Reading Guide to: Hirst, P 'Economic Classes and Politics', in A Hunt (Ed) (1977) Class and Class Structure, London: Lawrence and Wishart: pp 125--54

This is a closely argued piece, characteristic of the whole Hindess and Hirst episode, where the difficult issue is discussed of the transition between class as an economic category and as a political one. Hirst suggests that each of the usual approaches to this problem in marxism is flawed. Lenin and Mao might have generated revolutionary politics from marxism, but did not adequately theorise this generation. More recent theorists such as Althusser and Poulantzas also failed solve the problem -- their solutions turn out to be incoherent on closer examination. The notion of 'relative autonomy' is particularly incoherent. Thus are we offered the usual options of dogmatism or incoherence whenever we try to 'apply' marxist theory to concrete social or political problems. As we go through, you might want to check particularly the definitions of crucial terms such as 'power', or 'interests' in Hirst's account, and ask yourself what sort of politics is being recommended for marxists.

For vulgar Marxism, the economic structure determines politics, and, in the long run, will produce a polarised class politics (economism). However, when we look at current politics, we find no sign of classes as such, only parties, pressure groups, trades unions, mobs and so on. Active revolutionaries, like Lenin, could simply not wait for the economic structure to produce open revolutionary conflict. However, although he and Mao, and Gramsci, developed political struggles, they never properly rejected economistic theory: at best, Lenin tried to read contemporary politics in terms of class struggle, but never attempted the reverse, and in his readings of the situation in different nations, as in his account of imperialism, he never referred solely to the conditions of capitalist development.

Althusser tried to theorise Lenin's practice by revising orthodox marxism. Economism operated with an 'essentialist conception of totality' (127), which had to be replaced by the model of relatively autonomous levels [see file]. The economy only determined 'in the last instance'. In particular, says Hirst, the political level was seen as relatively autonomous, and its dominance or otherwise was structured by the mode of production; the political level somehow represented social classes rather than expressing them. But what this means is that the means of political representation have some effect of their own in shaping political forces. This must be so if we are to avoid essentialism, where surface forms simply express inner essences. Poulantzas has adopted this approach as well in his work. Both fail in their endeavours [the incoherence is hinted at here].

In Althusser's work, modes of production are structured, and the levels are linked by structural causality ('the causality of a self-reproducing eternity' for Hirst, page 129). This [virtual] model is supplemented with the idea of more specific 'social formations', which can have 'concrete conjunctures'. These produce crisis and change, but they are 'in essence [sic] untheorised' (129).

Further, the whole discussion of 'relative autonomy' depends on the concept of 'representation' mentioned above. Relative autonomy is an unstable concept at the theoretical level, however, despite its practical uses. The political level becomes relatively autonomous only because it takes a specific form from definite 'means of representation (parties, organizations, ideologies, programmes, etc)' (130). These organisations may claim to represent some deeper category, such as class interests, but this can never be precisely established [I'm not at all sure how we would do so to Hirst's satisfaction], and the means of representation themselves have a political effect in establishing interests. If we reject economism, we have no theory to link political agents with economic ones. If we grant any kind of autonomy to political forces there is a 'necessary non - correspondence' (my emphasis) (130) between political forces and economic classes. To put this another way, economic classes cannot have '[political] interests... independently of definite parties, ideologies etc.' (131) unless one is going to restore some necessary correspondence between them. Debates about whether or not the Labour Party accurately 'represents' the working class in Britain, for example,  'is to remain within [conventional ] politics [only]' (131).'Either economism, or the non-correspondence of political forces and economic classes -- that is the choice which faces marxism' (131). [Hirst hopes this will encourage marxists to forget the search for class origins and engage fully in specific political struggles having clarified what it is they hope to achieve, and calculated who might support or oppose them].

This choice is often concealed, since actual analysis usually relapses into economism, often where the state is simply seen as a class organ [or when specific struggles, like those of rebellious youth are, are somehow seen as 'really' political ones?]. This is revealed in Althusser's 'ISAs Essay', and in the work of Poulantzas on class [see file].

