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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Class struggle

‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, that each time ended, either in the revoltionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.’ (Karl Marx, Communist Manifesto, p. 1, translated by Frederick Engels)

One of the most iconic passages in political writing in which the author proposes that human society is hierarchically structured in terms of social classes, and while these can take on many different sizes, shapes and forms (freeman/slave, patrician/plebeian, lord/serf, guildmaster/journeyman), it is argued that the abstract generalisation remains the same, namely a higher, more powerful group on top (oppressor) and a lesser franchised group below (oppressed). Furthermore, the author proposes to analyse the dynamics of human political history in terms of class struggle, namely the hostile and competitive relationship between different classes in society, and he names some very famous historical examples, namely Ancient Rome (patrician vs plebeian), medieval Europe (lord vs serf), post-medieval European/American slavery (freeman vs slave) and medieval trade guilds (guildmaster vs journeyman). While it is simplistic to make sweeping generalisations over the nature of human society- I, for instance, do not believe that the Ancient Roman societal structure (patrician vs plebeian, which must predate the classical era since by the 2nd BC there is strong evidence that this old class division was obsolete and newly formed social groups were on the rise) is in any way similar to the European feudal system (lord vs serf, which, again, is highly simplistic since feudalism, which is not restricted to medieval Europe, consists of many types with many fine differences)- it is nonetheless a neat and useful way of analysing human political history. If we conceptualise human society as a hierarchical configuration of classes and make ourselves aware of class politics in human society, we may have a much clearer and better understanding of our world. In order to understand human society, therefore, one needs to understand its internal structure in terms of its social components, which offer us the possiblity of identifying the cracks in the system. This is hardly rocket-science, since it has already been done in the natural sciences where scientists are constantly analysing scientific matter in terms of components, parts and structure, but it is interesting to apply this approach to human politics. Amazing.

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