From Fourth International, Vol.13 No.5, September-October 1952, pp.144-149.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (July 2006).
Christian believers in the Trinity accord veneration to God the Father and awe to God the Spirit, but keep a special warm affection for God the Son. He was a man, had a birthday and a tangible corporeal form, and thus provides more substantial focus for religious feelings. So has it also been with the capitalist class, which came into the world with the trinity “Life, Liberty and Property” on its lips. Life and Liberty have been given a wordy salute from time to time, but the solid all-year-round honors have always gone to Property.
The US capitalist class is now engaged in a worldwide politico-military campaign in protection of the institution of private property; to this material campaign there corresponds an ideological one. The nation has been literally inundated by a flood of articles, speeches, books, pamphlets, etc., all expatiating on the sacred nature of private property. In the new theology, the first incantation against the profane is this tenet: private property is essential to all human rights. End private ownership of the means of production and tyranny will surely come to dominate society.
This superstition has been given a certain plausibility for the superficial mind by present conjunctural circumstances. While many elements of parliamentary bourgeois democracy remain in the capitalist US (the reactionary offensive has not yet destroyed most of them), the first historic instance of collectivized property has been accompanied by exceedingly rigid and absolutist political forms. For those who can reduce the entire significance of this period of great social transformation to a transient contrast between the United States and the Soviet Union, this is sufficient to close the matter. Private property, they conclude, is indeed the sine qua non of human freedom. But science, not being satisfied with surface appearances, must delve a little more deeply.
For a sample of bourgeois thinking on this subject in its most “scholarly” form, we turn to a little book recently published by Robert M. MacIver, Lieber Professor of Political Philosophy and Sociology at Columbia University. MacIver, generally rated among the best the bourgeois academic world has to offer in the politico-sociologic field, delivered five lectures at the University of Michigan in December, 1950; these have now been published in book form. 
Professor MacIver’s argument is as follows: “The central problem of the twentieth century” is the “problem of the relation of society to property.” In early history economic power was closely wedded to political power. There was no important role played by “private economic power” separate from government, and there was very little democracy. However, with the rise of modern industry and the newly enriched capitalist class, this “ancient union of property and authority” was broken by the powerful new “private economic power” and this brought modern “democracy” into being.
Professor MacIver then inquires: Can this democracy survive without private property; can it survive in a socialist society? He denies this possibility. The power of the state, he says, being comprehensive and final, is worse than any other kind of power, and will inevitably produce totalitarianism if the entire economic structure is given over to its dominion.
Thus Professor MacIver takes the high road and the National Association of Manufacturers takes the low road, but they meet on the same conclusion: “save capitalism and save liberty.” MacIver prefers to call capitalism “private economic power,” the NAM calls it “free enterprise,” but the switch of names alters nothing.
Capitalist democracy had its best days in the period when the reign of the ancient feudal, aristocratic, landowning, monarchical and ecclesiastical tyranny had been smashed, and the capitalist mode of production had not yet come to dominate the national economy. In that period, commodity production was carried on primarily by independent producers on the farms or in the growing cities; producers who owned at least part of their means of production and hired little or no labor. The capitalist class dominated the economy, but did so chiefly through exchange, as a merchant class, and not as yet chiefly through production, as owners of the means of production.
The importance of this distinction may be seen from this fact: that the ownership of the means of production was widely distributed throughout the population. This was “private economic power,” in MacIver’s phrase, but it was fundamentally different from modern private property. While the means of production at that time were distributed through the nation (very unequally, to be sure, but distributed nonetheless), today the overwhelming mass of the means of production in capitalist countries is concentrated in the hands of a tiny class, while most of the population owns no part of them.
In his brilliant and prophetic analysis in Capital, Marx demonstrated why and how the early commodity producing system of the independent producer gives rise to the capitalist mode of production, and how this in turn inevitably leads to the ever-tighter concentration and centralization of capital. These laws have been verified with exceptional fidelity in every capitalist country.
In the US a century-and-a-half ago, probably 80% of the population shared in the direct ownership of the means of production. Most of this 4/5 of the population had very little, since most were small family farmers, but all had some. The hired or enslaved labor force made up the rest of the population.
