Marx on peasant consciousness


One of Marx’s more important pieces of political writing is the The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1851) (pdf). Here is his analysis of the causes of the specific nature of peasant political consciousness leading to the election of Napoleon III:

The small-holding peasants form an enormous mass whose members live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with each other. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. The isolation is furthered by France‘s poor means of communication and the poverty of the peasants. Their field of production, the small holding, permits no division of labor in its cultivation, no application of science, and therefore no multifariousness of development, no diversity of talent, no wealth of social relationships. Each individual peasant family is almost self-sufficient, directly produces most of its consumer needs, and thus acquires its means of life more through an exchange with nature than in intercourse with society. A small holding, the peasant and his family; beside it another small holding, another peasant and another family. A few score of these constitute a village, and a few score villages constitute a department. Thus the great mass of the French nation is formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes. Insofar as millions of families live under conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not constitute a class. They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, an unlimited governmental power which protects them from the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power which subordinates society to itself.

This a particularly interesting analysis of the social psychology of group solidarity, and one that has contemporary significance as well. It sheds a lot of light on how Marx thinks about the formation of class consciousness — even as it significantly misunderstands the agency of rural people.

What are the limitations of the French peasantry, according to Marx here? They are isolated, burdened, unsophisticated, primitive, apolitical, and ignorant of the larger forces around them. Therefore, Marx says, they cannot constitute a unified and purposive political force. (The photo of a battalion of Vietnam Minh troops in Indochina just a century later refutes this conception.)

From this description we can draw several positive ideas about the foundations of collective solidarity. Here are the elements that Marx takes to be crucial in the formation of collective consciousness in this passage:

  1. The group needs to possess “manifold relations” to each other.
  2. There needs to be effective communication and transportation across space, not just local interaction.
  3. There needs to be a degree of economic interdependence.
  4. There need to be shared material conditions in the system of production.
  5. There needs to be an astute appreciation of the social and economic environment.
  6. There needs to be organization and leadership to help articulate a shared political consciousness and agenda. 

And Marx seems to have something like a necessary and sufficient relation in mind between these conditions and the emergence of collective consciousness: these conditions are jointly sufficient and individually necessary for collective consciousness in an extended group.

There are several crucial ideas here that survive into current thinking about solidarity and mobilization. So Marx’s thinking about collective consciousness was prescient. It is interesting to consider where his thoughts about collective solidarity came from. How did he come to have insightful ideas about the social psychology of mobilization and solidarity in the first place? This isn’t a topic that had a history of advanced theory and thinking in 1851.

Two sources seem likely. First is the tradition of French socialist thought in which Marx was immersed in the 1840s. French socialist thinkers were in fact interested in the question of how a revolutionary spirit came to be among a group of people. And second is Marx’s own experience of working people in Paris in 1843-45. He writes of his own observations of working people in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts in 1844:

When communist artisans associate with one another, theory, propaganda, etc., is their first end. But at the same time, as a result of this association, they acquire a new need – the need for society – and what appears as a means becomes an end. In this practical process the most splendid results are to be observed whenever French socialist workers are seen together. Such things as smoking, drinking, eating, etc., are no longer means of contact or means that bring them together. Association, society and conversation, which again has association as its end, are enough for them; the brotherhood of man is no mere phrase with them, but a fact of life, and the nobility of man shines upon us from their work-hardened bodies.

Here Marx gives as much importance to the substantive relations of friendship and everyday association as he does to shared material interests in the formation of the class consciousness of French workers.

Marx’s misunderstanding of the political capacity and consciousness of peasant communities has been noted by many scholars of rural revolutions. James Scott once opened a public lecture on the revolutions of the twentieth century by saying that his lecture would only treat the peasant revolutions of the century. But he then paused and laughed, and said, this isn’t much of a limitation, because they were all peasant revolutions! Marx’s assumption that only urban workers were capable of revolutionary consciousness was a serious misreading of the coming century of anti-capitalist and anti-colonial struggles. (Here is an earlier post on Scott’s studies of peasant politics. Scott’s accounts can be found in Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance and The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. Eric Wolf’s Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century picks up similar themes.)

Also interesting in the Eighteenth Brumaire is Engels’ statement on the law of history as class struggle in his preface to the third edition of the book:

In addition, however, there was still another circumstance. It was precisely Marx who had first discovered the great law of motion of history, the law according to which all historical struggles, whether they proceed in the political, religious, philosophical or some other ideological domain, are in fact only the more or less clear expression of struggles of social classes, and that the existence and thereby the collisions, too, between these classes are in turn conditioned by the degree of development of their economic position, by the mode of their production and of their exchange determined by it. This law, which has the same significance for history as the law of the transformation of energy has for natural science — this law gave him here, too, the key to an understanding of the history of the Second French Republic. He put his law to the test on these historical events, and even after thirty-three years we must still say that it has stood the test brilliantly.

Engels plainly endorses the idea of laws of motion of society and the idea of class conflict as the primary motor of historical change. “History is a history of class struggle.” There is not much room for contingency or conjunctural causation here! But this is a dimension of Marxist theory that is plainly incorrect. Far better is to understand history in a more multi-factoral way in which contingency, conjunction, and agency all play a role.

Lucien Goldmann on dialectics and history

Lucien Goldmann made important contributions to French Marxist theory and philosophy in the 1960s. Unlike other luminaries like Althusser and Poulantzas, Goldmann took a cautious stance on the strongest claims of scientific certainty for the theses of historical materialism and Marx’s theory of capitalism. Instead, he placed more emphasis on the dialectical core of Marx’s theories — without assuming that Marxism provides a key to understanding the necessary unfolding of history and society. He interprets Marx’s thought in terms of the ideas of Hegel’s dialectics.

Particularly interesting is his 1970 book, Marxisme et sciences humaines. (Here is a digital edition of the book; link.) Key parts of the epistemological and metaphysical ideas in Goldmann’s philosophy of Marxism are also expressed in his essay “Is There a Marxist Sociology?” (link). This piece appeared first in 1957 in French and in an English translation in International Socialism in 1968. In this piece Goldmann considers the debates of the early twentieth century between orthodox Marxists and “ethical” reformist socialists — between those who believed that socialism was a scientific necessity and those who believed socialism would come about because the masses would come to see that it was the most just social order. Here is Goldmann’s summary of his assessment of these debates:

To sum up, what characterises these three fundamental positions (despite their differences, we are classing together Kautsky and Plekhanov) is that they all hold that Marxism implies an objective science distinct and separable from any value judgment, what might be called, to use Poincaré’s terminology, a ‘science in the indicative mood.’ On this point, the different trends of Marxist philosophy merely follow the scientism which characterised academic thought at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, by that very fact diverging from the dialectical tradition of the classical German thought of Kant, Hegel and Marx. The differences between these three positions consist in the fact that Vorländer, and with him a large number of thinkers who are partisans of explicit reformism, affirm correctly with Poincaré, that from a science in the indicative mood one can never derive any conclusion in die imperative mood, and thus there could be no ‘scientific socialism,’ since any taking up of a socialist position necessarily has an ethical basis. This position very rapidly became the ideology of a certain explicit reformist trend consisting primarily of some bourgeois democrats brought to socialism by taking seriously the demand for individual freedom for all men.

Goldmann’s own position favors the dialectical style of thinking often attributed to Marx’s thought, and he rejects the scientistic interpretation associated with orthodox Marxism. In this aspect he affiliates his thinking with that of Georg Lukács. Here is the intellectual swerve that Goldmann most appreciates in Lukács’s theories in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics:

Lukács showed that if one accepted the idea of an objective science in the indicative mood, action could no longer be conceived except in terms of ethics or social technology; inversely, if one began with a conception of historical action as individual action, one could conceive it only in ethical or technical terms, and sooner or later, if one developed one’s thought consistently, one would arrive at the idea of an objective science of society. But it is precisely all these complementary concepts – sociology, objective science of social life, technical or ethical action – which seemed to him questionable and above all undialectical.

