There is probably no concept more closely associated with Marx and Marxism than class, but there is also no concept so widely misunderstood. Confusion about class reigns at every level: in the media, in every day life and perhaps especially in the academic world.
One of the most common confusions is the notion that class is primarily a matter of people’s social origins, of their position at birth, and of inherited privilege or disadvantage. This is basically a hangover from the from the bourgeoisie’s struggle against feudalism, when the bourgeoisie championed ‘equality’ (of legal rights and opportunity) against inherited privileges and power of the feudal aristocracy. It is this view that leads to the utterly mistaken idea that class is disappearing or becoming less important in modern society (or that America, because it was never feudal and had no aristocracy, is somehow a classless society). Of course it is true that inherited privilege and wealth still play an important role in the most modern capitalism (just look at David Cameron’s cabinet of old Etonians) but it is not the heart of the matter either for Marxist theory or in actual social practice. It is current social position not social origin that is crucial. The child of working class parents, who becomes manager or boss, behaves as a manager or boss not as a worker. The young black kid who grows up to become President of the United States behaves as the political representative of US imperialism not the representative of black people.
Another widespread confusion is that class is primarily about income and/or lifestyle. Obviously class plays a major role in determining income and lifestyle, but neither income nor lifestyle determines class. Inequalities of wealth and lifestyle, however wide they may be, nevertheless form a continuum from top to bottom and therefore cannot yield a coherent analysis of the class structure. On the basis of income or lifestyle one could conclude that there are five, ten, or fifteen classes or none: and either way it is arbitrary. Moreover individuals might have the same income and be members of different classes e.g. a skilled manual worker and the owner of a small corner shop, or be members of the same class and live very different lifestyles e.g. miners and nurses (both part of the working class)
In sociology, the academic discipline responsible for class, class is usually defined in terms of different life chances (opportunities for obtaining goods and services, for educational achievement for getting a good job, for living a healthy and long life etc.) and the Marxist theory of class is dealt with roughly as follows:
For Marx, they say, class is defined by ‘relationship to the means of production’ - leading to a two class model of society consisting of a property owning capitalist class or bourgeoisie, and property less working class or proletariat. There was some truth in this, but it is too simple; for the analysis of modern society a more complex model is required and this is provided by Max Weber and his latter day disciples. For Weber class is not just a matter of property ownership or lack of it but of position in the labour market. Between the capitalists and the (manual) workers there is a middle class based on the mental skills and educational qualifications that they bring to the job market. As capitalism becomes technologically more sophisticated this class grows while the working class shrinks. Class polarisation fails to materialise. Moreover there are many other divisions in society based on ‘status’ (social esteem or prestige) – contemporary Weberians would cite particularly gender and ethnicity – which cut across class and are often more important than class in determining people’s identity, and which Marx and Marxists have neglected.
This is a false account of Marx’s theory of class in many respects – Marx didn’t have a simple two class model and was well aware of the existence of intermediate layers, the so-called middle class, and paid a good deal more attention to gender and race issues than Weber ever did – but this is not the key point. The key point is that at the heart of the Marxist theory of class are not unequal life chances (important as they are) but exploitation, the extraction of surplus value discussed in the last section. It is the daily fact of exploitation, the conflict of interest inherent in capitalist social relations, that produces the capitalists and workers as antagonistic classes.
The capitalists are those whose survival (as capitalists) depends on profit, which derives from the surplus value obtained from wage labour. The workers are those whose survival depends on the wages they receive for the sale of their labour power to the capitalist. This relationship locks the former and the latter into perpetual combat. Whether the capitalist inherited or built up his or her capital, or went to public school or was born on a council estate, or whether the worker earns high wages or low, works in an office or school or a factory, or expends principally mental or physical energy does not change the essential conflict of interest.
The conflict of interest which has its source at the point of production extends, like the alienation which it parallels, throughout the society which is based on this production. It becomes a conflict of interest, a class conflict, in every issue of state and public policy from taxation to health services to crime and punishment, to foreign policy, arms spending, war and the preservation of the environment.
Neither Weber nor his sociological heirs, nor the journalists, nor the media commentators, grasp this at all and consequently their criticism of Marx misses its mark completely.
The middle classes, of which they make so much, certainly exist but their position is determined neither by their status, not their lifestyle (to repeat, status and lifestyle are consequences not causes of class position), but by their role in the processes of exploitation and class conflict.
