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Marx Essay, Research Paper

As stated before, the key classes in the capitalist mode of production

are the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, or capitalists and landless wage

laborers. While Marx

recognizes that there are other classes, the fundamental class division is

between this pairing of

the exploiter and the exploited. The bourgeoisie derive their class position

from the fact that they

own productive wealth. It is not their high income that makes them

capitalists, but the fact that

they own the means of production. For example, the inputs necessary for

production – factories,

machines, etc. The ability of workers to work (labor power) is in itself a

marketable commodity

bought for the least cost to be used at will by the capitalist. In addition,

the capitalist owns the

product and will always pocket the difference between the value of the labor

and the value of the

product – referred to by Marx as ’surplus value’ – purely by virtue of his

ownership. His property

rights also allow the capitalist the control of the process of production and

the labor he buys. The

proletariat in contrast, owns no means of production.

Because of this exploitation, Marx viewed the bourgeoisie and the proletariat

as locked in

deep and unavoidable conflict. As capitalism expanded, the conflict would

become more intense

as the condition of the workers became worse. Over time, some members of the


would come to understand their unfair position and would begin to communicate

with each other.

This would enable them to organize and overthrow the capitalist system. The

revolution would

pave the way for a new socialist system that would abolish private ownership

of the means of

production. This forms the basis of Marx’s theory of class, and with further

discussion, the

complexities will present themselves.

This two class model is not Marx’s only use of the word ‘class’. He uses the

term of other

economic groups, and particularly of the petty or petite bourgeoisie and the

peasants. These

groups seem to make the neat division of the Communist Manifesto

inapplicable, for these two

- 3 -

groups obviously merge into bourgeoisie and the proletariat according to how

many workers they

employ or how much land they own. Marx even foresaw, with increased use of

machinery and

the increase of service industries, the advent of a new middle class. This

raises two main


The first concerns the complications of social stratification in relation to

the basic classes.

In the fragment on ‘three great classes of modern society’ in Capital III,

Marx observes that even

England, where the economic structure is "most highly and classically

developed…[m]iddle and

intermediate strata even here obliterate lines of demarcation

everywhere"3 Even though this

observation does not fit easily with the idea of an increasing polarization

of bourgeois society

between ‘two great classes’, Cole explains how Marx:

regard[ed] the blurring of class divisions as a matter of secondary

importance, influential

in shaping the course of particular phases and incidents of the fundamental

class struggle,

but incapable of altering its essential character or its ultimate outcome.

[And] in the long

run the forces making for polarisation were bound to come into play more and

more as the

difficulties of Capitalism increased: so that the decisive class-struggle

between capitalists

and proletarians could be delayed, but by no means averted or changed in its


character by the emergence of any new class.4

Even so, Cole asks for a ‘critique’ of Marx in light of todays circumstances,

questioning the

validity of this statement.

The second question concerns the situation and development of two principal

classes in

capitalist society, bourgeoisie and proletariat. In The 18th Brumaire of

Louis Bonaparte, Marx

gave this negative definition of a fully constituted class:

In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence

that seperate

their mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of the other

classes, and put

them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. In so far as

there is merely a

local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of


interests begets no community, no national bond and no political organisation


them, they do not form a class5

- 4 -

In the Poverty of Philosophy, describing the emergence of the working class,

Marx expressed the

same idea in positive terms:

Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of the

country into

workers. The combination of capital has created for this mass a common


common interests. This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but

not yet for

itself. In the struggle, of which we have noted only a few phases, this mass


united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it

defends becomes class


Most Marxists have recognized, that in the case of the working class, the

development of a

’socialist’ or ‘revolutionary’ consciousness poses problems which require

more careful and

thorough study. ‘Class interest’ itself is no longer conceived, as it was in

general by Marx, as an

objective and unambiguous ’social fact’, but rather as having a sense which

is constructed through

interaction and discussion out of the experiences of everyday life and the

interpretations of those


This is further illustrated by Bottomore’s belief that an investigation into

the ‘development

of social classes’ would have to attend to three problems. First, the

"consequences for the class

structure, and especially for the polarization of classes, of the rapid

increase in productivity and in

the size of the surplus, and the concomitant growth of the middle

classes"7 Bottomore states that

how Marx defined the middle class, are the individuals who ‘live from’

surplus value, but also

‘assist in the realization and distribution of the surplus’. Marx foresaw the

growing number of the

middle class, and as a result, the declining number of working class. This

would seem to

strengthen the bourgeois making the transformation to a classless society

more difficult. Through

Marx’s own analysis, Bottomore says that the transition might not occur at

all; thus, resulting in a

type of society unlike the socialist society emerging from capitalism. Or,

transformation brought

about differently, from what Marx predicted, resulting in the classless

society. "The nature of the

social conflict that would then bring about the breakdown of capitalism and

the creation of a

socialist society remains unclear, and is not discussed by Marx."8

- 5 -

The second problem concerns the ‘various cultural and political influences’

which are a

factor in the evolution of the revolutionary class consciousness. Marx, in

early writings,

emphasizes positive influences for this development such as: introduction of

new technology

(resulting in the displacement of workers to further the revolution), the

reserve army of labor, the

advent of the factory (resulting in concentration of workers creating a

collective situation – class

consciousness)9 But also negative influences such as: "dominant position

of ruling-class ideas,

the effects of social mobility, the growth of the middle classes."10

Bottomore then states that

national or ethnic consciousness is very important; one of the powerful

influences that Marx

neglected. The second influence is that of the increasing social

differentiation in modern societies

which breaks down the working-class consciousness to strengthen the middle

class. In other

words, increasing the number of middle class while decreasing the number of

working class; a

negative influence on revolutionary class consciousness.

