Although, surprisingly, Karl Marx did not elaborate a systematic theory of it, nevertheless the concept of class is central in Marxist theory. In the Communist Manifesto Marx wrote, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” For Marx, the most prominent feature of history is class conflict and in all but the most primitive of societies Marx believed that classes had existed, and that throughout history classes had been locked in conflict. Marx did not invent or discover classes, and there is nothing inherently radical or revolutionary about a theory of class. Many other writers very different in political outlook from Marx had written about classes including Niccolò Machiavelli and Adam Smith to name but two, but what Marx did was to put classes and class conflict center-stage, and to give a new understanding of what classes are. Marx defined classes in a new and distinctive way that related them to the means of production, and he argued that the class to which we belong influences our consciousness, the ideas and outlook we have. Furthermore, Marx argued that class conflict was not only inevitable but also necessary for history to progress.
   Classes are defined by Marx in terms of their relationship to the means of production, or to the prevailing mode of production. The fundamental factor in defining class is whether or not the members of a class own the means of production, and what kind of means of production they own. For example, feudal lords or landowners are defined as a class by their ownership of land, and capitalists are defined by their ownership of capital. Other classes are defined by their nonownership of the means of production, for example, serfs in feudal society or workers in capitalist society. Workers own nothing but their capacity to work or their labor power, and in order to live they sell their labor power to those who do own the means of production, namely the capitalists. In the Communist Manifesto Marx identifies two great classes in capitalist society, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. According to Marx, society is becoming increasingly polarized into these two classes. The proletariat consists of the workers or working class, those who own nothing but their capacity to work, and the bourgeoisie consists of those who own the means of production, specifically those who own capital, in other words the capitalists. In Capital Marx identifies three rather than two main classes, and he defines them in terms of their source of revenue. These three classes are: workers or wage laborers who own nothing but their labor power, and this is their source of revenue or income which they receive in the form of wages; capitalists who own capital, and this is their source of revenue, which they receive in the form of profit; and landowners, whose source of revenue is their land, which they receive in the form of rent. Marx is aware of the existence of other classes, various intermediary classes that do not exactly fit into any of the three main classes noted already. These include the petty bourgeoisie (for example shopkeepers) and peasant smallholders. These smaller classes blur distinctions between the main classes, but are of little importance, having no significant role to play in the development of society. The capitalists and landowners by contrast are important because they constitute the ruling classes in society, and the workers are important because they constitute the majority class in society and have the capability to overthrow the ruling classes. According to Marx, all classes develop out of common conditions, common interests and common antagonisms. They have a common experience and develop a common outlook, and they only gradually emerge as fully fledged classes. The proletariat gradually developed as a class out of the remnants of old feudal classes, peasants and artisans who were pressed into service in the newly created factories.
   These new industrial workers became a class in course of conflict and struggle with the equally new capitalists, a struggle that first occurred in single factories or workplaces, and then, as unions developed, spread to a whole trade, eventually widening until it included all workers. The proletariat as a whole became aware of itself as a single class with a common interest and with a common enemy in the capitalist. This development of an awareness of a class identity is the process of the formation of class consciousness, and proletarian class consciousness is a vital prerequisite for revolution.
   A distinction is suggested in Marx’s writings between class membership and class consciousness. A worker may belong to the working class by virtue of his owning nothing but his labor power, but not have a subjective awareness of his class identity. He will only have full subjective awareness, that is full class consciousness when he is aware of belonging to the working class, and is aware of the common interest and common enemy of that class. This is the difference between what Marx calls a “class in itself” and a “class for itself,” the former being when the workers still lack class consciousness, and the latter being a class that is engaged in class struggle and is conscious of its interests in opposition to the interests of other classes. The proletariat only truly becomes a class for itself when its members organize themselves politically on class lines and when they realize that the only way they can be free is to overthrow capitalism.
   Later Marxists have struggled to outline a coherent theory of class that addresses the problems and omissions in Marx’s comments. For example, Eduard Bernstein and Nico Poulantzas have both focused on the problem of the growth of the middle classes and the conflict of this phenomenon with Marx’s prediction of an increasing polarization of classes into the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. This problem points to a central omission in Marx’s writings on class, namely a precise definition of the proletariat. Managers, professionals, housewives/ husbands, service workers are all groups that pose problems for delineating the boundaries of the proletariat. Further difficulties concern the application of the theory outside of Europe (see ASIATIC MODE OF PRODUCTION), particularly the role of the peasantry in the revolutionary process, the classification of classes in the “socialist” Soviet Union where there was no private ownership of the means of production, and the relation of class struggle to other forms of struggle such as that of nations, races and women.

Historical dictionary of Marxism. . 2014.

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