In a recent issue of nlr, Bob Rowthorn called Harry Braverman’s Labour and Monopoly Capitalfootnote1 ‘one of the two most important works of Marxist political economy to have appeared in English in the last decade’.footnote2 The book’s apparently untheoretical approach is deceptive. In a simple style, but with great attention to detail, the author describes the inter- and intra-occupational shifts which have taken place in twentieth-century American capitalism and the capital movements which they mirror. But this is not a mere painstaking historical exercise; Braverman’s analysis is rich with insights of great relevance to contemporary political economy. Moreover, in two key respects, the work represents a genuine and substantive advance. In the first place, Braverman takes as his starting-point capitalist production rather than income distribution and demand, and focuses within this on the capitalist labour-process. Secondly, he combines rigorous theoretical analysis with vehement and eloquent indictment of the effects of the capitalist labour-process on the working class—a reintroduction of the critical and demystificatory element long absent from Marxist political economy. The last person to have written anything of substance on the labour-process was Marx himself. It is, therefore, worth enquiring why this topic should have emerged so suddenly from relative obscurity.

Many writers have noted the shift in focus of Marxist theory since the late sixties, away from philosophical concerns and towards the more classical preoccupations of an active Marxism. Labour and Monopoly Capital is without doubt a major representative of that trend. It parallels the turn which, since the ‘new leftism’ of the sixties, a new generation of political activists has been making in recent years towards the working class. In that respect, although Braverman explicitly presents his book as complementary to the project undertaken by Baran and Sweezy in their Monopoly Capital (1966), it in fact represents a substantial break with the latter’s theoretical and political framework. For unlike Baran and Sweezy, Braverman is confident of the central revolutionary role of the industrial working class in the struggle to overthrow capitalism; at the same time, he rejects their ‘moral’ redefinition of the Marxist concept of surplus.

However, Braverman himself of course, who died in 1976 at the tragically early age of fifty-six, does not fall into the ‘new generation’ alluded to above. On the contrary, not just his age, but also his formation—fourteen years as a skilled metal-worker and active militant in the forties and fifties (he was a prominent member of the Socialist Workers’ Party until 1953), followed by almost as long working in the offices of publishing houses—marked him off clearly from it. And this background clearly had a significant influence on his book. But if Braverman’s personal experience was an important factor in making him write on the labour-process, he did so nevertheless in the context of the changing conjuncture of Marxist theory. He was aware of this himself, and in the Introduction discusses the stimuli which impelled him to re-open theoretical discussion on this long neglected topic. He argues that the seemingly exhaustive treatment of the subject in Capital, coupled with the more immediate problems presented to Marxism by the events of the early twentieth century, led to a lack of analysis of changes in the labour-process.

This blind spot, according to Braverman, developed into a more serious error in the form of an increasing acceptance by Marxists of the specific form of labour-process developed by capitalism. The tremendous increase in scientific intricacy and productivity of the labour-process in the early part of the century led the Marxists of the Second International to see the modern factory system as an inevitable if perfectible form of its organization. Later, the situation facing the new Soviet state and its need to develop industrial production led the cpsu to borrow from and imitate the most developed examples of the capitalist labour process in order to catch up with the capitalist world in preparation for the building of socialism. Thus ‘the ideological effect was felt throughout world Marxism: the technology of capitalism, which Marx had treated with cautious reserve, and the organization and administration of labour, which he had treated with passionate hostility, became relatively acceptable. Now the revolution against capitalism was increasingly conceived as a matter of stripping away from the highly productive mechanism of capitalism certain “excrescences”, improving the conditions of work, adding to the factory organization a formal structure of “workers’ control”, and replacing the capitalist mechanisms of accumulation and distribution with socialist planning.’footnote3 However, argues Braverman, the rapid pace of development in the capitalist countries after the Second World War, together with the impact of certain features of the Cuban and Chinese revolutions, has begun to focus new attention on the labour-process.

Now, Braverman is correct to point out that little analysis of the labour-process has been done since Capital; the compulsory recapitulation of Marx in most current work on the topic testifies to this. He also has good cause to draw attention to the uncritical attitude of Second- and Third-International Marxists to the capitalist labour-process, and the effects this had on their ideas on socialist production. However, this is not a mere isolated error—it forms an integral part of a whole traditional Marxist orthodoxy. And the role accorded to the labour-process and technology in this Marxist tradition is, in fact, better understood in terms of the connection it posited between forces and relations of production. The ‘stages’ theory of Second-International Marxism, with its over-simplified model in which relations of production first develop and then fetter the forces of production, was it is true dealt a severe blow by the Russian Revolution. The Bolshevik assertion of the socialist character of the revolution involved recognition of the complex inter-relationship between the international dimension of the productive forces and the existence of individual nation states. Thus, at a theoretical level, there was a partial re-assembly of the non-mechanical conceptualization of the relationship between forces and relations of production that had been present in the work of Marx, but distorted in the Marxism of the Second International.footnote4 But this break with the economic determinism of previous Marxism was not fully developed into a complete break with the technological determinism with which it was in symbiosis. A corollary of the mechanistic view of forces and relations of production had been a granting of complete primacy to the material means of production within the forces of production.footnote5

This error remained general in Soviet Marxism. Bukharin’s formulation can be taken as typical: ‘in the last analysis, society is dependent on the development of technique, which is the basic determinacy of the productive forces of society’.footnote6 It is in the context of such views that the uncritical attitude towards the capitalist labour process which Braverman so rightly stresses takes on its full force. The fact that the Soviet state was forced to construct productive forces which had not been created by a preceding phase of capitalist development must have been a strong material factor in forming the attitude of Soviet Marxism to the capitalist factory system, as in further reinforcing the technological determinism inherited from the theorists of the Second International. (It is, of course, a material factor equally at work in China or Cuba, though this was not something which Braverman understood.)

So much for past positions; it is more difficult to interpret the forces behind the recent re-opening of discussion of the labour process. It is probably better to approach that problem via the substance of the discussion itself, and turn first to a summary of Braverman’s contribution. In Labour and Monopoly Capital, he sets out to investigate two phenomena: first, the apparent decrease in the proportion of the American working class employed in manufacturing and associated industries—the so-called ‘blue-collar workers’; secondly, the apparent contradiction in the literature on automation between a view which emphasizes the increased need for training, education and skill in the workforce, and a view which emphasizes the increasing sub-division of tasks and corresponding mindlessness of work. Declining to make any premature assumption about the existence or non-existence of a ‘new working class’, he opts to examine the development of the entire working class, concentrating on its objective structure, and expressly ruling out any consideration of the ‘subjective’ aspects of class: ‘This is a book about the working class as a class in itself, not as a class for itself.’footnote7 In defending this self-imposed limitation, Braverman correctly castigates all those sociologists, ‘Marxian’ and otherwise, who find it impossible to see class defined in any other manner than subjectively, by its members. However, he seems unaware of the genuine problems which this limitation in fact engenders. As will be seen below with his discussion of the ‘middle layers’, in some areas it becomes difficult—not to say inadvisable—to rigidly separate consideration of ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ aspects.