Chris Harman

How Marxism Works

Class struggle

We live in a society that is divided into classes, in which a few people have vast amounts of private property, and most of us have virtually none. Naturally, we tend to take it for granted that things have always been like this. But in fact, for the greater part of human history, there were no classes, no private property, and no armies or police. This was the situation during the half a million years of human development up to 5,000 or 10,000 years ago.

Until more food could be produced by one person’s work than was needed to keep that person fit for work, there could be no division into classes. What was the point of keeping slaves if all that they produced was needed to keep them alive?

But beyond a certain point, the advance of production made class divisions not only possible but necessary. Enough food could be produced to leave a surplus after the immediate producers had taken enough to stay alive. And the means existed to store this food and to transport it from one place to another.

The people whose labour produced all this food could simply have eaten the extra ‘surplus’ food. Since they lived fairly meagre, miserable lives, they were strongly tempted. But that left them unprotected against the ravages of nature, which might lean famine or a flood the next year, and against attacks from angry tribes from outside the area.

It was, at first, of great advantage to everyone if a special group of people took charge of this extra wealth, storing it against future disaster, using it to support craftsmen, building up means defence, exchanging part of it with distant peoples for useful objects. These activities came to be carried out in the first towns, where administrators, merchants and craftsmen lived. Out of the markings on tablets used to keep a record of the different sorts of wealth, writing began to develop.

Such were the first, faltering steps of what we call ‘civilisation’. But – and it was a very big but – all this was based on control of the increased wealth by a small minority of the population. And the minority used the wealth for its own good as well as the good of society as a whole.

The more production developed, the more wealth came into the hands of this minority – and the more it became cut off from the rest of society. Rules, which began as a means of benefiting society, became ‘laws’, insisting that the wealth and the land that produced it was the ‘private property’ of the minority. A ruling class had come into existence – and laws defended its power.

You might perhaps ask whether it would have been possible for society to have developed otherwise, for those who laboured on the land to control its produce?

The answer has to be no. Not because of ‘human nature’, but because society was still very poor. The majority of the Earth’s population were too busy scratching the soil for a meagre living to have time to develop systems of writing and reading, to create works of art, to build ships for trade, to plot the course of the stars, to discover the rudiments of mathematics, to work out when rivers would flood or how irrigation channels should be constructed. These things could only happen if some of the necessities of life were seized from the mass of the population and used to maintain a privileged minority which did not have to toil from sunrise to sunset.

However, that does not mean that the division into classes remains necessary today. The last century has seen a development of production undreamt of in the previous history of humanity. Natural scarcity has been overcome – what now exists is artificial scarcity, created as governments destroy food stocks.

Class society today is holding humanity back, not leading it forward.

It was not just the first change from purely agricultural societies to societies of towns and cities that gave rise, necessarily, to new class divisions. The same process was repeated every time new ways of producing wealth began to develop.

So, in Britain 1,000 years ago, the ruling class was made up of feudal barons who controlled the land and lived off the backs of the serfs. But as trade began to develop on a big scale, there grew up alongside them in the cities a new privileged class of wealthy merchants. And when industry began to develop on a substantial scale, their power in turn was disputed by the owners of industrial enterprises.

At each stage in the development of society there was an oppressed class whose physical labour created the wealth, and a ruling class who controlled that wealth. But as society developed both the oppressed and the oppressors underwent changes.

In the slave society of Ancient Rome the slaves were the personal property of the ruling class. The slave owner owned the goods produced by the slave because he owned the slave, in exactly the same way as he owned the milk produced by a cow because he owned the cow.

In the feudal society of the Middle Ages the serfs had their own land, and owned what was produced from it; but in return for having this land they had to do a number of days work every year on the land owned by the feudal lord. Their time would be divided – perhaps half their time they would be working for the lord, half the time for themselves. If they refused to do work for the lord, he was entitled to punish them (through flogging, imprisonment or worse).

In modern capitalist society the boss does not physically own the worker nor is he entitled to physically punish a worker who refuses to do unpaid work for him. But the boss does own the factories where the worker has to get a job if he or she wants to keep alive. So it is fairly easy for him to force the worker to put up with a wage which is much less than the value of the goods the worker makes in the factory.

In each case the oppressing class gets control of all the wealth that is left over once the most elementary needs of the workers have been met. The slave owner wants to keep his property in a good condition, so he feeds his slave in exactly the same way as you might oil your car. But everything surplus to the physical needs of the slave, the owner uses for his own enjoyment. The feudal serf has to feed and clothe himself with the work he puts in on his own bit of land. All the extra labour he puts in on the lord’s fields goes to the lord.

The modern worker gets paid a wage. All the other wealth he creates goes to the employing class as profit, interest or rent.

