal nobility, capitalist class or Soviet bureaucratic caste all, in one way or another, constitute such self-interested ruling strata.

The ‘concept of class’ is not an ahistorical metaphysic with fixed criteria [this is another ideological disorder which afflicts some schools of sociology] but is itself informed by the specifically historical character of the social relations being described. In other words, we need to understand class on history’s own ground and under its own terms rather than trying to measure it against a pre-established formula and judging whether or not a particular stratum ‘fits the bill’ of class in a manner of speaking. Was the ruling stratum in the Soviet system a ‘new class’ or not? It was certainly a reactionary ruling stratum. It controlled but didn’t own. Like the priesthoods of the first great river valley civilisations. They controlled but did not own the land and the systems of production and distribution. If we first define what class is exclusively in terms of ownership or non-ownership then we can find ourselves caught in absurd contradictions in which societies composed of social hierachies may be described as “classless” because some of these hierarchicalised societies were based on the social ownership of land in which the ruling “class” did not own the land but controlled the established system of production. The first great river valley civilisations exemplify this as do the social relations of European feudalism at its high point of development which was essentially a society of subinfeudated tenants in which the Crown’s immediate retinue and courtiers were seated at the apex of the pyramid under the Crown itself. Land was not “owned” in the capitalist sense (and could not be alienated) by the different social strata of feudal society but was tenanted out by the crown. Under feudalism, the major and dominating criterion of class was not ownership as such but control of land. The producers in the Soviet system were most definitely a class. A section of the global proletariat. The ruling ‘stratum’ was not a ‘class’ if we are determining ‘class’ by the parameters of ownership and non-ownership. They controlled the state apparatus and the system of production and distribution but they did not own these in the way the capitalist class does in the US and Europe. They were not free to ‘alienate’ them. If our conception of class is informed by the criterion of control in the Soviet system, then we could conceivably understand the ruling stratum as a ‘class’ and the proletariat as the class controlled by this ruling layer.

The major historic difference between feudal and capitalist societies was that the latter is a society of owners whereas the former was of tenants. This must mean that the specific, historically-determined criteria which determine “class” as a historic category differ for different societies at various stages of social development. Class is not measured against a transhistorically fixed criterion such as ownership or control. Rather it can only be measured against the historically-specific criteria which arise out of the real character of the social relations of a given society. For example, in feudal society, it was the criterion of control (not ownership) which was paramount in this determination whereas under capitalism – a society of commodity owners – it is the criterion of ownership (not control) which is central. Any system of ownership always carries with it structures of control to defend that system, embodied in the power of the state as the highest expression and social defender of these relations of ownership.

Each social layer in feudal society exhibited a Janus-type character in which one aspect faced one layer as subordinated tenant and another as investitured master. Only the Crown at the apex and the serfs at the base were exempt from this two-faced relation of lord and vassal. As vassal, homage, fealty and services (labour or otherwise) was paid to the lord in return for tenancy (fief) and protection. The vassal was a sub-ordinate dependent in this relationship and subject to servitude. The lord had the obligation –amongst others – to fulfill the conditions of the fief and protect the vassal in return for the fulfillment of the latter’s obligations.

At the height of English feudalism, from the 11th to the 13th century, the feudal nobility and its subinfeudated tenants in England did not ‘own’ the land which they worked and yet Marx refers to the ‘classes’ in feudal society. Marx does not metaphysically dislocate his conception of class (and the major criterion/criteria) from the actual historical conditions and relations within which people produced and lived. He determined whether or not a group or stratum was a class, bureaucracy, order, etc, on the basis of these major criteria which arose out of the historically specific character of given social relations. It is these specific conditions which need to be investigated in order to determine such criteria and understand class relations. If we actually concede that the ruling stratum in the soviet system was not a ‘class’ as such, then on what socially-derived criteria do we assert this? And, likewise, if it is described as a class? The conception of class cannot be based on fixed, unchanging, ‘ideological’, historically-divorced and parametrically-confined criteria. Rather the criteria can only be discovered by actually analysing the specific relations of a given society under investigation. For example, under feudalism, we find that land is not owned in the capitalistic sense but that it is sub-tenanted out from top to base by a process of sub-infeudation and investiture. Hence the major criterion of class here is not ‘ownership’ as such but ‘control’. Whereas in late Roman antiquity – for example in Gaul and Spain – the land was owned (and could be bought and sold) by wealthy individual families in the form of vast, conglomerated private estates and the land was parcelled out to the producers, bonded sharecropping tenants (coloni), who were tied to their plots and went with them when they were bought and sold. From the beginning of the fourth century, autarky (which acts as a dissolving influence on the centralised Roman administration and its system of exploitation through the extraction of tax) starts to develop and dominate in the organisation of production. This tends to facilitate the break up of centralised power and prepares the ground for the later emergence of feudal relations. The growing autarky of the fourth century (and its ideological reflection in the rise of Christianity as the state religion) follows on from the enduring crisis of the third century which was essentially a crisis of slave labour based economy leading to the generalised reduction in trade and the decline and decay of the cities across the empire which were based on commodity exchange. Trade in the Roman period never again remotely approached its zenith as was found under the Antonine emperors in the second century. The criterion of ownership dominates here because the propertyless state of the colonus was contrasted with that of the land-owning patronus which echoes the relationship today between landlord and tenant, for example, in land or house rent.

Shaun May

October 2015

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