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Marx's Use of "Class"
By Bertell Ollman
What are the classes into which Marx places the inhabitants of capitalist society? In Capital, he says that in developed capitalist society there is only a capitalist and a proletarian class.1 The former, who are also called the bourgeoisie, are described in the Communist Manifesto as "owners of the means of social production and employers of wage labor." In the same place, the proletariat are said to be "the class of modern wage-laborers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labor-power in order to live."2 But, though Marx believed European capitalism was sufficiently advanced for a Communist revolution to occur, he asserts elsewhere in Capital that three classescapitalists, proletarians, and landowners"constitute in their mutual opposition the framework of modern society."3 For Marx, the landowner class is composed of owners of large tracts of land and is almost always feudal in origin. Has the standard by which Marx assesses class membership altered?4
Even where the basis for distinguishing classes appears to be a group's relations to the prevailing mode of production the question is not the simple one of whether there are two or three classes, for Marx applies this label to several other economic units. Two outstanding examples are the petty bourgeoisie and the peasants. The former are small shopkeepers who own no means of production or, sometimes, a very tiny morsel, and employ at most a few workers; and the latter are the owners of small plots of land which they farm themselves. Their respective relations to the prevailing mode of production in capitalism are not those of the capitalists, the proletariat, or the landowners. Where, then, does Marx place small businessmen and peasants when he talks of society being made up of three classes. At what point does a small businessman stop being petty bourgeois and become a capitalist? How much land does a peasant have to own before he becomes a landowner?
Should we admit as classes all the groups mentioned, there are still other elements in the population that are difficult to place. Are farm laborers, for instance, proletarians or peasants? The inclusion of rural wage workers as proletariat is required to give validity to Marx's claim that the proletariat contains the vast majority of people in capitalist society.5 Marx quotes figures which show that factory workers were not a majority in England, and he must have been aware that this was even more true for Germany and France at the time.6 On at least one occasion, Marx states explicitly that farm laborers are proletarians; yet, the whole weight of his treatment of the proletariat as workers in industry argues against this.7 And, whenever Marx particularizes, it is of industrial workers that he speaks.
Beyond this, there is an indication that Marx sometimes extends the class of proletarians to include small-holding peasants as well, as when he states, "The owning peasant does not belong to the proletariat, and there where he does belong to it by his position, he does not believe that he belongs to it."8 Marx's point is that because of his indebtedness to various capitalists, the mortgage on his property, etc., the peasant does not really own his plot of land, and is actually working for someone else. Bringing the peasantry into the proletariat may help account for Marx's division of capitalist society into two main classes; the landowners and the petty bourgeoisie, we can assume, have been swept under the rug of "capitalism." Most often in his writings, however, the peasants are referred to as a separate class whose distinctive qualities are aptly summed up in the phrase, "class of barbarians."9
Marx's contradictory attempts to categorize the intelligentsia is extremely revealing of the problems encountered in a straight economic division of society. Usually, he speaks of doctors, lawyers, journalists, professors, writers, and priests as "the ideological representatives and spokesmen" of the bourgeoisie.10 Referring to petty bourgeois politicians and writers, "is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problem and solutions to which material interest and social position drive the latter practically."11
The relationship between the intelligentsia and the capitalist class is further clarified where Marx says the ideologists of a class are those "who make the perfecting of the illusion of the class about itself their chief sources of livelihood." This, he claims, is based on a division of labor inside the class between mental and physical work.12 Though it would appear to be general, Marx carefully restricts his own application of this principle to the bourgeoisie. From comments such as these, the intelligentsia and the capitalists stand forth as brothers, similar at the core, who are merely specializing in different areas of capitalist "work."13
Though they are usually subsumed under the capitalist class, this does not preclude Marx, on occasion, from ascribing to the intelligentsia a status, not just as a class, but as a cluster of classes. In Capital, Volume I, for example, he speaks of them as the "ideological classes."14 If Marx sometimes puts the intelligentsia among the capitalists and sometimes puts them on their own, he is obviously changing his criteria for deciding what constitutes a class.