Between the bourgeoisie (the capitalist class) and the proletariat (the working class) there are two quite large social groups. The first is the owners of small businesses, the classical petty bourgeoisie – whose typical representative is the small shopkeeper. This layer is oppressed by big business and even to some extent exploited (via finance capital and the banks) but it is also, and crucially, an exploiter of wage labour. The second group consists of managers who are paid employees but whose function is to oversee the extraction of surplus value from the workers. EXAMPLES
This ‘middle class’ is not really a distinct class; rather it is a hierarchy of intermediate strata whose social role combines (in different proportions at different levels) elements of the capitalist and elements of the proletarian condition. At its upper end the middle class merges into the ruling class (senior corporation managers, senior civil servants, police chiefs are examples) and at its lower end (the self employed plumber or painter and decorator or lower line manager) it merges into the proletariat. In the struggle between the capitalist class and the working class the middle class vacillates acccording to the strength of the gravitational pull of the two fundamental classes.
In normal times, when the ruling class is firmly in the saddle and dominating society as a whole , the middle class – in its large majority – accepts albeit grudgingly the leadership and authority of the upper bourgeoisie. When the grip of the ruling class weakens or goes into crisis sections of the middle class, particularly from its lower strata, can be won over to the side of the working class on condition that the working class appears able to resolve the crisis in society. If the working class appears unable to perform this role the middle classes can swing far to the right and become the social base of fascism.
The different understandings of class in the Marxist and the Weberian or ‘common sense’ perspectives lead to dramatically different pictures of the class structure in modern capitalist. Marx was emphatic that ‘In proportion as the bourgeoisie i.e. capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class developed’ and that ‘the proletarian movement is… the movement of the immense majority in the interest of the immense majority’ [K.Marx and F.Engels, The Communist Manifesto in D.McLellan, as above p.226 and p. 230]
By contrast in the Weberian/common sense view the development of capitalism leads to a decline of the proletariat as a proportion of the population. The issue cannot be resolved simply by counting heads because it is really a dispute about which heads to count. For the Weberians the proletariat consists only of ‘industrial’ or ‘manual’ workers (these terms are in themselves problematic – does not a typist work with his/her hands, does not an electrician use his/her brain?) who are indeed shrinking in numbers in the developed capitalist countries, while the ‘white collar’ or ‘non-manual’ employees, seen as middle class, expand. From the Marxist standpoint, however, the majority, though not all, of white collar employees (teachers, social workers, civil servants, typists, sectaries, shop worker, nurses etc.) live by the sale of their labour power and are exploited by capitalists. The exploitation of some white collar workers, such as teachers and health workers in the public sector, is less easy to see than that of workers who produce commodities in private industry, but what they are really doing is producing and reproducing the commodity of labour power for the capitalist state ie for the capitalist class and capitalist system as a whole and like other workers they are paid less than the value of what they produce. They are therefore part of the working class and, in practice, act as such: the PCS (Professional Civil Servants) and the NUT (National Union of Teachers) have been in the forefront of the recent struggles over pension rights in Britain, while teachers and tax collectors have played an important role in the ongoing Egyptian Revolution. Once this is grasped it is clear that the working class or proletariat continues to constitute the large majority of the population in the developed capitalist countries, approximately 70% or more, and is heading towards being the majority in the world as a whole.
It is interesting to note that whereas for most of the bourgeois views of class the division between the working class and the middle class is seen as a division between occupations (e.g. miners and teachers) for Marxists the dividing line runs within occupations. Thus most teachers are workers but head teachers are managers, most social workers are workers but (in Britain) team managers and above are becoming middle class. In the civil service the lower ranks are working class, but the topmost ranks are more or less part of the ruling class. It is also interesting that, whereas most academic sociologists ignore or fail to consider these distinctions, workers, especially trade unionists, who actually do these jobs, are acutely aware of them.
However for Marx the most important feature of his theory of class was his identification of the working class’s revolutionary role. There were three elements to this: first, the working class conflict of interest with the capitalist class (which I have already outlined); second its power; third its ability to create a classless society. The power of the working class derives from the fact that its labour is the main producer of wealth and profit in society, from the dependence of all systems of transport, energy production, communications and all state operations in its labour, and from its concentration in large numbers in workplaces and cities. This power gives the working class the capacity to defeat the bourgeoisie and its state. Its capacity to create a classless society derives from the necessarily collective nature of its struggle (from the smallest local dispute to the widest general strike and insurrection), from the fact that it can only take possession of the means of production collectively, and from its potential, unlike any previous class in history, to be both the producing and ruling class in society at the same time, thus ending the very basis of class division.