Applying Marxist urban politics to solving city problems

By Cao Haijun, Sun Yuncheng | 2014-08-19 | Hits:
(Chinese Socail Sciences Today)


Employers were working in a cotton mill in Britain after the Industrial Revolution.


The capitalist city, a product of the Industrial Revolution, was consist­ently a focus in the works of Marx and Engels. They frequently discussed urban problems in classics such as A Contribution to the Critique of Politi­cal Economy, The Condition of the Working Class in England and The German Ideology. They integrated the notion of urban space into a broader vision of historical materialism, leav­ing a legacy of theories on urban politics. As the former Soviet Union urbanologist Demidenko said, clas­sical writers of Marxism-Leninism establish a comprehensive theory on city and country with an eye toward the restrictions of history on urban development, laying a theoretical foundation for scientific urbanization.


Capitalist city

One of the remarkable features of Marxist urban politics is the ap­plication of the analytical paradigm of political economy. From a Marxist perspective, the industrial city is not just a place that serves as a gigantic container for capitalist production. The space it provides is an important link in the process of capital accumulation.

The primary function of the capi­talist city is to meet the demands of capital accumulation and expansion. In terms of the factors of produc­tion, the flourishing of the Industrial Revolution not only facilitated the development of industry, transporta­tion, finance and commerce but also sparked an influx of the most impor­tant factor—human capital to urban areas from rural areas.

As a result, the surplus labor population forms an industrial re­serve army in the city, providing hu­man resources which, available for exploitation, serve as a lever for the accumulation of capital. In addition, the revolution in science advances technological progress, making the city a testing ground for the trans­formation of new technologies into productive forces.

Engels theorized the reasons for urban growth and geographical con­centration as well as the economic benefits brought by the cluster of economies and people.

In The Condition of the Working Class in England, he wrote in figu­rative language, "A town, such as London, is a strange thing. This co­lossal centralization, this heaping together of two and a half million human beings at one point, has multiplied the power of this two and a half million a hundredfold, raising London to the commercial capital of the world, creating the giant docks and assembling the thousand vessels that continually cover the Thames." Engels af­firmed the productive forces and capital accumulation generated by large-scale agglomeration. Ac­cording to Marx and Engels, it is the function of agglomeration and radia­tion rather than the geographic space itself that makes the industrial city of modern capitalism attractive. In es­sence, the city is not just the physical form of a certain geographic space but embodies a cohesive force and the resulting space advantage.


Urban-rural antithesis

Of all the urban problems they dealt with, Marx and Engels elabo­rated the most on the distinction between capitalist town and country. In The Communist Manifesto, terms such as "the distinction between town and country", "the differences between town and country" and "the rule of the towns" were used to describe the relationship between urban and rural areas. Marx and Engels spoke highly of the measures advised by other socialists (cham­pions of Critical-Utopian Socialism), including the abolition of all distinc­tions between town and country.

They delved deeply into the evo­lutionary trend of urban-rural rela­tions, mapping out a route of "unifi­cation—separation—distinction—integration" and putting forward several propositions to abolish the distinction between town and coun­try.

From the perspective of Marx and Engels, urban and rural areas were unified in the early human society, which is the origin of the relation­ship between town and country, and they noted that it was only after the capitalist city came into being that antagonistic relations arose. The an­tagonism between town and coun­try, a product of the division of labor and the development of productivity, makes it possible for the capitalist mode of production, featuring me­chanical industry, to replace slavery and feudalism and for advanced industrial civilization, featuring in­dustrialization and urbanization, to replace the backward agricultural civilization.

Marx observed that in the process of the antagonism, the prosperity of towns relieved agriculture of underdevelopment in the Middle Ages. The economic history of soci­ety is a history of such antagonism, he added. He also discovered with acuteness that though such antith­esis creates conditions necessary for the development of civilized society, it meanwhile poses an impediment to the further development of hu­man society.

In the process of the urban-rural antithesis, the city plays a dominant role with the country in a subor­dinate position. Labor and capital, driven by the development of indus­trial production, rapidly concentrate in cities, causing isolation, decline and fragmentation in the country, which is relegated to a position of subjugation. It has, as the two think­ers wrote in The Communist Mani­festo, made the country dependent on the towns; nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois.

The division mirrors the fracture of social space in capitalist society. The urban-rural dual structure represents a significant perspective from which Marx and Engels criti­cized capitalist towns. They thought that the urban-rural antithesis clas­sifies people into two categories: "urban animals” and “rural animals". The former is enslaved to the spe­cialized skills required by each industry, while the latter becomes a victim to the isolation and ignorance of themselves. Such abnormal and unbalanced development, Engels maintains, is more obvious in the working class. As a consequence, workers swarm into towns, where they develop a class consciousness, making it inevitable for class struggle to take place in towns.


Town as a production center

The agglomeration of population and other social elements (politics, economy, cultural institutions and activities), the essential feature of towns, provides important con­ditions necessary for industrial production. The inflow of capital to towns intensifies the collisions between the two great classes: bour­geoisie and proletariat. The town becomes a center for the means of production, so large numbers of peasants flock to towns and thus the proletariat emerges.

Marx once made a comparison: "that union, which the burghers of the Middle Ages, with their miser­able highways, required centuries to attain, the modern proletarian, thanks to railways, can achieve in a few years." In fact, the formation of this union benefits from the town-based industrial production and as Marx put it, "it’s modern industry that creates the working class".

Marx attempted to stage a "spa­tial revolution" by virtue of the immensely facilitated means of communication that are created by modern industry. He and Engels constantly stressed the importance of "united action" in proletarian revolution, insisting that the working class should be united on a wider range. The alliance is worldwide, as he pointed out, "The working men have no country."

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx championed the conquest of political power and the establish­ment of dictatorship by proletariat and maintained that towns, without doubt, remain the battleground for the struggle between the two great classes. Large towns in particular are home to the labor movement, as Marx observed, it’s in towns where workers began to think about their situation and campaign for better conditions; where antagonism be­tween proletariat and bourgeoisie appeared; where the workers’ organization was formed, Chartism took place and socialism germinated.

The development of towns deter­mines how Marx and Engels con­structed revolutionary theories. The core of their urban theories is that the reason for any phenomenon in modern cities should be attributed to the capitalist mode of production, whose abolition is the prerequisite to thoroughly addressing any urban problem. In a word, Marxists believe, whether for revolution or reform, that towns are the arena for struggle.

These classical theories first pos­tulated by Marx and Engels have exerted a great influence on poster­ity. In the 1960s, neo-Marxist urban theorists represented by Lefebvre, Castells and Harvey carried on the mission of Marx and Engels. Thus, Marxist urban politics, having taken on the form of neo-Marxism, continue to provide guidance and inject vitality in the practice of production.


Cao Haijun and Sun Yuncheng are from the Politics and Public Administration College at Tianjin Normal University.

The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 607, June 13, 2014.

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Translated by Ren Jingyun