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.


Solidarity leader, summer 1981

Ninety-eighty-one has undoubtedly witnessed some dramatic changes on the British party-political scene. On one hand, the Conservative party has shown itself more openly divided than at any time since the war, and on the other, the long-running feud between the right and left of the Labour party has finally resulted in a significant right-wing faction abandoning Labour to form a new party which, in alliance with the Liberals, has been making spectacular advances in the opinion polls.
It is doubtful that all this will have any radical effect on the type of economic policies we can expect to suffer for the next decade. The Labour Party, the SDP-Liberal Alliance and the Tory “wets” are all committed to some form of Keynesian fiscal expansion backed up by wage controls , and although there exist a number of disagreements on the precise form such a policy should take (such as the differences over the EEC, stat­utory incomes control , nationalisation and protectionism) , we can almost certainly look forward to the prospect of a turn to revitalised versions of the sorts of programmes unsuccessfully pursued by governments in the 1970s, whoever takes power after the next general election.
In an important sense, therefore, the realignment of British party politics is little more than cosmetic: on the assumption that the present Conservative government either performs a U-turn or loses office (through an electoral defeat or, improbably, as a result of parliamentary defections), the economic policy die seems well and truly cast. How successful this “new Keynesianism” will be is, of course, another question. There are good reasons to doubt that one of its variants will solve the problems of capitalism. In particular, much depends on the response of the working class to new conditions. What is important here, however, is the similarity of the so-called alternatives put forward by the various parties that stand a chance of succeeding the present Tory government.
Nevertheless, to dismiss the changes on the party-political front simply as a superficial gloss on what is fundamentally a growing consensus among the potential managers of capit­alism would be mistaken.
The realign­ment of British politics might not reflect any significant breaking of the mould in policy terms, but it most certainly does stem from deeply important changes in the relationship between the ways people perceive their positions in the class structure and the party political preferences they express in elections.
Since the war, people who consider themselves as working-class have identified less and less with “their” Labour party at election time. At the same time those who see themselves as middle-class have weakened in their allegiance to the Conservatives. These tendencies have resulted in the steady decline of electoral support for the Conserv­ative and Labour parties: the percent­age of the electorate who voted Labour or Conservative fell from 80 per cent in 1951 to only 60 per cent in 1979, partly because of a long-term growth in abstention (which in fact had reached its zenith in October 1974) and part­ly because of an increase in the percentage of voters backing minor parties.
Simultaneously, there has been a change in the social composition of party membership, particularly that of the Labour party at constituen­cy level. The picture of a Labour party composed of polytechnic lecturers so often put before us by the media is a caricature, but the trend towards an activist grass roots increasingly dominated by those popular usage would define as “middle-class”  is undeniable.
This trend is at once both instrumental in perpetuating the decline of identification with Labour on the part of those who consider themselves working-class and the result of such a decline. What is important here, however, is not the minute workings of the embourgeoisement process going on in local Labour parties but the very fact that it is happening. Labour, long since having ceased to be for the working class, is now less and less of it.
Some people have yet to realise this: one thinks at once of those sincere souls who, while critical of Labour’s programme and organisation, nevertheless join up “to talk to the workers”, oblivious to the fact that the status of the Labour Party as a “mass party” has for a long time been extremely questionable. Others are, however, much shrewder. It is no coincidence that the academics who first charted the development of a disjunction between the ways people saw themselves in class terms, and the way they participated in party politics as voters or activists, are now advising the embryo Social Democratic party. For the SDP is essentially the attempt of a tempor­arily defeated political elite to exploit the weakening identification of class and party in the collective political consciousness for the sake of gaining power.
What is more, the “Gang of Four” played their hand at a singularly opportune moment. By splitting from Labour when it was in opposition to the most unpopular Tory government of modern times, the Social Democrats can now count not only upon their apparent novelty, their democratic rhetoric and the disaffection of many Labour voters, but also on a cadre of ex-Conservative-voting “political virgins”. In alliance with the Liberals, the SDP stand a fair chance of at least holding the balance of power in parliament by 1984.
Very poor scan not checked against original.