Marxist Theory

.. oplifting would be legalised, Banks and companies would collapse. A moment’s thought shows this is obvious: the legal system has to “fit” the property system, the existing class system. Capitalist law is designed to keep the rich rich and the poor poor. This is recognised in the common sense saying that “there’s one law for the rich, another for the poor”: of course there is, that’s what it’s there for! Now, let’s think about the political system. Look at any major capitalist country the US, France or Germany.

All the government parties in these countries are pro-capitalist parties. The newspaper and TV channels are all owned by big business and churn out capitalist ideas. An idea that doesn’t make a profit for somebody, doesn’t get a look-in. The whole political culture, with the exception of socialist parties trying to fight the system, is pro-capitalist: the political system “fits” together with the economic system. This is what Marx means by the “political and legal superstructure” which rises on the economic base. The legal and political system of course are very direct products of the economic system, in which it’s easy to trace the infterests of the ruling class.

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We can go back and look at the legal system under feudalism and the prevailing form of politics, and see how it defended the landed aristocracy and the king. But there are many more complicated things in society in which the domination of the ruling class is more complicated. Marx said: “The ruling ideas of any society are the ideas of the ruling class”. Is this true – and what ideas? Let’s start with Australia in 1996. Open up a copy of any major newspaper.

They have lots of debates among themselves, but you will not finmd a single daily paper in favour of maintaining workers’ Awards, let alone the abolition of capitalism! Ruling class ideas are propagated by ruling class control of the means of mass commmunication. But direct propaganda is not the sole way that ruling class ideas are purveyed, even in the newspapers. Ruling class ideas – what we call ideology – is spontaneously reproduced in every section of society, including the working class. Often it goes in the form of what is known as “common sense”. Think of a few common sense ideas – let’s list a few: “Men are stonger than women” “You should get a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” “Inequality between people is only human nature” “There’ll always be rich and poor” “Trade unions are bad for the economy” “Gay sex is unnatural” These ideas fit together with the common assumptions of capitalist law and politics: they are part of the ideology which has grown up around capitalist society.

Of course, under capitalism these kind of ideas are fought against by socialists and sometimes by other radical groups like the Greens. Over time, the ruling class ideas change to meet changing circumstances, and also because of struggle against them. For example, 100 years ago the following statements would have been widely accepted in Australia: “It’s only natural that white people should rule the world” “Britons are superior to other races” “Black people are inferior” “Men are superior to women both physically and intellectually” Now these are not commonly accepted, althuogh there are many people who do believe in them – but you will rarely find these ideas publicly advocated in newspapers and by leading politicians. Why? First, of course because there has been a struggle against these ideas. But, vitally, material conditions have changed.

The British Empire has gone. Britain no longer rules 30% of the world. The ruling class has had to come to terms with being a third rate power: ideas about the white man’s role and Britain’s superiority have changed with the changing conditions. Women have entered the workforce on a massive scale: ideas about the complete inferiority of women no longer “fit” the changing circumstances – although of course women’s oppression and sexism still exist. In all the ideas we have discussed here, we can see a direct link between the social relations of production (capitalist), the ruliong class (the capitalist class or bourgeoisie), the legal and political superstructure (pro-capitalist), and the ruling ideas, ideology (pro-capitalist, anti-working class, racist and sexist).

They all “fit” together. Once they no longer fit together in a more or less harmonious way, society begins to go into crisis. There is another aspect of ruling class ideology which we should take into account. There are of course disagreements among the capitalist class itself – although not on fundamentals. There are different interest groups among the capitalists: for example those based on finance and banking do not always have the same interests as those based no manufacturing industry.

Beyond the different interests, there are different assessments of how best to advance the needs of the capitalist system, how many concessions to make to the working class and so on. These sorts of differences are reflected in different ideological trends in capitalist thinking – liberalism and conservatism for example – and in immediate practical political differences. Sometimes these differences can become very sharp, without ever going beyond the bounds of capitalist ideology. Of course, there are many ideas and fields of intellectual activity in society which are not so easy to analyse. For example, what about cinema, music, painting, TV dramas, pop music, the arts in general? Do they all have pro-capitalist ideology embedded in them? This is a complicated question and very controversial among Marxists.