For him, what characterises historical action, is precisely the fact that it is not carried out by isolated individuals, but by groups who simultaneously know and constitute history. Therefore neither the group nor the individual who is part of it can consider social and historical life from the outside, in an objective fashion. The knowledge of historical and social life is not science but consciousness although it must obviously strive towards the attainment of a rigour and precision comparable to those achieved in an objective fashion by the natural sciences. Any separation of judgments of fact and judgments of value, and, similarly, any separation of theory and practice is impossible in the process of understanding history; the very affirmation of such a separation will have an ideological and distorting effect. Historical knowledge is not a contemplative science; historical action is neither social technique (Machiavelli) nor ethical action (Kant); the two constitute an indivisible whole which is a progressive awareness and the march of humanity towards freedom.

In my own treatment of Marx’s ideas in The Scientific Marx (1986) I argued that Marx did not make use of a dialectical method when it came to his social theories.

Here is my summary of my thinking about dialectics in Marx:

It is no doubt true that Marx’s mature works contain a certain amount of admittedly Hegelian language and concepts. Marx writes in Capital, “I openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker [Hegel], and even, here and there in the chapter on the theory of value, coquetted with the mode of expression peculiar to him” (Capital II, pp. 102-3). And in the same passage he speaks with approval of the dialectical method: “The mystification which the dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.” There is thus some fuel for the argument that Capital is not an empirical work but rather a work of materialist philosophy in the Hegelian mode. If these dialectical ideas ran deeply the charge would be compelling. In the following, however, I will argue that Marx is irreconcilably opposed to the use of dialectical logic as a method of inquiry in history or social science. At most the dialectical method represents a highly abstract empirical hypothesis about the nature of social change. I hope therefore to leave the way clear for an interpretation of Marx’s scientific method that is in basic agreement with orthodox empirical social science. When Marx goes to work on his detailed treatment of the empirical data of capitalism, he leaves his Hegelian baggage behind. (TSM 113)

Moreover, I note that Marx is sharply critical of Proudhon, in large part because of the appeal that Proudhon makes to the logic of the dialectical method:

Consider finally Marx’s critique of Proudhon’s political economy in The Poverty of Philosophy. This discussion is particularly important in the present context because Proudhon does attempt to base political economy on a dialectical method of inquiry and explanation, and Marx sharply rejects the possibility of such a science. “What Hegel has done for religion, law, etc., M. Proudhon seeks to do for political economy” (PP, p. 107). Marx describes Proudhon’s method in these terms: “If one finds in logical categories the substance of all things, one imagines one has found in the logical formula of movement the absolute method, which not only explains all things, but also implies the movement of things” (PP, p. 107). Thus Proudhon’s project is defined as an attempt to assimilate the categories of political economy to an abstract logical system derived from Hegel’s Logic, and then to derive the economic laws that can be deduced from this system. Marx’s commentary on this approach makes it plain that he thinks it entirely spurious as a technique of scientific inquiry. Here again Marx’s critique of dialectics as a speculative, a priori analytic tool is sharp and unforgiving. “The moment we cease to pursue the historical movement of production relations, of which the categories are but the theoretical expression, the moment we want to see in these categories no more than ideas, spontaneous thoughts, independent of real relations, we are forced to attribute the origin of these thoughts to the movement of pure reason. . . . Or, to speak Greek—we have thesis, antithesis and synthesis” (PP, p. 105). “Apply this method to the categories of political economy, and you have the logic and metaphysics of political economy” (PP, p. 108). (TSM 117-118)

So I argue that Marx does not embrace a philosophical method of knowledge discovery, but is instead highly attentive to the constraints of empirical and historical investigation. We need to discover how the social world is rather than how philosophy predicts it should be. And in fact, these commitments allow us to understand Marx’s famous comment about “standing Hegel’s method on its head”:

We are now able to interpret Marx’s celebrated remark that with Hegel the dialectic is “standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell” (Capital II, p. 103). What is the rational kernel, and what is the mystical shell, of the dialectic? And in what sense does Marx “invert” Hegel’s method? It is Marx’s endorsement of Hegel’s view of the historicity of social institutions and their internal dynamics of change that leads him to speak with favor of the dialectical method. “In its rational form . . . [the dialectical method] regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well” (Capital II, p. 103). On my view of Marx’s meaning, the rational kernel of Hegel’s method is the empirical hypothesis that historical and social processes develop according to an internal dynamic, and that it is possible to provide a rigorous analysis and explanation of historical change based on knowledge of that dynamic. Moreover, Marx plainly accepts Hegel’s view that change in history proceeds through substantive contradictions. These theses characterize history as a law-governed process, and one whose changes develop as the result of internal contradictions. Thus the kernel of Hegel’s dialectic, on Marx’s view, is not methodological at all, but rather a revealing insight into the character of social reality. These theses are empirical hypotheses (albeit formulated at an extremely high-level).

The mystical shell of Hegel’s method, by contrast, is methodological—and perniciously so. It is Hegel’s belief that pure a priori analysis can allow him to discover the key to this internal dynamic. This assumption is the “logical mysticism” identified by Marx in the Critique of Hegel’s “Philosophy of Right,” and he emphatically rejects this philosophical method. Finally, the inversion Marx proposes requires that instead of beginning with ideas and attempting to reproduce the material world in thought, we must begin with the material world and attempt to arrive at ideas that adequately describe its real characteristics. “With me the reverse is true: The ideal is nothing but the material world reflected in the mind of man, and translated into forms of thought” (Capital II, p. 102). Thus Marx’s inversion of Hegel’s method is materialism; more exactly, it is a form of empiricism because it stipulates that knowledge of the material world may be acquired only through detailed, rigorous investigation of concrete empirical and historical circumstances. And what are the methods appropriate to this sort of investigation? They are the methods of empirical science. (119-120)

In 1986, then, I was of the opinion that the matter was open and shut: Marx was not a dialectical thinker. But I now see that there is another way of looking at these issues. If we take the ideas of change, contingency, historical conjunction, and dynamic social processes to be crucial for understanding the social world — as I do — then perhaps there is a version of “dialectical thinking” that does not bring along the apriorism that Marx clearly rejects, while at the same time capturing something important about history and social process. The determinism of “historical laws of motion” sounds suspiciously positivistic; whereas the idea of a set of social processes that interact conjuncturally and produce change in often unpredictable ways is more convincing as a description of real history.

So I’ll end with an interesting passage from Marxisme et sciences humaines that seems to bear on this question. This is a passage in which Goldmann refers to his own conception of “genetic structuralism”, an idea which in turn seems to capture his own view of dialectics:

Du point de vue historique, le structuralisme génétique est apparu, me semble-t-il, pour la premiere fois comm idée fondamentale dans la philosophie, avec Hegel et Marx bien que ni l’un ni l’autre n’aient employé explicitement ce terms. Il n’en reste pas moins que les pensées hégélienne et marxiste sont, pour la premiere fois dans l’histoire de la philosophie, des positions rigoureusement monistes, structuralistes et génétiques. A un niveau immédiat ce phénomene peut etre lié en partie au fait qu’avec Hegel et surtout avec Marx la philosophie moderne se detache progressivement des sciences mathématiques et physiques pour s’orienter en tout premier lieu vers la reflexion sur les fait historiques; il me parait important de constater que, loin d’etre une découverte tardive en sciences historiques et sociales, le structuralisme génétique est au contraire une des premieres positions elaborees par les penseurs qui se sont orientes sérieusement vers un essai de compréhension positive de ces faits. (21-22)

Or, in my poor translation:

Genetic structuralism is one of the first positions created for thinkers who are oriented towards an effort at a positive comprehension of these facts.

This seems to lie at the core of Goldmann’s view of how to resolve the debate between orthodox and reform interpretations of Marx: neither positivist science nor ethical pieties, but rather a view of history that envelopes individuals and groups creating their own histories, in circumstances not of their own choosing. And that process seems to be what Goldmann wants to identify as “genetic structuralism” and the outcome of dialectical historical concretization.