Today this proportion is approximately reversed. Only, at the very most, 20% of the population can be said to share in the ownership of the means of production. Of this 20%, most are farmers, small retailers, professionals who are self-employed. The overwhelming bulk of the nation’s productive apparatus is owned by a tiny part of this 1/5 of the nation. According to the recent Brookings Institution survey of stock ownership, only about 6% of the adults own all the corporate wealth of the United States. But the concentration within this 6% is extreme. A Federal Reserve Bureau survey (made by the University of Michigan Survey Research Center) a few months ago concluded that only about 1% of the families own about 80% of the corporate stock of the nation, and another 1% owns most of the rest.
Thus the substantial basis for the levelling equalitarianism of the early bourgeois period has completely disappeared. However, in its place there came a new and different basis for the continuation of bourgeois democratic institutions. With the rise of capitalist imperialism, whereby nations representing no more than 20% of the world’s population were able to enrich themselves at the expense of nations representing the other 80%, capitalist wealth was compounded to an extent impossible for the bourgeoisie when restricted within its national bounds. The extra grease thus provided lubricated the political machinery, softened the impact of class struggles in the imperialist nations, and prolonged the life of democratic institutions which would otherwise have disappeared for lack of a material basis. The truth of this can be most clearly seen from this fact: that when European imperialism began to suffer the near-fatal shocks which began in 1914 and have continued with increased intensity to the present day, the institutions of bourgeois democracy began to totter and to fall. Those nations like Germany and Italy which suffered most from the decline of imperialism offer the clearest evidence of the modern basis of bourgeois democracy by the negative effects of the loss of that basis.
In the US, because of exceptionally favorable circumstances for the multiplication of capitalist wealth, the bourgeois-democratic stage merged closely into the later stage of imperialist “democracy.” This democracy appeared to have more vitality and stability here than in any other capitalist nation. However, in the recent period civil liberties have become far more restricted in the US than in some of the European capitalist nations, and illusions about the permanence of American capitalist democracy are being dispelled. The assault on civil liberties, the ever-closer identification of the two major parties (a trend which makes elections more and more of a formality), and the tendency toward merger between the top councils of the state and the top circles of finance-capital all testify that the destruction of traditional bourgeois democracy in the US is now in process.
References to American democracy by Marxists as “capitalist democracy” are perplexing to US scholars and ideologists who shade themselves under the umbrella of illusion. They start back in alarm before such a “dogmatic” stand. They will, say:
“I might understand you better if you said that the US sometimes has a capitalist government (McKinley, Harding, Hoover) and sometimes a non-capitalist government (Wilson, F.D. Roosevelt, Truman) but you say that the US has a capitalist government all the time, no matter who is in power or how he acts on disputed issues, and I can’t follow such a dogmatic stand.”
This so-called “dogmatism” is actually the only scientific approach to the state power. The nature of the state is determined by its relation to the economic structure and the economic classes of society. The liberal apologist himself recognizes this fact by implication when he gives his own grounds for believing that the US state is “impartial.” No sooner does the government, through a tax bill, legal decision, strike mediation or some other action yield to necessity, to class pressure, and deprive the capitalist class of 1/100 of its profits, than the liberal shouts: “You see, here is an anti-capitalist government.” He neglects to notice at the same time that the government has guaranteed, ensured, the other 99/100 of capitalist profits and the economic system which makes them possible.
The thin layer of disputed issues which so captivates the attention of the easily diverted observer does not embrace the essence of the state power. Even if the working class or the petty-bourgeoisie were to win their battles on all these issues (which never happens), the government remains capitalist because the whole essential substratum of action and policy, which occupies the attention of the state 365 days of the year, is designed to uphold and administer the capitalist system.
The fact that the capitalist class or individual capitalists cannot get everything they want from the capitalist state does not at all impress Marxists. They can’t because circumstances make it impossible, not because the state power is against them. This is particularly true in the present period, when corporations must surrender a large portion of their profit to the war machine in order to safeguard the rest of it. Some thoughtless and irresponsible (from their own viewpoint) capitalists try to make an anti-regime platform of this, but they have been rejected by the overwhelming majority of the capitalist class in both the Republican and Democratic parties. For the rest, the capitalist class as a whole keeps up a running fire against high taxes, not because it could or would alter the tax structure fundamentally, but in order to keep its share as low as possible within the limits dictated by present circumstances.