The answer is “yes and no” – it depends. Let’s take an easy example – James Bond movies. These are permeated with pro-capitalist ideology which is absolutely transparent. On the other hand, it would be difficult to argue that the American school of painters called the Abstract Impressionists, or a particular piece of jazz music is a piece of “bourgeois ideology”. Nonetheless, it is possible to explain how these forms of artistic expression grew up at this particular point in time, and what developments in society gave rise to them.

For example, the “youth culture” of the 1960s grew up on the basis of a generation of young people who had a lot of money to spend – “flower power” wouldn’t have got very far in the 1930s! Marx’s ideas about how the law, politics and ideas in general fit together with the economic basis of society are not just applicable to capitalism. For example, Marxists have analysed the role of the Catholic Church under feudalism as a key factor in the ideological “cement” of feudal society, justifying the rule of the landed nobility and the role of the crown, None of this should lead us to conclude that it is possible to predict exactly every aspect of law, politics and art just on the basis of knowing that a society is feudal or capitalist: it can only tell us the general parameters. For example, the French legal system is very different from the British. In France you are (more or less) guilty until proven innocent. In Britain you are (in theory) innocent until proven guilty. In order to explain this difference, we have to study the history of these legal systems in detail.

Thefact that Britain and France are both capitalist won’t help us much in explaining these differences: but one thing is noticeable. Both British and French system are ounded on defence of private property. They both “fit” the basic relations of production. 7. The state One thing we have left out so far, in discussing the evolution of class society and the legal-political superstructure, is of course the state – the entire bureaucratic apparatus which guards the domination of the ruling class.

The role of the state is explained in a separate paper in this pack. For the moment it is enough to note the following propositions of Marxist theory: 1.The state is an apparatus to defend the continued rule of the ruling class. 2.The state is ultimately a body of armed people – in other words, the core of the state when it comes to the crunch are the police and the armed forces. 3.The state did not exist before class society, but only came into existence with the division of society into classes. Section C: The ruling class and revolution 8.

The ruling class and revolution How does one type of society get transformed into a completely new type How is it that feudalism came to an end and was replaced by capitalism – why aren’t we still living under feudalism? Marx approaches the problem this way in the next passage from one of his writings quoted above (the 1859 Preface to the Critique of Political Economy): “At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations ..From the forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters”. What does this mean? Here we have to remind ourselves of the way that society fits together. A certain level of production technique gives rise to definite social relations of production. Let’s think about this point. Remember the hunter-gatherer society we talked about above.

We noted that there were different ways the people there could organise themselves on the basis of thier production, which consists of hunting, fishing, picking fruit and a few handicrafts (the exact details don’t matter for our purposes). However, we also said that capitalism couldn’t exist there, because to get capitalism you need a money economy, capital, industry, banks, a developed division of labour, etc. This is impossible in our very under-developed desert island (so long as it remains isolated from the rest of the world). The level of productive tecnique, or to put it another way, the level of development of the productive forces, sets definite limits to the type of society you can have. In a book he wrote in 1845, ‘The Holy Family’, Marx presented this in a very sharp manner when he said: “The hand mill (for grinding flour – Ed.) gives you the feudal lord; the steam mill gives you the industrial capitalist”. There is a large element of truth in this, but painted so boldly it is an overstatement.

The development of the productive forces places definite limits on the type of social relations you cna have, but does not absolutely determine them in detail. We know that the level of productive technique associated with feudalism – mainy based on the agriculture of rural peasants – in other parts of the world gave rise to a different type of society based not on the rule of lords based in the countryside as in Britain, France and Germany, but to the rule of a centralised state bureaucracy under a king (or in the Ottoman Empire in Turkey and North Africa, a Sultan). But overall, the level of productive technique and the type off social relations have to fit together more or less harmoniously, and this in turn has to fit together with the legal, political and ideological “superstructure”. But what happens if the “fit” begins to break down? In the transition from feudalism to capitalism, the growth of the productivity of agriculture created the basis for sections of the peasants to move off the land into the towns. The growth of trade and commerce began to create merchants in the towns with huge amounts of money capital to invest: the conquest or pillage of colonial lands like South America concentrated new ealth, including huge amounts of precious metal like gold and silver, which could be used as coins.