Poulantzas does address specific politic issues and dilemmas, and criticises the French Communist Party's (PCF) policies on matters such as the EC. He does argue for necessary non-correspondence between the determination of classes and their political positions. He claims to be interested in locating problems rather than offering solutions, and recommends more specific investigations. However:

(a) PCF strategy is criticised on the basis of its economism -- but it could still be the correct one in the current situation

(b) we cannot solve theoretical problems by more specific investigations -- Poulantzas needs to theorise the non-correspondence he has identified (if he cannot do this, we cannot know for sure that specific investigations will solve the problem!).

In more detail:

(1) Poulantzas denies economism, and wants to suggest that social classes are affected by complex relations including political and ideological ones. This is a form of structural determination as above. Further, classes exist only in struggle, further defined as 'the struggle of class positions' (Hirst's emphasis, page 134), in other words denying any simple determination or reduction. We are left with phrases such as class determination constituting the interests of a class, 'fixing the horizon' of class struggle [as in the concept of 'determination in the last instance' mentioned above]. But concrete circumstances of class position, independently of the mode of production, are still untheorised -- 'Where does the "concrete"... come from?' (134). This is not just a difference between abstract structure and concrete manifestation, since, strictly speaking, the structure is also something concrete [it must be, for Hirst, if it is to have any determining effect]. Hirst says that the theoretical work on the structure should also be capable of explaining all the possible concrete effects -- although to do so would be just like economism again! 'Class position is therefore introduced to qualify this possibility but [ as a] means of hedging any bets made on the basis of class determination' (135).

Yet this still is class determination, something more than just class position, and the struggles at the structural level somehow 'express' themselves in specific class positional struggles in conjunctures. This term expression is also problematic, though -- it looks like determinism again, or generally threatens to collapse the two concepts into each other (it is possible that Poulantzas means that the results of earlier positional struggles have a determining effect on class at the structural level). Despite his efforts, Poulantzas ends with the circular position that there is no rigorous difference between class determination class position. 'Class determination/class position distinction is ad hoc: it is an attempt to avoid the effects of economism without the theoretical means of doing so. The result is utter incoherence' (136).

(2) Poulantzas tries to avoid these problems in his discussion of reproduction which he sees as the reproduction of the relations of production, as in Althusser. This enables political and ideological levels to play a major part in constituting the positions of classes, indeed a dominant part. However, Poulantzas runs together the idea of relations of production and the political and ideological conditions of their existence. It is true that relations of production depend on legal forms such as property (ideology) and institutions that defend property (politics), but relations of production retain a definite economic form and have economic consequences, and it is this form that 'constitute[s] class relations between agents' (137). Poulantzas simply reverses economism here, and argues that political and ideological forms constitute ('create the possibility of', page 137) relations of production, and thus the form of domination -- class 'powers'. This helps him account for the growth of the 'new petit bourgeoisie', but there are also local effects.

Thus the factory offers class domination, structuring 'agents into dominators, servants of domination and dominated' (137). As can be seen, this enables Poulantzas to see relations between the classes as antagonistic and potentially explosive [which takes care of the genesis of revolutionary struggle and leaves economic classes with political 'destinies' (138)]. Here, political forms constitute the economic, which politicises social relations [at the level of theory anyway]. Political and ideological constitution of the relations of production is an effect of the structure of the social totality, although individual forms are specific. This is the old structural causality as in Althusser, although the determining totality, in the last instance, of course, consists of all three levels. It is not clear to Hirst why this should be more profound than straight forward economism.

Poulantzas argues that class struggle is the 'fundamental arena and means of the reproduction of social classes' (139), although this takes different concrete forms. But this reproductive function ensures that class positions have an effect on the form of social classes - that they 'must determine class determination' (140). The reproductive function means that class struggles on the surface cannot be just phenomenal forms, so they must have a real effect, we are told -- but  class determination [alone] constitutes class positions. This is 'an unclosable circle' (140).

(3) Poulantzas develops an analysis of the 'concepts of strategy' as something specific to political analysis, and something that explains concrete conditions. However, the actual analysis of these compromises the specificity of the political situation, since 'the strategic social locations of the "power bloc" and "the people" ... [are assigned]... in advance' (141). There can be no concept of strategy in the sense of action in definite political situations, and all Poulantzas can do is critique other people's strategies. He criticises the PCF [then pursuing a kind of 'broad anti-monopoly alliance' (144) politics] by reasserting 'abstract revolutionism and the notion of a revolutionary class alliance led by the working class' (141). This is poor politics which leaves everything to be determined by the working class -- 'Classes, however [Hirst's emphasis], do not have programmes or hold congresses, they cannot "lead" anything. Poulantzas simply reproduces the slogans of ultra-left marxism' (141).

The same problems affect the discussion of the petty bourgeoisie. The analysis reveals the same circularity between class determination and class position, and the attribution of strategic political roles. For Poulantzas, the petty bourgeoisie occupy a position between bourgeoisie and working class, and are likely to ally themselves with these classes according to particular social conditions. This raises the old dilemma, where economic forces provide the preconditions for political differentiation. The position of the two main classes seems unproblematic. Class determination produces a distinctive experience, which gets politicised, in factories for example, as we have seen.

Analysing the fractions of the bourgeoisie follows the same sort of argument. Briefly, monopoly capital fractures the bourgeoisie, as a kind of unintended consequence [rendered as a necessary tolerance of non-monopoly forms in order best to exert hegemony over the working class]. This again immediately politicises these fractions [ in theory only]. But this assigns to 'monopoly capital' some kind of unified 'Machiavellian economic/political force capable of calculation and policy' (145). The concept 'hegemony' is useful here -- 'one can postulate a relationship of domination without explaining what its concrete mechanisms are' (145). Here, hegemony seems to refer to a power that is independent even of the state machine [and its apparatuses].

(4) The notion of 'productive labour' is used to define the working-class, and to separate it from other wage-earners and employees. However, Poulantzas would like to confine it still more tightly to the industrial proletariat alone [as the most politicised and activist group]. Even Marx wanted to include as productive labourers others, such as the '"literary proletarian" and the hack denizen of a "teaching factory"' (147) -- these people also sell commodities to make profits, that is produce capital. Retaining this notion would help us to grasp matters such as the increasing ' [privatised] health care and education [services], capitalisation of entertainment, sports and vacationing' (148). It would also deny that such people occupy a new stratum -- Poulantzas's new petit bourgeoisie.

Taking engineers and technicians shows another difficulty. Poulantzas wants to exclude them from the working class and include them in the new petit bourgeoisie, but cannot argue this on the grounds labelling them as 'unproductive' [which would be absurd]. He has to add some other criteria -- their dominating place in the political relations for managers and supervisors, and in the case of engineers their role in separating workers from their conditions of work. Again, co-ordination and supervision has to be politicised in order to make this case, though, and they can be no non-political reasons for this split between mental and manual labour. Hirst notes that all socialist states apparently operate at a similar split, however.

Poulantzas does not pursue any actual institutional analysis here, so his views of the dominating role of supervisors and engineers must be a formal one -- he derives it from an organisational position. Other forms of supervision are ignored, such as worker self-supervision: these must be merely subservient to capital. Such forms, including workers' control, must therefore be pointless and insignificant [but the opposite for Hirst] .

(5) Class domination works through class power, but this is revealed only through the workings of various apparatuses, including the state and the usual suspects like churches and trade unions. State apparatuses merely condense class domination, which both denies the specificity of the state and generalises it, to include the family or media, as in Althusser. Power here looks rather like the Weberian notion of interpersonal domination. Oddly enough, says Hirst, this discounts political activity in the usual sense (that is activity connected with mobilising or resisting the state) -- it is 'sociologised' [that is explained away as an effect of various social institutions and relations]. So much for the relative autonomy of the political!

Avoiding conventional politics and conventional definitions of the state like this means politics is 'everywhere and nowhere' (152). The State for Poulantzas is defined by its function, which is social cohesion. This simply ignores state institutions and their real effects, which limits calculations of the State's power and how to overcome or appropriate it. For Hirst, State power does not exist outside of its 'specific institutional forms' (153), and these have to be dealt with in any attempt to take State power -- 'the army, police, courts communications' have to be subordinated (153), as Lenin, and any revolutionary, knew. It is all very well to sloganize about smashing the state, but first you need to know what it actually is that is to be smashed!

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