The recent period, since the beginning of World War II, has witnessed a far deeper growing-together of the US state power with the tops of US finance capital than any previous time in American history. Take as an instance five top American policy-makers and administrators; Dean Acheson, Robert A. Lovett, William H. Draper, W. Averell Harriman and Warren Austin.
Robert Abercrombie Lovett, Secretary of Defense, is indubitably the most important policy and administrative official in the entire governmental structure. From Yale and Harvard he went to the National Bank of Commerce, then became a partner in the Wall Street banking firm of Brown Brothers, Harriman & Co., going from there to the post of Assistant Secretary of War in 1940. From that job he has risen to his present position as czar of the nation’s chief activity: war preparations and war-making. In that capacity he has chief responsibility for the spending of at least 2/3 of the nation’s budget.
Dean Acheson is Secretary of State: like all cannon, the Defense Department has a mouth, and Acheson is it. He too passed through Yale and Harvard, went next to Covington & Burling, corporation attorneys, and proceeded from there to become a partner in the corporation law firm of Rublee, Acheson and Shorb. A fellow of the Yale Corporation and a member of the Metropolitan, Chevy Chase and Century clubs, Acheson was well equipped for appointment to high office by the Truman administration, his only drawback being that he was a Democrat. Most of the Democratic administration’s important appointees in the Defense and State Departments have been Republican bankers and corporate lawyers, but Truman was prepared to stretch a point in this case.
W. Averell Harriman is possibly second only to Robert Lovett in the strategy planning of the administration. He is director for Mutual Security, and as such spends most of the remainder of the budget that is left after Lovett gets through with it. He belongs to the little publicized but all-important National Security Council, which meets weekly to consider global strategy of US capitalism. Harriman is a partner of the big banking firm Brown Brothers, Harriman and Co. (the same firm which so considerately released Robert A. Lovett for government service) and has been Chairman of the Board of the Union Pacific Railroad, a director of the Illinois Central Railroad, etc., etc. He has also found time to become a famous society polo player. These qualifications suited him eminently for the position of Ambassador to the Soviet Union, and for his eventual rise to the place he now occupies as Truman’s right bower.
William H. Draper is an Ambassador who, as Special Representative in Europe, oversees all phases of US military and economic policy. Big business, feeling the presence of Walter S. Gifford (US Ambassador to Great Britain and former head of America’s largest corporation, American Telephone and Telegraph) in Europe to be comforting but not sufficient, placed Draper there as overlord of the whole works. Draper is another investment banker who started with the National City Bank, which is the J.P. Morgan outfit, went on to the Bankers Trust Co., and settled down with Dillon Read and Co. in 1927 where he became vice-president in 1937. From there he went to the General Staff of the US Army in 1940. Dillon Read and Co. also supplied us with our former Defense Secretary, James Forrestal, and with many other eminent servants.
Finally, for permanent representative and chief spokesman in the United Nations, Truman reached up into Vermont and secured the services of Warren G. Austin, another corporation attorney who used to be a Republican US Senator. Austin possesses an intimate knowledge of how to deal with the insurgent colonial masses from his experience as attorney for the American International Corporation in China.
Thus in this top quintet of US policy makers we find three Wall Street bankers and two corporation lawyers, a full house that is really five of a kind, all jokers. If space permitted we could lengthen this list enormously. But this is enough to suggest the true picture. The instructive lesson it contains is this: that the tendency of the state and finance capital to draw together and approach amalgamation must be very powerful indeed if it manifests itself so clearly even under a Democratic administration which must after all maintain its ties with the labor movement and its demagogic appeal to the mass of the people.
We have touched upon Professor MacIver’s argument only insofar as it deals with the relation of democracy to capitalism. We have maintained that this democracy at its optimum is a restricted and partial form which serves as vehicle for the overlordship of the tiny portion of the population that owns the means of production. Even this limited and essentially false democracy, however, is possible only under special historical circumstances the last of which are now disappearing. So that, if capitalism is maintained into the future, it cannot assure democracy but must on the contrary threaten its very existence.
Let us turn now to democracy and socialism. MacIver, in his third lecture, called The Portent of Karl Marx, points to the Soviet Union, where the “rulers are masters of everything.” This is his proof No.1 that planned, socialized economy and democracy are inconsistent. But there is ample historical evidence to show that it is foolish to seize upon a conjunctural development (a temporary one due to special and transient causes) like the political dictatorship in the Soviet Union, and to attempt to draw universal history from it.