The mode of production as society’s structure

Figure: Althusser’s conception of the CMP (RP Resch, Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory)

Sociologists study social structure and the effects that structures have on individual behavior and life outcomes. But what do they have in mind when they refer to “structure”?

It turns out that there are important ambiguities in the idea of social structure. The word is sometimes used to refer to functioning entities or systems within society. The state is a structure within society; likewise is the system of public education. But the term can also be used to refer to the structure of society. Here we have statements like “the age structure of Egypt is X” and “the occupational structure of Great Britain is Y”. In this usage, we are being directed to a descriptive feature of society — the way that various elements hang together. Income stratification is a structural feature; the state is a structural entity.

There is a third meaning associated with “structure” as well: the idea that society possesses a structure of interconnected parts and sub-systems, and that the parts influence each other in systematic ways. To outline the structure of society is to provide a theory of how it works (in part, anyway).

This usage is illustrated in Marx’s extended concept of the capitalist mode of production, in which various large elements — technology and production, distribution, wage labor, property ownership, political authority, culture and ideology — hang together in functional ways. Marx describes this system as one consisting of a base (forces and relations of production) and superstructure (state, ideology, culture), with the workings of class interest serving as the engine of stability and change. So Marx looks at capitalism as a system. Consider this statement from the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general.

Here and elsewhere Marx picks out the forces of production and relations of production as the basic determinants of social change. The mode of production represents a complex and objective reality to which individuals must adapt in their behaviors. 

Now consider how Nicos Poulantzas defines the mode of production as a structural whole in Political Power and Social Classes:

By mode of production we shall designate not what is generally marked out as the economic (i.e. relations of production in the strict sense), but a specific combination of various structures and practices which, in combination, appear as so many instances or levels, i.e. as so many regional structures of this mode. A mode of production, as Engels stated schematically, is composed of different levels or instances, the economic, political, ideological and theoretical: it is understood that this is merely a schematic picture and that a more exhaustive division can be drawn up. The type of unity which characterizes a mode of production is that of a complex whole dominated, in the last instance, by the economic. (13-14)

(Poulantzas goes on to draw a distinction between the mode of production and the social formation (15); essentially his view is that the social formation is the concrete reality of a social order at a time, while the mode of production is a theoretical representation that describes that order.)

These texts serve to illustrate a specific and comprehensive view of the sense in which society has a structure. Each substantive term warrants analysis.

Definite relations of production — property relations, relations of power and authority, relations defining the terms of economic interaction. The terms of these relations are essentially beyond the control of the individuals who fall within them; they represent a supra-individual reality to which the individual must accommodate. The system of wage labor is a clear example in Marx’s theory. In a society in which wage labor is the dominant system of labor control, individuals gain the resources needed to satisfy life needs by selling their labor time which is then directed and managed by the purchaser. This is a structural condition that the worker confronts in the social environment around him or her.
Material productive forces — the level and implementation of productive technology, including locations of production, tools, machines, materials processing, mines, agriculture, and the forms of knowledge associated with each of these. The ensemble of these items constitutes another fixed aspect of the social environment within which human beings live and subsist.
Economic structure of society — the system of property relations and material institutions and technology through which society produces goods and conducts the distribution of value and surplus value (income and access to goods).
Legal and political superstructure — the institutions through which law and political power are exercised and maintained.
Forms of social consciousness — the cognitive and epistemic frameworks through which ordinary members of society understand the forces that surround them and the roles that they play within those forces and institutions.
Levels or instances of social organization — the clusters of institutions that make up the “economic, political, ideological, and theoretical “‘levels'” of existing society. Factories, department stores, and banks fall in the economic level; the legislature, the police and military forces, and the agencies of the state fall in the political level; and the contents and institutions of transmission of beliefs about the world fall in the ideological and theoretical levels.

Marx and other scholars who work within the framework of historical materialism hold, as a large empirical hypothesis, that there are causal and systemic relations among these items, and the generic mechanism of class interest and class conflict is the transmission belt that conveys causal influence from one sector to another. They believe that the “needs” of the economic structure are secured by the political structure, through the mechanism of class interests; likewise, the ideological and theoretical structure is shaped by the interests of various classes, leading to a high degree of conformance between the content of “social consciousness” and the prerequisites of stability of the economic structure.

The template of historical materialism as a “Gray’s Anatomy” for modern capitalism has often been criticized as being mechanistic, over-simplified, and even fictional. But in its heart the scheme is a perfectly intelligible hypothesis about how several aspects of contemporary society fit together. Property relations define individual interests, and the system of wage labor defines the opportunities available to working people. Legislative and governmental policies have effects on the property system, and the class that owns the bulk of this property is perfectly capable of recognizing the consequences of this policy or that. Having the means to influence government, the owning class is able to shape government policy and personnel in ways that are compatible with its interests. Likewise, owners of property are able to recognize the advantage of being in a position to influence public consciousness and the terms of public debate. So the components of the “ideological apparatus” — think tanks, newspapers, publishing houses, television networks — are intensely contested, and the power of the owning class to influence the content of these outlets is great. Here again we have a fairly simple empirical argument for the conformance of the organs of social consciousness to the needs of the propertied class. And if it seems far fetched to hold that the owners of wealth are very willing to exert their power in these ways, just look at the recent announcement of the 2016 election-year budget of the political network funded by the Koch brothers — $889,000,000 (link)!

It is no longer common in sociology to find value in Marx’s theory of capitalist society. But really, the structuralist view he arrived at in the 1850s and 1860s seems pretty prosaic today in the context of an economic system that systematically creates astronomical wealth for the one percent and stagnant poverty for the majority of society. Median household income in 2012 in the United States was $51,371, and almost all states showed a decline in median household income between 2000 and 2012 (link). And it is almost tautological to say that the property system explains both facts — the explosion of the wealth and income of the one percent and the stagnant or declining incomes of the majority of the population.

Or as Marx concludes Chapter Six of Volume I of Capital:

On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities, which furnishes the “Free-trader Vulgaris” with his views and ideas, and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding.

Marx on a global wage


What is the longterm tendency in the wage for relatively unskilled labor?  In the United States we’ve been thinking about this problem in the past three decades in the context of “outsourcing” and the flight of manufacturing jobs to low-wage countries. Moderate- and high-wage industrial jobs have left the country in large numbers.  In the 1970s and 1980s apparel manufacture largely left the US for Latin America and Asia, and in the 1990s and 2000s heavy manufacturing jobs (in the auto industry in particular) were widely perceived to have fled to Asia.

What are the effects of these global shifts in manufacturing for the wage in all countries?  It turns out that Karl Marx had some remarkably prescient ideas about this question in the 1860s that still seem important today.  Here are some markedly current observations from Marx’s Capital (link) on the wage in a competitive international context:

A writer of the 18th century, often quoted already, the author of the “Essay on Trade and Commerce,” only betrays the innermost secret soul of English capitalism, when he declares the historic mission of England to be the forcing down of English wages to the level of the French and the Dutch. [37] With other things he says naively: “But if our poor” (technical term for labourers) “will live luxuriously … then labour must, of course, be dear…. When it is considered what luxuries the manufacturing populace consume, such as brandy, gin, tea, sugar, foreign fruit, strong beer, printed linens, snuff, tobacco, etc.” [38] He quotes the work of a Northamptonshire manufacturer, who, with eyes squinting heavenward moans: “Labour is one-third cheaper in France than in England; for their poor work hard, and fare hard, as to their food and clothing. Their chief diet is bread, fruit, herbs, roots, and dried fish; for they very seldom eat flesh; and when wheat is dear, they eat very little bread.” [39] “To which may be added,” our essayist goes on, “that their drink is either water or other small liquors, so that they spend very little money…. These things are very difficult to be brought about; but they are not impracticable, since they have been effected both in France and in Holland.” [40] (Capital I, chap. 24)

And the footnote amplifies:

[40] Today, thanks to the competition on the world-market, established since then, we have advanced much further. “If China,” says Mr. Stapleton, M.P., to his constituents, “should become a great manufacturing country, I do not see how the manufacturing population of Europe could sustain the contest without descending to the level of their competitors.” (Times, Sept. 3, 1873, p. 8.) The wished-for goal of English capital is no longer Continental wages but Chinese.

