What did power mean to Karl Marx? That’ll be the subject of the next few posts.
In order to kick off the conversation, we could do worse than consulting the dictionary definition of “power.” The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that “power” is “the ability or capacity to do something or act in a particular way,” or “the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behaviour of others or the course of events.”[i]
Read in this light, Marx seems to write primarily about power: the power of subjects of history (i.e. classes) to enforce their status quo, or struggle for change. But a casual perusal of Marx’s work shows several very different uses of the word power. On the one hand, Marx speaks of “productive power” or “labor power,” which relate to the ability to turn one’s own endowments into use values. On the other hand, Marx speaks of “political power,” which commonly means who controls the levers of the state. The tension between these two uses of the word “power” have challenged observers and proponents of Marxist thought since the publishing of the Communist Manifesto in 1848.
The Manifesto laid out the basic outlines of history as conceived by Marx and Engels. As the forces of production (technology, communications, etc.) develop, new modes of production (i.e. feudalism, capitalism, etc.) emerge, each with their distinct relations of production (i.e. peasant-lord, worker-capitalist). The bourgeoisie is a unique ruling class in that it is compelled through competition to revolutionize the instruments, and therefore relations, of production. This creates recurrent crises (such as of overproduction) that are resolved through further expansion of the system, which universalizes the system. (Marx and Engels, 1848, at 14-16)
The Manifesto does not use the phrase “labor power” that would be used in Das Kapital. But it makes clear reference to the “despotism” that characterizes the inside of the production process, and also to the “power” of productive forces to overcome an existing mode of production, and the “power” of individuals to appropriate the products of production. (Marx and Engels, 1848, at 17-18, 24) Passing reference is also made to both capital and labor as “social powers,” i.e. a force constituted and defined by relations within society (rather than being uniquely individual attributes). (Marx and Engels, 1848, at 23)
For the most part, however, the notion of “power” is used for political power.
In the preamble to the Manifesto, Marx and Engels use power to refer both to established powers (democratic governments, authoritarian governments and the pope) and nascent ones (communism). (at 14) “Class struggle” has to articulate itself “politically,” with the bourgeois attempting to force their will through the state, just as the workers do, through legislative campaigns for limits on working hours, for instance. But the ability to accomplish reforms is limited in capitalism, for the bourgeois holds “exclusive political sway”, and the “the executive of the modern state is a but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeois.”[ii] More generally, “political power… “is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another.” While they envisioned that some type of “public power” would persist under communism, it would lose its “political character.” (Marx and Engels, 1848, at 15, 19 and 26-27)[iii]
Marx’s 1845 publication “The German Ideology” went deeper on these themes. Marx wrote that “all struggles within the State, the struggle between democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy, the struggle for the franchise, etc., etc., are merely the illusory forms in which the real struggles of the different classes are fought out among one another.” While the use of the word “illusory” seems to diminish the import of the state, this passage’s wider context makes clear that a broader sense is intended. Marx writes that the reason to take political power is to be able to represent particular class interests as general social interests. What is passed off as “general” is often “illusory form of communal life” as represented through the state. He adds that, “the practical struggle of these particular interests, which constantly really run counter to the communal and illusory communal interests, makes practical intervention and control necessary through the illusory ‘general’ interest in the form of the State.” In other words, for both real and politically manipulated reasons, the state emerges by necessity to keep individuals and groups’ actions from undermining the whole. (Marx, 1845)
Das Kapital has an extensive discussion of the English Factory Acts that make it seem that the state is little more than a passive terrain for the class struggle. However, this is not a consistent feature of the volume, which later notes the active role that the state played in advancing capitalist development, through protection of manufactures and by other means. In the Middle Ages, money capital from usury and commerce could not be transformed into industrial capital by feudal constitutions and guild laws. Corporate towns began circumventing these feudal restrictions. (Marx does not specifically note that the state granted these charters.) The slave and natural resource trade and other forms of primitive accumulation “all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power.” State officials benefit from the primitive accumulation through corruption. (Marx, 1867, at 527-528)
The state, through the bond system, also “endows barren money with the power of breeding and thus turns it into capital.” Private pools of capital lurked near kings, to lend money for war and other efforts. The resultant banks are then allowed to coin money out of their capital, and lend to the public in the form of banknotes. This successful business leads to a rise in equity investments in the banks. Banks knew no national loyalty, and would loan to rivals: “a great deal of capital, which appears today in the United States without any certificate of birth, was yesterday, in England, the capitalized blood of children.” The state overborrows, overspends, and then overtaxes – an act which reduces the real wages of workers. These indirect payments on debt lead to assistance in the concentration of capital, even at more advanced stages of capitalism. (Marx, 1867, at 530, 541)
[i] “power”. Oxford Dictionaries. April 2010. Oxford Dictionaries. April 2010. Oxford University Press. 26 November 2012 <http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/power>.
[ii] Harvey has argued that this statement “was in fact meant as a polemical response to the widespread illusory claim that the State expressed the common interests of all.” (Harvey, 1976, at 83)
[iii] Some critics have taken Marx and Engels to task for believing that Hegelian antagonisms would stop with communism. Artists and intellectuals could be the next revolutionary forces, as (Galbraith, 2001, at 174-175) suggested.