Tag Archives: class relations

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

mnwps@hotmail.com

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under communism, Marx, social relations

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

mnwps@hotmail.com

http://shaunpmay.wordpress.com

https://spmay.wordpress.com

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized