The Conflict of Classes: Liberal and Marxist Theories
Ralph Raico Few economists are as celebrated for their knowledge of modern intellectual history as Albert O. Hirschman. Yet in his well-known work The Rhetoric of Reaction, Hirschman is obviously at a loss when confronted with a clear statement of the classical liberal doctrine of class conflict, in Vilfredo Pareto’s Cours d’économie politique (1896-97). Here Pareto speaks of the struggle to appropriate the wealth produced by others as “the great fact that dominates the whole history of humanity.” To Hirschman’s ear this “sounds at first curiously—perhaps consciously—like the Communist Manifesto.” But Pareto quickly “distances himself from Marxism” by using the term “spoliation,” and by ascribing spoliation to the dominant class’s control of the state machine. (Hirschman 1991: 55) Clearly, Hirschman has not the slightest suspicion that Pareto was presenting, in the customary terminology, a liberal analysis that goes back to the first decades of the nineteenth century. Hirschman’s blunder is perhaps understandable if not excusable. Today few ideas are as closely associated with Marxism as the concepts of class and class conflict. Yet, as with much else in Marxism, these concepts remain ambiguous and contradictory. For instance, while Marxist doctrine supposedly
grounds classes in the process of production, The Communust Manifesto asserts in its famous opening lines: The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another...1 On examination, however, these opposed pairs turn out to be, either wholly or in part, not economic, but legal, categories.2 Neither Marx nor Engels ever resolved the contradictions and ambiguities in their theory in this area. The last chapter of the third and final volume of Capital, published postumously in 1894, is titled, “Classes.”3 Here Marx states: “The first question to be answered is this: What constitutes a class?” “At first glance” it would seem to be “the identity of revenue and sources of revenue.” That, however, Marx finds inadequate, since “from this standpoint, physicians
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Selected Works in Three Volumes (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1983), I, 108-109. 2 According to Pitirim Sorokin (1947), Marx never presented a coherent conception of social class; the groups mentioned at the beginning of the Manifesto, for instance, include “castes, feudal orders, oppressors and oppressed of all kinds, hierarchies of the medieval corporation.” Marx, in Sorokin’s view, was well aware of this central defect in his theory, and his abruptly terminated chapter in the last volume of Capital was a failed attempt to remedy it. The enduring confusion among Marxists regarding the meaning of class, Sorokin held, may also be traceable to Marx’s own intellectual muddle. 3 Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, III, The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole, ed., Friedrich Engels (New York: International Publishers, 1967), 885-86. 1
and officials, e.g., would also constitute two classes...” Distinct classes would also be yielded by the infinite fragmentation of interest and rank into which the division of social labour splits labourers as well as capitalists and landlords - the latter, e.g., into owners of vineyards, farm owners, owners of forests, mine owners and owners of fisheries. At this point, there is a note by Engels: “Here the manuscript breaks off.” This was not on account of Marx's sudden, dramatic demise, however. The chapter dates from a first draft composed by Marx between 1863 and 1867, that is, sixteen to twenty years before his death.4 Engels's explanation is that “Marx used to leave such concluding summaries until the final editing, just before going to press, when the latest historical...
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