Besides referring to capitalists, proletarians, landowners, petty bourgeoisie, and peasants, "class" is also used to refer to groups carved out of society on another basis than their relations to the mode of production. Such groups frequently contain members from two or more of the economic classes dealt with above. What Marx calls the "ideological class," for example, seems to be based on the role these people play in society at large, rather than in production. The ruling classes, another social unit found in Marx's writings, appears to have been marked out by the same measure: those individuals who take part in running the country or who help decide how it should be run are its members.15 In Great Britain, the ruling classes are said to be composed of the "aristocracy," "moneyocracy," and "millocracy."16 Thus, they include both capitalists and landowners, most of whom belong to the aristocracy. The "millocracy" refers to owners of factories which produce materials for clothing; and the "moneyocracy," of "finance aristocracy," refers to bankers and the like, who earn their entrance into the capitalist class as hirers of wage labor and by virtue of their monetary dealings with industrialists.17
Marx also speaks of a "lower middle class" which includes "the small manufacturers, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant."18 This class, it appears, picks up some members from all the economic classes mentioned earlier. What is the criterion by which Marx determines who belongs to the lower middle class? Judging by its membership, it could be income, power, or even distance from the extremes of involvement in the class struggle.
Elsewhere, the "middle classes" or "those who stand between the workman on the one hand and the capitalist and landlord on the other," are described as constantly growing in number and maintaining themselves increasingly out of revenues. They are also said to be a burden on workers and a social and political support for the power of the "upper ten thousand."19 Here, it sounds as if it is officials of various sorts whom Marx has in mind in speaking of the "middle class."
One last example: what are we to make of the group Marx calls the "dangerous class," otherwise known as the Lumpenproletariat, which is said to be composed of "the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of old society"? 20 It is spoken of elsewhere as "a recruiting ground for thieves and criminals of all kinds, living on the crumbs of society, people without a definite trade, vagabonds, people without a hearth or a home."21 By what standard does Marx judge membership in this class? It seems to be a gathering place for all the unemployed poor, though Marx's term, "dangerous class," suggests a certain action criterion as well. The Lumpenproletariat sell their services to the bourgeoisie, who use them as strikebreakers, labor spies, and fighters against the workers in times of revolution. Such are the actions which make them the "dangerous class."22
The plurality of criteria Marx uses in constructing classes is reminiscent of present day confusion on this subject. It is not enough to argueas some havethat Marx's idea of class develops over time, for many of the complications we have drawn attention to are found in the same work or writings of the same period. If readers of this essay will check the citations which correspond to my footnotes 1, 3, 9, 14, and 17, they will see a sampling of the various and apparently contradictory uses of "class" in the volumes of Capital. The conclusion remains that, for a variety of purposes, Marx divides society up in as many different ways, speaking of the parts in each case as "classes."
Any attempt to explain Marx's practice must start with the admission that Marx uses this term loosely, often putting it forward as a synonym for "group," "faction," or "layer." This was only in keeping with the imprecise use of "class" which Rolf Dahrendorf informs us was typical of this period.23 Where Marx speaks of "ruling classes," "groups" or "factions" could be substituted for "classes" without any alteration of the meaning. Marx himself uses "ruling class" and "ruling faction" interchangeably in one instance to refer to the same peoples.24 "Groups" could also be substituted for "classes" without any change of meaning in the expression "ideological classes"; and either "group or "layer" would serve for "class" where Marx talks of the "dangerous class." With all due allowance made for loose word usage, however, Marx cannot escape the more serious accusation of having a litter of standards for class membership and of changing them without prior warning.
