Marx’s Theory of Class

Marx’s definition of class. It’s strengths and weaknesses. – Although the concept of class has a central importance in Marxist theory, Marx does not define it in a systematic form. Marx left this problem of producing a definition of the concept of social class until much later. The manuscript of the third volume of Capital breaks off at the moment when Marx was about to answer the question: ‘What constitutes a class? ‘ Even without his definition of class, one can reconstruct how the term is to be understood in his writings.
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx presents us with a theory of world history as a succession of class struggles for economic and political power. The main classes of pre-capitalist societies are stated as: ‘freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman’1. But the dominant theme of Western society is the conflict between the exploiting bourgeoisie and the exploited proletariat. Thus it is the class structure of early capitalism, and the class struggles of this form of society, which constituted the main reference point for the Marxist theory of history.
This is asserted by the Communist Manifesto’s famous phrase, that ‘the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of all class struggles’2. The history of ‘civilized’ society, for Marx, has been the history of different forms of class exploitation and domination. It is the form of class domination present which determines the general character of the whole social structure. For example, the growing of wheat using traditional, non-mechanical techniques is compatible with a wide range of social relations of production.

A Roman citizen often owned slaves who worked his land growing wheat; a feudal lord would seize the surplus wheat grown by the serf on the lands; the early capitalist farmers began to employ landless laborers to do their manual work for a wage which was less than the total value of the product which they created. In each case, wheat is grown on land by the labor of men and women, but the social arrangements are totally different. There are totally different class relationships, leading to totally different forms of society: ancient, feudal, and capitalist.
The one thing that unites these three arrangements is that in each case a minority class rules and takes the surplus away from the producers. Each society, says Marx, embodies class exploitation based on the relationships of production, or rather, the modes of production. The key to understanding – 2 – a given society is to discover which is the dominant mode of production within it. The basic pattern of social and political relationships can then be known. Since Marx concentrates his attention on the class structure of capitalist societies, it is only proper to follow him.
As stated before, the key classes in the capitalist mode of production are the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, or capitalists and landless wage laborers. While Marx recognizes that there are other classes, the fundamental class division is between this pairing of the exploiter and the exploited. The bourgeoisie derive their class position from the fact that they own productive wealth. It is not their high income that makes them capitalists, but the fact that they own the means of production.
For example, the inputs necessary for production – factories, machines, etc. The ability of workers to work (labor power) is in itself a marketable commodity bought for the least cost to be used at will by the capitalist. In addition, the capitalist owns the product and will always pocket the difference between the value of the labor and the value of the product – referred to by Marx as ‘surplus value’ – purely by virtue of his ownership. His property rights also allow the capitalist the control of the process of production and the labor he buys.
The proletariat in contrast, owns no means of production. Because of this exploitation, Marx viewed the bourgeoisie and the proletariat as locked in deep and unavoidable conflict. As capitalism expanded, the conflict would become more intense as the condition of the workers became worse. Over time, some members of the proletariat would come to understand their unfair position and would begin to communicate with each other. This would enable them to organize and overthrow the capitalist system.
The revolution would pave the way for a new socialist system that would abolish private ownership of the means of production. This forms the basis of Marx’s theory of class, and with further discussion, the complexities will present themselves. This two class model is not Marx’s only use of the word ‘class’. He uses the term of other economic groups, and particularly of the petty or petite bourgeoisie and the peasants. These groups seem to make the neat division of the Communist Manifesto inapplicable, for these two – 3 – roups obviously merge into bourgeoisie and the proletariat according to how many workers they employ or how much land they own. Marx even foresaw, with increased use of machinery and the increase of service industries, the advent of a new middle class. This raises two main questions. The first concerns the complications of social stratification in relation to the basic classes.
In the fragment on ‘three great classes of modern society’ in Capital III, Marx observes that even England, where the economic structure is ‘most highly and classically developed… m]iddle and intermediate strata even here obliterate lines of demarcation everywhere’3 Even though this observation does not fit easily with the idea of an increasing polarization of bourgeois society between ‘two great classes’, Cole explains how Marx: regard[ed] the blurring of class divisions as a matter of secondary importance, influential         in shaping the course of particular phases and incidents of the fundamental class struggle,         but incapable of altering its essential character or its ultimate outcome. And] in the long         run the forces making for polarisation were bound to come into play more and more as the         difficulties of Capitalism increased: so that the decisive class-struggle between capitalists         and proletarians could be delayed, but by no means averted or changed in its essential         character by the emergence of any new class. 4 Even so, Cole asks for a ‘critique’ of Marx in light of todays circumstances, questioning the validity of this statement. The second question concerns the situation and development of two principal classes in capitalist society, bourgeoisie and proletariat.