In other words, Marx’s view in 1867 was that there is an inevitable competitive pressure on British firms (high wages) to seek out manufacturing locations in other countries where labor costs are lower; and, of course, this movement brings competitive downward pressures on the domestic manufacturing wage.  So the British manufacturing wage falls as low-wage European competitors (eventually Chinese competitors) are able to produce commodities at lower unit cost.  This has a long-term global result: the unskilled manufacturing labor market becomes global, and the wage approaches a global equilibrium that is significantly lower than the present.

One thing is striking about this observation in 1867 is the reference to China.  Mr. Stapleton’s observations in 1873 were highly speculative; China was a century from becoming a great manufacturing country.  But Marx’s eye was focused on the long-term patterns; and he (and Mr. Stapleton) correctly noted the inherent logic of global competition for low-wage labor.  The long-term result, apparently unavoidably, is that production processes that involve low-skill labor will be involved in a rapid race to the bottom, leading to an equilibrium wage across nations that is barely sufficient for subsistence.

Another major force operating on the level of the wage for unskilled labor that Marx emphasizes is the rapid introduction of technology and innovations enhancing labor productivity — leading to a reduction in the demand for labor and putting more downward pressure on the wage.  Writing after the American Civil War about English cotton manufacture, he writes:

The instrument of labour strikes down the labourer. This direct antagonism between the two comes out most strongly, whenever newly introduced machinery competes with handicrafts or manufactures, handed down from former times. But even in Modern Industry the continual improvement of machinery, and the development of the automatic system, has an analogous effect. “The object of improved machinery is to diminish manual labour, to provide for the performance of a process or the completion of a link in a manufacture by the aid of an iron instead of the human apparatus.” [119] “The adaptation of power to machinery heretofore moved by hand, is almost of daily occurrence … the minor improvements in machinery having for their object economy of power, the production of better work, the turning off more work in the same time, or in supplying the place of a child, a female, or a man, are constant, and although sometimes apparently of no great moment, have somewhat important results.” [120] “Whenever a process requires peculiar dexterity and steadiness of hand, it is withdrawn, as soon as possible, from the cunning workman, who is prone to irregularities of many kinds, and it is t)laced in charge of a peculiar mechanism, so self-regulating that a child can superintend it.” [121] “On the automatic plan skilled labour gets progressively superseded.” [122] “The effect of improvements in machinery, not merely in superseding the necessity for the employment of the same quantity of adult labour as before, in order to produce a given result, but in substituting one description of human labour for another, the less skilled for the more skilled, juvenile for adult, female for male, causes a fresh disturbance in the rate of wages.” [123] “The effect of substituting the self-acting mule for the common mule, is to discharge the greater part of the men spinners, and to retain adolescents and children.” [124] The extraordinary power of expansion of the factory system owing to accumulated practical experience, to the mechanical means at hand, and to constant technical progress, was proved to us by the giant strides of that system under the pressure of a shortened working-day. But who, in 1860, the Zenith year of the English cotton industry, would have dreamt of the galloping improvements in machinery, and the corresponding displacement of working people, called into being during the following 3 years, under the stimulus of the American Civil War? A couple of examples from the Reports of the Inspectors of Factories will suffice on this point. A Manchester manufacturer states: “We formerly had 75 carding engines, now we have 12, doing the same quantity of work…. We are doing with fewer hands by 14, at a saving in wages of £10 a-week. Our estimated saving in waste is about 10% in the quantity of cotton consumed.” “In another fine-spinning mill in Manchester, I was informed that through increased speed and the adoption of some self-acting processes, a reduction had been made, in number, of a fourth in one department, and of above half in another, and that the introduction of the combing machine in place of the second carding, had considerably reduced, the number of hands formerly employed in the carding-room.” Another spinning-mill is estimated to effect a saving of labour of 10%. The Messrs. Gilmour, spinners at Manchester, state: “In our blowing-room department we consider our expense with new machinery is fully one-third less in wages and hands … in the jack-frame and drawing-frame room, about one-third less in expense, and likewise one-third less in hands; in the spinningroom about one-third less in expenses. But this is not all; when our yarn goes to the manufacturers, it is so much better by the application of our new machinery, that they will produce a greater quantity of cloth, and cheaper than from the yarn produced by old machinery.” [125] Mr. Redgrave further remarks in the same Report: “The reduction of hands against increased production is, in fact, constantly taking place, in woollen mills the reduction commenced some time since, and is continuing; a few days since, the master of a school in the neighbourhood of Rochdale said to me, that the great falling off in the girls’ school is not only caused by the distress, but by the changes of machinery in the woollen mills, in consequence of which a reduction of 70 short-timers had taken place.” [126]

(Capital I, Chapter 15)

The note is important as well:

[126] l. c., p. 109. The rapid improvement of machinery, during the crisis, allowed the English manufacturers, immediately after the termination of the American Civil War, and almost in no time, to glut the markets of the world again. Cloth,’ during the last six months of 1866, was almost unsaleable. Thereupon began the consignment of goods to India and China, thus naturally making the glut more intense. At the beginning of 1867 the manufacturers resorted to their usual way out of the difficulty, viz., reducing wages 5 per cent. The workpeople resisted, and said that the only remedy was to work short time, 4 days a week; and their theory was the correct one. After holding out for some time, the self-elected captains of industry had to make up their minds to short time, with reduced wages in some places, and in others without.

So is there any way out for the worker?  Is there any scenario where ordinary working people can earn a moderate to high wage and corresponding standard of living?  There is, through education and skill.  The only way of maintaining a high wage for workers is on the basis of a given workforce possessing the ability to accomplish production tasks on the basis of non-generalized knowledge and skill.  When labor is a commodity that is interchangeable in Karnataka, Guangdong, and Detroit, the wage will approach something like a low-level equilibrium.  But when workers are able to add exceptional value to the process through their skills, talents, and knowledge, they will share in that productivity in the form of higher wages and a higher standard of living.

This observation converges with several themes already discussed in earlier postings: the attractiveness of the “high-skill” alternative to mass manufacturing that is highlighted by Chuck Sabel (link), and the current urgency that we should all feel about making sure that all young people have the opportunity to complete a tertiary degree (link).




Prosperity based on commodities

An earlier post looked at economic prosperity and standard of living from the point of view of a grain-based agricultural economy. There I singled out intensive, extensive, and technology-based growth, and the effects these scenarios had on the standard of living for a farming population. This is a particularly simple case, since it equates standard of living with food availability per capita. (This is enough, however, to arrive at credible estimates of the standard of living over long stretches of Chinese history, as Bozhong Li has demonstrated in Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850.)  This simplification leaves out markets, prices, and trade; so it doesn’t shed much light on economies based substantially on the production of commodities (including farm products, but also including manufactured goods). So how does the situation change when we postulate production for exchange and consumption based on cash income?

Let’s once again consider an isolated region, where all products consumed are produced in the region. So there is no interregional trade. And let’s suppose there are three goods: grain, shirts, and beer. Every household needs some of each, and households acquire income through ownership of resources: land, capital, and labor power. The income available to a household is the net return it achieves through use of its resources. Goods are produced by “firms” and are bought and sold through competitive markets.

Now to estimate a household’s standard of living we need to do a more complex estimation: we need to estimate the household’s income and we need to estimate the “purchasing power” of this income in terms of the baskets of goods this income can purchase at prevailing prices. So we need an income model and a price model for the three goods.  (See Robert Allen’s detailed efforts at answering these questions across Eurasia (linklink).)

