September 28 1999
Marx's Theory of Social Class and Class Structure
For Marx, the analysis of social class, class structures and changes in those structures are key to understanding capitalism and other social systems or modes of production. In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels comment that
the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. (Bottomore, p. 75).
Analysis of class divisions and struggles is especially important in developing an understanding of the nature of capitalism. For Marx, classes are defined and structured by the relations concerning (i) work and labour and (ii) ownership or possession of property and the means of production. These economic factors more fully govern social relationships in capitalism than they did in earlier societies. While earlier societies contained various strata or groupings which might be considered classes, these may have been strata or elites that were not based solely on economic factors – e.g. priesthood, knights, or military elite.
Marx did not complete the manuscript that would have presented his overall view of social class. Many of his writings concern the class structures of capitalism, the relationship among classes the dynamics of class struggle, political power and classes, and the development of a classless society, and from these a Marxian approach to class can be developed. Note that Hadden does not discuss class in any detail, although the class structure of capitalism is implicit in the labour theory of value and can be derived from this theory.
1. Classes in Capitalism
The main classes in capitalism are the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. However, other classes such as landlords, petty bourgeoisie, peasants, and lumpenproletariat also exist, but are not primary in terms of the dynamics of capitalism.
a. Bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie or capitalists are the owners of capital, purchasing and exploiting labour power, using the surplus value from employment of this labour power to accumulate or expand their capital. It is the ownership of capital and its use to exploit labour and expand capital are key here. Being wealthy is, in itself, not sufficient to make one a capitalist (e.g. managers in the state sector or landlords). What is necessary is the active role of using this wealth to make it self-expansive through employment and exploitation of labour.
Historically, the bourgeoisie began cities of medieval Europe, with the development of traders, merchants, craftspersons, industrialists, manufacturers and others whose economic survival and ability to increase wealth came from trade, commerce, or industry. In order for each of these to expand their operations, they needed greater freedom to market products and expand economic activities. In the struggle against the feudal authorities (church and secular political authorities) this class formed and took on a progressive role. That is, they helped undermine the old hierarchical and feudal order and create historical progress. For a segment of this class, wealth came by employing labour (industrial capital), for others it came through trade (merchant capital), banking and finance (finance capital), or using land in a capitalist manner (landed capital). It was the industrial capitalists who employed labour to create capital that became the leading sector of the bourgeoisie, whose economic activities ultimately changed society. In Britain, this class became dominant politically and ideologically by the mid-nineteenth century. By employing workers, industrial capital created the surplus value that could take on the various forms such as profit, interest and rent.
b. Proletariat. The proletariat are owners of labour power (the ability to work), and mere owners of labour power, with no other resources than the ability to work with their hands, bodies, and minds. Since these workers have no property, in order to survive and obtain an income for themselves and their families, they must find employment work for an employer. This means working for a capitalist-employer in an exploitative social relationship.
This exploitative work relationship recreates or reproduces itself continually. If the capitalist-employer is to make profits and accumulate capital, wages must be kept low. This means that the proletariat is exploited, with the surplus time (above that required for creating subsistence) worked by the worker creating surplus products. While the worker produces, the products created by this labour are taken by the capitalist and sold – thus producing surplus value or profit for the capitalist but poverty for workers. This occurs each day of labour process, preventing workers from gaining ownership of property and recreating the conditions for further exploitation.
The antagonistic and contradictory nature of this system is evident as capitalists attempting to reduce wages and make workers work more intensively, while workers have exactly the opposite set of interests. Work and the labour process in the capitalist mode of production are organized so that workers remain propertyless members of the proletariat. The surplus products and value created by workers turns into capital, which is accumulated.