Here is an instance. Professor MacIver contends, as we mentioned, that the rise of capitalism fostered the rise of democracy. There is a certain truth in this contention. Of course MacIver is absolutely wrong insofar as he credits democratic victories to the capitalist class itself. Historical research into the French, American, English, Dutch and other capitalist revolutions has demonstrated that the masses of the people (independent producers, shopkeepers, workers, etc.) had to wrest these liberties from an unwilling capitalist class, and that this usually so frightened the big capitalist groupings that they hastened in most cases to make their peace with the ancient regime or its remnants.
Nevertheless it is true, and Marxists were the first to make this analysis, that the rise of capitalism was responsible for the rise of the system of parliamentary civil-rights democracy which Marxists have called, because of its partial, class-dominated nature, bourgeois democracy.
The greatest impulsion ever given to capitalism by any single historic event was the French Revolution of 1789 which uprooted the old order and established conditions for capitalist growth more thoroughly than was the case in any other capitalist revolution. Professor MacIver would expect, in accordance with the general connection which he has established between “private economic power” and democracy, that the French Revolution would be followed by a flowering of liberty.
Instead it was followed by nothing but dictatorship for many years. The first form was the revolutionary dictatorship and reign of terror (combined with a popular revolutionary democracy of a type very abhorrent, we are sure, to Professor MacIver). Next there was the dictatorship of the Directorate, followed by the Napoleonic dictatorship, and after that came the restoration of absolutist monarchy for another 15 years. It was not until the limited bourgeois monarchy of Louis Philippe, fully 41 years after the supremacy of “private economic power” was established in the French Revolution, that we find the beginnings of French bourgeois democracy, and then only in a very attenuated form. Moreover, so weak was this democracy that within a score of years it was destroyed by another absolutist Bonapartism which lasted two decades. Bourgeois democracy in its recent and MacIver-celebrated form was not established in France until 1871, and then only upon the bones of tens of thousands of slaughtered Parisian Communards.
But, Professor MacIver will protest, this peculiarity was due to special conditions which hampered the developing political-democratic forms. The 25-year assault upon the French Revolution by the old order in Europe, the internal civil war, the commercial blockade and other such circumstances, MacIver will say, distorted French development and cast it, for a while, in special and transitory forms.
Having said all this, MacIver would have made a fairly accurate reply to his own strictures concerning the Soviet Union. The political forms there too are quite apparently a temporary aberration produced by special historical circumstances in which the first collectivized economy exists, and are not inherent in collectivized economy itself. The stresses and pressures which set up distortions in political organisms are particularly acute in a period of revolutionary transition; never in any case in history have these distorting stresses been so powerful as those exercised upon the first workers’ state by the capitalist world.
Professor MacIver, it must be said to his credit, does not conclude the discussion by pointing a finger to the Soviet Union. He appears to be aware that Marxists see the Soviet political form, are undismayed by it, explain it, and show how it will be compelled to yield to new political forms, far more democratic than any which have yet existed in the modern world. He also seems to be aware that Marxists insist that in other cases of transition to socialism, the political abominations of the Stalin regime will not, in the absence of similar material conditions, be repeated. He therefore continues his discussion in an effort to show that political dictatorship inheres in the very nature of any society in which the means of production are nationalized in the hands of a central administration.
MacIver’s general thesis is that the existence of private ownership of the means of production makes it possible for the people to control the government because there are sources of power for them to lean on outside the government. If however “private economic power” is abolished, then there is “a grave danger that when no power remains outside the government, government itself will rest on power.” (p.58). The “will of the people” could not “prevail against the new pressures of government.” (p.59). “Since only one power structure remains,” therefore “the people are now disarmed.” (p.64).
Here is the capitalist argument reduced to its bare bones: we need the capitalists and their power to rest upon in opposition to government.
Should MacIver try to give some reality to his fanciful theory, he would have to show just where on this terrestrial globe the democratic will of the people draws sustenance from, leans upon or is aided in any way by the class that owns the means of production, and is thereby enabled to resist “the pressures of government.” He will not find one speck of reality in this notion. Quite the contrary, the democratic people find the power of the private propertied class to be a barrier in their way in all their efforts to control the government.
