Marxist Class Theory – A Summary
Classical Marxian Class Theory
“The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles” are the opening words of The Communist Manifesto. The entire first section of the tract is devoted to a description of classes throughout the history of humankind and how, in his own age, the emergence of two dominant classes – bourgeoisie and proletariat – was simplifying the social structure and making it ripe for revolutionary, emancipatory social change. Although Marx’s motivation for his wish to see social transformation was morally driven in the first instance, all his works eschew arguments based upon morality. Instead, the emphasis is upon political imperatives and economic determinism, attempting to make his arguments and theories scientific and rational rather than appealing to a more intangible sense of justice and fairness.
For Marx, historical progress itself was the driver of social change, while social classes were the agents of transformation. Class definition is determined not by income or status, but by property relations which, in turn, are the result of the production process structure. By presenting his social theories and his view of history in terms of class, such an epistemological and methodological model supported not only his analysis of society, but also his assertion that the proletariat would be the ultimate agent of human liberation ushering in a better world. Friedrich Engels claimed that Marx’s exposition of Scientific Socialism or Historic Materialism revealed immutable laws similar to the contemporaneous theories of Charles Darwin in the field of evolutionary biology.
Marx asserts that an individual’s position within a class hierarchy is determined by their role in the production process, and argues that political and ideological consciousness is determined by class position. In Capital, volume 1, Marx identifies his new notion of class early. He defines it as a distinct social process that occurs together with the physical labor process within the activity known as production. In production, workers labor – men and women use brains and muscle – to transform naturally occurring objects into useful products. They labor with raw material inputs, tools, equipment, buildings, etc. that constitute their means of production. But the labor process is not the same thing as the class process. The class process refers to a different connection among the people engaged in production than the labor connection where they collaborate to produce a specific product.
Class, for Marx, refers to how, in production, a surplus gets produced. All human societies produce such surpluses. However, societies differ in how they organize the production and distribution of this surplus. In Marx’s view, there have always been subsets of populations in communities (from families through villages to whole nations) that have performed labor in the production of goods and services. Those subsets have always produced more output than they themselves consumed: the “surplus” output or simply the surplus. That surplus has then been distributed to other persons inside or outside the community.
Both productive and unproductive workers were needed for any class structure to exist and persist, but their relationship to surplus production was crucially different. One kind of worker produced the surplus while the other, the enabler, lived off distributions of that surplus.
A class is those who share common economic interests, are conscious of those interests, and engage in collective action which advances those interests. Within Marxian class theory, the structure of the production process forms the basis of class construction.
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. From this, Marx states “Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other”:
I. Capitalists, or bourgeoisie, own the means of production, purchase the labor power of workers, and control that labor power in order to have workers create surplus value in the commodities that they produce.
II. Workers, or proletariat, do not own any means of production or the ability to purchase the labor power of others. Rather, they sell their own labor power to the capitalist. They then use the labor power under the supervision and control of the capitalist to create surplus value in the commodities that they produce.
Class is thus determined by property relations, not by income or status. These factors are determined by distribution and consumption, which mirror the production and power relations of classes.
The Manifesto of the Communist Party describes two additional classes that “decay and finally disappear in the face of modern industry”:
iii. A small, transitional class known as the petite bourgeoisie own sufficient means of production but do not purchase labor power. Marx’s Communist Manifesto fails to properly define the petite bourgeoisie beyond “smaller capitalists” (Marx and Engels, 1848, 25).
iv. The “dangerous class”, or Lumpenproletariat, “the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society.”
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 labor power. This is the fundamental economic structure of work and property, a state of inequality that is normalized 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 it. 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.
For Marx, class has three primary facets:
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 maximization 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 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 the 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.
The class structure of a community or society is then its distinct organization of the production and distribution of surplus. Specific individuals are designated, consciously or unconsciously, by custom or deliberation, to produce the surplus. Those same or other individuals receive the surplus and distribute some or all of it to still others whom we can call recipients of distributed shares of the surplus. Each community or society designates which individuals can receive distributed shares of the surplus, consume them, and thereby live without themselves doing any work to produce the surplus. Likewise, other people are designated to do work that does not itself produce a surplus but rather provides conditions for the labor of the workers who do produce the surplus. Such enablers of surplus production by others need to receive a distribution of the surplus produced by those others: that distribution provides the enablers with their own consumption and with the means for performing their enabling functions. For example, a person who keeps the necessary records of what surplus-producing laborers do is such an enabler; so too are the persons who clean up residues of production, who make sure the surplus-producers keep to their tasks, etc. Marx differentiated between “productive” workers (those who directly produced surpluses) and “unproductive” workers
The difference between productive labor and unproductive labor is crucial for Marxist economic analysis. By productive labor Marx means labour that produces surplus value, whether or not it produces material products. So a programmer who writes a computer programme or a chef who cooks a meal can be regarded as productive, providing they perform their tasks in order to produce surplus value for the boss.
