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Whose "Class War"?

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Conservatives love to invoke the phrase "class warfare" every time a progressive measure is proposed. Taxing the rich in order to forward programs that will help the poor and the middle class is bad--we are told--because it allegedly stokes class war. The phrase is of course tainted because it seems to have a Marxist provenience. A variant of it does indeed first appear in a dramatic way in the opening lines of the Communist Manifesto. Because Marx's stock as a thinker has fallen sharply, we no longer live in a time of reflexive fear of communism, yet conservatives cannot resist the old habit of relying on anything that smacks of Marxism to induce fear or derision.

The trouble is that class warfare has an honorable history in which Marx plays but a minor role. The following two sentences are in the much celebrated Tenth Federalist by Madison: "The most common and durable source of factions has been the unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society." "Distinct interests" means different values, perceptions, incomes, goals. It implies--whether or not Madison would agree--that patricians, unable either to understand or address the adversities facing the rest of the population, need to have their power balanced by tribunes of the people.

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Conservatives are, furthermore, deviously playing word games. They parrot the word "war" because it sounds bloody, but Marx used kampf, struggle, not krieg, war. Kampf is akin to the non-violent meaning of jihad, as spiritual or political struggle . And indeed democracy is a fine way to let the differences play out in a non-violent way. "Class struggle" therefore means speeches, editorials, placards, advertisements, debates, and, climactically, a head count to settle who won the argument and will rule for a few years. All in all, it's a civilized and decorous form of warfare.

Madison even took sides in the class struggle, saying elsewhere that government should "protect the minority of the opulent against the majority." So too did Hamilton stipulate that, because of the populace's fickleness, the "first class" must be given "a distinct permanent share in the government." Both men's statements clearly show that there is indeed a class struggle and that Madison and Hamilton are unashamedly on their own side, that of the "opulent." But in

our--for better or worse--more egalitarian era, the preciousness of the patrician class is no longer self evident; its members are clearly as prone to original sin as are the rest of us; and the Founding Fathers, as the issue of slavery has shown, could be wrong on such important matters as favoring the "opulent." The great unwashed must consequently now be seen as making legitimate claims. Having the rich support the non-rich after years of the reverse is merely the swing of that pendulum in a democracy.

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This acknowledgment of the role of the class struggle was hardly limited to the Founding Fathers. It was not Karl Marx who spoke of the proclivity of employers to conspire and "to deceive and even oppress the public," of "the mean rapacity, the monopolizing spirit of merchants and manufacturers," of the "monopoly of the rich," of the "bad effects of high profits," of the "natural selfishness and rapacity" the vain and insatiable desires" of the rich, who institute "civil government"against the poor." It was the godfather of laissez faire capitalism and the favorite guru of conservatives, Adam Smith, who said that. Could Smith have meant that some businessmen, when left to their own devices, are actually capable of resorting to such measures as setting up offshore company headquarters and Swiss bank accounts, of cooking the books, stacking Boards of Governers, employing sweated labor, busting unions, polluting the environment, outsourcing jobs, colluding to fix prices, bribing officials and legislators, buying judges, concocting Ponzi schemes, secretly financing phony "grass roots" and "populist" rallies, providing themselves huge bonuses regardless of performance, and depending on government bail-outs not available to others--all this among other outrageous forms of often illegal and always immoral behavior? Apparently Smith did mean just that, because he advocated that the rascality on the part of the rich could not be allowed to proceed without interference if one were to have a functioning capitalist system; hence he spoke of the need for government action to prevent the stultification of the "laboring poor." If that be class struggle, apparently he favors it. (Compare Tocqueville's similar observation: "When the rich alone govern, the interest of the poor is always in danger.") The suspicion is strong that, judging by these words of his, were Smith alive today, he would far more likely be a liberal than a conservative.

Marx, then, neither invented nor discovered "class struggle"; he merely christened it. The conservative whining about the other side starting a "class war" is on the level of the remark of the juvenile who, when the fight in which he participated was broken up, complained, "The troubles all began when he hit back!"

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For 51 years Professor of English at Yeshiva University. Author of 13 books and over a hundred essays.

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