Debates among French Marxists in the 1970s on the class position of engineers

The 1970s saw a lot of debate among French leftists of various organizations and schools of thought on the issue of how to interpret and deal with the restructuring of capitalism and the new classes that were being created.  These debates are summarized quite nicely in “Marxism and the New Middle Class: French Critiques” by George Ross, published in 1978 in Theory and Society, Vol. 5, No. 2.  The debates were about the character of the middle class as a whole (generally understood as those performing mental labor and getting a relatively higher salary), and much of this concerned techno-scientific workers.  The debates happened in the context of the post-1968 era, when people were trying to understand what to make of the student protests and the participation of skilled technical workers in the mass strikes.  Here is a list of each “faction” in the debate, as I understood Ross’ paper, and the main points of their class analysis.

French Communist Party (PCF):  The PCF saw a strict division between the working class and the capitalist class, and lumped any “sub-classes” (i.e. peasants, administrators, shopkeepers) into one or the other main class.  They argued that the new middle classes were part of the working class, and for the need to reach out to them.  But unlike their traditional working class base, they saw the new middle classes as not inherently revolutionary, and so argued for the need to tone down their militancy and put off revolutionary organizing.  This was roundly criticized by other sections of the French left for being reformist and evidence of the party’s decline.  (p. 165-70)

Nico Poulantzas:  This influential Greek-French Marxist-Leninist and comrade of Louis Althusser saw the new middle classes as being petite-bourgeoisie, because they neither owned the means of production, nor directly produced surplus value.  He also saw them as being a primary enforcer of capitalist social relations in the workplace, through their monopolization of knowledge, and tending away from class consciousness due to the way the education system conditions them to be “professional” and career-oriented.  However, Poulantzas also pointed out the divisions within this new middle class: he saw engineers and technicians as being relatively closer to workers, and administrators and accountants and the like being closer to the capitalists.  And despite the role of the education system, the petite-bourgeoisie are still heavily influenced by the level of class struggle in society, and can be brought into a coalition with workers if efforts are made to intervene against pro-capitalist and careerist ideology.  Poulantzas argued that when the petite-bourgeoisie become discontent, their politics tend to range from social-democratic reformism to anarcho-syndicalism.  (p. 171-5)

Baudelot et. al.:  A paper written by Christian Baudelot, Roger Establet, and Jacques Malemort (it was unclear who they’re associated with) argued that capitalist restructuring created both new groups of workers and new groups of petite-bourgeoisie.  They analyzed the wages of various salaried sectors and compared this to the estimated cost of “reproduction” (i.e. the costs of education), and found that some sectors were just barely compensated (accountants, administrative assistants, clerical workers) while others were compensated far beyond the cost of education (engineers and managers).  They also divided the petite-bourgeoisie into three analytical fractions: Fraction I was the old petite-bourgeoisie, the shopkeepers and business-people who were losing from capitalist restructuring and were lurching toward far-right politics; Fraction II was private-sector professionals who identified heavily with their firm’s success, and thus were distant from leftist politics; Fraction III was public-sector professionals who tended to have social-democratic and reformist politics.  Unlike Poulantzas, Baudelot et. al. argued that the politics of the petite-bourgeoisie were generally predictable, instead of being subordinate to the level of class struggle.  (p. 176-80)

Serge Mallet: This dissident militant from the PCF broke somewhat significantly from the dominant Marxist-Leninist currents to argue that the contemporary mode of capitalism was distinct from previous modes.  Mallet periodized capitalism into three phases: first was the mercantilist phase where the vanguard class was skilled craftsmen who were being exploited and displaced, second was the industrial age of mechanized production where the vanguard class was unskilled assembly workers, and the third and newest was the contemporary age of automated mass production where the vanguard class was skilled intellectual workers — engineers, technicians, etc.  Mallet argued that the technical knowledge of the new classes created a contradiction where these workers were fully aware of how to run and control the means of production, but still lacked political and workplace power, and thus would resist and fight capitalist control, and veer toward anarcho-syndicalism and the politics of worker self-management.  (p. 181-3)

Alain Touraine: This apparently famous sociologist seems to have broken the most with Marxism, in that he argued that the accumulation and use of knowledge (rather than the accumulation of capital) was the driving force of a new post-industrial political economy.  Like Mallet, he saw the new intellectual workers as being the key force for socio-political change in this new era, as they demand more real power and resist the capitalist drive for profits and push for self-management; but unlike Mallet, he sees them as a class that can effect change by themselves, rather than being necessarily tied with the old working class.  (p. 183-6)

Of these, the most relevant and interesting arguments to me are those of Poulantzas and Mallet.  Both see techno-scientific workers as being potentially radical forces and allies of the working class in general.  Mallet, in particular, is interesting because unlike many of the other theorists, he was an active militant organizer and seems to have developed his views from real praxis (as opposed to reading things via academia).

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One thought on “Debates among French Marxists in the 1970s on the class position of engineers

  1. […] US were attributed to the weakness of local student leftists).  Indeed, the subsequent decade saw vigorous debates among French Marxists about the class position of engineers, which echoed the SDS faction’s […]

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