Marx’s Theory of Social Class.

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Many different schemes have been used to identify social classes or divisions of rank and wealth. However, it was only in the 1st three decades of the 19th century that the term ‘class’ gradually replaced ‘estate’, ‘rank’ and ‘order’ as the word used to denote divisions within society. The change of vocabulary reflected the diminishing significance of rank and ascribed or inherited qualities in general and the growing importance of possessions and income in determining social position.

The word ‘class’ comes to us from the Romans, who used the word to divide the population into a No. of groups for the purposes of taxation. However, Marx was the 1st person to give the concept of class a significant meaning. According to Marx, “classes emerge where the relations of production are a differentiated division of labour which allows for the accumulation of surplus products that can be appropriated by a minority grouping which thus stands in an exploitative relationship to the mass of producers.”

Marx usually uses the words ‘herrschaft’ and ‘klassenherrschaft’. These in English can be translated as ‘rule / domination’ and ‘class rule / class domination’. Marx’s various analyses of class domination are all primarily directed towards the end of explaining the characteristic structure and dynamics of a bourgeois society and conceptual precision is secondary in importance to this over-riding focus of attention.

It is an irony that has frequently been noted that the manuscripts, which Marx left at his death-bed, should have been cut off at the point that he was entering upon a systematic analysis of the concept of class. But what Marx says before the manuscript ends is mainly negative. Class must not be identified with either source of income or functional position in the division of labour. These criteria would yield a large plurality of classes. Doctors who receive their income from treatment of the sick would be a separate class from farmers who derive their income from cultivation of land etc... Moreover, use of such criteria would obscure the issue of ownership. Two men may both be builders, but one maybe the property-less employee of the other. Marx emphasizes that classes are not income groups. Such a view assumes that classes are merely inequalities in the distribution of income and that therefore class conflict can be alleviated by the introduction of measures, which minimize differences between incomes. For Marx then, classes are an aspect of the relations of production, “classes are constituted by the relationships of groupings of individuals to the ownership of private property in the means of production.” This yields a model of class relations, which is basically dichotomous. All class societies are a built around a primary line of division between two antagonistic classes, one dominant and the other subordinate. In Marx’s usage, class of necessity involves a class struggle. With reference to the bourgeoisie Marx says capitalists form a class only to the degree that they are forced to carry on a struggle against another class. Otherwise capitalists are in economic competition with one another in the pursuit of profit in the market. Here one can bring in the concept of class consciousness. To be considered a class, people must be similarly placed in society and share similar prospects, but they must also be aware of their circumstances, their common interests and their common class enemy. Marx called this awareness ‘class consciousness.’ It is important to emphasize that the dichotomous class conception appears in Marx’s writings as a theoretical construct only. All historical class societies show a more complicated system of relationships, which overlap the dichotomous access of class structure. Thus in bourgeois society, these complicating groupings are:

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  1. Middle-class including small merchants and self-employed professionals such as doctors and lawyers. Marx believed that as the capitalist system evolved, the middle-class would eventually be crushed and forced into the proletariat (working class / wage labourers).
  2. Marx excluded farmers and peasants from his conception of class because he believed that the drama of historical change would occur in the urban industrial area of capitalist societies, and rural people would play little or no part in shaping social change. The fact that communist revolutions have come in backward, rural societies rather than advanced industrial areas, is an embarrassment ...

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