Reading Guide To : Hall, S 'The Political and The Economic in Marx's Theory of Classes', in Hunt, A (Ed)

Marx's work shows inconsistencies because it was written for different purposes, and there are different [epistemological] 'breaks' in it. There is therefore no homogeneous marxism, and marxist theories of class are to be read or constructed rather than assumed a something latent.

The Manifesto was written as a 'revolutionary tocsin'. The failure of revolution in 1848 marked the birth of bourgeois society rather than its death. Marx was then forced to develop a more complex theory of social classes, found in the 18th Brumaire... Hope in a simple polarisation of society faded too. The Manifesto was therefore 'overdetermined by the historical conjuncture in which it was situated'. [In 1848] the basic contradiction between the forces of production and the fetters provided by the relations of production was identified, and capitalism was eventually to lead to its own negation. Classes were subjects, and the economic and political were joined in a simple social formation.

Althusser was to provide important criticisms at this early model, showing there could be no neat line-up between the economic and the political, that the political was itself determined by forms in the superstructure, and that therefore different contradictions could exist at different levels. Determination by the economic took place only 'in the last instance', and determinacy itself was reconsidered. A revolutionary rupture in society would now take place only as a result of over-determination.

Hints of this new approach, found in the Introduction to Marx's Grundrisse, with its suggestion of different sectors (production, distribution and exchange), led to the argument that there was no necessary immediate correspondence between the economic and political constitution of classes. However, the notion of history as a history of class struggles was still a necessary beginning, and served at least to criticise individual theories of history: indeed, it describes how great individuals might be produced. Classes were linked to production and its various modes, offering the basis of a scientific analysis rather than a purely moral one. Here, the concept of mode of production became a necessary rather than a sufficient [Hall actually uses these bourgeois terms] explanation for the formation of social classes.

Even the Manifesto mentions the existence of middle strata and lumpenproletarians. Only the industrial proletariat could ever be the real revolutionary class because of its role as the collective subjective history, as in Lukacs. However, Marx provided no history of this class itself. Overall, then, we find no really detailed treatment of the relation of the economic to the political in the Manifesto. What of the actual processes that link them?

The size and scale of capitalist production is important. It has led to the creation of a labour force open to the market, to an advanced division of labour and eventual deskilling, to the direct control over labour in factories, the development of an industrial army, and the dilution of the work force through the employment of women and children, to forms of exploitation by shopkeepers, and the growth of competition leading to the ruin of the small bourgeoisie and the concentration of big capital. All these are to reappear in Capital chapter XV, in the discussion of absolute versus relative surplus value, real versus formal domination and so on. However, there is a different method, and the process itself is different, so that, for example, the development of machinery has led to both deskilling and to the growth of new supervisory occupations. Machinery begins to dictate production and this leads to new social relations, especially in the form of a hierarchy of command.

In turn, this produces greater complexity, wider effects, different levels, and contradictory tendencies. New divisions emerging in the proletariat are also affected by these developments -- for example, mechanisation simplifies labour, reduces the old divisions based on skill and gender, but also divides on new axes (according to the new relations to machinery). When absolute surplus value was extracted, workers' opposition was simple, and took the form of struggles over the length of the working day. When relative surplus value is being extracted, working time is shortened, but the working class is also left powerless to resist in the face of increasing unemployment. Indeed, opposition to a long working day only serves to drive capital on to increase productivity and to develop new social relations. These processes occur both unconsciously and unevenly, [so there is no simple logic of capital]. This history can also show how working-class political agitation can serve only to modernise capitalism.

Class is both an economic and a political issue, since classes can exist both in and for themselves. After the Manifesto, Marx and Engels see the economic and political as increasingly separate areas, rather than as linked together automatically. They also see the [political] problems with economism, and begin to see this as the spontaneous form of workers' opposition. This leads in turn to the recognition of the importance of conjunctures, especially the material on France. In analysing France of 1851-70 [the reign of Napoleon III, the so-called 18th Brumaire] politics is not only recognised as something separate, but as an important element in a conjuncture combined with the economic.

Thus the analysis is all about the importance of blocs and coalitions, rather than whole classes: blocs do not represent classes even, but they can have a role in modernising the interests of capital as a system, nevertheless. There is no attempt to explain French society as a matter of exclusively economic determination, but a full recognition of ideological traditions too, which is how blocs think of themselves. The real interests of classes can be represented through these blocs -- politically important agents are not just members of these classes. Thus the political parties in France are described as petty bourgeois because they are offering petit-bourgeois solutions not because they simply consist of members of the petty bourgeoisie. Both Napoleon and the French peasantry have a certain ideological complementarity, not a correspondence, and this alliance has the ironic outcome of making French peasants finally dependent on the State. It is the growth of the State that serves the interests of capital.

This analysis seems to treat these groups as independent and separate, but there is still economic determination in the last instance. The economy is represented at the political level, but works through specific forms and processes which have their own dynamic, and which are not reducible to the economic. If the raw materials are provided by a mode of production, they are transformed at the level of politics. There were also quite specific effects, so that specific policies can advance or retard the development of the economic base. Here, Marx works with a model of many determinations: the simple connections between the economic and political arise only in the unusual circumstances of revolutionary rupture.

Marx himself tells us, in his comments on the Paris Commune, that the working class must organise itself at the level of politics if it wants to smash the State. Commenting on the development and centralisation of the State under Napoleon III, Marx tells us that it represents a resume of practical conflicts. However, it looked as if Napoleon occupied some separate and autonomous political power base, based on an appeal to the peasantry, neither based on capital nor labour: indeed, this was his appeal, that he was somehow above conflict. This only became possible because neither the bourgeoisie nor the working class were able to seize power in 1848 -- the bourgeoisie was exhausted, and the working classes too immature. Nevertheless, capitalism itself came to be served by Napoleon, through its curious connections with the State, which are still found in the modern era, and which show how important political forms in themselves are.

Marx's mature works show a clear centrality of the State for capitalist development, and again the working classes need to develop a politics to take it on. Lenin's work on economism shows the dangers of seeing class simply as an economic category -- it maybe economic-determined, but it is not just confined to economic struggles.

So, Marx's 'master concept' is the mode of production. This sets the boundaries to all social relations, including complex ones such as the division of labour. The mode of production is best seen as an 'analytic matrix' [and Hall develops an analogy here based on a once-popular three-dimensional puzzle -- the Rubik cube. Ask your parents about these]. The mode of production provides fundamental spaces into which agents must be distributed: it is the site of classes, it designates the functions of classes. Actual agents are different and they can vary -- so that now the middle class serves the functions of global capital, and the 'collective worker'. Even the economic level is much more complex! There is no pure mode of production: there are different levels which are relatively autonomous, so that even the economic level can be determined by the others. Further, through mechanisms of representation, these levels and combinations can lead to paradoxical appearances. Thus even a Labour Government will advance the interests of capital in the same old guise of the 'general interest', or some balance between the classes, and Mrs Thatcher [ask your parents about her too] will speak with classic petty bourgeois rhetoric while representing the interests of monopoly capital.

Is all this merely a sleight of hand? Does this analysis really amount to a reductionist analysis eventually, after all? Hall is aware that this will be the view of Hindess, but nevertheless he does see the concept of 'relative autonomy' as a coherent and crucial one.