Academic journal article Social Justice

Karl Marx, the Theft of Wood, and Working-Class Composition: A Contribution to the Current Debate

Academic journal article Social Justice

Karl Marx, the Theft of Wood, and Working-Class Composition: A Contribution to the Current Debate

Article excerpt


The international working-class offensive of the 1960s threw the social sciences into a crisis from which they have not yet recovered. The offensive was launched in precisely those parts of the working class that capital had formerly attempted to contain within silent, often wageless reserves of the relative surplus population, that is, in North American ghettoes, in Caribbean islands, or in "backward" regions of the Mediterranean. When that struggle took the form of the mass, direct appropriation of wealth, it became increasingly difficult for militants to understand it as a "secondary movement" to the "real struggle" that, it was said, resided only in the unions and the plants. Nor could it be seen as the incidental reactions of "victims" to an "oppressive society," as it was so often by those organizations left flat-footed by the power of an autonomous Black movement and an autonomous women's movement.

This is not the place to elaborate on the forms that the struggles have taken in the direct appropriation of wealth, nor how these were able to circulate within more familiar terms of struggle. (1) We must note, however, that they thrust the problem of crime, capital's most ancient tool in the creation and control of the working class, once again to a prominent place in the capitalist relation. As the political recomposition of the international working class threw into crisis the capitalist organization of labor markets, so that part of traditional social science, criminology, devoted to studying one of the corners in the labor market, "criminal subcultures" and street gangs, had to face a crisis of its own.

George Jackson recommended burning the libraries of criminology. Young criminologists began to question the autonomous status of criminology as a field of study (Hirst 1972, 29; Phillipson 1973, 400; Melossi 1976, 31; Currie 1974, 113). Accompanying both the internal and external critique of criminology has been a recovery of interest in the treatment of crime within the Marxist tradition. Yet, that tradition is by no means accessible or complete and in fact contains contradictory strains within it, so that one cannot be completely unqualified in welcoming it.

In stating our own position let us try to be as clear as possible even at the risk of overstatement. We wish to oppose the view that fossilizes particular compositions of the working class into eternal, even formulaic, patterns. We must, in particular, combat the view that analyzes crime (or much else indeed) in the nineteenth-century terms of a "lumpenproletariat" versus an "industrial proletariat." It is to be regretted that despite the crisis of criminology and the experience of struggle that gave rise to it, some militants can still speak of the "lumpenproletariat" tout court as though this were a fixed category of capitalist relations of power. When neither the principle of historical specification nor the concept of class struggle is admitted there can be no useful analysis of class strategy, howsoever exalted the methodology may be in other respects. (2)

In the rejection of various idealist interpretations of crime, including their "Marxist" variants, there is, perforce, a revival of interest in the situation of the problem within specified historical periods, that is, within well-constituted phases of capitalist accumulation. In this respect the recent work appearing in these pages that discusses the problem in terms of original accumulation must be welcomed (Melossi 1976, 26ff.). At the same time we must express the hope that this analysis may be extended to the discussion of the appropriation of wealth and of crime at other periods of the class relation. The contribution of those whose starting point in the analysis of crime is the concept of "marginalization" (Crime and Social Justice Collective 1976, 1-4; Herman and Julia R. Schwendinger 1976, 7-26) leads us to an analysis of the capitalist organization and planning of labor markets, certainly an advance in comparison to those for whom capital remains de-historicized and fixed in the forms of its command. …

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