The implications of this disorder for Marx's class analysis of society should not be carried too far, since Marx's tripartite division of society into capitalists, proletarians and landowners is the prevalent one, and it is also the classification most in keeping with his other theories. Hence, we may in fairness dub it the "Marxist system of classes." The other classes mentioned can be made more or less consistent with this division on the basis of hints Marx drops but nowhere develops. These hints are found in his expressions "subdivisions of classes" and "transition classes."25 The former helps us comprehend occupational, income, and functional units within the three great classes based on differing relations to the prevailing mode of production. Millocracy, moneyocracy, and shipbuilders are all subdivisions of the capitalist class, just as skilled and unskilled workers are subdivisions of the proletariat.
The concept of "transition class" can be used to justify leaving out of the more generalized presentations of the class system, those groups which are in the process of disappearing. Small-holding peasants and petty bourgeoisie are among the classes Marx sees disappearing in this own day.26 A stumbling block to taking this way out is that "transition class" is a highly subjective concept even within Marx's own analytical framework; any class, after all, can be viewed as passing out of the picture, depending on the time span under consideration. We saw Marx claim that, in fully developed capitalism, only a capitalist and a proletarian class exist; therefore, if this is the period one has in mind, all other classes are transitional. After the proletarian revolution, however, the capitalist class, too, disappears; and, when communism arrives, the proletariat as well dissolves into the community. All references to "transitional classes," therefore, if they are to convey any meaning at all, must make explicit the time period under consideration.
Marx's only attempt to present a connected account of class appears at the end of Volume III of Capital, but unfortunately, he never completed it.27 From these few paragraphs, we learn that wage laborers, capitalists and landowners constitute the three large classes of modern society. Yet, he admits that, even in England where capitalism is most developed, "the stratification of classes does not appear in its pure form. Middle and intermediate strata even here obliterate lines of demarcation everywhere )although incomparably less in rural districts, than in the cities)." He believes that developments in capitalist society are speedily reducing all such strata into the capitalist or proletarian class. The landowners, too, are shortly to go the same way. With the growing divorce between the means of production and labor, Marx sees all workers eventually becoming wage laborers. As for capitalists, the trend toward increasing concentration in industry enlarges the holdings of some just as it forces others into the proletariat.
Marx replies to his own question, "What constitutes a class?" with another, "What makes wage laborers, capitalists, and landowners the three great social classes?" The fragment he left behind contains only the first part of his answer: "At first glancethe identity of revenues and sources of revenues. There are three great social groups whose numbers, the individuals forming them, live on wages, profit, and ground rent, respectively, on the realization of their labor-power, their capital, and their landed property." Marx recognizes that this standard also enables physicians and officials to be spoken of as "classes," "for they belong to two distinct groups receiving their revenues from one and the same source. The same would also be true of the infinite fragmentations of interest and rank into which the division of social labor splits laborers as well as capitalists and landlordsthe latter, e.g., into owners of vineyards, farm owners, owners of forests, mine owners and owners of fisheries." Here the manuscript breaks off. When concentrating on the problem of class, Marx takes a stand against affixing this label to all kinds of social and economic groups which is something he himself was guilty of.
From our study of Marx's use of the term "class," we can suggest how he would have finished this account. The qualifications for constituting a class that capitalists possess and physicians do not are as follows: the capitalists have a direct operating relationship to the mode of production, while the physicians do not; the capitalists have distinct economic interests (the size of their profit) based on these relations which place them in conflict with the proletariat and landowners, the other two groups directly involved in capitalist production, while the economic interest of physiciansthough leaning toward those of the capitalists in present societyare really compatible with the interest of any of the three great classes; the capitalists are conscious of their uniqueness as a class with interest that are opposed to those of the two other main classes in society, while physicians, even if they are conscious of themselves as a distinct group, do not view their interests as being opposed to those of others; the capitalists are organized in one or more physiciansdespite their pressure group activityhave no such organization; and, finally, capitalists exhibit a general cultural affinity, a way of life and set of social values, which mark them off from the proletariat and the landowners, while physicians as a group have no such distinguishing features.28
A thread which runs through all of these criteria is the hostility a class displays for its opponent classes. Whether in work, politics, or culture, an essential defining characteristic of each class is its antagonism in this same sphere to others. For the capitalists, this can be seen in their hostile relations to the workers and the landowners at the point of production, in their political struggle to promote their interests at the expense of these classes, and in the cultural sideswipes they are forever directing against them. Of the bourgeoisie, Marx says, "The separate individuals form a class in so far as they have to carry on a common battle against another class: otherwise they are on hostile terms with each other as competitors."29 This common battle is fought on as many fronts as there are criteria for constituting a class. On each front, it is the fact of battle itself which earns each side its label. Hence, Marx calls a society where only one class exists, such as occurs after the proletarian revolution, a classless society. Without an enemy, the antagonistic nature of the proletariat disappears and with it the designation "class." "Who is the enemy?" is a question that can be asked whenever Marx uses "class."
