What is a Class?

What is a Class?

People all over the world are becoming increasingly aware of the need for profound social change. Struggles have erupted across the globe, from Wisconsin to Yemen, against the idea that profit should take precedent over human needs [1]. Bernie Sanders’ rhetoric of “political revolution” galvanized a new generation of activists [2]. When it failed, many became lost. They knew that the system had betrayed them, but they did not understand why this was the case. More importantly, they did not understand what to do next. Capitalist politicians had proven themselves to be an insufficient agent for social change, but this did not answer the question of what social force could actually liberate humanity. In this essay, I will argue in favor of the Marxist position that the working class is the only true revolutionary agent.

Before I can get into why the working class has the interest and ability to make change, I must devote considerable time to explaining the Marxist conception of class. Only then can we come to understand the reason behind the centrality of the proletariat.

Classes emerge only at a certain stage in the development of the productive forces and the social division of labor, when there exists a social surplus of production, which makes it possible for one class to benefit by the expropriation of another. The conflict between classes there begins, founded in the division of the social surplus, and constitutes the fundamental antagonism in all class [3].

Classes, in the Marxist sense, are groups of people who share the same or very similar relationships to the means of production. Marx distinguishes one class from another on the basis of two criteria: ownership of the means of production and control of the labor power of others [4]. Means of Production are things like factories, machinery, farms, and offices. In short, anything that is necessary to do work [5]. Labor power, which I will describe more later, is the ability to do work [6]. Because of these similar relations, the members of a particular class share common interests. 

In addition to sharing common interest, classes are aware of these interests. In order to be considered a class, a group must be aware that it is in conflict with other classes. This does not mean that workers must instinctively understand that they are “proletarians,” but only that workers must understand that they are in an antagonistic relationship with their bosses. One need not know the ins-and-outs of capitalism to be considered part of a class [7].

The final criteria for the formation of a class is collective action. Even if all workers were aware of the need to struggle, they would not be able to do so unless they came together in organizations (such as unions) that could translate their interests into the material world. The working class only becomes a class as such when it bands together in the struggle against capital [8]. By the same token, the capitalist class must create organizations that can oppress workers and keep them from overthrowing the dominant order. The state is an example of one such organization [9]. Because of its position at the top of the class hierarchy, the capitalist class must be more innately conscious of its need to struggle than the workers. Indeed, it must convince the workers (through media, repression, or by offering them concessions), that it does not need to struggle at all. Workers are compelled to struggle, and capitalists are compelled to keep workers from struggling. Already, we see a conflict brewing between these two classes [10].

Within the system of capitalism, the means of production are concentrated in the hands of a small minority of people. This is the capitalist class, or bourgeoisie. As a result of their relationship to the means of production, these people own everything that is produced. They reproduce themselves through a process known as exploitation, in which the labor of the worker is forcibly taken by the capitalist [11]. Their common interest, broadly, is to ensure that the system remains organized in this way. They often have different ideas about how to do this, and infighting is not uncommon among them. Despite this, their ultimate goal is to remain in control of society. Everything they do is in the service of this goal.

The working class, or proletariat, is the class whose labor the capitalist exploits. Engels, Marx’s longtime collaborator, writes that it is “the class of modern wage-laborers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labor power in order to live” [12]. In short, the working class is the class which produces everything in society, while the capitalist class is the class which owns everything in society.

While there are other classes in capitalist societies, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie are the two basic, or fundamental, classes. The other classes exist on a spectrum between these groups, and generally find themselves pulled in one direction or another by these groups.

  1. Parkin, F. Marx’s Theory of History: A Bourgeois Critique. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.
  2. Edward Andrew (September 1983). “Class in Itself and Class against Capital: Karl Marx and His Classifiers”. Canadian Journal of Political Science. 16 (3): 577–584. JSTOR 3227396.
  3. Hanagan, Michael P. (1994). “Class”. In Stearns, Peter N. Encyclopedia of social history. Taylor & Francis. p. 184. ISBN 978-0-8153-0342-8.
  4. Dahrendorf, Ralf. Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1959.
  5. David McLellan, ed., “Capital.” The Marx-Engels Reader, 1977. Oxford University Press: Great Britain.
  6. Kingston, Paul W. The Classless Society. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000.
  7. Marx & Engels. The Communist Manifesto. New York: Penguin group, 1998.
  8. Parkin, F. Marx’s Theory of History: A Bourgeois Critique. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.
  9. Youth for International Socialism- NewYouth.com
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.

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