The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Karl Marx, Class Struggles in France and historical materialist methodology!

Karl Marx did not only involve himself in abstract conceptual work on how to understand the capitalist social relations of production. He was also an engaged analyst of class struggles at his time. This included three separate writings on developments in France: The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850 (1850); The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852); and The Civil War in France (1871). In this post, I will discuss key aspects of Marx’s historical materialist approach in relation to The Class Struggles in France, 1848-50 and conclude with some ideas of what this method implies for efforts today to understand the global political economy as well as the possibilities for revolutionary change.

Key aspects of Marx’s method include (1) a focus on the social relations of production, (2) an acknowledgement of different class fractions, (3) the importance of the international dimension in understanding class struggle, as well as (4) the historical specificity of developments in individual countries.

Focus on the social relations of production

For Marx, a focus on the social relations of production is essential, when analysing historical developments and class struggle. He asserts that ‘wage labour is the existing bourgeois organisation of labour. Without it there is no capital, no bourgeoisie, no bourgeois society’. Equally, when examining the reason for the eventual defeat of workers in France in the period of 1848 to 1850, he refers to the social relations surrounding production. ‘What succumbed in these defeats was not the revolution. It was the pre-revolutionary traditional appendages, results of social relationships, which had not yet come to the point of sharp class antagonism’. It is on the basis of how production is organised that he identifies a range of different relevant classes and class fractions in the French struggles from 1948 to 1950.

Different class fractions

Marx assumed that ultimately all capitalist societies would be divided into two large classes, capital and labour. However, he was sensitive to the fact that the development towards this situation was a historical process, within which many more classes and class fractions were involved. In other words, rather than simply thinking in terms of capital and labour, he identified a range of relevant classes on the basis of an analysis of the social relations of production. In France in 1848, this included the industrial proletariat, the petty bourgeoisie such as small shop keepers, the peasant class as well as capital. The latter were sub-divided into different class fractions. ‘The bourgeois class fell apart into two big fractions, which, alternately, the big landed proprietors under the restored monarchy and the finance aristocracy and the industrial bourgeoisie under the July monarchy, had maintained a monopoly of order’. He further established that finance capital was dominant in France, while manufacturing played a subordinate role. In short, Marx was prepared to modify and adjust his general concepts such as capital and labour to the concrete empirical situation he was investigating.

The international dimension

Marx always understood capitalism as an international phenomenon and appreciated that class struggles within one country were directly affected by economic developments elsewhere. In 1848 he wrote that ‘French production relations are conditioned by the foreign trade of France, by her position on the world market and the laws thereof; how should France break them without a European revolutionary war, which would strike back at the despot of the world market, England?’ And equally, when discussing why there had been a revolution in France in February 1848, he pointed out that ‘the second great economic event which hastened the outbreak of the revolution, was a general commercial and industrial crisis in England’. The capitalist social relations of production and class struggle can only be understood within an international context.

The historical specificity

When analysing concrete struggles, Marx was careful not to generalise his findings from one country to another. In the case of France, he acknowledged the rather different production structure from the one in England, which then, in turn, led to a different assessment. Discussing the position of French manufacturing, he stated that ‘in England industry rules; in France, agriculture. In England industry requires free trade; in France, protection, national monopoly besides other monopolies. French industry does not dominate production; the French industrialists, therefore, do not dominate the French bourgeoisie. This focus on historical specificity already included an implicit reference to uneven development, the fact that different countries are in rather different positions within the global economy, which was later developed by Leon Trotsky in the notion of ‘uneven and combined development’. ‘Just as the period of crisis occurs later on the Continent than in England, so does that of prosperity. The original process always takes place in England; she is the demiurge of the bourgeois cosmos. On the Continent, the different phases of the cycle through which bourgeois society is ever speeding anew, occur in secondary and tertiary form. This historically different location has then also implications for where revolutionary uprisings are more likely to erupt. ‘Violent outbreaks’, Marx argues, ‘must naturally occur earlier in the extremities of the bourgeois body than in its heart, since here the possibility of adjustment is greater than there’ (see also Uneven and combined development and the issue of resistance in the UK!).

Karl Marx and the analysis of the global economic crisis

In his assessment of class struggles in France from 1848 to 1850, Marx highlighted the importance of crisis as an opportunity for revolutionary change. ‘A new revolution is only possible in consequence of a new crisis. It is, however, also just as certain as this’. Today, we face another, much larger economic crisis on a global, but especially also European scale. Marx’s method developed more than 100 years ago remains relevant. First, we cannot understand the crisis by looking solely at issues such as the regulation of financial markets, as vulgar economists do. Rather, we need to analyse the underlying social relations of production and the related developments, which have brought this crisis about. Second, we need to identify the different social class forces, when thinking about agency for change. We cannot automatically assume, for example, that all workers are likely to be revolutionary agents. Different class fractions of labour are likely to act differently. Third, the international dimension is of importance. As different countries are in a different location in the global economy, so are different labour movements. It is no surprise that Greek workers are much more involved in open resistance, being in the periphery of the European political economy, than British workers from the core. Finally, we need to investigate the historical specificity of the capitalist social relations of production and here the way capitalism has evolved since the mid-19th century. While Marx’s method can be used for an analysis today, his findings cannot simply be transferred.

Prof. Andreas Bieler

Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK

Personal website:

5 July 2012

1 comment:

  1. Hi Andreas, nice read. I was looking at application of Marxian theory of social change to comprehend the changes in developing countries.
    Any pointers??


Comments welcome!