The PMC; John Ehrenreich and Barbara Ehrenreich
The Professional Managerial Class are “salaried mental workers who do not own the means of production and whose major function in the social division of labor may be described broadly as the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations.” The “Professional-Managerial Class” is distinct from both the “working class” and the “old” middle class of small business owners, as well as from the wealthy class of owners.
By the end of the nineteenth century, as capitalist enterprises grew, this do-it-yourself business model was increasingly obsolete. The growing size of capitalist enterprises required more capital than an individual could supply, more varied and complex technology than a single person could master, more complex management than one or a few owners could provide, more stability in labor relations than police and hired thugs could offer, and ultimately more stability in markets than chance alone would provide. it was also increasingly possible to meet these needs because the new concentration and centralization of capital meant that business owners could afford to hire experts to do the work of management, long-term planning, and rationalizing the production process.
By the early 1900s American capitalism had also come to depend on the development of a national consumer goods market. Items, like clothing, which previously had been produced at home, were replaced by the uniform products of mass production. The management of consumption came to be as important as the management of production and required the efforts of legions of trained people in addition to engineers and managers: school teachers, professors, journalists, entertainers, social workers, doctors, lawyers, ad men, “domestic scientists,” “experts” in child rearing and romance and practically all other aspects of daily life, etc.
By 1972, about 24% of American jobs were in PMC occupations. By 1983 the number had risen to 28% and by 2006, just before the Great Recession, to 35%. It was the occupational role of managers and engineers, along with many other professionals, to manage, regulate, and control the life of the working class. They designed the division of labor and the machines that controlled workers’ minute by minute existence on the factory floor, manipulated their desire for commodities and their opinions, socialized their children, and even mediated their relationship with their own bodies.
At the same time though, the role of the PMC as “rationalizers” of society often placed them in direct conflict with the capitalist class. Like the workers, the PMC were themselves employees and subordinate to the owners, but since what was truly “rational” in the productive process was not always identical to what was most immediately profitable, the PMC often sought autonomy and freedom from their own bosses.
With considerable encouragement from the capitalist class, the PMC organized itself into professions. The Carnegie Foundation, based on steel money, funded the reports that launched the medical, legal, and engineering professions in the early 20th century; railroad and banking money underwrote the development of the social work profession. State licensing boards defined the new professions
and limited practitioners to those who (a) professed to uphold a set of ethical standards and (b) could demonstrate that they had mastered a specialized body of knowledge, accessible only through lengthy training.
By the mid-twentieth century, jobs for the PMC were proliferating. Public education was expanding, the modern university came into being, local governments expanded in size and role, charitable agencies merged, newspaper circulation soared, traditional forms of recreation gave way to the popular culture and entertainment (and sports) industries, etc.—and all of these developments created jobs for highly educated professionals, including journalists, social workers, professors, doctors, lawyers, and “entertainers” (artists and writers among others).
In the 1960s, for the first time since the Progressive Era, a large segment of the PMC had the self-confidence to take on a critical, even oppositional, political role. Jobs were plentiful, a college education did not yet lead to a lifetime of debt, and materialism was briefly out of style. These contradictory interests are a product not only of social location but of social function. A mediating class, the PMC only exists “by virtue of the expropriation of the skills and culture once indigenous to the working class”—cultural production, social reproduction, and so on. They relate to the working class with a mixture of “contempt and paternalism,” while workers interact with them with “hostility and deference.”
Beginning in the seventies, the capitalist class decisively re-asserted itself, which is to say that many individuals within it or immediately beholden to it began to raise the alarm: Profits rates were falling, and foreign competition was rising in key industries like auto and steel. The ensuing capitalist offensive was so geographically widespread and thoroughgoing that it introduced what many leftwing theorists today describe as a new form of capitalism, “neoliberalism.” Capital upheld the ideal of unfettered and expanded free enterprise: reductions in the welfare state, the deregulation of business, the privatization of formerly public functions, “free” trade, and the elimination of unions.
Most of these anti-labor measures also had an effect, directly or indirectly, on elements of the PMC. Government spending cuts hurt the job prospects of social workers, teachers, and others in the “helping professions,” while the decimation of the U.S.-based industrial working class reduced the need for mid-level professional managers, who found themselves increasingly targeted for downsizing.
In the 2000s, businesses began to avail themselves of new high speed transmission technologies to outsource professional functions. Hospitals sent a growing variety of tasks—such as reading x-rays, MRIs and echocardiograms—to be performed by lower paid physicians in India. Law firms outsourced document review, review of litigation emails, and legal research to English-speakers abroad. The publishing industry sent out editing, graphic design, and—for textbooks—even parts of content creation. Corporations undercut U.S.-based engineers and computer professionals by outsourcing product design and development Then, in just the last dozen years, the PMC began to suffer the fate of the industrial class in the 1980s: replacement by cheap foreign labor.
