Monday, June 12, 2006

What does Class mean in the 21st Century?

There is a popular view that class has something to do with lifestyles, income or status. Working class, ‘middle class’ and ruling class people are supposed to have certain accents, different kinds of jobs and housing in separate geographical areas that define their class. However, subjective approaches that attempt to define class by what people consume, where they live or how they speak focus on how people behave, but not on what created class society in the first place. Judging people by these behavior patterns only focuses on surface appearances and does not explain the underlying social relationships which exist within capitalist society. Many theorists have attempted to explain the phenomena of class, but Marx’s contribution was an examination of how modern class society was created, based on the economic processes of exploitation. It is this that separates his concept of class from other philosophers such as Max Weber. Erik Olin Wright addresses this in his paper The Shadow of Exploitation in Weber’s Class Analysis (2002) –
“Nothing better captures the central contrast between the Marxist and Weberian traditions of class analysis than the concept centred on the problems of life chances in Weber and a concept rooted in exploitation in Marx… (Weber) does not see the problem of extracting labour effort as a pivotal feature of class relations and a central determinant of class conflict” (p832).

The origins of modern class society

Marx wrote in 1852-
“I do not claim to have discovered either the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me, bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this struggle between the classes, as had bourgeois economists their economic anatomy. My own contribution was… to show that the existence of classes is merely bound up with certain historical phases in the development of production…”- Letter to Weydemeyer, 5 March 1852- Quoted in Social Theory- A Historical Introduction, by A. Callinicos (Polity Press, 1999) p84.

Events like the English, American and French Revolutions overthrew the age old rule of kings, and began freeing the productive forces of the urban bourgeoisie to develop both industries and colonial empires, thus creating a new imperialist global economy. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels see the development of capitalism as a progressive step in history, overthrowing the superstitions of the old feudal class order with the white heat of science and industry. Capitalism represented a higher mode of production from the previous modes of slavery, feudalism and primitive communism (hunter gatherer classless societies).

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production…All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away… ( K. Marx, Communist Manifesto, p12).
However, this new industrialised society created its own oppressed class, the proletariat or urban working class. The proletariat is exploited by being forced to sell its labour at a price lower than its true value- the surplus is taken by the capitalist and becomes the chief source of the new system’s ultimate goal- profits. This was accepted by early capitalist thinkers- the classical economists John Locke, David Ricardo and Adam Smith, upon whose theories Marx built his work. Smith argued that
“the real price of everything, what it really costs the men who want to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it…It is not by gold and silver, but by labour, that all the wealth of the world was originally purchased, and its value to those who possess it and who want to exchange it for some other object, is precisely equal to the quantity of labour which it enables them to purchase or command”- From the Wealth of Nations, quoted in C. Harman, Economics of the Madhouse, Bookmarks, 1995, p20.

Against this, many bourgeois economists have argued that labour is free to sell itself in a contract with its employer. Although this is true, it negates the fact that without wages the worker will not have money for life’s necessities, and as such, most people are compelled to work. In the age of modern welfare states, few people choose to live a life of poverty on unemployment benefits.

Exploitation and Surplus Value
Decades before Marx developed the labour theory of value in Das Kapital, Adam Smith conceded the fact that capitalists, rather than creating wealth, actually took their profits from wealth created by labour. Profits were derived from what Marx would later call the unpaid surplus value that the working class created.
“In the original state of things, which precedes both the appropriation of land and the accumulation of stock, the whole product of labour belonged to the labourer. But as soon as the land becomes private property, the landowner demands a share of the produce…The produce of all labour is liable to a like deduction of profit… In all manufactures, the greater parts of the workmen stand in need of a master to advance them the materials of their work… He shares in the product of their labour”. Quoted by Chris Harman, Economics of the Madhouse, p23.

Thus, it is argued by Marxists that capitalism is based around exploitation of the majority of people in society, who are compelled by economic necessity to work, by a small minority of landlords, corporations, speculators and capitalists. Those who work to earn a wage from this exploitative minority form the working class- this pattern of class domination and exploitation is repeated intergenerationally. Marx argues in his masterwork, Das Kapital-
“This specific form in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of the direct producers determines the relationship of domination and servitude, as this grows directly out of production itself… On this is based the entire configuration of the economic community arising from the actual relations of production and hence also its specific political form. …in which we find the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure and hence also the political form of the relationship of sovereignty and independence….” Marx, Capital. III, p927 (quoted in Callinicos)

