In Issue 23 (November 2005) Colm Breathnach examined Marx’s theory of class.
The concept of class is of fundamental importance to revolutionary socialists. It is, or at least should be, central to our understanding and analysis of how social systems work, and to our efforts to transform society. Since the opening salvoes fired by Marx and Engels, the significance and meaning of class has generated a huge debate amongst socialists and their opponents. It would be impossible to do justice to the whole gamut of debate, even within the confines of the Marxist tradition, so this article will be confined to a limited discussion of the Marxist theory of class.
The best way of approaching class is by looking at it in a dialectical manner, starting with the abstract class structure viewed in a relational manner, then looking at how this is experienced in the lives of real people, returning to modify the abstract model if necessary. At the risk of oversimplifying, Marxists start with the premise that class is a social relation that arises out of the appropriation of surplus labour from the exploited by the exploiter, who sells the product of this labour to make a profit. It is important to state at the outset that Marx did not see class as an isolated statistical category. Classes only make sense in two relational contexts: the initially determining preconditions in social relations arising out of the mode of production and the subsequent relations between classes, or as H J Sherman put it in his book Reinventing Marxism, “A class is not defined by more or less of some set of characteristics, but by its relation to another class in the mode of production”. It may be useful to identify abstract classes (bundles of occupations) as an analytical tool that can lead to the identification of real classes, but Marx (though not all his successors) clearly saw class as a relational, qualitative and historical concept which cannot be reduced to the quantitative, ahistorical or gradational.
Though class is central to all of Marx’s work, he never dealt with it in a systematic manner, probably because his whole work was infused with class, in the sense that he was describing the workings of a system that is based on the exploitation of one class by another. In the absence of a major theoretical statement, we must glean his understanding of class from his various works. If we start with the famous phrase from the Communist Manifesto that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”, we note immediately that class is understood as a social and historical dynamic, not a static category. The subsequent description of the rise of the two major classes in nineteenth century European capitalist societies continues in this vein of class having true existence only in the interaction of real humans. Even within the confines of what was, after all, an agitational pamphlet, not a book of high theory, the key point here is that an attempt was being made “to express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes”. The identification of the great struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is the beginning of a Marxist analysis, not its end. Marx never claimed to be a prophet; he tried to outline how society works, not what the exact outcome of these workings would be. Those who claim to derive inspiration from Marx should be able to ask the right questions, not automatically provide the correct answers!
Classes may sometimes appear as living organisms with collective wills in Marx, but he was keenly aware of the fact that class is about relations between human beings. In a passage in The German Ideology, he locates the individual in the material reality of historical development: “The social structure and the State are continually evolving out of the life process of definite individuals, but of individuals, not as they may appear in their own or others people’s imagination, but as they really are, i.e. as they operate, produce materially, and hence as they work under material limits, presuppositions, and conditions independent of their will”. Social structures are seen, not as huge anonymous scaffolding, but as arising out of the action of individuals, constrained or enabled by material conditions, specifically their role in production. The emphasis, it should be noted, is on actions of individuals, not static, abstract constructions: “As soon as this active life-process is described, history ceases to be a collection of dead facts as with the empiricists (themselves still abstract), or an imagined activity of imagined subjects, as with the idealists”.
Some critics accuse Marx of reducing class in capitalist society to a simple deterministic binary structure, ignoring the nuanced, complex analysis to be found in his journalistic and historical writings such as The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. In a famous passage he states: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past”, firmly countering theories of history based on the supremacy of individual will, but equally refusing to see people as powerless puppets of the laws of economics.
In a description of the French peasantry Marx gives as concise a definition of class as a real historical phenomenon as can be found anywhere in his works: “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 other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter they form a class”, but this is then built on with the notion that a class does not exist in any real sense unless embodied in the collective thought and actions of the individuals who constitute that class: “In so far as there is merely a local interconnection among these smallholding peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no community, no national bond, and no political organisation among them, they do not form a class”.A ‘class-in-itself’ becomes a ‘class-for-itself’, not solely by uniting behind a common organisation, but also by recognising a common identity that transcends spatial and social boundaries. Class is seen as the outcome of the commonality of material circumstances of individuals. So when it comes to analysing the specific historical events covered by The Eighteenth Brumaire (the seizure of power by Louis Napoleon, later Emperor Napoleon III, in 1851), we are not treated to a simplistic two-class reading of these events; in fact we find reference to multiple classes/class fragments, and also a sophisticated analysis of the relationship between political developments and social base.