By the time of the financial meltdown and deep recession of the post-2008 period, the pain inflicted by neoliberal policies, both public and corporate, extended well beyond the old industrial working class and into core segments of the PMC. Unemployed and underemployed professional workers—from IT to journalism, academia, and eventually law—became a regular feature of the social landscape.
So in the hundred years since its emergence, the PMC has not managed to hold its own as a class. At its wealthier end, skilled professionals continue to jump ship for more lucrative posts in direct service to capital: Scientists give up their research to become “quants” on Wall Street;physicians can double their incomes by finding work as investment analysts for the finance industry or by setting up “concierge” practices serving the wealthy. At the less fortunate end of the spectrum, journalists and PhDs in sociology or literature spiral down into the retail workforce. In between, health workers and lawyers and professors find their work lives more and more hemmed in and regulated by corporation-like enterprises. The center has not held. Conceived as “the middle class” and as the supposed repository of civic virtue and occupational dedication, the PMC lies in ruins.
The new petite bourgeoisie in Poulantzas’ terms is a large class consisting of all those who, while they do not own capital, nonetheless discharge the functions of capital, helping to control labor, helping to extract surplus value, and aiding the necessary circulation of goods and capital. Thus, many of the so-called middle class, people involved in supervisory, technical, and professional and semiprofessional occupations may be lumped together in this formulation and distinguished not only from the old petite bourgeoisie but obviously from capitalists and proletarians. The ‘new petty bourgeoisie’ is made up of those who do unproductive labor. They are not directly exploited and thus lie outside the basic relationship of capitalism. The rapid growth and size of this new class serves further to accentuate the rather peripheral and anachronistic character of the traditional petite bourgeoisie.
The petite bourgeoisie in his scheme are those who do not employ labor (other than their own). Therefore they are not involved in the exploitative processes whereby they extract from others surplus value. But small capitalists by contrast are so involved, albeit on a comparatively modest scale. Small businesses, each employing a handful of workers, exist and are constantly reproduced within capitalism because it suits the interests of the dominant economic blocs-the big corporations and financial institutions. Erik Olin Wright’s analysis then leads him to argue that small employers occupy ‘contradictory class locations’ wedged, as it were, between the simple commodity mode of production with its traditional petite bourgeoisie on one side and the capitalist mode with its real bourgeoisie on the other.
Marx’s general assumption that the petite bourgeoisie would become progressively subordinated to capital and proletarianized has proved correct. To be sure, the petite bourgeoisie survives, but the appearance of independence and the distinctiveness of their property relations are often deceiving, for beneath the surface we find a substantial erosion of the traditional rights, a progressive dependency upon major forms of capital.
Marx’s theory of the class process of extracting surplus labor involves the conceptual division of individuals in society into paired groupings occupying the positions of performers of such surplus labor, on the one hand, and extractors, on the other. These paired groupings we designate, following Marx, as fundamental classes. Marx makes reference to surplus, as opposed to necessary, labor. The latter is the time-measured expenditure of the human brain and muscle required to reproduce the performers of surplus labor. What expenditures of brain and muscle these performers can be variously induced (in and through their social relationships) to perform over and above this necessary amount is defined as surplus labor.
The adjective “fundamental” is ascribed to those sets of performers and extractors of surplus labor to underscore Marx’s differentiation of them from the second type of class which he begins to formulate in Volumes 2 and 3 of Capital. The second type, which we shall call subsumed classes, refers to persons who neither perform nor extract surplus labor. Rather, they carry out certain specific social functions and sustain themselves by means of shares of extracted surplus labor distributed to them by one or another fundamental extracting class.
The social functions performed by subsumed classes, as elaborately specified by Marx, are understood as constitutive of, as well as dependent upon, the fundamental class relations between performers and extractors of surplus labor. They are constitutive in the sense of providing certain of the conditions of existence—non-economic as well as economic—of the fundamental class process. Without their cut of the extracted surplus labor, subsumed classes cannot reproduce themselves and their social activities. In turn, without the reproduction of certain of its conditions of existence by subsumed classes, no fundamental class process can be reproduced over time. Fundamental and subsumed classes determine and depend upon one another. Their relationship is complex, contradictory, and on a terrain of class struggles which are different from, although interactive with, the class struggles between performers and extractors of surplus labor.
The distinction between fundamental and subsumed classes is the distinction between the production and distribution of surplus-value. To underscore the importance of this distinction, we will henceforth refer to the extraction of surplus labor as the fundamental class process and to the distribution of surplus labor as the subsumed class process. It follows that all other natural and social processes may be referred to as non-class processes. Marx repeatedly noted that individuals within a social formation usually occupy multiple, different class positions, both fundamental and subsumed. Thus, Marxian class analysis is doubly complex.
