How does Marxist theory view class?

"No commentator has seriously doubted the central importance of the theory of class for [Marx's] work…it is as essential for his theory of history as it is for his analysis of the dynamics of capitalist society." (Dahrendorf, 1959, 8) This essay examines this assertion and looks at where and how class operates within Marx's comprehensive socio-economic theory. It analyses class as both a description and concept, and as a motor of social change – as both a structural, static element and as a dynamic, transformational one.

"The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles" are the opening words of The Communist Manifesto (Marx & Engels, 1967, 79). The entire first section of  the tract is devoted to a description of classes throughout the history of humankind and how, in his own age, the emergence of two dominant classes – bourgeoisie and proletariat – was simplifying the social structure and making it ripe for revolutionary, emancipatory social change. Although Marx's motivation for his wish to see social transformation was morally driven in the first instance, all his works eschew arguments based upon morality (Wheen, 1999). Instead, the emphasis is upon political imperatives and economic determinism, attempting to make his arguments and theories scientific and rational rather than appealing to a more intangible sense of justice and fairness.

For Marx, historical progress itself was the driver of social change, while social classes were the agents of transformation. Class definition is determined not by income or status, but by property relations which, in turn, are the result of the production process structure (Parkin, 1979). By presenting his social theories and his view of history in terms of class, such an epistemological and methodological model supported not only his analysis of society, but also his assertion that the proletariat would be the ultimate agent of human liberation ushering in a better world. Friedrich Engels claimed that Marx's exposition of Scientific Socialism or Historic Materialism revealed immutable laws similar to the contemporaneous theories of Charles Darwin in the field of evolutionary biology (Bullock & Stalybrass, 1983). However, in claiming to discern scientific laws governing the workings and development of human society, Marx's analysis ran the risk of becoming a predeterminist philosophy, or a form of historicism (Honderich, 1995).

Engels argued that in order "to make a science of Socialism, it had first to be placed upon a real basis." (Engels, 1970, 43) The "realness" or authenticity elaborated by Marx and Engel placed the concept of class at the heart of subsequent Marxist philosophy. This centrality emerged from a conflict within the political left in the mid-19th century. Marx embarked upon a sustained campaign of argument and vilification against those he labelled "utopian socialists", notably Henri de Saint-Simon, Pierre Proudhon, François Fourier, Eugen Dühring and Robert Owen. Although he conceded that these individuals were well-meaning, genuine believers in the principles of socialism, and successful in demonstrating through their works the ethical essence of socialism, nonetheless their paternalistic ideas were insufficient to produce comprehensive human emancipation (Wheen, 1999). They gave too little heed to the importance of class antagonism as the fundamental driver of the struggle for liberation. 

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx argued that the utopian socialists committed their mistakes because the urban working class had not yet developed sufficiently for the significance of class conflict to be recognised (1848). However, this mild rebuke was followed by much more acerbic criticism. He asserted that setting up idealistic experimental communities aimed at showing there was an alternative to the exploitative nature of the capitalist mode of production removed the participants from the wider society and made them irrelevant. Furthermore, the utopians' writings, theories and actions demonstrated not just an ignorance of, but also a denial of, the central importance of class struggle. Consequently, in seeking reconciliation between bourgeoisie and worker, such collusion made them class traitors (Marx & Engels, 1967). By adopting such an uncompromising position, Marx had committed himself to an analysis that relied upon class and class conflict to explain the past and predict the future. Other social divisions, such as race, gender, ethnicity and religion were thereafter relegated to being largely the products of economic relations – part of the superstructure of society rather than the more powerful base comprising productive forces and the relations of production (Hughes-Warrington, 2000).

Marx argued that throughout history successive waves of dominant classes, such as patricians, feudal lords and aristocrats, had merely replaced each other as exploiters of similarly successive underclasses, such as slaves, plebeians and serfs. The bourgeoisie were just the latest in a line of oppressors, but Marx asserted that they were both the apogee and the last of the exploiters (Muravchik, 2002). The emergence of the bourgeoisie superseding the aristocracy as the ruling elite was the result of the replacement of feudalism by capitalism and was characterised by industrialisation. Industrialisation was founded on the factory system which produced a new class – the proletariat. When this increasingly impoverished hired-hand sector with no part in the ownership of the means of production finally rose up in revolt against their masters, their subsequent rule would not, indeed could not, be oppressive because, consisting of almost everyone, they would have no one to exploit (Hughes-Warrington, 2000).

While the proletariat would eventually usher in socialism and eventually communism, this would not happen until they were organised. Furthermore, such organisation could not occur before the working class became aware of the nature of their oppression – namely that it was one class dividing and exploiting another rather than the moral failures of powerful individuals. This would be difficult because, "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness." (Marx, 2014, 11-12) If their consciousness was rooted in their class position, how could this chicken-and-egg scenario be resolved?

This was where the concept of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat became such a useful tool for later actual parties of government which claimed to be Marxist, in particular the regime of Stalin. Asserting that the Bolshevik/Communist Party was the vanguard of the proletariat and imbued with a consciousness somehow not beholden to their social existence, this served the purposes of allowing an elite to claim to be part of the emancipationist class, provided a useful scapegoating catch-all category of "bourgeois" for condemning and liquidating opposition, and created a reservoir of willing, obedient lower-level-leadership acolytes from the actual working class who were dependent upon accepting the ideology and direction of that elite for their accession to, and continued holding of, their privileged positions (Daniels, 2007).