The secret of class in Marxism lies hidden in the socialist philosopher's conceptualization of it as a complex rather than a simple relation. In "class" Marx conflates a number of social ties (relations between groups based on various standards) which are generally treated separately. He views them as interacting parts of an organic whole, the society in question, such that development in any one necessarily affects (more or less, sooner or later) the others. The mistake made in virtually all treatments of this subject, a pit we could only climb out of after falling in ourselves, is to seek after a unidimensional meaning. But, by this maneuver, class is distorted to the number of major elements left unreported. The various criteria for establishing class, therefore, simply reflect the wealth of social relations that Marx sees bound up in it.
Only in advanced capitalism is it possible for a group to qualify as a class on all the criteria I have listed. Hence, Marx's assertion that class is a "product of the bourgeoisie."30 To take just one instance, the absence of effective communication in earlier periods inhibits the exchange of information and contacts which is essential for class formation. An awareness of common interests as well as co-ordinated action to promote them are impossibilities for people living in scattered communities.
But if class is a product of capitalism, how can Marx speak of all history as the history of class struggle or referas he frequently doesto the distinguishing social divisions of previous epochs as "classes"?31 To answer this query is also to demonstrate how he was able to refer to so many groups in capitalist society as "classes." It is simply that Marx applies this label if a group measures up to only some of the above standards. Which there are varies with his purpose in making the particular classification. This is the nub of the explanation for Marx's apparent confusion over class. If we want to discover the relevant criteria in each case, we must follow up our question, "Who is the enemy?" with one, "Why are they the enemy?" Nothing that has been said absolves Marx from the accusation of using "class" loosely, but it should help us comprehend what lies behind this usage.32
Whether it was proper of Marx to apply the label "class" on the basis of only a few of the relevant criteria is open to dispute, but that he could not wait for all of them to be satisfied before using this term is clear, Otherwise, he would have defined himself occasionally seen to be without some of the requisite attributes. He says of the proletariat for example, "Thus the mass is already a class in opposition to capital, but not yet a class for itself."33 The missing ingredient is class consciousness, the proletariat's comprehension of their life situation and their acceptance of the interests and enemies which accrue to it.
Elsewhere, Marx suggests the proletariat are not a class, because they lack a class wide political organization. In a letter to Kugelmann, Marx speaks of his program for the Geneva Conference of the First International as helping "the organization of the workers into a class." 34 In the Communist Manifesto, he specifically links this up with the formation of a political party.35 Insofar as class consciousness remains the achievement of a few, and before such a party exists, the proletariat, even in the most advanced capitalistic societies, lack two major qualifications for constituting a class.36 A similar breakdown could be made of the capitalists, and, in fact of all the groups Marx calls "classes." 37
There is a still more formidable objection to Marx's use of "class." Besides changing his standards when moving from one group to the next, the same groupas indicated by its popular namemay be given its measure by a variety of standards. Depending on his purpose, Marx may mean by the "proletariat" all wage earners or "those who work," the simplest and largest net of all.38 Or he may mean those who pass one of any few of the income, cultural, political, and social tests that have been listed. With the shift in criteria, there is a shift, often of huge proportions, in the number of people referred to. This explains, of course, why some groupspeasants, rural workers, intellectuals, and shopkeepers being the prize examplesare sometimes found in one class and sometimes in another. This objection might have proved fatal for those wishing to comprehend Marx's views about his contemporaries if certain trends were not apparent in his use of class labels. Generally, Marx's comments on the proletariat only apply to industrial wage earners, and his descriptions of capitalists are usually meant for large merchants and bankers as well as for the owners of the means of production. These are the chief characters in Marx's realistic drama, Capital.