The last problem asks what conditions are necessary beyond the abolition of

classes and

private property in the means of production, in order to establish what Marx

referred to as

socialism. Marx wrote about the advancement of science and how it could be

used to abolish

scarcity to meet human needs. As a result, man would be free from those

labors in order to

pursue their human potential. Beyond all of this, what Bottomore is implying

is the further study

of Marx’s political theory. Concentrating on the interaction between the

development of

production, emergence of new human needs, development of a political

consciousness, and the

creation of organizations to take part in a political struggle. Regrettably,

this political theory, like

the theory of class, can only be examined through fragments of Marx’s work.

Another way of looking at Marx’s theory of class is how Elster attempts to

define class in

terms of property, exploitation, market behavior, and power. Elster claims

that Marx’s ‘class’ is

frequently defined as "a group of persons who stand in the same relation

of property or non-

property to the factors of production, that is labor-power and means of

production."11 By using

this definition, the words ‘property’ and ‘non-property’ are too restrictive

or too open. There is a

- 6 -

need to distinguish between property owners but then the question arises, to

what degree? This is

also evident when using exploitation as a basis of defining class. As Elster

puts it: "[t]he proposal

is too coarse-grained if it locates all exploiters in one class and all

exploited agents in another

[and] too fine grained if classes are to be distinguished in terms of the

degree of

exploitation….’infinite fragmentation’ of classes."12

In terms of the third proposal, defining class in terms of market behavior,

Elster states that

it is not useful in the study of non-market economies. Furthermore, "the

proposal overemphasizes

actual behavior and neglects its causal grounding in the endowment

structure."13 Basically, he is

referring to choice. In Marx’s view, the wage laborer has no choice in who to

work for and for

how much. The reasoning behind this is that the capitalist (though needing

workers) can employ

any individual he chooses. Elster says that class is defined by what one has

to do, not what one

actually does. So, for example, a wage laborer decides to work in a factory

just for the pure joy

of doing so. This individual should be put in a different class from the wage

laborer who has to

work in the factory.14

Elster’s final proposal is the aspect of power in defining class. To Marx,


relationships are built into the very structure of society, whose principal

feature is the existence of

opposed classes. Thus, class domination and subordination are central to

Marxist conception of

politics and the distribution and operation of power. Power to Marx, is class

power. In other

words, it is a resource that is concentrated in the hands of a particular

class, which that class can

use to maintain and enhance its dominant position in society, a position

achieved by economic

exploitation. Elster says: "[t]he definition of class in terms of

domination and subordination is too

behavioral and insufficiently structural. By this I mean that the classes of

the upper and lower

managers are defined only by what they actually do, not – as in the case of

capitalists and workers

- by what they must do by virtue of what they have." – a reference back

to Elster’s third proposal.

What Elster reveals are some of the more obvious problems inherent in Marx’s

theory of class.

But all of this can still be referred to in past context. Clearly, the

question that needs to be

- 7 -

asked is: can Marx’s analysis be applicable today?

It is obvious that there are some serious problems in Marx’s account.

Revolution has

occurred in nations on the verge of entry into capitalism, not in societies

which are mature and

‘ripe’ for change. The working class in capitalist societies has enjoyed, in

the long term, a rise in

the standard of living, and labor movements have won enough welfare

concessions to ease many

of the poor. By no means all Western societies have strong Communist parties.

In addition, the

growth of the middle class of managerial and professional workers appears to

contradict Marx’s

view that divisions among those without wealth would disappear. Western

economies are open to

crises, but the state seems able to keep them in check.

Generally, then, Marx’s ideas seem to many people to have been disproved by


century developments. However, this is a limited view. The real issues are

firstly whether Marx’s

general perspective on stratification was sound, and secondly, whether

contemporary Western

societies are still capitalists in the general basic character of their

social relations. The first issue is

important because Marx provides an account of stratification which is

significantly different from

that of many other social theorists. Very often today, sociologists see

classes as merely groupings

of people with similar attributes such as income, type of occupation, and so

on. Marx, on the

other hand, saw classes as systematically linked in a particular structure of

social relationships.

An explanation of inequality is given through the analysis of the mode of

production. Marx points

out the deeper class relations and potential conflicts below the surface of

society. This strength,

however, is seen as a problem by many sociologists. They argue that Marx’s

class analysis is too

simplistic to account adequately for the complexity of social inequality. For

them, Marx’s

emphasis on the ownership of productive wealth leaves us unable to explain

adequately all the

differences in consciousness within the mass of the population who are not


Quite clearly, the Western economies are vastly changed today in comparison

with Marx’s

time. There is far more economic intervention by the state in most societies

of the West, and state

employees of one kind or another form a large part of the work force.

Nationalization and the

- 8 -

frequent replacement of individual owner or managers by shareholders and


bureaucracies have both changed the structure of industry. However, it can

still be argued that

private ownership of the means of production is the basis of economic power

and wealth, and that

the labor market is still the prime determinant of wage levels. The worker is

still in a subordinate

position in the work place, and the incomes of workers are still very low in

comparison with those

who control them. Other interpretations are possible: it is commonly argued,

for example, that

the West has a mixed economy which works in everyone’s interest, but others

would still consider

Western economies as capitalist.

This brings us back to Marx’s Capital III. It is clear that there are many

aspects of Marx’s

theory of class which are not discussed in this essay; the theory is

multifaceted. One still wonders

what Marx would describe in his last work. Would it have been in the same

terms as he had used

thirty years before? Or would he have recognized, in this gap, the vitally

important changes in the

class structure of the modern societies of today, and that these changes

were, to some extent,

different from what he anticipated to occur? This question remains


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