Even when discussing the classic industrial capitalist society of England, Marx noted the complexity of class structure, acknowledging that “even here the stratification of classes does not appear in its pure form. Middle and intermediate strata even here obliterate lines of demarcation everywhere”, though he denies that this has any implications for the general model of wage-labour versus capital. Elsewhere, Marx explicitly states that he has disregarded “the real constitution of society, which by no means consists only of the class of workers and the class of industrial capitalists” when constructing a preliminary analysis of economic crises, and his description of British political parties portrays a much more complex view than critics credit him with of the class system and political superstructure, as does his criticism of Ricardo for overlooking the growth of the middle class (in a modern sense of the word). In effect Marx presents us with a theoretical model of how a capitalist society operates that works out in practice in a very complex way. This neither invalidates the overall applicability of the model, nor does the centrality of capital versus labour imply a reduction of the class structure of a given society to that central nexus alone.
A useful take on class is provided by the Marxist historian E P Thompson, whose groundbreaking work The Making of the English Working Class proved to be a classic in the genre of historical descriptions of class formation. He defined class, like Marx, as an active historical phenomenon, a relationship not a category. He set class firmly in its historical setting:
If we stop history at a given point, then there are no classes but simply a multitude of individuals with a multitude of experiences. But if we watch these men over an adequate period of social change, we observe patterns in their relationships, their ideas, and their institutions. Class is defined by men as they live their own history, and, in the end, this is its only definition.
He did not, however dismiss the usefulness of class as an “analytical category to organise historical evidence”, though he sometimes downplayed it in response to the deterministic excesses of more orthodox Marxists, and later those of the arch-structuralist Althusser and his followers (many of whom, ironically, went on as ‘post-modernists’ to reject the notion of class altogether). The key point here is that while it is useful and necessary to study class in an abstract, statistical way, you can’t stop there. The next step is to see how this works out in real life. This is not a matter of divorcing class fromproductive relations, or reducing class to the status of caste: a group defined by cultural characteristics not economic functions. What Thompson does is to stress the social dynamic, and reject static, over-theorised, understandings of class. His typically colourful ‘time machine’ metaphor aptly illustrates this critique:
Sociologists who have stopped the time-machine and, with a good deal of huffing and puffing, have gone down to the engine-room to look, tell us that nowhere at all have they been able to locate and classify a class.… Of course they are right, since class is not this or that part of the machine, but the way the machine works once it is set in motion—not this and that interest, but the friction of interests—the movement itself, the heat, the thundering noise.
On the other hand, in practice, if not clearly in theory, Thompson does not disallow the notion of pausing occasionally to describe class as a structure, so we are presented with a dialectic based on the interaction of class as structure and class as experience.
Building on these foundations, Thompson put great emphasis on the active real experiences of working people. There can be no class, or at least no class that has an empirical existence, without class struggle understood in the broader sense. Class, in the real historical sense, arises out of class struggle, or more precisely class experience, not vice versa. The process unfolds as “people find themselves in a society structured in determined ways… they experience exploitation… they identify points of antagonistic interest, they commence to struggle around these issues and in the process of struggling they discover themselves as classes”, so that the end result is a class consciousness arising out of, to use Thompson’s own term, both individual and collective class experience. The nature of class consciousness and how people arrive at full consciousness of their class position is a huge area of controversy that has fomented debate and polemic amongst Marxists, including famously Lenin and Luxemburg, to this day. The purpose of this article is not to tackle the question of class consciousness, so suffice to say that there is a huge space between structure and consciousness that we would do well to study before we start prescribing how consciousness should be ‘brought’ to the working class.
