Class in Marxist theory

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In Marxist Class theory, a class is those who share common economic interests, are conscious of those interests, and engage in collective action which advances those interests.[1]

To Marx, a class is a group with intrinsic tendencies and interests that differ from those of other groups within society, the basis of a fundamental antagonism between such groups. For example, it is in the laborer's best interest to maximize wages and benefits and in the capitalist's best interest to maximize profit at the expense of such, leading to a contradiction within the capitalist system, even if the laborers and capitalists themselves are unaware of the clash of interests.

Class structure of capitalism[edit]

In Marxist theory, the capitalist stage of production consists of two main classes: the bourgeoisie, the capitalists who own the means of production, and the much larger proletariat (or 'working class') who must sell their own labour power (See also: wage labour). This is the fundamental economic structure of work and property (See also: wage labour), a state of inequality that is normalised and reproduced through cultural ideology. Thus the proletariat, in itself, is forced into a subservient position by the power of capital, which has stripped the means of production from them. As the proletariat becomes conscious of its situation and power, organizes itself, and takes collective political action it becomes a class for itself which has the revolutionary potential to become the ruling class.[1]

Max Weber critiqued historical materialism, positing that stratification is not based purely on economic inequalities but on other status and power differentials. Social class pertaining broadly to material wealth may be distinguished from status class based on honour, prestige, religious affiliation, and so on. The conditions of capitalism and its class system came together due to a variety of "elective affinities".[citation needed]

Marxists explain the history of "civilized" societies in terms of a war of classes between those who control production and those who produce the goods or services in society. In the Marxist view of capitalism, this is a conflict between capitalists (bourgeoisie) and wage-workers (the proletariat). For Marxists, class antagonism is rooted in the situation that control over social production necessarily entails control over the class which produces goods—in capitalism this is the exploitation of workers by the bourgeoisie.[citation needed]

Marx himself argued that it was the goal of the proletariat itself to displace the capitalist system with socialism, changing the social relationships underpinning the class system and then developing into a future communist society in which: "..the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all." (Communist Manifesto) This would mark the beginning of a classless society in which human needs rather than profit would be motive for production. In a society with democratic control and production for use, there would be no class, no state and no need for money.[citation needed]

For Marx, class has three primary facets:[2]

Objective factors
A class shares a common relationship to the means of production. That is, all people in one class make their living in a common way in terms of ownership of the things that produce social goods. A class may own things, own land, own people, be owned, own nothing but their labor. A class will extract tax, produce agriculture, enslave and work others, be enslaved and work, or work for a wage.
Subjective factors
The members will necessarily have some perception of their similarity and common interest. Marx termed this Class consciousness. Class consciousness is not simply an awareness of one's own class interest (for instance, the maximisation of shareholder value; or, the maximization of the wage with the minimization of the working day), class consciousness also embodies deeply shared views of how society should be organized legally, culturally, socially and politically.
Reproduction of class relations
Class as a set of social relationships that is reproduced from one generation to the next.

The first criterion divides a society into the owners and non-owners of means of production. In capitalism, these are capitalist (bourgeoisie) and proletariat. Finer divisions can be made, however: the most important subgroup in capitalism being petite bourgeoisie (small bourgeoisie), people who possess their own means of production but utilize it primarily by working on it themselves rather than hiring others to work on it. They include self-employed artisans, small shopkeepers, and many professionals. Jon Elster has found mention in Marx of 15 classes from various historical periods.[3]

Vladimir Lenin has defined classes as "large groups of people differing from each other by the place they occupy in a historically determined system of social production, by their relation (in most cases fixed and formulated in law) to the means of production, by their role in the social organization of labor, and, consequently, by the dimensions of the share of social wealth of which they dispose and the mode of acquiring it." [4]


The most important transformation of society for Marxists has been the massive and rapid growth of the proletariat over the last two hundred and fifty years. Starting with agricultural and domestic textile laborers in England and Flanders, more and more occupations only provide a living through wages or salaries. Private manufacturing, leading to self-employment, is no longer as viable as it was before the industrial revolution, because automation made manufacturing very cheap. Many people who once controlled their own labor-time were converted into proletarians through industrialization. Today groups which in the past subsisted on stipends or private wealth—like doctors, academics or lawyers—are now increasingly working as wage laborers. Marxists call this process proletarianization, and point to it as the major factor in the proletariat being the largest class in current societies in the rich countries of the "first world."[5]

Objective and subjective factors in class in Marxism[edit]

Marxism has a rather heavily defined dialectic between objective factors (i.e., material conditions, the social structure) and subjective factors (i.e. the conscious organization of class members). While most forms of Marxism analyses people's class based on objective factors (class structure), major Marxist trends have made greater use of subjective factors in understanding the history of the working class. E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class is a definitive example of this "subjective" Marxist trend. Thompson analyses the English working class as a group of people with shared material conditions coming to a positive self-consciousness of their social position. This feature of social class is commonly termed class consciousness in Marxism, a concept which became famous with Georg Lukács' History and Class Consciousness (1923). It is seen as the process of a "class in itself" moving in the direction of a "class for itself", a collective agent that changes history rather than simply being a victim of the historical process. In Lukács' words, the proletariat was the "subjectobject of history", and the first class which could separate false consciousness (inherent to the bourgeois's consciousness), which reified economic laws as universal (whereas they are only a consequence of historic capitalism).[6][full citation needed][non-primary source needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Edward Andrew (September 1983). "Class in Itself and Class against Capital: Karl Marx and His Classifiers". Canadian Journal of Political Science / Revue canadienne de science politique 16 (3): 577–584. 
  2. ^ Hanagan, Michael P. (1994). "Class". In Stearns, Peter N. Encyclopedia of social history. Taylor & Francis. p. 184. ISBN 978-0-8153-0342-8. 
  3. ^ The classes are: "bureaucrats and theocrats in the Asiatic mode of production; freemen, slaves, plebeians, and patricians under slavery; lord, serf, guild master and journeyman under feudalism; industrial capitalists, financial capitalists, landlords, peasantry, petty bourgeoisie, and wage laborers under capitalism." Jon Elster, An Introduction to Karl Marx, (Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 124.
  4. ^ A Great Beginning
  5. ^ this is the main thesis of Marx's "Capital"
  6. ^ E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class; Georg Lukács (1923) History and Class Consciousness