Professor MacIver, being a “political philosopher” and a “sociologist” must know that this very capitalist class has been the prime mover behind fascism. The German and Italian fascists regimes, outstanding examples, were both established and maintained as direct instruments of big capital. In view of this record, how can Professor MacIver contend that this sort of private property, capitalist property in its present oligarchic form, must be guarded as the guarantee of democracy?
It is impossible to comprehend how private property in its present monopolistic form is anything but a barrier to the democratic will of the people, both in the economy and in the state. Perhaps then Professor MacIver will assert that private property will be restored to its earlier form in which big capitalists were a rarity and ownership of the means of production was widespread? Alas, we see no such claim in MacIver’s book. This program, once so popular with the liberals and reformers, has been virtually abandoned with none but a few stragglers still belatedly maintaining it. Despite their vehemence against Marx, they have all accepted his law of capitalist development: that capital grows out of commodity production and that big capital grows out of little capital and that monopoly capital grows out of big capital, and that this process cannot be reversed by protests and lamentations so long as capitalism continues.
Thus we see the ridiculous spectacle of liberals and professors who used to call upon Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson to save democracy now appealing to Morgan and Rockefeller, and moreover, in all seriousness, assuring us that these are just the boys who will do the job!
The heart of the superstitious conception of the state is this: that the state is an entity apart from society which uses one portion of society to oppress another portion. To this Marx and Engels counterposed the scientific conception that the state is a relation between men expressed as a thing, an institution.
If the state is a relation between men, then insofar as it oppresses, represses or dictates it does so in behalf of some men at the expense of others. Those who oppress and those who are oppressed represent a social division upon which the state is founded. This class division, this social antagonism as the source of the state power is the only scientific conception of the state.
I have said that the superstitious, more precisely the fetishistic view is that the state is a thing naturally antagonistic to men. This is the view from which MacIver concludes that men must give “private economic power” to a special group which can then combat the state. Why do our official ideologists cling to such a peculiar, not to say half-witted theory? The reason is very simple: without this misconception they would be forced to admit that popular democracy can best guard itself against state oppression by ending social antagonisms. But since their object is to justify and save social antagonisms (keep society divided into capitalists and wage workers), since the ruling class will countenance no other ideology than one which is directed to this end, the bourgeois “sociologists” must confuse everything and thereby place themselves outside the realm of genuine social science.
We have indicated that the conflict among men upon which the state is based is the antagonism between social classes that are formed by the division of society into propertied and propertyless, capitalists and wage workers, exploiters and exploited. This has been substantially the view of all those who have comprehended society, from Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, who incorporated it into No.10 of the Federalist papers, down through the modern Marxists.
Here some professors may (and do) confront us with another objection, roughly as follows:
“Perhaps some of our colleagues are fools who think that the state is a magical thing which oppresses out of a natural predilection, but we know better than that. We agree with you that state oppression reflects a conflict between classes, one of which lays hold of the state to enforce its will upon the rest of society. And we also agree that the main social antagonism today is between those who own the means of production and those who work for the owners. We say, however, that this social antagonism is only the present form of an endless social conflict between classes which has always existed and will always exist. Even if this present social antagonism is destroyed, there will arise a new one, because this kind of conflict is inherent in men, in their urge for power, for wealth, for overlordship.”
(Such an argument was advanced by a man who understood better than most American thinkers the fact that the state represents a social antagonism, Charles A. Beard, in his book The Economic Basis of Politics.)
Of these professors who claim not to be fools we say: the more fools they. The precondition for a scientific discussion of society, well established in the historical record of man as well as in his biological and anthropological investigations, is the understanding that man’s “urges,” desire for power, for prominence, etc., and the forms they take are determined and shaped by his material and social surroundings. No branch of the sciences has yet discovered biological or psychological “imperatives” of a fixed variety in man. On the contrary, these sciences have all demonstrated that human beings behave, not in accordance with any such categorical imperatives seated in “biological nature” or in commandments from the misty heavens of our religious preceptors, but in an endless variety of ways, varying with the nature of society. Even those physical functions which we know to be relatively immutable in man in his present biologic form, such as nutrition, reproduction, etc., have been cast in widely varying molds according to the stage of technological and social evolution.