In The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx gave this negative definition of a fully constituted class: In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that seperate         their mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of the other classes, and put         them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. In so far as there is merely a         local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their         interests begets no community, no national bond and no political organisation among         them, they do not form a class5 4 – In the Poverty of Philosophy, describing the emergence of the working class, Marx expressed the same idea in positive terms: Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into         workers. The combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation,         common interests. This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for         itself. In the struggle, of which we have noted only a few phases, this mass becomes         united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends becomes class         interests. 6
Most Marxists have recognized, that in the case of the working class, the development of a ‘socialist’ or ‘revolutionary’ consciousness poses problems which require more careful and thorough study. ‘Class interest’ itself is no longer conceived, as it was in general by Marx, as an objective and unambiguous ‘social fact’, but rather as having a sense which is constructed through interaction and discussion out of the experiences of everyday life and the interpretations of those experiences. This is further illustrated by Bottomore’s belief that an investigation into the ‘development of social classes’ would have to attend to three problems.
First, the ‘consequences for the class structure, and especially for the polarization of classes, of the rapid increase in productivity and in the size of the surplus, and the concomitant growth of the middle classes’7 Bottomore states that how Marx defined the middle class, are the individuals who ‘live from’ surplus value, but also ‘assist in the realization and distribution of the surplus’. Marx foresaw the growing number of the middle class, and as a result, the declining number of working class. This would seem to strengthen the bourgeois making the transformation to a classless society more difficult.
Through Marx’s own analysis, Bottomore says that the transition might not occur at all; thus, resulting in a type of society unlike the socialist society emerging from capitalism. Or, transformation brought about differently, from what Marx predicted, resulting in the classless society. ‘The nature of the social conflict that would then bring about the breakdown of capitalism and the creation of a socialist society remains unclear, and is not discussed by Marx. ‘8 – 5 – The second problem concerns the ‘various cultural and political influences’ which are a factor in the evolution of the revolutionary class consciousness.
Marx, in early writings, emphasizes positive influences for this development such as: introduction of new technology (resulting in the displacement of workers to further the revolution), the reserve army of labor, the advent of the factory (resulting in concentration of workers creating a collective situation – class consciousness)9 But also negative influences such as: ‘dominant position of ruling-class ideas, the effects of social mobility, the growth of the middle classes. ’10 Bottomore then states that national or ethnic consciousness is very important; one of the powerful influences that Marx neglected.
The second influence is that of the increasing social differentiation in modern societies which breaks down the working-class consciousness to strengthen the middle class. In other words, increasing the number of middle class while decreasing the number of working class; a negative influence on revolutionary class consciousness. The last problem asks what conditions are necessary beyond the abolition of classes and private property in the means of production, in order to establish what Marx referred to as socialism.
Marx wrote about the advancement of science and how it could be used to abolish scarcity to meet human needs. As a result, man would be free from those labors in order to pursue their human potential. Beyond all of this, what Bottomore is implying is the further study of Marx’s political theory. Concentrating on the interaction between the development of production, emergence of new human needs, development of a political consciousness, and the creation of organizations to take part in a political struggle. Regrettably, this political theory, like the theory of class, can only be examined through fragments of Marx’s work.
Another way of looking at Marx’s theory of class is how Elster attempts to define class in terms of property, exploitation, market behavior, and power. Elster claims that Marx’s ‘class’ is frequently defined as ‘a group of persons who stand in the same relation of property or non- property to the factors of production, that is labor-power and means of production. ’11 By using this definition, the words ‘property’ and ‘non-property’ are too restrictive or too open. There is a – 6 – need to distinguish between property owners but then the question arises, to what degree?
