Views of Marx

G.A. Cohen

  • Marxism and Class Theory: A Bourgeois Critique by Frank Parkin
    Tavistock, 217 pp, £6.95, October 1979, ISBN 0 422 76790 5
  • Karl Marx edited by Tom Bottomore
    Blackwell, 194 pp, £9.95, September 1979, ISBN 0 631 10961 7

Frank Parkin calls his challenging book ‘bourgeois’, but it is possible to be more bourgeois about class than Parkin is. Much bourgeois sociology denies the existence of distinct classes: it sees only gentle gradations of income, status and power. Parkin’s classes are as real as those of any Marxist. He thinks there is an exploiting bourgeoisie and an exploited proletariat. He also thinks that classes are agents. They act, collectively. They make history.

Parkin’s emphasis on the agency of classes is unusually strong, certainly by bourgeois and even by Marxist standards. I think it is too strong. But he could not weaken it. For his emphasis on agency is his way of deviating from the Marxist approach to class. Marxism identifies classes structurally. Before it looks at what classes do, it says what they are, independently of their action and will. Parkin begins with class behaviour. Classes are to be identified by their characteristically different forms of action.

Parkin ably criticises some recent attempts to develop the Marxist theory of class structure. But I think he is mistaken to forswear structural analysis altogether. Class is inherently structural. It is structural before it is anything else.

The main idea in Parkin’s conception of class is that of social closure, defined as ‘the process by which social collectivities seek to maximise rewards’ by restricting access to resources and opportunities to a limited circle of eligibles’. There are two kinds of social closure: exclusionary and usurpationary. A class practises exclusionary closure when it protects its privileged position against a class which it subordinates to itself. (The paramount means of exclusionary social closure in capitalism now are ownership of private property and possession of professional credentials.) Usurpationary closure is the ‘direct response to their status as outsiders’ of the subordinated class: examples, under capitalism, are industrial action, union-favouring legislation, extensions of social welfare etc.

‘Usurpationary closure’ strikes me as a contradiction in terms. Closure restricts access to resources. Usurpation is an assault against restrictions. It ‘bites into the resources and benefits accruing to dominant groups’. How then is it ‘closure’, either as one might naturally use the term, or in Parkin’s definition of it (quoted above)? ‘Closing’ and ‘excluding’ are so related in meaning that ‘exclusionary social closure’ cannot be only one form of it. Closure is by nature exclusionary.

Excluding and usurping are not two ways of trying ‘to maximise rewards by restricting access to resources’ to a privileged group. They are just two ways of trying to maximise rewards. Stripped of its obfuscating terminology – the word ‘closure’ sounds agreeably scientific, but it serves only to mislead – Parkin’s theory advances two general theses: 1., that all classes try to maximise their rewards, and 2., that the manner in which a class tries to maximise them identifies it as the class which it is. 1. rather exaggerates the pervasiveness of class perceptiveness and class cohesion, but let that pass. My principal objection to Parkin is that 2. is necessarily false.

Marxism defines classes structurally, and explains class behaviour on the basis of objective class situation. Parkin is right that many difficulties arise, difficulties which he thinks he avoids, since, as he says, there is in his own account ‘no independently defined structure of positions for class action to be discrepant with’. But then there is also no explanation risked of the different behaviours in which classes engage. Marxism is an ambitious research programme, with difficulties consequent on its ambition. I do not think a good response to the difficulties is to abandon the ambition.

The attempt to identify classes non-structurally is bound to fail. Parkin claims to distinguish them by reference to kinds of agency, but either he is covertly relying on structure, or what he says is paradoxical. He says classes are defined by their ‘prevalent modes of closure’. What makes the dominating class dominant is that its activity is exclusionary. What makes the subordinated class subordinate is that its activity is usurpationary.

Taken at face value, this is an absurd inversion of the truth. For the truth is that the dominant class is exclusionary because it is dominant, because it possesses the privileges attached to its structural place. And the subordinate class is usurpationary because it occupies an inferior position. Parkin says, correctly, that usurpation is by definition from below and exclusion by definition from above. I say that the distinction between above and below is necessarily prior to the distinction between exclusion and usurpation, and it is a structural distinction.

I am, then, unimpressed by Parkin’s polemic against Marxism’s preoccupation with structure. A theory of class is necessarily a theory of class structure. It scarcely follows, and I would not claim, that Marxism already possesses a fully developed class theory. Extant Marxist work in this domain is full of ambiguity and evasion, and there are many solid criticisms of it in this book. There is, for example, his point, in his discussion of ‘credentialism’, that the use of legally protected qualifications constitutes a means of access to valued positions in the social division of labour quite independent of control over productive resources. Well-situated professionals are an embarrassment to Marxist classification, and Parkin argues effectively against the manoeuvre of assigning to them a ‘contradictory class location’. He also offers a searching critique of the currently popular Marxist idea of the relative autonomy of the state. He shows that it is needlessly unMarxist. And he voices justified complaint against Marxism’s neglect of cleavages which run within and across classes, notably those based on ties of religion, ethnicity and race.