This brings us to the next and, for many, obvious question, "How useful is Marx's concept of 'class?" But, if our statement of what Marx meant by "class"garnered from his actual use of the termis correct, this question simply masks another more profound one concerning the utility of Marxism itself. By conceptualizing a unity of apparently distinct social relations, "class" is inextricably bound up with the reality of the unity so posited, that is, with the truth of Marx's own analysis. For the interwoven criteria Marx used for understanding what constitutes a class represent the result of his empirical social studies.
It is only, in other words, because Marx found groups in his society with different relations to the prevailing mode of production, sets of opposing economic interests based on these relations, a corresponding cultural and moral differentiation, a growing consciousness among these groups of their uniqueness and accompanying interest, andresulting from this consciousnessthe development of social and political organizations which promote these interest that he constructed his peculiar concept of "class." Of overriding importance is that "class" in Marxism is not just a label for groups carved out of society on the basis of a discernable set of standards but expresses as well the involved interactions which Marx believed he uncovered between these standards.39 When critics, such as R.N. Carew-Hunt, therefore, ask complainingly for Marx's definition of "class," they are asking, in effect, for the latter's analysis of capitalist class society; and it is understandable that Marx had difficulty in reconstituting this analysis in the form of a definition for "class."40
For those who accept Marx's version of capitalist social relations, the key concepts in which it is couched are second nature; "class" serves as a necessary vehicle for conveying what Marx taught. Fro those who do not share Marx's analysis, or something close to it, using his concept "class" can only distort what they have to say. We are not interested here in the utility of this concept as an aid in presenting Marxism when the purpose is to criticize the doctrine. Nor should our conclusion be taken as an argument against using the word "class" in some non-Marxist sense, as long as this is made clear. One can define the word "class" to suit practically any end, but it is altogether another matter to use Marx's concept "class" in ways other than he did himself.
Words are the property of language, but conceptsand "class" is both a word and a conceptbelong to a particular philosophy (way of viewing the world) and share in all of the latter's uniqueness. As a concept, "class" cannot be detached from the structured knowledge is seeks to express and of which it is, in the last analysis, an integral part. Does Marx provide an adequate account of social relations in capitalism? It is one the answer to this question that the utility of Marx's concept of "class" hinges.41
As for those followers of Marx who try to construct a strict definition of "class" or of any particular class, who begin their studies with such definitions, and who often treat what class an individual or group (e.g., the managers) fall into as a problem to be solved, the preceding analysis would make clear how far their approach has wandered from Marx's own practice. For Marx, the meaning of "proletariat," "capitalist," etc., develops as the analysis of these classes, especially of their interaction with one another, proceeds. Further, the meaning of these concepts along with the number of people included in each class varies somewhat with the problem under consideration and the focus, (width or narrowness) with which he views it. Consequently, if class and the different particular classes are and cannot help but be some of the elements with which Marx begins his inquiry into capitalism, as complex relations which emerge through the course of his study, they are also versions of what is found. The distinction is well captured in E.P. Thompson's claim that "class is not this or that part of the machine, but the way the machine works once it is set in motion."42To offer a strict definition of "class" where brief, relative and conditional indications are called for undermines the effort to grasp the larger social movement within the developed notion of "class." It also illustrates the distance which separates what is popularly known as "class analysis" from Marx's dialectical method.
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