Karl Marx The Class Struggle Theory

Karl Marx History Of The Class Struggle Theory

The Historical Source of Class Struggle Definition


The dissolution of the relationships existing in the old feudal society cre­ated new group alignments. The period of primitive accumulation caused a marking off of two economic groups—those who had the money funds to hire others, and those who, having the personal freedom to hire out themselves, had to submit to being hired as the only possible source of a livelihood. With the accumulation of capital in the hands of the former group and their descendents, the continued tendency for workers to get nothing but their subsistence, and the embodiment of capital funds in new and better mechanical devices, these two classes were pushed further and further apart until in Marx's day their interests became so antagonistic that he felt the situation to be obviously that of a life-and-death struggle between them. It was Marx's purpose to instill into the workers a sense of this irreconcilable clash of interests. With their class consciousness de­veloped, class struggle would ensue, and this, necessarily taking a political form, would be the first step in preparation for the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a new order.

Surplus Value—The Economic Source of Class Struggle

In attempting to arouse workers to a consciousness of their own exploited position, Marx wove his argument around his theory of surplus value. The surplus was the essence of the clash of interests; so long as it existed and was acquired by those who had the power to take it, there could be no basic social harmony. So long as the property institutions of capitalism awarded this surplus to one class, leaving the other to acquire nothing but the means of its subsistence, there was an unbridgeable gulf between the two classes. On one side, acquiring the surplus value out of which they accumulated still more capital, stood the owners; on the other, exhausting their wages in their own reproduction, were the workers. Marx labeled the former the bourgeoisie, the latter the proletariat. So long as capitalism prevailed, surplus value would be generated and would go to the bour­geoisie, and so long as this took place, the proletariat could never change its economic status—it could merely continue to exist.

The Composition of the Bourgeoisie

The distinguishing feature of the bourgeoisie is the ownership of property— in money funds, land, and man-made instruments of production. Since Marx makes surplus value the source of the incomes of the moneylender, the landowner, and the capitalist employer, he implies that there are no es­sential differences in their interests or their positions within the bourgeoisie. Their ability to acquire income follows from their status as owners. "It is not because he is a leader of industry that a man is a capitalist; on the contrary, he is a leader of industry because he is a capitalist."

Certain sections of the bourgeoisie, however, were not closely knit into the fabric of their class, They could not remain members of it in­definitely.

The lower strata of the middle class—the small tradespeople, shop­keepers, and retired tradesman generally, the handicraftmen and peasants—all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which modern industry is carried on, and is swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialized skill is rendered worth­less by new methods of production.

It is also held that as the class struggle "nears the decisive hour," defection will occur for "a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole."

The Contributions of the Bourgeoisie

The bourgeoisie were far from the conservative class implied by the mod­ern use of that term. Marx and Engels pointed out:
Historically, the bourgeoisie has played a most revolutionary part. The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his "natural superiors," and has left no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous "cash payment." It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single unconscionable freedom— Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct brutal exploitation.

In short, the bourgeoisie played the role of innovator in the changes that laid the basis for modern industry. Those arrangements, customs, and institutions which stood in the way of change it promptly dispensed with, oftentimes forcibly and with great human suffering and alienation.

These changes were not without benefit to human society as a whole. They brought the parts of the world into close contact.
Modern industry has established the world market, for which the dis­covery of America paved the way. This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land.

The bourgeoisie . . . has been the first to show what man's activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades. . . . The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of nature's forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry, and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole popu­lations conjured out of the ground—what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor?

Creation of the Proletariat by the Bourgeoisie

Despite all these accomplishments, the bourgeoisie has set in operation certain forces that will cause its ultimate downfall. In a sense these forces are personified in the proletariat—"a class of laborers who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labor in­creases capital. These laborers, who must sell themselves piece-meal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market." Since the bourgeoisie can exist only if and to the extent that there is a proletariat, the former may be said to have created the latter. Moreover, in developing modern industrial processes the bourgeoisie often herded large masses of workers together under one roof and in one town. The proletariat was therefore in a much better position to "form combinations (trade unions) against the bourgeois," to "club together in order to keep up the rate of wages," to "found permanent associations in order to make provisions beforehand for these occasional revolts." The proletariat is further strengthened "by the improved means of communi­cation that are created by modern industry, and that place the workers of different localities in contact with one another." Moreover, the bour­geoisie is constantly getting portions of the proletariat to fight its battles for it, battles with antagonistic elements within the bourgeoisie and with foreign bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie thus "supplies the proletariat with its own elements of political and general education; in other words, it furnishes the proletariat with weapons for fighting the bourgeoisie."10 Combining all this with the already-noted defections from the bourgeoisie to the prole­tariat, Marx concludes that "what the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own gravediggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable."