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Keith Tse


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Class struggle (3): typology of sociopolitical systems

Karl Marx’ Communist Manifesto really is a masterpiece. It is very short, concisely and clearly written, full of seminal ideas, and a must-read for all those interested in political science. Students of political theory are familiar with many different types of society and government: democracy, oligarchy, timocracy, tyranny, monarchy, autocracy, all of which go back to classical traditions (e.g. Aristotle). Class-based theories as that of Marx give rise to further distinctions in society, namely feudalism (land-based economy/politics), capitalism (ownership-based), socialism (worker-based) and communism (classless utopia). There are as such many governments of different shapes, sizes and forms, in chapter III of the Communist Manifesto Marx rounds off with a virtuosic review of some of the sociopolitical systems in contemporary (19th century) Europe, namely Feudal Socialism, Petty Bourgeois Socalism, German ‘True’ Socialism, and Conservative/Bourgeois Socialism. He finally ends with Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism, which is as yet unattested and will not be analysed here. Let’s take a look at these political systems in turn.

Feudal Socialism:

In order to arouse sympathy, the aristocracy was obliged to lose sight, apparently, of its own interests, and to formulate their indictment against the bourgeoisie in the interest of the exploited working class alone… In this way arose feudal Socialism… The aristocracy, in order to rally the people to them, waved the proletarian alms-bag in front for a banner. But the people, so often as it joined them, saw on their hindquarters the old feudal coats of arms, and deserted with loud and irreverent laughter.’ 

An unlikely alliance between two previously opposing classes, the old feudal aristocracy and the working masses, and although Marx (unsurprisingly) ridicules this alliance, what is remarkable here is that a common enemy (here the bourgeoisie) has the effect of uniting two otherwise rivaling classes. Amazing.

Petty Bourgeois Socalism:

The feudal aristocracy was not the only class that was ruined by the bourgeoisie… The medieval burgesses and the small peasant proprietors were the precursors of the modern bourgeoisie. In those countries which are but little developed, industrially and commercially, these two classes still vegetate side by side with the rising bourgeoisie. In countries where modern civilisation has become fully developed, a new class of petty bourgeois has been formed, fluctuating between proletariat and bourgeoisie, and ever renewing itself as a supplementary part of bourgeois society.’

A new class is distinguished here, one that is lies somewhere between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and this consists of small property owners who are not big enough to compete with the big production owners. They hence have to find a way to survive, even if aligning with the working classes, which essentially marks the end of their status as proprietors rather than workers.

German ‘True’ Socialism:

The Socialist and Communist literature of France… was introduced into Germany at a time when the bourgeoisie, in that country, had just begun its contest with feudal absolutism… The fight of the Germans, and especially of the Prussian bourgeoisie, against feudal aristocracy and absolute monarchy, in other words, the liberal movement, became more earnest. By this, the long-wished for opportunity was offered to “True” Socialism of confronting the political movement with the Socialist demands, of hurling the traditional anathemas against liberalism, against representative government, against bourgeois competition, bourgeois freedom of the press, bourgeois legislation, bourgeois liberty and equality, and of preaching to the masses that they had nothing to gain, and everything to lose, by this bourgeois movement… To the absolute governments, with their following of parsons, professors, country squires, and officials, it served as a welcome scarecrow against the threatening bourgeoisie.’ 

In 19th century Germany, as the feudal aristocracies were still intact (and would go on till the unification of German states in late 19th century), the introduction of Socialist/Communist ideas created two class antagonisms: monarchy vs bourgeoisie and proletariat vs bourgeoisie, which, in striking reminiscence to Feudal Socialism (see above), has united the common people against the bourgeoisie in a common bid to defeat the emerging bourgeoisie. It also involved lots of anti-bourgeois propaganda, which again shows how a common enemy (here the German bourgeoisie) can unite all forces against it. Paradoxically, this common fervor against the bourgeoisie is labelled here as ‘True’ Socialism when the existence and agitation of feudal monarchy/aristocracy is directly opposed to it.

Conservative or Bourgeois Socialism:

A part of the bourgeoisie is desirous of redressing social grievances in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society. To this section belong economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the condition of the working class, organisers of charity, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics, hole-and-corner reformers of every imaginable kind. This form of socialism has, moreover, been worked out into complete systems.’ 

Another unlikely alliance (cf Feudal Socialism above), though here between a particular section of the bourgeoisie and the working class, which, as insinuated by Marx here, is based on a very superficial, almost fake, form of goodwill and is nothing but a way to fool the workers into complacence and obedience and thereby securing the power of the bourgeoisie in society.

So it is, Marx’ typology of socialism based on contemporary evidence, which shows even more the dynamics of class divisions and the different configurations in which they can be aligned either with or against each other based on different principles and purposes. While one may legitimately criticise the hypothetical and abstract nature of this model, it is nonetheless a very useful model for analysing human society.

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