Historically, the proletariat emerged as the aristocracy began to suffer financial difficulties in the later middle ages. Many of those who were supported by working for the aristocracy lost their livelihood – the "disbanding of the feudal retainers and the dissolution of the monasteries." Using enclosures, changing the conditions of production in agriculture, and denying peasants access to common lands and resources, landowners transformed land into pasture land for raising sheep, or sold land to farmers who began to develop grain and livestock production. People who had subsisted on the land were denied the possibility of making a living on the land, and they become propertyless. Population growth was also considerable, and in some areas forced labour (slavery, indentured servants, poor, prison) was used. While some people subsisted in rural industry and craft production, factory production began to undermine these as well in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Together these changes created a large class of landless and propertyless people who had no choice but to become members of the proletariat – many working in factories. These people became free wage labourers, free from feudal ties and free from a source of livelihood. Today we still talk of free labour markets and the dual meaning is much the same.
While the relationship between workers and capitalists, or between labour and capital may appear to be no more than an economic relationship of equals meeting equals in the labour market, Marx shows how it is an exploitative social relationship. Not only is it exploitative, it is contradictory, with the interests of the two partners in the relationship being directly opposed to each other. Although at the same time, the two opposed interests are also partners in the sense that both capital and labour are required in production and an exploitative relationship means an exploiter and someone being exploited.
This relationship is further contradictory in that it is not just two sets of interests, but there is no resolution of the capital-labour contradiction within the organization of capitalism as a system. The contradictory relationship has class conflict built into it, and leads to periodic bursts of strikes, crises, political struggles, and ultimately to the overthrow of bourgeois rule by the proletariat. Class conflict of this sort results in historical change and is the motive force in the history of capitalism.
c. Landlords. In addition to the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, Marx discussed a number of other classes. First, Marx mentions landowners or landlords as a class in Britain. While these were historically important, and many still retain their wealth even today (e.g. the Royal Family), they were considered by Marx to be a marginal class, once powerful and dominant but having lost their central role in production and the organization of society. In order to retain their wealth, some of these landowners were able to transform their wealth in land into landed capital. While this constituted a somewhat different form than industrial capital, this meant that the land was also used as capital, to accumulate. Labour may not be directly employed by landowners, but the land is used as a means by which capital can be expanded.
d. Petty Bourgeoisie and Middle Class. The lower middle class or the petty (petite) bourgeoisie (the bourgeoisie was sometimes called the middle class in this era), constitutes "the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant" (Giddens and Held, p. 24). The characteristic of this class is that it does own some property, but not sufficient to have all work done by employees or workers. Members of this class must also work in order to survive, so they have a dual existence – as (small scale) property owners and as workers. Because of this dual role, members of this class have divided interests, usually wishing to preserve private property and property rights, but with interests often opposed to those of the capitalist class. This class is split internally as well, being geographically, industrially, and politically dispersed, so that it is difficult for it to act as a class. Marx expected that this class would disappear as capitalism developed, with members moving into the bourgeoisie or into the working class, depending on whether or not they were successful. Many in this class have done this, but at the same time, this class seems to keep recreating itself in different forms.
Marx considers the petite bourgeoisie to be politically conservative or reactionary, preferring to return to an older order. This class has been considered by some Marxists to have been the base of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s. At other times, when it is acting in opposition to the interests of large capital, it may have a more radical or reformist bent to it (anti-monopoly).
Note on the Middle Class. The issue of the middle class or classes appears to be a major issue within Marxian theory, one often addressed by later Marxists. Many Marxists attempt to show that the middle class is declining, and polarization of society into two classes is a strong tendency within capitalism. Marx's view was that the successful members of the middle class would become members of the bourgeoisie, while the unsuccessful would be forced into the proletariat. In the last few years, many have argued that in North America, and perhaps on a world scale, there is an increasing gap between rich and poor and there is a declining middle.
While there have been tendencies in this direction, especially among the farmers and peasantry, there has been no clear long run trend toward decline of the middle class. At the same time as there has been polarization of classes, there have been new middle groupings created. Some of these are small business people, shopkeepers, and small producers while others are professional and managerial personnel, and some intellectual personnel. Well paid working class members and independent trades people might consider themselves to be members of the middle class. Some segments of this grouping have expanded in number in recent years. While it is not clear that these groups hold together and constitute a class in any Marxian sense of being combined in opposition to other classes, they do form a middle grouping. Since Marx's prediction has not come true, sociologists and other writers have devoted much attention to explaining this middle grouping – what is its basis, what are the causes of its stability or growth, how it fits into the class structure, and what are the effects of its existence on proletariat and bourgeoisie.
e. Lumpenproletariat. Marx also mentions the "dangerous class" or the social scum. Among the members of this group are "ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds .. pickpockets, brothel keepers, rag-pickers, beggars" etc. (Bottomore, p. 292). This is the lumpenproletariat. He does not consider this group to be of any importance in terms of potential for creating socialism, if anything they may be considered to have a conservative influence. Other writers and analysts have considered them to have some revolutionary potential. One of the main reasons for mentioning them is to emphasize how capitalism uses, misuses and discards people, not treating them as humans. Today's representative of this class of lumpenproletariat are the homeless and the underclass.
f. Peasantry and Farmers. Marx considered the peasantry to be disorganized, dispersed, and incapable of carrying out change. Marx also expected that this class would tend to disappear, with most becoming displaced from the land and joining the proletariat. The more successful might become landowners or capitalist farmers. With respect to family farmers as a group, much the same could be said. However, Marx was not really very familiar with these as a group, and had little to say about these. The various analyses of the role of farmers in the Prairies constitute a more adequate view of what may be expected from this group. They could be considered to form a class when they act together as a group. In the early days of Prairie settlement, farms were of similar size, farmers had generally similar interests, and the farm population acted together to create the cooperative movement and the Wheat Board. More recently, Prairie farmers are often considered to be split into different groups or strata, dependent on type of farming, size of farm, and whether or not they employ labour. Farmers have not been able to act together as a class in political and economic actions in recent years. Lobbying by some farm groups have been successful, but these do not usually represent farmers as a whole.
2. Features of Marx's Analysis
a. Group Basis. For Marx, classes cannot be defined by beginning observation and analysis from individuals, and building a definition of a social class as an aggregate of individuals with particular characteristics. For example, to say that the upper class is all families with incomes of $500,000 or more is not an adequate manner of understanding social class. The latter is a stratification approach that begins by examining the characteristics of individuals, and from this amassing a view of social class structure as a whole. This stratification approach often combines income, education, and social prestige or status into an index of socioeconomic status, creating a gradation from upper class to lower class. The stratification approach is essentially a classification, and for Marx classes have meaning only as they are real groups in the social structure. Groups mean interaction among members, common consciousness, and similar types of behaviour that are connected in some way with group behaviour. Categories such as upper class, middle class and lower class, where those in each category may be similar only in the view of the researcher are not fully Marxian in nature.
Classes are groups, and Marx discusses the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, not individual capitalists and individual workers. As individuals, these people may be considered members of a class, but class only acquires real meaning when it the class as a whole and the social relationships defining them that are considered. For example, "The bourgeoisie ... has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. ... " (Giddens and Held, p. 21). Here the bourgeoisie is historically created and is an actor in politics, economics and history.
In terms of individuals as members of classes, they are members of a class as they act as members of that class. For example, Marx notes that burghers or members of the bourgeoisie in early capitalist Europe:
the class in its turn achieves an independent existence over against the individuals, so that the latter find their conditions of existence predestined, and hence have their position in life and their personal development assigned to them by their class, become subsumed under it. (Giddens and Held, 20).
