Presentation statement on class antagonisms

In 1848 when the Communist Manifesto was written, the pitfalls of a market based economy where already apparent to some thinkers of the time. Ideas such as what fuelled the We Are The 99%, “Occupy” movement of 2011, where already articulated through the communist manifesto. In this report I will examine the idea of class antagonisms and why in modern society it is hard to make clear these class distinctions.

To Marx the concept of class antagonisms explains as much about history and human society as Darwinism explains in biology. This is a grand claim, and one that readers should be sceptical of. Darwinism not only has consequences for biology, but for the evolution of ideas and technology; it is more than likely the driving force of nature itself and the embodiment of hard determinism; but I digress, Marx’s concept of class antagonisms is well summarised in his central notion of communism “That in every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organization necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which it is built up, and from that which alone can be explained the political and intellectual history of that epoch; that consequently the whole history of mankind (since the dissolution of primitive tribal society, holding land in common ownership) has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes; That the history of these class struggles forms a series of evolutions in which, nowadays, a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class — the proletariat — cannot attain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class — the bourgeoisie — without, at the same time, and once and for all, emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinction, and class struggles. (1848:46).

Class antagonisms is thus the struggles that classes of people engage in. In each of these struggles, the defining factor is the mode of production present within its structure. In each of these epochs of history, each ruling class has aspects of the class which came before it and the one which will follow it. That is to say that the seeds of its own destruction are laid out with its inception.

This notion rings true when you consider how it was that the bourgeoisie took power from the aristocracy which ruled before it. The enlightenment was the period this took place and it was embodied in its highest point during the French revolution. Prior to bourgeois rule, feudal society had existed for a long time with the prevailing mode of thought that it was by divine right that they ruled. It was this unquestionable and un-falsifiable point which gave the aristocracy the right to rule and govern. To affront the ruler of a nation was literally to affront God. When the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was finally conceived in 1793 it was the culmination of centuries of oppressed thought which amounted to one very large statement: Man has inherent value apart from God. It was a step towards the secularisation of society, it actively took away the divine right of kings, and instead man placed himself at the top of society. The religious element to power was thus removed. However the declaration brought with it the right to free trade. As it was the bourgeois, the merchants and traders of the time which took power, and as Marx had stated in Chapter two of the communist manifesto “The ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class”. Free trade is the element which grants the bourgeoisie the power it has.

However in following the process Marx has outlined, the human rights movement indeed contains what was necessary for the bourgeois to take power over the feudal aristocracy. However it also contains the seeds for its eventual over throw. As upon further investigation, the capitalist mode of production is incompatible with the greater ideals of human rights, and the economic rights which were conceived in International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966, which are a direct result of the continuing force of the human rights movement.

In modern day society, Australian citizens often find it difficult to see how it is that there are truly two class distinction of the bourgeois and the proletariat. This is because of the manner by which the bourgeois mode of production works. The capitalist mode of production is founded upon growth and expansion. It constantly needs to consume more and have more consumers to consume. It is a system that requires production workers, however as the system grows, cheaper labour is required for growth to occur, and labour is out sourced. The true nature of Australian society is that there is no large working class. We are all perceived to be middle class, from trades people to lawyers, we are a land of the great middle class. The truth of the matter is, is that the bourgeois have grown so large, that it has turned into a game of nation exploiting nation. It is no longer that nations are self contained bubble economies, as in fact we exist within a large global economy. Australia can quite well be understood as a bourgeois nation, should we simplify the argument to that level. It has reached a point where the cheap labour required for mass production of goods is outsourced to cheaper nations.

So as covered in the report, class antagonisms according to Marx form the foundation for the prevailing mode of production and thoughts of an age. They however contain vestiges of their predecessors and contain aspects of their successors. This is evidenced through the human rights movement and how it emancipated the bourgeois from the aristocracy and will later emancipate the proletariat and whilst the class antagonisms of today are not as clear in Australian society as they were in 19th century Europe, this is because of how large the world economy has grown, and the manner by which nations now exploit other nations.

Marx K. and Engels, F. 1969 [1848]: ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’ in Feuer, L. Marx and Engels: Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, London, Fontana, pp 45-82


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About Saúl A. Zavarce

Venezuelan-Australian journalist and international relations academic.

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