Production requires access to resources.  Each resource can be used in two basic ways: it can be used directly by its owner in production, or it can be “rented” to a firm for use by the firm in production. So there is also a competitive market for resources: rent for land, interest for capital, and wages for labor. And at any given time there is a specific distribution of resources across population; some households have dramatically more of each resource than others.

We can begin our thought experiment by taking as fixed the techniques of production that exist for the three basic commodities. In order to produce at a given level of output, the firm needs access to a known quantity of resources, in a specific proportion. Firms amd households with lots of resources can begin producing shirts, beer, and grain immediately. Poor firms and households will either rent access to more resources through promise of future rents; or they will rent out the resources they currently possess, including labor time. So landless, propertyless households have no choice but to sell their labor time; they become workers. So now let’s picture our region as populated by firms and households producing commodities, and all persons functioning as consumers purchasing a bundle of commodities for life needs.

So far we’ve provided a scene very familiar from the classical political economists and Marx. Much of subsequent economic thought went into solving various parts of this story: what determines prices, what does the distribution of income look like, and how do innovation and organizational and technological change fit into this story?  What does an equilibrium of production, consumption, and price look like with static technology?  What are the dynamic processes of adjustment that occur when there is a substantial change in the process of production?

My question here is a limited one: what needs to occur in this scenario in order for there to be a rising trend in the average and median standard living for this society?

Let’s define the standard of living as the size of the wage basket available to the median consumer: the sets of baskets of grain, shirts, and beer that the median income earner is able to purchase. In order for the standard of living to rise in this isolated region, there needs to be an overall increase in the efficiency and productivity of the production process for the three goods. And the money wage of the median consumer needs to rise.  (Amartya Sen provides quite a bit of analysis of the meaning of the standard of living in The Standard of Living.)

Let’s refer to the concrete production process at a given time as the current practice; this is the specific way that inputs are organized in order to create the output. As we saw in the graph of output against time borrowed from Mark Elvin (link), we can think of progress here in two ways. First, there is refinement of practice, as producers gradually recognize small modifications that permit removal of costs from the process. And, as Marx and Smith agree, firms and households producing goods for a market have a powerful incentive to seek out these improvements: they can continue to sell their products at the old price until the rest of the producers catch up.

Second, producers can introduce substantial, revolutionary changes in technology. They may replace skilled sewing-machine operators with sewing robots that reduce each of the inputs into the good. Productivity takes a big stride forward.

There is a third mechanism of cost reduction available: the firm/household may speed up the labor process, lengthen the working day, or lower the wage. Volume I of Capital goes into detail on each of these mechanisms within a market-governed firm.  And each of these approaches is negative for the quality of life of the working class.

Now let’s get back to the question of the standard of living. Does the process of competition, rising productivity, and falling prices imply an improvement in the standard of living? Or, conceivably, does it lead to a paradoxical immiseration of the bulk of the population? Both outcomes are possible. Rising efficiency and productivity have permitted our little society to produce a rising quantity of beer, grain, and shirts. And this on the basis of a fixed level of basic resources. So in principle everyone may be better off. But it is possible as well that the benefits of rising productivity have been disproportionately captured by a small advantaged group. So income may have become increasingly concentrated at the top. The average wage basket will have increased. But the median consumer may have declined through that process of concentration.

What this story tells us is something fairly simple: the effects of productivity improvement within a commodity economy depend critically on the prior distribution of assets and the institutions through which income and the gains of efficiency are distributed. And this in turn suggests a point much like that of Robert Brenner: the social-property relations embedded within an economy are critical in determining the fate of the median person, and they are subject to profound political struggle (post).

It would be very interesting to use agent-based modeling software to represent a series of scenarios based on this description of a commodity-based economy undergoing growth.  What do distributive outcomes look like when the prior distribution is relatively equal?  How about when they are substantially unequal?  How much difference does the timing of growth make on the eventual distributive and welfare characteristics of the scenario?

(Piero Sraffa’s Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities : Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory picks up some parts of this story in a neo-Ricardian way; Marxian economists have looked at Sraffa’s work as also providing a novel basis for the labor theory of value.  The framework provided here also leads into an argument for a new definition of exploitation by John Roemer in A General Theory of Exploitation and Class.)

Marx on Russia

In 1881 Marx wrote a letter to Vera Zasulich, an important Russian follower, that addresses the question of theory and prediction when it comes to thinking about the future course of history.  In particular, he denies that his theories have determinate predictive implications for the development of capitalism or socialism in Russia.  Here is a link to the letter, and below are a few paragraphs.

The issue is an important one: did Marx think of his body of knowledge as constituting a general predictive theory?  And the letter clearly implies that he did not.

The letter is interesting in several respects. First, it explicitly rejects the notion that Marx’s economic and historical theories are suited to the task of identifying the necessary or inevitable course of historical development. It summarily dismisses the idea of a necessary sequence of modes of production. Instead, Marx shows himself to recognize the contingency that exists in historical development, as well as the degree to which history creates new conditions in its course that influence future developments.

The other important feature of the letter is its substantive analysis of the material characteristics of the Russian peasant commune, and the potential that this social form has for constituting the material core of an alternative route to socialism in Russia.  As the letter makes clear, Marx thinks that the social relations associated with the peasant commune provide a possible social foundation for a modern socialist economy; and this would be an economy that was not “post-capitalist” but nonetheless technologically and socially advanced.

In a way Marx’s argument anticipates the theory of “late developers” — for example, Gerschenkron’s Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective.  Marx argues that a socialism in Russia was possible through an alternative pathway.  A version of socialism in Russia based on the “archaic” commune can take advantage of the developments in technology and social organization created by advanced capitalism.  It is not necessary for Russian society to go throughout the several-centuries long process of agricultural and technological modernization that England underwent; rather, Russia can simply adopt the modern technologies now available.

The interest of this letter is not to be found in the historical predictions it makes, but rather in the example it offers of the way that Marx’s mind worked.  The reasoning here represents a good example of Marx’s materialist approach to history.  He wants to arrive at a fairly detailed level of understanding of the social and economic relations — the property relations — that constituted a historical form of the rural commune.  And he then seeks to provide an analysis of the way in which those relations might be expected to develop under a specific set of historical circumstances.  And key within this analysis is the workings of the specific form of property that corresponded to this social system — the social relations of production.

I suppose the letter illustrates something else as well: Marx’s interest at the end of his life in finding an alternative pathway to socialism.  The revolutions of 1848 were long in the past, and a proletarian revolution had not ensued.  The Paris Commune had been decisively and violently repressed in 1871.  Working-class militancy was not propitious in the advanced capitalist countries — France, Germany, or Britain.  So the prospects of revolution in the advanced capitalist world were not encouraging to Marx.  And so finding some hope for an alternative process of social development through which the ends of socialism might be achieved was an appealing prospect for Marx.

Here are the first few paragraphs of the letter, which is worth reading in full:

1) In dealing with the genesis of capitalist production I stated that it is founded on “the complete separation of the producer from the means of production” (p. 315, column 1, French edition of Capital) and that “the basis of this whole development is the expropriation of the agricultural producer. To date this has not been accomplished in a radical fashion anywhere except in England… But all the other countries of Western Europe are undergoing the same process” (1.c., column II).

I thus expressly limited the “historical inevitability” of this process to the countries of Western Europe. And why? Be so kind as to compare Chapter XXXII, where it says:

The “process of elimination transforming individualised and scattered means of production into socially concentrated means of production, of the pigmy property of the many into the huge property of the few, this painful and fearful expropriation of the working people, forms the origin, the genesis of capital… Private property, based on personal labour … will be supplanted by capitalist private property, based on the exploitation of the labour of others, on wage labour” (p. 341, column II).

Thus, in the final analysis, it is a question of the transformation of one form of private property into another form of private property. Since the land in the hands of the Russian peasants has never been their private property, how could this development be applicable?