The scene was set for the development of a manufacturing, capitalist class – the bourgeoisie – developing within feudalism. As production developed, the development of the productive forces came into conflict with the existing relations of production – those of the domination of the feudal lords, the landed aristocracy. As Marx notes: “A period of revolution then ensued”. This period of revolution was of course the period of the bourgeois, capitalist, revolutions against feudalism – most notably the French Revolution of 1789, the English Revolution of 1641 – 9, which destroyed the monarchy and brought Oliver Cromwell to power, the unification of Italy (the Risorgiamento) led by Garibaldi in the 1840s. The United States has had TWO bourgeois revolutions – first George Washington’s revolt against the British Crown, leading to the Declaration of Independence in 1778, and second, the Civil War of 1861 – 5, in which the northern industrial capitalists united the country, by destroying the slave mode of production in the south, and creating a unified country based on capitalist production relations. By clearing away feudal and pre-capitalist social relations and state structures, the bourgeois revolution creates the basis for extending and ensuring the domination of capitalism.

The feudal aristocracy was either destroyed, or integrated into a reconstiuted capitaist class (as happened in Britain). Huge sections of the serfs, the rural peasantry, are driven off the land and forced into the towns to become wage labourers, proletarians, the core of the new working class. The transformation from feudalism to capitalism takes place via revolution. As Marx says: the bourgeois emerges on to the historical stage as a most revolutionary class. Section D: Freedom and determinism 9.

Freedom and determination According to Marx: “Men make their own history, but not in conditions of their own making”. This has to be put together with two other statements by Marx: that production relations are “indispensable and independent of their (human beings’) will”, and the notion that what distinguishes human beings from animals is consciousness. Imagine a peasant serf in feudal England who believes in the socialist Commonwealth and hates the system – a very advanced and far-seeing serf! That doesn’t stop the serf being trapped in a set of feudal social relations, dominated by his feudal lord. However, being a conscious being, het serf could have taken conscious action: for example, by organising a peasant uprising. But not in conditions of his own choosing – an individual peasant could not wish away feudalism by an act of will. Human beings have choices, they have free will: but their field of action is strictly limited by the economic, social and political circumstances in which they find themselves. However, despite the limitations of circumstances, history works throughh active human agencies who have free will.

People have choices. The idea of a sociaist serf however is highly improbable, because the ideology of socialism hadn’t been thought of. We are all products of the time in which we live. Today, we can’t think in terms of a new ideology or theory which won’t be developed until a thousand years from now. So we have free will, but only within definite limits.

The problem from the point of view of Marxist theory is that, as Marx and Engels put it, the political-ideological “superstructure” reacts upon the economic base of society. People can try to change the existing social relations and sometimes succeed. For example, the British deliberately kept the price of land high in Australia to promote the development of capitalist agriculture: “extreme facility of acquiring land, by which every man has been encouraged to become a Proprietor, producing what he can by his own unassisted efforts . . [but] what is now required is to check this extreme facility and to encourage the formation of a class of labourers for hire ..” (Colonial Secretary Lord Goderick, quoted in “No Paradise for Workers” by Ken Buckley and Ted Wheelwright).

This is just one example of how the development of ideas reacts with the economic base of society. Ideas, inventions, are crucial to the development of new productive techniques, which in turn help to transform production relations. New ideas about equality and social justice create movements which fight against the prevailing system. As Marx put it, ideas, when mobilising millions, themselves become a material force. This is especially true of the struggle for socialism. The capitalist revolution was fought out with the feudal lords on the basis of a religious ideology. Socialist revolution is the first revolution in human history based on a totally conscious attempt to transform the social relations of production and bring them under the control of the producers themselves.

The way in which production relations, the state, politics and ideology fit together will be completely transformed. The literature on this topic is vast, so the choice of further reading is arbitrary. To erally get into the topic it is worth reading ‘What Happened in History?’ And at least the first 50 pages of ‘The German Ideology’. In addition to the works listed below, ‘The Communist Manifesto’ by Marx and Engels, also now available as a Penguin Classic, is important to read. Bibliography 1.’What happened in History?’ C. Gordon Childe, Penguin Books 2.’The German Ideology’, Marx and Engels, Lawrence and Wishart 3.’Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’, Engels, Penguin 4.’Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859′ Marx (This is in most one-volume selections of Marx-Engels).

More difficult work 1.’Freedom and Determination in History according to Marx and Engels’ Joseph Ferraro, Monthly Review Press 2.’Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence’ G A Cohen 3.’Making History’ Alex Callinicos, Polity Press 4.’Marxism and Anthropology’ Marc Bloch, Oxford University Press.