This is also evident when using exploitation as a basis of defining class. As Elster puts it: ‘[t]he proposal is too coarse-grained if it locates all exploiters in one class and all exploited agents in another [and] too fine grained if classes are to be distinguished in terms of the degree of exploitation…. ‘infinite fragmentation’ of classes. ’12 In terms of the third proposal, defining class in terms of market behavior, Elster states that it is not useful in the study of non-market economies. Furthermore, ‘the proposal overemphasizes actual behavior and neglects its causal grounding in the endowment structure. 13 Basically, he is referring to choice. In Marx’s view, the wage laborer has no choice in who to work for and for how much. The reasoning behind this is that the capitalist (though needing workers) can employ any individual he chooses. Elster says that class is defined by what one has to do, not what one actually does. So, for example, a wage laborer decides to work in a factory just for the pure joy of doing so. This individual should be put in a different class from the wage laborer who has to work in the factory. 14 Elster’s final proposal is the aspect of power in defining class.
To Marx, power relationships are built into the very structure of society, whose principal feature is the existence of opposed classes. Thus, class domination and subordination are central to Marxist conception of politics and the distribution and operation of power. Power to Marx, is class power. In other words, it is a resource that is concentrated in the hands of a particular class, which that class can use to maintain and enhance its dominant position in society, a position achieved by economic exploitation. Elster says: ‘[t]he definition of class in terms of domination and subordination is too behavioral and insufficiently structural.
By this I mean that the classes of the upper and lower managers are defined only by what they actually do, not – as in the case of capitalists and workers – by what they must do by virtue of what they have. ‘ – a reference back to Elster’s third proposal. What Elster reveals are some of the more obvious problems inherent in Marx’s theory of class. But all of this can still be referred to in past context. Clearly, the question that needs to be – 7 – asked is: can Marx’s analysis be applicable today? It is obvious that there are some serious problems in Marx’s account.
Revolution has occurred in nations on the verge of entry into capitalism, not in societies which are mature and ‘ripe’ for change. The working class in capitalist societies has enjoyed, in the long term, a rise in the standard of living, and labor movements have won enough welfare concessions to ease many of the poor. By no means all Western societies have strong Communist parties. In addition, the growth of the middle class of managerial and professional workers appears to contradict Marx’s view that divisions among those without wealth would disappear.
Western economies are open to crises, but the state seems able to keep them in check. Generally, then, Marx’s ideas seem to many people to have been disproved by twentieth century developments. However, this is a limited view. The real issues are firstly whether Marx’s general perspective on stratification was sound, and secondly, whether contemporary Western societies are still capitalists in the general basic character of their social relations. The first issue is important because Marx provides an account of stratification which is significantly different from that of many other social theorists.
Very often today, sociologists see classes as merely groupings of people with similar attributes such as income, type of occupation, and so on. Marx, on the other hand, saw classes as systematically linked in a particular structure of social relationships. An explanation of inequality is given through the analysis of the mode of production. Marx points out the deeper class relations and potential conflicts below the surface of society. This strength, however, is seen as a problem by many sociologists. They argue that Marx’s class analysis is too simplistic to account adequately for the complexity of social inequality.
For them, Marx’s emphasis on the ownership of productive wealth leaves us unable to explain adequately all the differences in consciousness within the mass of the population who are not capitalists. Quite clearly, the Western economies are vastly changed today in comparison with Marx’s time. There is far more economic intervention by the state in most societies of the West, and state employees of one kind or another form a large part of the work force. Nationalization and the – 8 – frequent replacement of individual owner or managers by shareholders and managerial bureaucracies have both changed the structure of industry.
However, it can still be argued that private ownership of the means of production is the basis of economic power and wealth, and that the labor market is still the prime determinant of wage levels. The worker is still in a subordinate position in the work place, and the incomes of workers are still very low in comparison with those who control them. Other interpretations are possible: it is commonly argued, for example, that the West has a mixed economy which works in everyone’s interest, but others would still consider Western economies as capitalist.
This brings us back to Marx’s Capital III. It is clear that there are many aspects of Marx’s theory of class which are not discussed in this essay; the theory is multifaceted. One still wonders what Marx would describe in his last work. Would it have been in the same terms as he had used thirty years before? Or would he have recognized, in this gap, the vitally important changes in the class structure of the modern societies of today, and that these changes were, to some extent, different from what he anticipated to occur? This question remains unanswered.

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