The class struggle and the state

The workers have rarely accepted their lot without fighting back. There were slave revolts in Ancient Egypt and Rome, peasant revolts in Imperial China, civil wars between the rich and poor in the cities of Ancient Greece, in Rome and Renaissance Europe.

That is why Karl Marx began his pamphlet The Communist Manifesto by insisting, ‘The history of all hitherto existing societies has been the history of class struggles.’ The growth of civilisation had depended on the exploitation of one class by another, and therefore on the struggle between them.

However powerful an Egyptian pharaoh, a Roman emperor or a medieval prince, however luxurious their lives, however magnificent their palaces, they could do nothing unless they guaranteed that the products grown by the most miserable peasant or slave passed into their possession. They could only do this if alongside the division into classes there also grew something else – control over the means of violence by themselves and their supporters.

In earlier societies there had been no army, police or governmental apparatus separate from the majority of the people. Even some 50 or 60 years ago, for instance, in parts of Africa, it was still possible to find societies in which this was still so. Many of the tasks done by the state in our society were simply done informally by the whole population, or by meetings of representatives.

Such meetings would judge the behaviour of any individual who was considered to have broken an important social rule. Punishment would be applied by the whole community – for instance by forcing miscreants to leave. Since everyone was agreed on the necessary punishment, separate police were not needed to put it into effect. If warfare occurred all the young men would take part, under leaders chosen for the occasion, again without any separate army structure.

But once you had a society in which a minority had control over most of the wealth, these simple ways of keeping ‘law and order’ and organising warfare could no longer work. Any meeting of representatives or any gathering of the armed young men would be likely to split along class lines.

The privileged group could only survive if it began to monopolise in its own hands the making and implementation of punishments, laws, the organisation of armies, the production of weapons. So the separation into classes was accompanied by the growth of groups of judges, policemen and secret policemen, generals, bureaucrats – all of whom were given part of the wealth in the hands of the privileged class in return for protecting its rule.

Those who served in the ranks of this ‘state’ were trained to obey without hesitation the orders of their ‘superiors’ and were cut off from all normal social ties with the exploited mass of people. The state developed as a killing machine in the hands of the privileged class. And a highly effective machine it could be.

Of course, the generals who ran this machine often fell out with a particular emperor or king, and tried to put themselves in his place. The ruling class, having armed a monster, could often not control it. But since the wealth needed to keep the killing machine running came from the exploitation of the working masses, every such revolt would be followed by continuation of society along the old lines.

Throughout history people who have really wanted to change society for the better have found themselves up against not just the privileged class, but also an armed machine, a state, that serves its interest.

Ruling classes, together with the priests, generals, policemen and legal systems that backed them up, all grew up in the first place because without them civilisation could not develop. But once they are established in power, they come to have an interest in hindering the further development of civilisation. Their power is dependent upon their ability to force those who produce wealth to hand it over to them. They become wary of new ways of producing wealth, even if more efficient than the old, lest control escape from their hands.

They fear anything that could lead to the exploited masses developing initiative and independence. And they also fear the growth of new privileged groups with enough wealth to be able to pay for arms and armies of their own. Beyond a certain point, instead of aiding the development of production, they began to hinder it.

For example, in the Chinese Empire, the power of the ruling class rested upon its ownership of the land and its control over the canals and dams that were necessary for irrigation and to avoid floods. This control laid the basis for a civilisation that lasted some 2,000 years. But at the end of this period production was not much more advanced than at the beginning – despite the flourishing of Chinese art, the discovery of printing and gunpowder, all at a time when Europe was stuck in the Dark Ages.

The reason was that when new forms of production did begin to develop, it was in towns, through the initiative of merchants and craftsmen. The ruling class feared this growth in power of a social grouping that was not completely under its control. So periodically the imperial authorities took harsh measures to crush the growing economies of the towns, to drive production down, and to destroy the power of the new social classes.

The growth of new forces of production – of new ways of producing wealth – clashed with the interests of the old ruling class. A struggle developed, the outcome of which determined the whole future of society.

Sometimes the outcome, as in China, was that new forms of production were prevented from emerging, and society remained more or less stagnant for very long periods of time.

Sometimes, as in the Roman Empire, the inability of new forms of production to develop meant that eventually there was no longer enough wealth being produced to maintain society on its old basis. Civilisation collapsed, the cities were destroyed and people reverted to a crude, agricultural form of society.

Sometimes a new class, based upon a new form of production, was able to organise to weaken and finally overthrow the old ruling class, together with its legal system, its armies, its ideology, its religion. Then society could go forward.

In each case whether society went forwards or backwards depended on who won the war between the classes. And, as in any war, victory was not ordained in advance, but depended on the organisation, cohesion and leadership of the rival classes.


Last updated on 26 January 2010