2) From the historical point of view the only serious argument put forward in favour of the fatal dissolution of the Russian peasants’ commune is this: By going back a long way communal property of a more or less archaic type may be found throughout Western Europe; everywhere it has disappeared with increasing social progress. Why should it be able to escape the same fate in Russia alone? I reply: because in Russia, thanks to a unique combination of circumstances, the rural commune, still established on a nationwide scale, may gradually detach itself from its primitive features and develop directly as an element of collective production on a nationwide scale. It is precisely thanks to its contemporaneity with capitalist production that it may appropriate the latter’s positive acquisitions without experiencing all its frightful misfortunes. Russia does not live in isolation from the modern world; neither is it the prey of a foreign invader like the East Indies.

And here is an important summary statement:

Theoretically speaking, then, the Russian “rural commune” can preserve itself by developing its basis, the common ownership of land, and by eliminating the principle of private property which it also implies; it can become a direct point of departure for the economic system towards which modern society tends; it can turn over a new leaf without beginning by committing suicide; it can gain possession of the fruits with which capitalist production has enriched mankind, without passing through the capitalist regime, a regime which, considered solely from the point of view of its possible duration hardly counts in the life of society. But we must descend from pure theory to the Russian reality.

There is a major irony in rereading Marx’s analysis of the emancipatory possibilities inherent in the social form of the “peasant commune” in Russia.  Most striking is the experience of the collectivization of Soviet agriculture in the 1920s and Stalin’s war on the kulaks.  Rather than representing a bright new future for the peasants, collectivization represented a cruel war by starvation against rural society (Lynne Viola, The War Against the Peasantry, 1927-1930: The Tragedy of the Soviet Countryside, Volume one (Annals of Communism Series) (v. 1)).

It is also also interesting to recall that one of the disputes among the Bolsheviks within Soviet leadership in the 1920s and 1930s was the issue of cooperatives in agriculture.  A. V. Chayanov advocated for a more democratic route to Soviet socialism, through the mechanism of locally established rural cooperatives (link).  His reasoning had quite a bit in common with Marx’s analysis in this letter to Vera Zasulich; and, of course, it led to his persecution and execution in 1937.

Farms in historical materialism

Materialist explanations in history generally attempt to discover fundamental features of technology and labor that impose a very deep imprint on the rest of society. Farming is almost always fundamental in this respect; the forces and relations of production are particularly visible, and the products of the farm system are fundamental to the survival of society. The standard of living of a traditional society is largely determined by agricultural productivity and the nature of the farming system — nutrition, for example, is essentially determined by the ratio of total grain output to population. Finally, virtually all traditional economies are primarily rural; so farm life defines the conditions of ordinary social existence for the majority of the population. So let us consider a brief analysis of the farm. (A. V. Chayanov’s classic treatment of the peasant economy, The Theory of Peasant Economy, written in the 1920s, remains highly valuable. Robert Allen’s lifetime of research on the English farm economy is highly insightful (Enclosure and the Yeoman: The Agricultural Development of the South Midlands, 1450-1850), as is Bozhong Li’s work on the farm economy of the Lower Yangzi (Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850).)

A farm is the basic unit of agricultural production. It represents the coordinated application of diverse factors of production in order to produce crops. The factors of production include labor; land; tools, implements, and machinery; fertilizers; and water resources and irrigation techniques. Crops include both foods (e.g., rice, wheat, millet) and raw materials (e.g., cotton, soya beans). And farms may be organized for a variety of purposes: to satisfy a family’s subsistence needs, to create a profit within a market system, or to provide employment for the greatest number of rural people.

Farms in different agrarian regimes may be characterized in terms of a set of technical and social features. On the technical side we need to know what the scale of cultivation is (farm size); what techniques of cultivation are employed; what varieties of crops and seeds are available; what types of farm tools and machines are used; what types of irrigation, if any, are in use; what varieties and skills of labor are employed; what types of fertilizers are used; and what forms of agronomic knowledge are available to the farmer. (We might reduce this variety of technical features to a spectrum ranging from low-technology to high-technology farming systems.) On the social side we need to know the purpose of cultivation (family subsistence or commercial profitability); the form of land tenure in place (fixed rent, sharecropping, smallholding, etc.); the forms of labor employed (slave, serf, family labor, hired labor); the forms of supervision employed; and the processes of income distribution embodied in the agricultural system.

These features are the primary subject of research for agricultural historians such as Allen and Li. These features essentially determine the most important economic characteristics of the agricultural system. First, they determine the productivity of the farming system, whether measured in terms of land efficiency (output per hectare) or labor efficiency (output per man-day). For once we know the techniques of cultivation in a given ecological setting, it is possible to form relatively accurate estimates of output for a given input of land, labor, and capital. This set of considerations also determines what we might describe as the net rural product–the total agricultural product over and above the replacement cost of the factors of production. On this basis, Chinese historians such as Dwight Perkins attempt to estimate the overall wealth and income of late Imperial China, including estimates of quality of life for the majority of rural people (Agricultural development in China, 1368-1968).

Second, the full description of the farming system as indicated above will allow us to infer the system of surplus extraction in place; it will be possible to indicate with adequate precision how much surplus is generated and where it goes. Victor Lippit attempts to arrive at such an estimate for traditional China (Land Reform and Economic Development in China: A Study of Institutional Change and Development Finance). This in turn permits us to describe the system of rural class relations that correspond to a given farming regime.

Within this framework we can now indicate a variety of types of farms; and as a working premise, we may postulate that agrarian regimes in which different farm types are dominant will have distinctive patterns of organization and development. The following are advanced as ideal types; variants and mixed examples are possible as well. However, these types are selected as being particularly central in the development of both Asian and European traditional economies. And, significantly for the historian of social change, each farming system creates a distinctive pattern of incentives, barriers, social relations, and modes of behavior that have important consequences for historical change.

  • The peasant farm. The peasant farm is small (1-10 hectares), and is organized to satisfy consumption needs of the family. It is managed and run by a peasant family using family labor. Cultivation is divided between subsistence crops and commercial crops with some risk-aversive preference for subsistence crops. There is a very low level of capital available to the peasant farmer, and cultivation is oriented towards labor-intensive techniques. Low-cost traditional techniques and tools are employed in cultivation. The peasant cultivator typically pays rent on the land he cultivates, though smallholding with clear title to the land is also possible.
  • The manor. This farm is of medium size (100 hectares). It is managed by a resident lord whose aims are (1) to satisfy the consumption needs of his household, and (2) to produce a marketable surplus to generate cash income. The manor employs a sizable number of bonded laborers (serfs or slaves); it uses traditional techniques of cultivation but benefits from some economies of scale; and it employs foremen as supervisors. Part of the estate is farmed by individual families in circumstances of peasant farming.
  • The capitalist farm. This farm is medium to large (50-150 hectares) and is organized to produce a profit. It is therefore located within a commercialized rural economy within which crops may be readily marketed. The farm is organized and directed by the capitalist farmer, who may either own or rent the land. The capitalist farmer has the fiscal resources needed to make capital investments in the process of cultivation; and he is oriented towards cost-cutting in considering various alternative techniques. The capitalist farm employs wage labor, where the wage is determined by local economic circumstances and the minimal cost of subsistence. The capitalist farm represents a rationalization of available techniques aimed at maximizing the profitability of the unit.
  • The cooperative farm. The cooperative farm is a large unit (100-400 hectares) owned by the cultivators (75 families). This farm is oriented towards profitability; it uses the labor of the cultivators; and it is organized by a council of the cultivators. The collective has access to investment funds, and is therefore able to invest in new techniques; moreover, the collective farm benefits from economies of scale.

Significantly, this typology of farming units corresponds broadly to the classical Marxist taxonomy of modes of production: feudalism, capitalism, and socialism. The peasant farm, however, represents a form of organization of the productive forces of rural society that is overlooked in Marxist theory: call it the “peasant mode of production.” The peasant mode of production may be defined as a system in which agriculture is performed on peasant farms; the bulk of the population consists of free peasant cultivators; and agricultural surpluses are extracted through rent, interest, and taxation.

