Solidarity, summer 1981
Review of Marxism and Class Theory: A bourgeois critique by Frank Parkin (Tavistock, £4.95); Urban Politics by Peter Saunders (Pelican, £2.95); and The Dominant Ideology Thesisby Nicholas Abercrombie, Bryan Turner and Stephen Hill (Allen and Unwin, £12.50)
Frank Parkin is one of Britain’s foremost stratification theorists, and readers of Solidarity
might be familiar with his Class Inequality and Political Order
, which is available as a mass-market paperback. Marxism and Class Theory
is a more abstract work, but it just as readable and far more provocative. “Given what now passes for Marxist theory,” he says in his introduction, “almost any imaginable bourgeois alternative seems preferable” – and this remark sets the tone for what follows. Parkin takes an almost sadistic delight in demolishing the attempts of even “sophisticated” Marxists such as Poulantzas, Barran and Wright to deal with the realities of the class structure in modern capitalist societies.
Marxist class theory, for all the changes it has undergone in the hands of the academic Marxists who sprang to prominence in the sixties higher education boom, has proved itself unable to cope with phenomena such as the growth of white-collar employment, the shift to managerial control of enterprises, the expansion of the state sector or the importance of ethnic changes in society, says Parkin.
As a result, Parkin believes it should be abandoned. He puts forward an alternative that draws heavily on the sociology of Max Weber. Class, for Parkin, is a matter of “social closure” or “the monopolisation of specific, usually economic opportunities” so as to exclude outsiders: it is based on power rather than “relationship to the means of production” as Marxists would have it.
There is not the space here to go into details, but it seems to me that Parkin’s schema, although flowing from a social democratic perspective that claims trade unions and political parties to be agents pure and simple of the working class in the class struggle – they’re not – could form the nucleus of a radical alternative to the Marxist orthodoxy the left has been flogging for so many years.
One aspect of stratification that Parkin does not discuss at length is housing, although there is nothing in his approach to rule out its application in this area. Here it’s worth turning to another new sociological work, Peter Saunders’s Urban Politics, the first half of which is a useful summary of recent thinking on the relationship between housing and class, the latter being conceived of in traditional Marxist terms.
This is an important topic for the left, because it brings up the thorny problem of how community struggles stand next to workplace struggles, something Solidarity has had little to say about lately. Saunders’ politics are too concerned with the need for leadership to inspire many readers of Solidarity, but his book is a good starting point in spite of the rather long empirical study that occupies its second half.
Finally, on a different but related subject that has received scant attention of late, there is The Dominant Ideology Thesis
by Abercrombie, Turner and Hill, unfortunately ridiculously overpriced at £12.50 in hardback. After noting the similarity of the cases put forward for the existence of a dominant ideology by certain Marxists (Gramsci, Althusser and Habermas) and various bourgeois sociologists, the authors argue that “ideology” is hardly the major tool of social control it has been claimed to be.
What social theorists have identified as the dominant ideology of modern capitalism is in fact incoherent and contradictory, and (most importantly) remains largely uninternalised by subordinate groups in society, even though the methods of ideological transmission developed under modern capitalism are potentially far more efficient than ever before, It is not ideology but the “dull compulsion of economic relations”, backed up by the threat of state violence, which keeps society in check, according to Abercrombie et al, and to claim otherwise is to drift dangerously close towards disregarding the degree to which conflict does exist in our society.
I’m unsure about their analysis on certain points – nationalism, for example, would seem to be quite important as a “dominant ideology”, as would certain ideas about sexual roles. But The Dominant Ideology Thesis
does a good demolition job on what is now orthodoxy. The issue is, moreover, of the greatest importance for the libertarian left. The all-pervading influence of the dominant ideology has been dragged up time and again, from Kautsky to the Situationists, as justification for the direction of political activity by elites with “correct” political ideas. Any ammunition against them is more than welcome.
Very poor scan not checked against original.