However, in Marxist theory this was not how it was supposed to develop. Class consciousness, or the self-awareness of a shared, unified and unifying experience, was to be the mechanism by which revolutionary consciousness developed as workers became properly aware of the locus of their grievances rather than merely experiencing untargeted, unfocused discontent. It was the very struggle against exploitation which would produce the conditions where workers were forced to organise collectively and behave as a class, a process which would create the awareness of class and distinct class interests (Callinicos, 2010). Marx argued that keeping workers separate from each other, part of a wider phenomenon of alienation experienced by wage labourers, was an essential component of the capitalist/bourgeois system of control (Hampsher-Monk, 1992). However, just as factory-based capitalism produced the industrial proletariat, so too did it produce shared ideas which inclined the working class towards socialist solutions to their unjust existence. "What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own gravediggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable." (Marx & Engels, 1967, 94)

Marxism sees the bourgeoisie as naturally taking measures to defend their class interests as well as their individual interests. Their most potent weapon is the state, Marx claiming that "the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie." (Marx & Engels, 1967, 82)  Marx viewed the state negatively and did not see it as a forum through which human emancipation and social justice could be achieved. The state was neither natural, neutral nor eternal, but simply a product of the era in which capitalism held sway. It was part of society's superstructure, a view reinforced and elaborated upon by Lenin in 1917 in The State and Revolution: "The state is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. The state arises where, when and insofar as class antagonisms objectively cannot be reconciled. And, conversely, the existence of the state proves that the class antagonisms are irreconcilable". (Lenin, 1917, 9)

Analysis of the state as the servant of capitalist vested interests demonstrates further the central and fundamental role class plays in Marxist theory. It effectively argues that there is a cohesive ruling class running capitalist societies. Despite frequent conflicts of interest among themselves, its constituent parts are ultimately united in defence of an economic and social system which works to their benefit. This dominant class, in contemporary Marxist theory, comprises not just the owners of capital, property and land, but includes senior management in large corporations, the top layers of the civil service, the judiciary, the diplomatic corps, military leaders and most of the leading figures in right-wing political parties, particularly conservative ones, although increasingly also figuring within "centrist" parties which have accepted the current neoliberal orthodoxy. While the owners of the means of production rarely hold any of the reins of political power, they are part of the same elite which provides the political leadership. The state is almost permanently under the control of the ruling class of the age, while parliamentary politics and democratic elections are in large measure façades concealing the self-interest and ultimate control of this powerful class-based elite (Coxall & Roberts, 1990).

Among more recent strains of Marxian theory, Structuralist Marxists have contributed most substance to modern class analysis. Among their most salient arguments is the assertion that contemporary liberal-democratic states steer popular perceptions of political struggle away from class-conflict interpretations and towards discourses framed in terms of rights and justice. Although the state colludes in upholding and promoting a social and economic hierarchical class system, it successfully blinds the exploited to their exploitation (Resch, 1992). Furthermore, the contemporary ruling class prefers a state which does not overtly promote their material interests, but quietly upholds their political interests. Among other activities, it does this in democratic states by redefining workers, who are in reality a class of people, as political subjects and autonomous citizens, thus isolating them from each other under the guise of upholding the rights of the individual. The aim is to hide the fact of class relationships between and among classes, and to persuade people into accepting that their interests are part of a fictional "national interest" and that the state is the surest and most legitimate defender of their freedoms and material interests (Poulantzas, 1973).

This study agrees with the opening quotation's assertion about the centrality of class to Marxist thought, and would add that it was also critical for the (overly) optimistic predictions of imminent proletarian revolution in The Communist Manifesto. The decision to use class as the epistemological prism through which to analyse socio-economic dynamics was essential for a theory which sought to explain almost all of human history's trajectory towards the contemporary situation of the mid 19th century – then project it forward as a teleological theory with an endpoint in the fairly near future. Class was the unifier of the theory, the motor of change and the provider of agency. Originally embarked upon to explain how the European transition from feudalism to capitalism occurred, it gradually transmuted into a metahistory of humankind (Hampsher-Monk, 1992). However, Marx's knowledge of history was selective and sketchy, and the further back in time that he went, the more speculative it became (Hobsbawm, 2011). Critically too, his analysis was Eurocentric, dismissed religion too easily, omitted gender relations, and was surprisingly dismissive of the power of ideas vis-à-vis economic developments (Hughes-Warrington, 2000).

As an explanatory tool, as a justification for revolution, as a motivator, and as a call to action - "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it", (Marx, 1994, 98) - the concept of class has proved a vital, useful and enduring tool. Although global socio-economic structures have moved on immeasurably since Marx was writing a century-and-a-half ago, not only the concept of class, but also the very terminologies used by him (proletariat, bourgeoisie, relations of production) are still the coinage of discourse in much Marxist writing. Depending upon one one's point of view, this is either an attestation of the enduring truths contained within his perceptive writings, or else a dogmatic adherence to semi-sacred texts akin to biblical fundamentalists refusing to accept that the Old Testament is anything other than literal truth.

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