In short, careful analysis of the circumstances of farming is crucial for large-scale history, including especially the history of economic development, the history of urbanization, and the history of human well-being. And, of course, the twentieth century demonstrated the centrality of peasants in the great political movements of revolution and anti-colonialism.

Primitive accumulation

Marx’s treatment of the “so-called ‘primitive accumulation'” is one of the most historically detailed sections in Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Volume 1). And it is one of the most interesting parts of Capital to read as a separate piece. (Here is an electronic text of the section.) It is Marx’s account of the historical processes of change in rural life of the fifteenth through eighteenth century in Britain and Ireland, through which peasants were forced off their land and the commons were enclosed. Marx believes that this separation of the peasantry from the land was a necessary condition for the development of capitalism, in that it created the conditions in which there was a pliable and abundant proletariat. This “free” proletariat was needed for the creation of the factory system and the development of manufacturing cities. So the process of primitive accumulation created the changes in social relations, property relations, and the accumulation of wealth that permitted the creation of the capital-labor relation and factory-based capitalism.

Marx sometimes puts this point in a fairly teleological way, looking at primitive accumulation as a necessary step on the road to British capitalism. (For example, he refers to this process as “the revolution that laid the foundation of the capitalist mode of production.”) But it is possible, and preferable, to read Marx’s analysis here less teleologically, as simply a detailed account of some of the crucial but contingent changes that took place in rural social relations during these centuries, without importing the idea that these changes were functionally related to the later development of capitalism. And read non-teleologically, the section holds up fairly well in relation to modern historical scholarship.

Marx describes the basic social relations of British rural life in the fifteenth century in these terms, as a freeholding peasantry with access to substantial common lands, pasture, and forest:

The immense majority of the population consisted then, and to a still larger extent, in the 15th century, of free peasant proprietors, whatever was the feudal title under which their right of property was hidden. In the larger seignorial domains, the old bailiff, himself a serf, was displaced by the free farmer. The wage-labourers of agriculture consisted partly of peasants, who utilised their leisure time by working on the large estates, partly of an independent special class of wage-labourers, relatively and absolutely few in numbers. The latter also were practically at the same time peasant farmers, since, besides their wages, they had allotted to them arable land to the extent of 4 or more acres, together with their cottages. Besides they, with the rest of the peasants, enjoyed the usufruct of the common land, which gave pasture to their cattle, furnished them with timber, fire-wood, turf, &c.

And he identifies the crucial turn towards expropriation of the free peasant proprietor:

In insolent conflict with king and parliament, the great feudal lords created an incomparably larger proletariat by the forcible driving of the peasantry from the land, to which the latter had the same feudal right as the lord himself, and by the usurpation of the common lands. The rapid rise of the Flemish wool manufactures, and the corresponding rise in the price of wool in England, gave the direct impulse to these evictions. The old nobility had been devoured by the great feudal wars. The new nobility was the child of its time, for which money was the power of all powers. Transformation of arable land into sheep-walks was, therefore, its cry.

(It is interesting to recall that Oliver Goldsmith describes the eighteenth-century version of this process in Ireland in his poem, The Deserted Village (1770):

Sweet smiling village, loveliest of the lawn,
Thy sports are fled, and all thy charms withdrawn;
Amidst thy bowers the tyrant’s hand is seen,
And Desolation saddens all thy green:
One only master grasps the whole domain,
And half a tillage stints thy smiling plain.
No more thy glassy brook reflects the day,
But, choked with sedges, works its weedy way;
Along thy glades, a solitary guest,
The hollow-sounding bittern guards its nest;
Amidst thy desert walks the lapwing flies,
And tires their echoes with unvaried cries:
Sunk are thy bowers in shapeless ruin all,
And the long grass o’ertops the mouldering wall
And, trembling, shrinking from the spoiler’s hand,
Far, far away thy children leave the land.

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made:
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroy’d, can never be supplied. )

And Marx emphasizes the coercive nature of this expropriation of the yeoman peasant:

Even in the last decade of the 17th century, the yeomanry, the class of independent peasants, were more numerous than the class of farmers. They had formed the backbone of Cromwell’s strength, and, even according to the confession of Macaulay, stood in favourable contrast to the drunken squires and to their servants, the country clergy, who had to marry their masters’ cast-off mistresses. About 1750, the yeomanry had disappeared, and so had, in the last decade of the 18th century, the last trace of the common land of the agricultural labourer. We leave on one side here the purely economic causes of the agricultural revolution. We deal only with the forcible means employed.

A crucial component of the “primitive accumulation”, in Marx’s interpretation, was the abolition of common property, culminating in the enclosure acts in the seventeenth century:

Communal property — always distinct from the State property just dealt with — was an old Teutonic institution which lived on under cover of feudalism. We have seen how the forcible usurpation of this, generally accompanied by the turning of arable into pasture land, begins at the end of the 15th and extends into the 16th century. But, at that time, the process was carried on by means of individual acts of violence against which legislation, for a hundred and fifty years, fought in vain. The advance made by the 18th century shows itself in this, that the law itself becomes now the instrument of the theft of the people’s land, although the large farmers make use of their little independent methods as well. The parliamentary form of the robbery is that of Acts for enclosures of Commons, in other words, decrees by which the landlords grant themselves the people’s land as private property, decrees of expropriation of the people. Sir F. M. Eden refutes his own crafty special pleading, in which he tries to represent communal property as the private property of the great landlords who have taken the place of the feudal lords, when he, himself, demands a “general Act of Parliament for the enclosure of Commons” (admitting thereby that a parliamentary coup d’état is necessary for its transformation into private property), and moreover calls on the legislature for the indemnification for the expropriated poor.

We even are afforded a glimpse of the economist’s view of the rationality of enclosure. According to John Arbuthnot, enclosure and the creation of private farms is a more productive use of land and labor:

Let us hear for a moment a defender of enclosures and an opponent of Dr. Price. “Not is it a consequence that there must be depopulation, because men are not seen wasting their labour in the open field…. If, by converting the little farmers into a body of men who must work for others, more labour is produced, it is an advantage which the nation” (to which, of course, the “converted” ones do not belong) “should wish for … the produce being greater when their joint labours are employed on one farm, there will be a surplus for manufactures, and by this means manufactures, one of the mines of the nation, will increase, in proportion to the quantity of corn produced.”

And here Marx describes the final stages of the “rationalization” of agriculture, in the expropriation of the Scots:

The last process of wholesale expropriation of the agricultural population from the soil is, finally, the so-called clearing of estates, i.e., the sweeping men off them. All the English methods hitherto considered culminated in “clearing.” As we saw in the picture of modern conditions given in a former chapter, where there are no more independent peasants to get rid of, the “clearing” of cottages begins; so that the agricultural labourers do not find on the soil cultivated by them even the spot necessary for their own housing. But what “clearing of estates” really and properly signifies, we learn only in the promised land of modern romance, the Highlands of Scotland. There the process is distinguished by its systematic character, by the magnitude of the scale on which it is carried out at one blow (in Ireland landlords have gone to the length of sweeping away several villages at once; in Scotland areas as large as German principalities are dealt with), finally by the peculiar form of property, under which the embezzled lands were held.

Eventually we come to the point where industrial capitalism is feasible and there is a “free” proletariat available for labor:

It is not enough that the conditions of labour are concentrated in a mass, in the shape of capital, at the one pole of society, while at the other are grouped masses of men, who have nothing to sell but their labour-power. Neither is it enough that they are compelled to sell it voluntarily. The advance of capitalist production develops a working-class, which by education, tradition, habit, looks upon the conditions of that mode of production as self-evident laws of Nature. The organisation of the capitalist process of production, once fully developed, breaks down all resistance.

And, of course, Engels picks up the story from the perspective of nineteenth-century Manchester and Birmingham, and the conditions of squalor and oppressive factory labor that resulted. (See an earlier posting on Engels’s sociology of the proletarian city.)

