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A Brief History of the Capitalist Class
"Capitalism cannot reform itself; it is doomed to self destruction. No universal selfishness can bring social good to all." --W.E.B. Du Bois
Capitalism, contrary to what they have been telling us over and over again since the moment we were born, has not ruled forever. In our 6,000 years, or so, of written history, it has been around no more than 7%, and it has ruled the planet no more than half of that. Of its 170 years, or so, of being number one, it’s been in crisis for about 110.
The capitalist class has not ruled for long, and they will not endure long, either, in the long arc of human history.
Emile Burns, in “An Introduction to Marxism,” says on page 14: “…the growth of the capitalist class also meant the growth of new forms of class struggle. The capitalists had to engage in a struggle against the monarchy and the feudal lords, a struggle which continued over several centuries. In some relatively backward countries, it is still going on—but in Britain and France, for example, it has been completed.
‘How did this come about?
‘In Britain, where this stage was reached far earlier than in other countries, the struggle of the growing capitalist class against taxation and restrictions reached a high point in the middle of the seventeenth century. These restrictions were holding back the expansion of the capitalist form of production. The capitalists tried to get them removed by peaceful means – by petitions to the king, by refusing to pay taxes, and so on’ but nothing far-reaching could be won against the machinery of the State. Therefore the capitalists had to meet force with force; they had to rouse the people against the king, against arbitrary taxation and trade restrictions, against the arrests and penalties imposed by the king’s judges for all attempt s to break through the feudal barriers. In other words, the capitalists had to organize an armed revolution, to lead the people to rise in arms against the king and the old forms of oppression -- to defeat the former rulers by military means. Only after this had been done was it possible for the capitalist class to become the ruling class, to break down all barriers to the development of capitalism, and to make the laws needed for this.”
The armed uprising Burns refers to is the successful fight led by Oliver Cromwell against Charles I. Burns says that a second phase occurred in 1688, which by and large completed the capitalist revolution, even though it remained imperfect, because royalty and hereditary landowners were never completely removed from power. Remember that capitalism is an economic system, not a system of government. Consequently, the continued existence of a royal family does not mean that the capitalist class is not firmly in power. The capitalist class may thrive under any number of government systems, including fascism.
The capitalist-led revolution in the American colonies did away with royalty a hundred years after British capitalists came to power. But it is the French revolution of 1789 that provides the clearest example of transfer of power from feudal nobles to the capitalist class. The French capitalists got all the say-so, and royalty got the guillotine!
The world celebrates the great French revolution every July on Bastille Day.
Marxists have always struggled against the capitalist class, but we acknowledge that capitalism, at its inception, was a considerable advance over the feudalism it replaced. Capitalism freed the serfs. It raised production and trade to levels that would not have been possible under the personal rule of petty kings and nobles. It allowed for, and encouraged, technical advances. Because the capitalists required good workers, they raised education levels in the general population.
Because capitalism could out-produce all former economic systems, it spread rapidly, one way or another, throughout the world. England, as the first great capitalist power, soon ruled much of the world. By the beginning of the 20th century, virtually every nation, including Russia, fell under the rule of the capitalist class. Nations unlucky enough to lack their own strong capitalist class were colonies.
Having expanded throughout the planet, and having no other planets to conquer, the capitalist class then fell into a long term general crisis. The only way that one group of capitalists could expand was at the expense of another. The age of imperialism, drastic economic crises, environmental disasters, and world wars that killed millions of young people would characterize the rest of their rule.
Whichever capitalist class dominated tried to find ways to make their situation permanent. At the end of the Second World War, the United States dictated a number of financial “agreements” to maintain their supremacy. Institutions included the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The U.S. quickly accumulated most of the gold in the world. Their military power was unchallengeable, and they had virtually the only standing factories in the world!
Around 1972, after the other industrialized nations began to recover enough to challenge U.S. domination, it became apparent that adjustments had to be made. The U.S. gave up the provisions that had given them control over gold markets, and the U.S. dollar was left to “float” against other currencies. In the “stagflation” years at the end of the U.S. invasion of Vietnam, economists were divided as to their strategies.
In 1980, with the election of President Ronald Reagan, the ruling class seemed to set a clear path. The U.S. would go all-out to maintain its domination over other nations and, particularly, over its own working class. Union-busting and military aggression became common, but they provided only a temporary and localized relief to the general crisis of capitalism. Even the implosion of the USSR gave capitalism little room to grow, and the much-promised peace that was supposed to follow the “end of socialism” never happened.
The continuation of Reaganist policies under George W Bush, brought the term “jobless recovery” into capitalist economic vernacular. The economic crisis underway as this is written, in 2009, predicts continued high unemployment for another 6 years – which would be past the entire “prosperity” phase of capitalism and into the next recession!
Long ago, the capitalist class lost any aspect of progress in human history and became a drag on the societies it rules. How long, and through how many disasters, those societies will tolerate their rule is impossible to predict. It is the historical task of the working class to provide the answer.
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