Class struggle- the fundamental opposition of class interests
For Marx, the exploitation of the working class differs from previous subordinate classes such as serfs or slaves, in that they are exploited collectively, in massive factories, industries and workplaces. This creates the possibilities for workers to begin organising collectively in combinations or unions, pointing the way to a future collective, egalitarian society where wealth can be democratically owned and shared for the common good. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx notes that-

The proletariat goes through various stages of development. With its birth begins its struggle with the bourgeoisie. At first the contest is carried on by individual labourers, then by the working people of a factory, then by the operatives of one trade, in one locality, against the individual bourgeois who directly employs them…
But with the development of industry, the proletariat increase not only in number, it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows and it feels it more. (p15)
When Marx was writing, the global working class was equivalent to that of the workers in modern South Korea. Today, the vast majority of the world’s population (and poor) are urban workers, be they in London or Berlin, or in the sprawling conurbations of Sao Paola, Jakarta or Lagos. For Marxists, the principle of democratic control of the economy and the resources produced by collective labour is irreconcilable with private ownership of the means of production.
…At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production, or- this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms- with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution.
K. Marx, a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (London, 1971) p21.

The new middle class?
In modern times, there has been a debate around who constitutes the working class- traditionally; they have been thought to consist of workers in highly unionized manual industries such as mining, shipbuilding, construction etc. However, the proleterianisation of the service industries in recent years has seen nurses, bank officials and teachers not only unionise but take strike action to defend conditions in modern Ireland and New Zealand. These workers although “white collar”, still sell their labour for a wage and are considered by modern Marxists to be members of the working class.

However, modern Marxists do acknowledge the existence of a thin layer of professionals who occupy Contradictory Class positions, such as lawyers, senior managers, university professors etc. These people, whilst paid for their labour by a generous salary, occupy positions of power and status in modern class society, and thus resemble the classical petit-bourgeoisie defined by Marx in the Manifesto. This group can be won to one side or the other of the class struggle by ideological argument, but can be said to benefit from the unequal nature of late capitalist social organisation. (this Marxist analysis of a ‘middle class’ is discussed in greater depth by Lindsey German in ‘ Caught in the Middle?’, A Question of Class, 1996 p66-76)

Implications for social inequality- the Abolition of Private Property

The French Utopian Socialist, Proudhon, before Marx, had declared that “Private property is theft”. In a Marxist class analysis, private property is the ownership of the means of production by a small minority, and it is at the root of social inequality. In the second Part of the Communist Manifesto, Marx distinguishes the difference between the personal objects most working people buy throughout their life with their wages, to which they are entitled, and the ownership of huge industries, corporations and economic sectors by individuals or private cabals.
Communism deprives no one of the power to appropriate the products of society: all that it does is deprive one of the power to subjugate the labours of others by means of such appropriation (p28)

Marx argued throughout his life that the working class, through revolution, will put property and wealth under democratic control, for the use and service of all. Here, Marx addresses those critics who attack the socialists-
You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths (p27).

Marx was not the crude determinist that he is often portrayed as- there will be no natural evolution from the barbaric system of capitalist exploitation based on war, imperialism, racism and sexism to a new collective world unless people consciously organise to bring it about. That is why he placed such emphasis on worker’s self emancipation, helping to organise the First International and many political parties and trade unions. He argued for socialism from below- and that the liberation of the workers was not to be done by anyone but themselves- “Philosophers have only interpreted the world” he once said, “The point is to change it.”

How this democratic control of economics is to be achieved today is still widely debated- some reformist socialists argue for gradual legal change, Partnership, a Third Way or market socialism, whereas radical socialists argue for worker’s councils, a fighting trade union movement and in the wider anti capitalist movement, revolution.

For radical egalitarians, the need to democratise the very economy itself becomes a prerequisite, a fundamental principle of how to organise society and redistribute the resources created collectively. The redistributive principle of the socialist movement can be summed up in Marx’s maxim “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need”. In the 21st century, where 19,000 children starve daily amidst a world of plenty, the urgency of this credo is still with us.


Alex Callinicos, Social Theory- A Historical Introduction, Polity, 1999.

Erik Olin Wright, The Shadow of Exploitation in Weber’s Class Analysis
American Sociological Review, Vol. 67 December 2002.

Chris Harman, Economics of the Madhouse, Bookmarks, 1995

K. Marx, a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (London, 1971) p21.

K. Marx, the Communist Manifesto, Phoenix, 1996.

K. Marx, Theories of Surplus Value- (Volume IV of Capital)
Parts 1 and 2- Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1978

Rosemary Crompton, Class and Stratification, Polity, 1998.

Lindsey German, A Question of Class, Bookmarks, 1996