Marx, class and socialism

Class and class struggle are central to an understanding of the case for socialism. Marx and Engels had been concerned to show the “class struggle as the primary motive force of history, and especially the class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat as the great lever of modern social change” (Circular letter to Bebel, Liebknecht, Bracke and others).

Marx, however, undertook no systematic definition of class. While he certainly planned to do so. the unfinished chapter of Capital intended for the purpose ends after a few paragraphs with a note from Engels that the manuscript breaks off. The omission has certainly fuelled the confusion and ignorance surrounding the meaning of class and its relevance to the socialist case.

It would however be surprising if, in the whole of the writings of Marx and Engels, we were not able to understand what they meant. Indeed, the whole of their writings is about understanding the historic dynamic of class, the class struggle and the abolition of class society. Within the body of their writings there exist enough references for us to constitute what they meant by class. Marx did not, of course, invent class. His contribution was to articulate and conceptualise the existing historical reality. Class is not some figment or idea emanating from the mind of Marx.

In the unfinished chapter Marx prepared to answer his own question – what is a class? – and began by writing of three “great classes” in modern society. He identified these, firstly, on the basis of income: wage for labour, profit for the capitalists and rent for the landowners. But note here that income is the result of different property relationships, different relationships to the means of production. The word “great” was not intended to imply numerous, but the importance such groups had to the functioning of society in a particular manner. The working class is the most numerous but the capitalists constitute a tiny and parasitic minority. The greatness of the latter arose from the fact that they constitute the ruling class in modern society by virtue of their legal ownership and monopoly control of the means of production and distribution of wealth. This position allows a class to dominate not only in the economic sphere but, as Marx and Engels stated:

    in every epoch the thoughts of the ruling class are the ruling thoughts; ie. the class that is the ruling material power of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual power. The class that has the means of material production in its control. controls at the same time the means of intellectual production (The German Ideology).

Capitalism has now succeeded in absorbing the landlord class, leaving society polarised between two classes: capitalists and workers.

Marx stresses the importance of production as the determinant of social class and differs fundamentally from the apologist sociologists who stress status differences. His reason is simple, for. since it is productive activity that creates history, then it follows that an understanding of humans’ quest for subsistence, their production, holds the key to the understanding of historical change. In order to live, to satisfy basic needs, humans must work. And work is a fundamental aspect of human life.

There are generally two ways of organising work. One is where individuals or collectives of producers use their own means and objects of production and distribute their own products. The second is class society, where a particular class owns or controls the means and instruments of production and organises the work of the producing class with the intention of producing and expropriating surplus wealth. Inevitably there is a conflict of interest between producers and expropriators over the control of the means of production and the division of the products; between feudal lord and serf, between capitalist and worker. In class society there always exists class struggle.

In societies dominated by owning classes – in Europe, slavery, feudalism and capitalism – the slaveowner, lord or capitalist is not concerned with the production of wealth as such, but with the production of surplus wealth. Surplus wealth requires surplus labour, or exploitation. Marx put it thus:

The essential difference between the various economic forms of society, between, for instance a society based on slave-labour, and one based on wage-labour, lies only in the mode in which this surplus-labour is in each case extracted from the actual producer (Capital, Vol I. chapter 9. section 1).

and again:

  Capital has not invented surplus-labour. Wherever a part of society possesses the monopoly of the means of production, the labourer, free or not free, must add to the working time necessary for his own maintenance an extra working time in order to produce the means of production (Capital, Vol I. chapter 10. section 2).

He shows that the struggle between the exploiter class and the exploited class over the organisation of work, distribution of the social product, working conditions and the results of production is the living contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production.

Above all Marx is concerned to show that ownership is a social relationship; that it is not simply based on the individuals property holding but is a relationship between people, through objects. Marx posed the simple question of how people stood in relationship to other people, how some people managed to acquire vast amounts of wealth while the sole role of others was to engage in its production. The production of wealth was a relationship in which the great majority produced but did not own and a small group owned but did not produce. Such origins of class society lay rooted in historical development. Keys to understanding lay in the study of the past as a guide to the present and future. To say that society is based on class is to articulate the real life experience of people’s social relationships with one another. The capitalist class owns and controls the means of production through the legalised power vested in it by the state. The producers have no such property and are forced to sell mental and physical energies for wages or, what is the same thing, a salary.

When modern sociologists use the term class they omit this fundamental fact and fail to address the issue of the social relationship of production. People are classified in some hierarchical logic based on income, occupation. education, or some notion of status. For all that this tells us about human and property relationships, we might as well classify people by the size of their noses.

When scientific socialists speak of classes we are discussing property relationships and social activity. Marx asks first how income is obtained, but warns against commuting class differences into differences in “the size of purses”.

The size of one’s purse is a purely quantitative distinction whereby any two individuals of the same class may be incited against one another at will” (Moralizing Criticism and Critical Morality, 1847).

The language used by those sociologists who bolster the society of oppression is carefully chosen to avoid the real issue of the prevailing class struggle. They present us with a gradational picture of class society. Classes are described as “above” or “below” other classes. Little mention is given to the inherent antagonisms that are the inevitable result of class society.

Socialists rightly do not speak of “upper”, “middle” and “lower middle” classes. Instead we use the language that best describes the social relationships that actually matter in society: we speak of capitalist and worker, feudal lord and serf, master and slave. Neither do we accept that class relations are based on forms of technology, the level of industrialisation or the technical division of labour. Members of the working class are not just blue collar workers, and neither are technical workers part of some lower middle class or “new petty bourgeoisie”. For, as stated, class relations are socially determined by reference to the property relationship and are not defined by some notion of an occupational hierarchy. Class operates in the social relations of production and not in the realm of consumption. Owning a car or possessing a mortgage does not alter the fact that you are a member of the working class.

In the English preface to the Communist Manifesto Engels sums up the aim of the movement for socialism as “once and for all emancipating society at large from all exploitation. oppression, class distinction and class struggles”. The role assigned to the World Socialist Movement is to assist in building a class-conscious working class the world over who understand the nature of class society and who will take, through majority action, the necessary steps to end oppression. With the abolition of minority ownership of production and distribution will come the abolition of class society.

Ewan Knox