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New Left Review I/138, March-April 1983


Göran Therborn

Why Some Classes Are More Successful than Others

A theoretical model of class formation must undergird any serious theory of capitalist politics, just as the concrete analysis of class formation must be the prerequisite for the realistic examination of the historical development of any particular capitalist country. [1] This article attempts to integrate provisional findings and hypotheses from two, interrelated endeavours of the author. One is the development of a theory of capitalist politics, the other is the analysis of the formation and trajectory of a particular capitalist country, Sweden. Moreover, in its dual character, this article draws upon two earlier papers. At the International Political Science Association Congress in Moscow in 1979 I presented a paper, ‘Enterprises, Markets and States’, dealing with the structural determinants of capital–labour relations. It had a spatial focus, centering on the relations between three major arenas of class conflict and on the relative range of the controlling capacities of capital and labour. (The present paper, in contrast, has a more historical orientation and concentrates largely upon how historical time and the interrelationship of different temporalities affect the spatial relations of power.) The other paper, ‘Sweden Before and After Social Democracy’, was included in the special issue of Acta Sociologica prepared for the 1978 Congress of the International Sociological Association, and summarizes research by myself and my collaborators engaged in the project on ‘Sweden Under Social Democracy’. In this paper we argued that the development of the Swedish welfare state under Social Democratic governments from 1932 to 1976 could not be explained by a parliamentary histoire evénementielle, but, rather, required the analysis of class relations whose formation predate the entry of Social Democracy into government. So far, in contemporary Marxist research, two approaches to the problem of class formation have predominated. On one hand, there is the current of social and labour history whose unrivalled exemplar remains Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. Primarily concerned with the nineteenth century, the main contribution of this historiographic work has been to tell us when and how, and sometimes to what extent, a distinctive, self-conscious working class first came into existence, set apart from the rest of the population. On the other hand, there is another body of research and debate which commences from the reformist versus revolutionary dichotomy, and has the aim of explaining why, when and to what extent this or that working class became reformist—as the supposedly unexpected norm—deviating from the vision of revolutionary socialism. The literature on this topic is almost inexhaustable, but its fulcrum may be said to be the debate—for and against—the labour aristocracy thesis. [2] The most remarkable recent work in the Leninist labour aristocracy tradition is, of course, John Foster, Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution, London 1974; while the sharpest recent critique is probably H.F. Moorhouse, ‘The Marxian Theory of the Labour Aristocracy’, Social History 3 (January 1978) and ‘The Significance of the Labour Aristocracy’, ibid, 5 (May 1981). The best overview of the whole discussion is in G. Olofsson, Mellan klass och stat, Lund 1978 (English translation forthcoming). Here, however, I am mainly interested in class formation as a twentieth-century explanans, not as a nineteenth-century explanadum. Likewise, I am not so much concerned with the characteristics of a given class per se, as with its capacities and achievements in conflict and in other types of relations with other classes. From this relational perspective, the question of whether and why a certain class at a certain time should be called reformist or revolutionary loses its centrality, and is replaced by a question of the capacities of a given class to act in relation to others and the forms of organization and practice thereby developed.

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