In my own view, the last point is the most fundamental. It touches on a blind spot in the Marxist perception of human nature. In that perception man is primarily a productive creature. Growth in productive power is the force underlying social change, the central indictment of capitalism is that it cripples human ability, and prodigious flowering of talent and creativity is the main attraction in the Marxist vision of the future. But there is a human need different from and as deep as the need for self-development, which this perspective ignores. It is the need for self-understanding and self-definition, satisfaction of which is sought by identification with others in a shared culture, based on religion, or nationality, or race, or some amalgam of them. The identifications take benign, harmless, and catastrophically malignant forms. They frustrated the expectation of the Communist Manifesto that the various national proletariats would transcend particularism in favour of international solidarity. The need for cultural self-identification generates ethnic and other attachments which Marxism, because it neglects that need, systematically undervalues.

Divisions of identity cannot be explained in classical Marxist terms. But it is a mistake (what some philosophers call a category mistake) to say, as Parkin does, that domination or exploitation is predominantly racial in one society, religious in another, and of a class nature in a third. Racial exploitation and class exploitation are not two species of one genus. Racial exploitation is (largely) relegation to an exploited class because of race. If Protestants exploit Catholics in Northern Ireland (Parkin’s example), the exploitation is economic, not, in any similar sense, religious. Catholics are denied access to material values, not religious ones. What Marxism lacks is an explanation of the potency of identities as grounds of allocation to classes. It is not also mistaken in refusing to put religious and racial exploitation on a par with economic exploitation. It is false that ‘closure on racial grounds plays a directly equivalent role to closure on the basis of property.’ For unlike racism, property is not, in the first instance, a means of protecting privilege. It is privilege, although, like any privilege, it offers those who enjoy it ways of protecting the very privilege they enjoy.

For Parkin, the case of South Africa vividly exposes the unviability of the structural approach, since the white working class, though structurally a proletariat, instead of opposing the bourgeoisie, is allied with it, against the black majority. According to Parkin, what is special about this working class is that it engages in exclusionary, not usurpationary, social closure.

This argument ignores the fact that the structure of South African society is itself special, since it contains a semi-slave underclass, which lacks the bourgeois rights of an ordinary proletariat. That is why there is scope for exclusionary behaviour on the part of proletarian whites. But I do not deny that Marxism is ill-equipped to explain the peculiar power of the racial antagonism which sustains the structure.

‘Given what now passes for Marxist theory almost any imaginable bourgeois alternative seems preferable.’ This is an unnecessarily strong reaction to the sterility of some recent Marxist debate. Perhaps Parkin looked for good Marxism in the wrong place, in Marxist writing too influenced by bourgeois sociology. He does not mention any of the eminent Marxist historians of class.

It is true that the historians do not offer generalising theory. As Tom Bottomore says in his excellent introduction to the Karl Marx collection, ‘Marxist sociology has still to be constructed.’ Unlike Parkin, he is agnostic about the prospects of success. My own attitude is one of (perhaps incurable) optimism. I expect good general theory which is responsive to (among other things) the historical work to emerge before the century is over. The present Marxist renascence shows no signs of abating, and standards of scholarship are rising. But progress will be quicker if the serious difficulties lucidly sketched by Parkin are honestly faced.

Karl Marx reprints distinguished essays by Schumpeter, Berlin, Croce, Ossowski, Lukacs, Avineri, Acton, Kolakowski, Renner, Miliband, Lichtheim, and Hilde Weiss, whose piece introduces Marx’s remarkably undated ‘Enquête Ouvrière’, a set of 101 questions, on wages, working conditions, and legal rights, published with a request for replies from workers in the Revue Socialiste for 20 April 1880. If, as Bottomore says, any selection is itself an interpretation, then his Marx is primarily a social theorist, rather than a philosopher, economist, or prophet of the disappearance of alienation.

This is also my view of Marx, and I have always found it difficult to direct beginning students to conveniently available good essays about Marx so considered. The Karl Marx paperback helps to solve the problem. Bottomore’s characteristically balanced yet gripping 40-page introduction displays the strengths and weaknesses of Marxist thought with clarity and authority. The pieces which follow have a slightly vintage character – their average date of first publication is 1945, the most recent (Avineri’s) appearing in 1968 – but their value as initial secondary reading for undergraduates is very high. Karl Marx is pedagogically first-rate.