To the extent that individuals are considered in the social system, they are defined by their class. For Marxists, class structures exist as objective facts, and a researcher could examine class and membership of a class, but would have to understand the nature of the whole social and economic structure in order to do so. To the extent that these members act in society, they act as representatives of their class, although Marx would leave some room for individual freedom of action.
b. Property and Class. Classes are formed by the forces that define the mode of production, and classes are an aspect of the relations of production. That is, classes do not result from distribution of products (income differences, lender and borrower), social evaluation (status honour), or political or military power, but emerge right from relationship to the process of production. Classes are an essential aspect of production, the division of labour and the labour process. Giddens notes:
Classes are constituted by the relationship of groupings of individuals to the ownership of private property in the means of production. This yields a model of class relations which is basically dichotomous [since some own and others do not, some work and others live off the fruits of those who labour]: all class societies are built around a primary line of division between two antagonistic classes, one dominant and the other subordinate. (Giddens, p. 37).
In describing various societies, Marx lists a number of classes and (antagonistic) social relationship such as "freeman and slave, ... lord and serf, ... oppressor and oppressed" that characterize different historical stages or modes of production. While Marx also mentions various ranks and orders of society, such as vassals and knights, the forms of struggle between classes are primarily viewed as occurring around control and use of property, the means of production, and production as a whole, and the manner in which these are used. The basic struggle concerns who performs the labour, and who obtains the benefits from this labour.
An elite is not necessarily a class for Marx. Examples of elites are military elites, priests or religious leaders, and political elites – these may may very powerful and oppressive, and may exercise formal rule at a certain time or place. An elite could form a class, but a political or military elite is not necessarily a class – an elite may be based on recruitment (rather than ownership) and may not have much ultimate say in determining the direction of society. Or the elite may be based on religious, military, political or other structures. This would especially be the case in pre-capitalist or non-capitalist societies. For Marx, and especially in capitalism, domination came from control of the economy or material factors, although it was not confined to this. Thus, the dominant class was the class which was able to own, or at least control, the means of production or property which formed the basis for wealth. This class also had the capability of appropriating much of the social surplus created by workers or producers. An elite may have such power, but might only be able to administer or manage, with real control of the means of production in the hands of owners.
c. Class as Social Relationship – Conflict and Struggle. At several points, Marx notes how the class defines itself, or is a class only as it acts in opposition to other classes. Referring to the emergence of the burghers or bourgeoisie as a class in early capitalist Europe, Marx notes how
The separate individuals form a class only insofar as they have to carry on a common battle against another class; otherwise they are on hostile terms with each other as competitors. (Giddens and Held, p. 20).
Both competition and unity can thus characterize a class; there can be very cut-throat competition among capitalists, but when the property relations and existence of the bourgeois class is threatened, the bourgeoisie acts together to protect itself. This becomes apparent when rights of private property or the ability of capital to operate freely comes under attack. The reaction of the bourgeoisie may involve common political action and ideological unity, and it is when these come together that the bourgeoisie as a class exists in its fullest form. In commenting on France, Marx notes that the French peasantry may be dispersed and lacking in unity, but
In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that separate 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. (Giddens, p. 37)
It is when the peasantry as a group is in opposition to other classes that the peasantry form a class. These quotes do not provide an example of the same with respect to the proletariat, but in his other writings Marx noted that the proletariat is a true class when organized in opposition to the bourgeoisie, and creating a new society.
Class, for Marx, is defined as a (social) relationship rather than a position or rank in society. In Marx's analysis, the capitalist class could not exist without the proletariat, or vice-versa. The relationship between classes is a contradictory or antagonistic relationship, one that has struggle, conflict, and contradictory interests associated with it. The structure and basis of a social class may be defined in objective terms, as groups with a common position with respect to property or the means of production. However, Marx may not be primarily interested in this definition of class. Rather, these classes have meaning in society and are historical actors only to the extent that they do act in their own interests, and in opposition to other classes. Unlike much other sociology, Marx's classes are defined by class conflict.
Bottomore, Tom, ed., A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1983.
Giddens, Anthony, Capitalism and Modern Social Theory: An Analysis of the Writings of Marx, Durkheim and Max Weber, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1971. HM19 G53.
Giddens, Anthony and David Held, Classes, Power, and Conflict: Classical and Contemporary Debates, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1982. HT675 C55 1982
Last edited on September 29, 1999.
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