The English Marxist historians have devoted a lot of their attention to this period of British social history. (Harvey Kaye gives a very good account of the work of this generation of Marxist historians in The British Marxist Historians.) Maurice Dobb is one of the English socialist historians who has retraced Marx’s steps on this subject in some detail. One of Dobb’s important books, Studies In The Development Of Capitalism (1963), treats this process of the decline of the English peasantry and the rise of the proletariat, making use of the historical scholarship of the first part of the twentieth century. Some of Rodney Hilton’s research on this period can be found in Class Conflict and the Crisis of Feudalism: Essays in Medieval Social History (Rev). Several generations later, Robert Brenner gave a somewhat different interpretation of the history of agrarian change in England from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries; his views were developed in the splendid journal Past & Present and were separately published along with a round of critical reactions in The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-industrial Europe.

Structures in Marx’s thought

The concept of a social structure has often played a large role in social theorizing. The general idea is that society consists of an ensemble of durable, regulative structures within the context of which individuals live and act. Sometimes structures are interpreted functionally: the ensemble of structures constitute a system, and discrete structures satisfy important social functions. This is a physiological approach to society: what are the chief sub-systems in society and what do they do; how do they fit together to assure the continuing functioning of society?

There is much to fault in this set of ideas about the constituent parts of society — for example, its tendency to reify a continually shifting social reality and its tacit assumption that the social order is a system in functional equilibrium.

But here I want to ask a smaller question: does Marx offer a social ontology that includes enduring social structures?

It would appear that the answer is a resounding “yes”. Marx looks at capitalism as a system. For example, consider this statement from the Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production.

Here and elsewhere Marx picks out the forces of production and relations of production as the fundamental determinants of historical change. He identifies social classes as the chief actors in society. And he offers a conception of the capitalist mode of production as consisting of an economic base — the economic structure — and an ensemble of superstructural elements — law, state, ideology, religion, culture –that stand above the economic structure and serve to preserve its conditions of reproduction. All of this invokes an ontology of social structures, social systems, and functional interdependency (G. A. Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence).

The functionalism implicit in this ontology has been deeply challenged (Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx; Daniel Little, The Scientific Marx). The bottom line of these criticisms seems inescapable: there is no basis whatsoever to expect that social structures will develop that are functionally suited to the needs of the social system. There is no process of natural selection for social arrangements. So if there is alignment across structures, we need to seek out the specific social mechanisms that bring it about.

But what about the structuralism? Is this ontology a credible one if it is separated from the functionalist assumption?

Here we need to be very careful at every step of the argument. Marx is right that Britain and France possessed a set of property relations in capital and labor in the mid-nineteenth century. These relations were distinct from those of French feudalism in the fourteenth century. These social relations are durable and coercive. Those differences created different historical dynamics in nineteenth-century Britain and France. So far so good — there were durable, coercive social relations embodied on the two societies, and it doesn’t seem misleading to call these “structures.” Moreover, these structures had historical effects, much as Marx described them to have. Likewise, his definitions of “proletariat” and “capitalist” are rigorous and historically grounded. So Marx succeeds in identifying social structures in particular societies.

But here it is very important to avoid the error of reification: the assumption that the structures of capitalism are substantially the same in every capitalist society, or the same in one capitalist society over time. Rather, there are substantial and causally important differences across the basic economic institutions, and the situations of the great classes, in different capitalist societies. This is one of the central insights of the new institutionalism (Kathleen Thelen, How Institutions Evolve: The Political Economy of Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States, and Japan). These differences over time and across societies in turn imply that the structuralism of the concept of the capitalist mode of production must be abandoned as well. There is no super-category of “capitalism” and its logic that can be used to subsume the historical trajectories of multiple societies.

Finally, it bears repeating that all theories of structures require microfoundations. Structures do not exist free-standing; instead, they must be embodied on the actions and thoughts of socially constituted individuals. (See Levels of the Social for more on this.) I don’t think Marx would object to this stricture — I think he actually provides an agent-centered political economy himself. But the more holistic advocates of French structuralism (Althusser or Poulantzas, for example) would object strenuously.

So this leaves us with a pretty tame version of a Marxian structuralism. Social structures exist. They vary from society and across time. They are not functionally adapted. There are no transcendent structures possessing a unique historical dynamic. And, finally, all these claims about causally active social structures need to be compatible with microfoundations at the level of the social actors.

Is there such a thing as capitalism?

Marx’s central theoretical concept is “capitalism.” He wanted to provide a theory of the capitalist mode of production; he wanted to discover the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production; and he believed that there was a compact structural identity that is shared by capitalist economies. Later Marxist economists refined the concept somewhat by distinguishing among various stages of capitalist development, with thinkers such as Ernest Mandel and Paul Sweezy focusing on “late capitalism”.

My question here is a simple one. From the point of view of social ontology and concept formation in sociology — does it make sense to think of capitalism as a single thing with multiple instances across time and space? Is there a reason to think that “England, 1880,” “Germany, 1910,” “Japan, 1960,” “United States, 1980,” and “France, 2000” are all instances of a single economic system?

Consider briefly Marx’s account of the core features of capitalism. It is an economic system based on a particular and distinctive property system: private property in the means of production (capital) and private ownership of labor by the worker (labor). The worker is free to sell his/her labor power to multiple owners of capital; but, having been separated from all other forms of access to means of production, the worker is not free to withhold his/her labor altogether. So the worker is dependent on the capitalist for access to the means of subsistence; and the capitalist is dependent upon the worker as the creator of surplus value. It is a system that is premised on surplus extraction by owners of capital from the producers of value (workers). It is a system based on accumulation: constant growth and expansion of the appropriation of surplus value (profits). And it is a system based on accumulation rather than consumption. And, finally, Marx believes that these social institutions create an institutional logic for capitalist economies that is different from other modes of production — a tendency towards technological innovation, a tendency towards a falling rate of profit, the creation of an “industrial reserve army,” and the creation of a tendency towards economic crisis. It is this claim that permits Marx to assert that he has produced a theory that encompasses a whole class of social formations, rather than being simply a description based on a single case, British capitalism of mid-nineteenth century.

In order to carry this concept through, we would need to postulate that there is a core set of economic features and institutions that constitute the “essence” of capitalism; that these core features recur across multiple historical social formations; and that the differences that exist across historical cases are non-essential, accidental, epiphenomenal, or super-structural.

And differences there are, of course. One important dimension of difference is the degree and nature of state involvement in the economy. But other differences are equally important: the subtle but distinctive differences in property systems that exist in England, Germany, Japan, or the United States; the differences that exist in regulatory regimes (such as those documented by Frank Dobbin); the cultural differences that exist across “capitalist” societies with respect to attitudes towards wealth, the environment, or inequalities; and so on for a continuing and broad range of differences across societies.

Given this fact of sociologically important differences across historical instances of capitalism, we appear to have two theoretical choices. The first is to postulate that the common, core institutions of capitalist societies impose a logic of development on capitalist societies that is more fundamental than any of the evident differences across instances. The other is to judge that the concept of capitalism is simply a nominal social category, grouping together a number of societies which have some similarities and also important differences. Or, following Weber, we might say that capitalism is an ideal type, an organizing and idealized concept that singles out a set of features that often hang together, but recognizing that no particular society perfectly exemplifies all these features.

It seems to me that Marx fell into a fetishim of his own in reifying the capitalist mode of production as a general historical category. We are better off following the lead of the new institutionalists, recognizing that every society has a somewhat different configuration of basic institutions; and acknowledging that these differences make a difference in the development and historical trajectory of these societies. There are important commonalities across many or most of the societies that Marx would call “capitalist” — a deep conflict of interest between capital and labor, a likelihood that economic property ownership will support political power and influence, and other common features. But to judge that “every capitalist society develops in the same way” goes well beyond what history or theory would support. Instead, we need to have specific, factual analysis of each of the societies we are interested in, and should highlight the differences that exist as well as the commonalities that recur. This finding takes us further down the road of emphasizing particularity and difference as much as generalization and regularity in social science theorizing.

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