Should these professors be right, that would be the end of almost all social science. Mankind would be foolish to expect to play a conscious role in the shaping of society. We would have to admit that society is already shaped for us by inherent factors of our biological nature, and turn to practitioners of the natural sciences with the plea that they alter our “natures” by physical manipulation. Failing that, we would always be condemned to the misery of oppression of man by man in one form or another. But of course these “thinkers” are not right, they are only superstitious, and they themselves understand that their theory in so baseless that they do not usually state it openly, but only by an implication which one may clarify by drawing their thoughts to the logical conclusion.
The present form of social antagonism in capitalist nations is primarily that between capitalists and wage workers, but the first essential basis for all varieties of social antagonism in human history is material want. Mankind has never been able to wring from nature so abundant a supply of the products of labor required by men as to bestow them in adequacy upon all portions of society.
The connection between this fact and the state power has been abundantly demonstrated in the history of all societies, including the present collectivized economy of the Soviet Union and its satellite states. We can illustrate it for Professor MacIver in the following simple example:
Should he have 100 textbooks to distribute in a class of 100 students, and an abundant reserve against losses and damage, the distribution would present no problem. Should he, however, have only one-quarter or one-third so many books as students, and no reserve, his role would change completely. He would be compelled to decide how to distribute or circulate them, keep his supply under lock and key, guard against theft, make further rules and punish violators, etc., etc. In such a case, Professors McIver could say with Louis XIV: “L’etat, c’est moi.”
Social antagonism cannot be eliminated, nor can the state be reduced to an administrative entity planning and organizing the work of a free collective of producers, until such time as mankind can find its way to the fullness of economic abundance. We can, however, expect the repressive functions of the state to diminish proportionally as want and social antagonisms are reduced throughout the period of transition to a society of relatively unqualified abundance.
In a famous passage in Anti-Dühring, Frederick Engels predicted:
“The interference of the state power in social relations becomes superfluous in one sphere after another, and then ceases of itself. The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things and the direction of the processes of production. The state is not ‘abolished,’ it withers away.”
This breathtaking forecast has been made the subject of much debate, but it can never be understood without a study of the entire chapter in which it occurs. Engels says:
“Men have long dreamed of a society which collectively owns the means of production, but this has been a vague ideal of the future. Society has been divided into exploited and exploiters because of the low development of production hitherto ... So long as the sum of social labor (Engels wrote) yielded a product which only slightly exceeded what was necessary for the bare existence of all ... so long was society necessarily divided into classes ...”
“The possibility of securing for every member of society, through social production, an existence which is not only fully sufficient from a material standpoint and becoming richer from day to day, but also guarantees to them the completely unrestricted development and exercise of their physical and mental faculties – this possibility now exists for the first time, but it does exist.”
Engels summed up his point in this remarkable sentence:
“Men’s own social organization which has hitherto stood in opposition to them as if arbitrarily decreed by nature and history, will then become the voluntary act of men themselves.”
This dispute which we have been pursuing with Professor MacIver is now being fought out in far grimmer form throughout the entire world. The battle, under way for a century, carries the fate of mankind in its outcome.
The validity of a social idea may be tested by the attitude taken towards it by mankind over the course of a long period of experience with it. Marxists, even though they have often been a small minority, do not hold with those philistines who attach no importance to popular opinion on grounds of the alleged “ignorance” or “superstitions” of the people. Professors, as we have seen, can be superstitious too. In actual fact the masses fight their way through to the truth in the long run because they live the reality that doctrinaires only talk about.
A century ago the entire human race followed the capitalist class in its contention that private property is the key to human welfare. Today, tens of millions of people throughout the world, probably the majority of mankind, act in the conviction that collectivized property is the first requirement for the well-being and progress of society.
Marx and Engels spoke alone, but today millions speak with them. The inability of the MacIvers to reply to Marx and Engels has its dramatic and inspiring counterpart in the inability of world capitalism to suppress the world’s revolutionary masses. Never has social theory been so brilliantly vindicated, and never with such good omen for the future of society.
1. Democracy and the Economic Challenge, by Robert M. MacIver, Alfred A. Knoff, 1952, 86 pp., $2.50.
Last updated on 19.7.2006