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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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