Max Beer May 1907

The Class War

Source: Justice 11 May 1907, p. 7
Transcription: Ted Crawford
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COMRADE,— I have followed up the Controversy, on the above subject with much interest, especially comrade Harpur’s letters, which show him to possess a subtle intellect, a fine temper, and a good deal of perseverance. His propositions may be summarised as follows: (1) Society is not composed of classes, but of individuals; (2) There is no class struggle, but a scramble of individuals; (3) Some people are born Socialists and others are not. To most of us, who, as Marxists, think in classes, his questionings may be irritating, but it is sometimes good to be compelled to re-examine truths which we think self-evident. Honest scepticism is the beginning of wisdom. Let us, then, briefly re-examine some of our first principles.


Through personal experience Harpur came upon a problem of no mean importance. He came upon the problem of classification. Now, classification of natural and social phenomena is a matter of mental abstraction. Things in nature and in society do not, as a rule, exhibit such salient, undeniable, rigidly differentiated characteristics as to render their classification as easy as, for instance, the division of the higher organisms into two sexes, or the human species into white, black, and yellow races. Such divisions can be recognised empirically, and need no further demonstration, though they need a great deal of explanation. On the whole, every classification of minerals, plants, and animals, of moral, political, and economic phenomena has its drawbacks. For the units of one class show in their manifold characteristics a good many differences from each other and a good many similarities with units of another class. The reason for this is to be found in the fact that we have to do, not with a constant, stable, fixed order of things, but with an evolutionary process where the units pass insensibly into one another. Still, a classification, a systematisation of things is absolutely necessary if we are to arrive at knowledge, at an ordered knowledge, that is, at science. The need thus arises for a classification of things. How do we classify them? By elimination of the minor, incidental characteristics and by gathering together the essential, primary characteristics they have in common. The division of phenomena into classes is thus an abstraction, a result of scientific thinking: we must first recognise which characteristics are incidental and which essential. In social economics we, as Marxists, divide society into two or three classes, that is, into capitalists, proletarians, and landed interests, though the units of one class may differ in some points from each other or may have points in common with units of another class. But for us the essential characteristics of economic class divisions are the bases of their life, that is, Capital, Labour, Land. All other class characteristics are but consequences flowing from the original sources.


The classification is done for the purpose of bringing some order into the multitudinous things as they present themselves to our observation. But we want something more. We want to understand their rise, progress, and decay. We want to understand their evolution. And here we find the struggling and scrambling to constitute some of the primary factors of evolution. And as we, as Marxists, are not so much concerned with the statics of society as with its dynamics—that is, with the question, how does human society achieve its transition from one stage into another—we turn our attention to movements and struggles and try to find out their essentials. There are in society group and class struggles and there are individual scrambles. It is with the evolution of society as with the revolution of the earth. The atoms of the earth have their own movements, which by no means correspond to the direction of the revolution of the earth round the sun. Looking only at the atoms of the earth, they appear to be involved in a disordered, aimless jumble, crossing in a confused, chaotic manner each other’s path.

Yet there is order when we look at the totality of the globe, and in astronomy we must look at the totality, else we should know nothing of our solar system. So it is with society. The atomic units, the individuals, may appear to be involved in a disordered, foolish scramble. Yet that scramble is but one of the consequences of the division of the bases of life. If there is a system of private property and there are numbers of people in possession of the means of production, while other numbers of people have nothing save their labour power, the individual scramble is inevitable.

But if we desire to get a clear conception of that scramble we must descend to the causes and penetrate to the essentials which lie at the bottom of it. When we do that we see that the individual scramble is a minor, subordinate point in the great movements of classes and nations. In any serious work, in any social crisis, in any undertaking on a national scale we see not separate, atomised scrambling individuals, but ordered groups, classes and nations warring against each other. And we could not understand any of those events and catastrophes if we were to limit our vision to the individual scrambling atomic cross-movements. And without that understanding we could have no practical policy. Those who think our theory to be wrong have something more to do than to point to the individual scramble. They have to explain by their theory such phenomena as the rise and decay of Feudalism, the rise of the Reformation, of absolute monarchy, of national States, of the outbreak of the English, French, German, and Russian revolutions, of the growth of the industrial period, of Chartism, of the international Socialist movement. A hypothesis which explains one phenomenon only is of no value, Anyone can find an explanation for an isolated occurrence. The test of a theory or a hypothesis, is that it is able to explain a whole series of cognate events. To sum up the first two points: Classification is necessary for the comprehension of the statics of society. The theory of class international struggles or wars is necessary for the comprehension of the dynamics of society.


The classes we enumerated are actually represented in the economic terms, rent, profit, wages. Economic class divisions are in politics parliamentary parties. The political translation of rent is Toryism, of profit is Liberalism, and of wages is Labour. It does not matter that each of those classes and parties is involved in minor cross movements, just as it does not matter to the astronomer that the atoms of the planets are involved in disordered movements of their own. In any great work, in any serious crisis, the class will stand together and its solidarity will be the stronger in the same measure as its members are conscious of their common interests and of their importance in the evolution of society. That consciousness leads to a political, economic and legal theory, a special philosophy, and to the formulation of an ideal. The landed interests find their ideal in Conservatism, the capitalist interests in Liberalism, the labour interests in Socialism. Class consciousness is thus by no means a vulgar thing, but a highly involved and delicate mental process. The more alert, the better-educated, the more elastic the mentality of a nation is, the clearer will be the consciousness and the ideals of its classes. It is evident that our mind works better, that our sensations, ideas and conceptions are clearer and deeper when the external material presents itself to our senses in the most perfect manner possible. Now, the economic stages of our society which rest on private property are perfectly evolved. Hence the consciousness of ideals of the landed and capitalist representatives will naturally be strong. On the other hand, the collectivist stage of society is still in the making and can only impress the keener minds of the proletariat as well as of those persons who for some reason or other are dissatisfied with the prevailing condition of things. They are like persons with a keener vision, with a better equipped eye, or standing on a high eminence, and can, therefore perceive the full glory of the sun at its dawn, while the dwellers of the dale are still in the dark. The difference between them is thus not absolute. It is but a difference of intellectual and emotional capacities, and, not of in-born ready-made systems. Our judgment will always be blurred if we look at particulars only. The international Socialist movement is an essentially working-class movement and cannot be anything else, notwithstanding the fact that a few highly-educated men and women are its leaders and are therefore conspicuous, Socialism being the theory of the Labour movement can never be accepted by the bulk of the other economic classes, and will earlier or later pervade all groups of Labour. The difficulties of our propaganda arise chiefly from the conservatism of the human mind. Our mind does not precede social evolution, but lags behind it. To that conservatism are added the effects of centuries of degradation in which the labouring masses have been kept, partly by social necessity and partly by a deliberate policy of the ruling classes. It is exceedingly hard for the mass of mankind to shake itself free from old instincts, ideas, and deeply-rooted authorities, and it is those mental factors which largely control our will. Considering all those drawbacks with which the new truths and the new ideals of a nascent social stage have to battle there is reason to rejoice at the progress we are making rather than to be disheartened by the particular difficulties we encounter.

May 3, 1907