Discuss Karl Marx’s perspective on class.


It was in the nineteenth century that class as a category came to be recognized as a relevant concept in explaining social theories, ideologies, social movements, social structure, and social change. The heuristic potential of ‘class’ was particularly important in the context of social stratification. In fact, class was identified as one of the most significant basis of stratification in society. Several sociologists have proposed theories of class structure and explained the phenomena of mobility between class positions. In this unit, we begin with the meaning and concept of class and class society and then explore the sociological perspective on class and the theoretical approaches crucial to understanding class and classless society in sociological writings.

We also discuss the issue of struggle between classes and mobility between classes.

Marx’s perspective on social classes

Three periods in history are identified: ancient civilization, feudalism, and capitalism. Each period is marked by a predominant mode of production. Some of the predominant means of production identified by Marx are: primitive communism, ancient empires, feudalism, capitalism, and advanced communism. He clarified that class relations are characteristics of those means of production in which a section of population controls the means of production while others are excluded from it. Those who control the means of production exploit those who transform the means of production into finished products. The mode of production constitutes the basis of class

structure. The capitalist or ruling class and the wage labour or the oppressed class makes up the class structure. In Marxian sense, a social class is an aggregate of people who perform the same function in the production process. These classes occupy different positions in the economy. The position that a person occupies in the social organisation of production determines the social class to which he/she belongs. The basic determinant of class is the way in which an individual cooperates with others in the satisfaction of basic needs of food, clothing and shelter. Cooperation implies division of labour and organisation of production. Marx propounded that the first concern of human beings is to satisfy basic needs which forms the basis of production of material life. Once a need is satisfied, new ones emerge. Rising needs create new social relations. Social relationships enfold cooperation of several individuals.

The relation between them is governed by struggle because the ruling class owns and controls the means of production. It also exercises control over the moral and intellectual life of the people. The entire law and governance machinery, art, literature, science and philosophy serve the interest of the capitalist class (or the bourgeoisie). This is typical in capitalist mode of production.

A vast majority of Marx’s writings are concerned with class relations in capitalism. In the capitalist mode of production, the raw material for production, the tools, the land and all that is necessary for production belongs to the capitalist class as its private property. Those who are actually engaged in the production process do not own the means of production. They work for the bourgeoisie by selling their labour, their ability to work, and their expertise for wages by which they subsist. They constitute the non-owning class, the wage labour, or the proletariat.

The sale of finished products in the market fetches money that is more than the cost of production. This is the net profit to the capitalist class. It is often reinvested and in this way more and more profit gets generated for the capitalist class. Now, while the labour process and means of production (what Marx calls ‘constant capital’) does not change quickly, the labour-power (what Marx calls ‘variable capital’) is pressed hard to maximise the output so that more and more returns from finished products are accrued. ‘Surplus value’ is the balance between the investment in the labour process and the returns from it (that are appropriated by the capitalist class).

There is no denying that the relationship between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is that of antagonism, hostility and strife since the capitalist class tries to exploit the wage labour class while the wage labour class tries to bring about an end to exploitation. Marx believed that class struggle was an important means through which social change could be effected. Income, consumption patterns, educational attainments, or occupations are clues to the distribution of material goods and of prestige symbols. Income or occupation cannot be a determinant of class position because class is determined by the position of a person in the social organisation of production. Consider the case of two blacksmiths–__ one running his own shop, the other working in a factory. The two men belong to the same occupation but different social classes. Marx cited several conditions which were crucial for the development of social class: conflict over economic

rewards, physical concentration of masses of people and easy communication among them, the development of solidarity and political organisation in place of competition between individuals and organisation for purely economic needs (Bendix and Lipset, 1967). It may be understood at this stage itself that the setting up of large industry brings together several people at one place. It is only natural that there will be competition between them. Common interest against their superior who exploits them for his\her advantage keeps, however, them united. They enter into strife with the capitalist rather than among themselves.

Workers are seen to sacrifice a part of their wages in favour of associations that are constituted of enterprising people representing the wage labour  class who put up a strong resistance to exploitation by the capitalist. There is often the possibility that the association takes up a political character. Marx felt that the conflict between the workers and the capitalist class was

not born out of struggle for economic advantage only. He emphasised the role of machine production under capitalism too. As machines made way into the production process, the social relations underwent major transformation and human beings came to be mere appendages of the machines. The machines did most of the work of men would only operate them. This deprived the workers of all opportunities to derive psychological satisfaction from their work. Marx referred to the lack of satisfaction as ‘alienation of human labour’.

In the words of Bendix and Lipset (1967: 10), “Marx believed that the alienation of labour was inherent in capitalism and that it was a major psychological deprivation, which would lead eventually to proletarian revolution ….. Marx contrasted the modern industrial worker with the medieval craftsman, and ___ along with many other writers of the period ___ observed that under modern conditions of production the worker had lost all opportunity to exercise his ‘knowledge, judgment and will’ in the manufacture of his product”. To Marx this deprivation seemed more significant than the economic pauperism to which capitalism subjected the masses of workers.


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