The manner in which the various components of the left deal with class today is quite problematic. First of all, many on the left engage in what could be called ‘slippery’ applications of the term ‘working class’. Sometimes the term is used in the current popular sense of the word, meaning manual workers living in ‘working class’ areas. This can quickly degenerate to a ‘Joe Duffy’ definition: if you have a strong Dublin (Cork, Belfast etc.) accent and you were brought up in a council house, then you are working class; if you weren’t, you’re not! This is essentially a culturalist reading of class, which has its place in understanding how class works out in cultural terms, but is certainly contrary to a Marxist analysis that firmly grounds class in the social relations that arise out of the mode of production.
The irony is that many who use the term in this sense when it comes to propaganda and practical activity abandon it in theoretical discussions, in favour of a much broader meaning that includes all those who live primarily by their labour, all those who are wage workers. Effectively this includes what’s commonly now called the middle class (white collar workers and wage earning ‘professionals’) as part of an undifferentiated working class. The latter definition can end up in an oversimplification which lumps almost everyone into one undifferentiated über-proletariat, while the former presents us with an excessively narrow, almost nineteenth century, definition of working class.
The main problem here seems to be where to locate those who regard themselves as middle class but work for a wage: teachers, civil servants, those working in new technology etc. This is not a new problem: Gramsci commented on the fact that the meaning of the term ‘middle class’ varies from country to country, and illustrated this by pointing out that in Italy the term simultaneously meant those who were not workers or peasants and a more positive definition of those who belonged to certain strata such as intellectuals, professionals and public employees, who were neither part of the ruling class nor what he called the subaltern classes. This problem is compounded nowadays by the fact that sections of this ‘middle class’ are now contract workers, own shares or have a great deal of power over other workers, complicating their relationship to the capitalist class. The American Marxist sociologist Eric Olin Wright has tried to explain the position of some these elements of the ‘new middle class’ by claiming that they receive some of the appropriated surplus from the capitalist class as a ‘loyalty rent’, in the case of managers for maintaining discipline in the workplace, or in the case of highly skilled workers because the skills they possess are rare (he argues this second case less convincingly in my opinion, drifting towards Weber’s idea of class as market position).
Another problem is the attempt by some Marxists to squash everyone in under the headings of capitalist and proletarian. In response to such attempts, Ben Fine, the author of Marx’s Capital, wrote: “Marx’s political economy does not reduce the class structure to that of capital and labour. On the contrary, other classes are located in relation to capital and labour whether as an essential or contingent part of the capitalist mode of production”. The key here is to do just that: to assess where people are located in relation to this central aspect of the capitalist derived class structure, not to fit everyone into one or other of these classes. This inevitably leads us to a more complex reading of the class structure, where there are different strata and fragments within larger classes, and individuals and groups who have unclear or contradictory relations to the central dynamic.
Of course, one way out of this messy discussion is to simply abandon class as a useful concept altogether, or to relegate it the status of just another ‘identity’. This goes down well in the halls of academia, though it so patently fails to conform to reality that we end up with the deeply ironic situation that some rightist commentators see the nature and importance of class more clearly than the liberal lefts obsessed with ‘identity politics’. This rejection of the centrality of class by many academic leftists should itself be seen in the socio-political context: in some ways it is born out of the series of defeats of the working class in the 1980s and the fallout of the collapse of the Soviet bloc. These led to profound pessimism amongst a section of the intellectual class which had previously thrown their lot in with the workers. Some, wishing to maintain an aura of radicalism, embraced ‘post-modernism’, privileging any social struggle that does not contain an overt class content, and reducing all human activity to a question of language or, to use the fashionable term, ‘discourse’. Others advocate a form of theoretical Blairism, which portrays the practitioners of class politics as dinosaurs, and go over to the camp of capital in the name of modernisation. They have become the theorists of degenerated social democracy.
While the study of class and class structure may seem to be an academic game to some, we cannot seriously claim to advocate ‘class politics’ without some understanding of what the concept means. So we return to the assertion that such an understanding equips us with the ability to ask the right questions and grapple with a host of questions related to class. How do we unite the disparate elements of the modern working class? What is the relationship between the class structure and imperialism? What is the role of intellectuals and political organisations in the class struggle? What do we mean by class consciousness and how does this relate to class struggle? How does class relate to other structures such as gender, race, sexuality and ethnicity? For serious activists, coming to grips with class at a theoretical level is only a first step in applying theory in a fruitful way to our political practice.