First, it must distinguish the various fundamental and subsumed class positions comprising any social formation it proposes to examine. Second, it must specify the pattern of occupation of these different positions by the population of the formation. It follows that Marxist specifications of actual class struggles must presuppose just such complex class analyses of their participants.
In Volume 2, and especially in Volume 3, of Capital Marx discussed several different subsumed classes: in this case, all are subsumed to the capitalist fundamental class process. Three of these are analyzed in great detail: merchants, money-lenders, and landlords. Two receive relatively brief treatment: money dealers and supervisory managers of joint-stock companies. All of these subsumed classes are treated as directors of social processes which are conditions of existence of the capitalist fundamental class process. As directors, they may employ or direct laborers to perform these processes. Laborers performing these processes may also be employed by capitalists, for example as salespeople and financial clerks. Such employees, regardless of immediate employer, comprise another subsumed class defined by Marx.
Marx explained how merchants and their employees—whom he defined narrowly and exclusively as commodity buyers and sellers—produce neither value nor surplus value and how they obtain their shares of the surplus value extracted by the fundamental class of capitalists. In varying detail, he showed much the same for the other directing and directed subsumed classes. We shall refer, then, to two basic types of subsumed classes:
Type 1 comprises the directors of social processes which are conditions of existence for the capitalist fundamental class process, and
Type 2 the directed performers of such processes (the latter may be employed by Type 1 subsumed classes or by capitalists).
Besides the fundamental capitalist class there will be various Type 1 subsumed classes, for example, shareholders and the directors of merchanting, personnel, supervision, advertising, bookkeeping, security, legal services, lobbying, etc., and their respective Type 2 subordinates.
Conceived in this way Marx’s merchants direct the circulation of commodities, the process of realizing the surplus value from the capitalist fundamental class process. Realization (and hence circulation) is a condition of existence for the capitalist fundamental class process. Marx’s merchants represent one possible form of the realization process, of that specific condition of existence. Merchants, strictly defined as pure buyers and sellers of commodities, deploy a quantum of value in money form (merchants’ capital) in a manner that produces no surplus-value. The profit which they earn is, Marx explained, simply a transfer from capitalists of a portion of the surplus-value which they extract from productive laborers. Merchants produce no commodities, no value. Any development rendering merchants unable or unwilling to accomplish the merchanting process will likely block or threaten the reproduction of the capitalist class process. Merchants occupy a Type 1 subsumed class position. Insofar as merchants are organized as independent, private entrepreneurships, their buying, and selling activity must involve a distribution to them of surplus-value such that their merchants’ capital earns about what it would have if invested in commodity production rather than in merchanting.
Marx analyzed money-dealers and money-lenders (bankers) as subsumed classes in terms comparable to those used for merchants, although the mechanisms whereby they obtain cuts of surplus-value do differ significantly.
Marx’s approach to landlords and mine-owners as subsumed to the capitalist fundamental class process was somewhat different. The particular social process that they direct, by virtue of their land ownership (right of exclusion), is that of access to the presumed limited land surface of the globe. Marx argued that exclusive private ownership of land effectively denies to proletarians the access which would give them the option to cease being proletarians, and secondly, that exclusive ownership also limits capitalists’ access to land. In this sense, the landowners’ control of access provides certain conditions of existence of the capitalist fundamental class process. To gain access, that is, to induce this subsumed class to control access in particular ways, capitalists distribute a portion of their extracted surplus value to landlords in the form of capitalist rent payments. Landlords produce no commodities, no values, and no surplus values. If they employ laborers, that is, a Type 2 subsumed class, such as rent collectors, they do not extract any surplus value from them. Logically, we can broaden Marx’s notion of landlords to include similar subsumed classes who function analogously: proprietors of patents, copyrights, trademarks, etc.
When Marx discussed briefly the supervisory managers of joint-stock companies, he extended his notions of classes in two important ways. First, he identified what amounts to another Type 1 subsumed class, namely, shareholders. When surplus value is extracted in joint-stock companies by means of capital owned by shareholders, then provision of such capital, such means of production, to such companies, has itself become a condition of existence of the capitalistic fundamental class process. As a subsumed class, shareholders’ dividends represent their payment out of extracted surplus value for the condition of existence they direct: the process of providing capital for production.
The second extension of Marx’s class analysis entailed in his discussion of joint-stock companies concerns subsumed classes who provide other than economic conditions of existence. Supervision, as distinguished from technical coordination, of productive laborers is a process of providing political conditions of existence of the capitalist fundamental class process. Supervision is a process providing certain kinds of social behavior among productive workers without which the extraction of surplus-value is jeopardized. Supervisory managers are a subsumed class.
Other directors of political processes comprising conditions of existence of the capitalist class process and thus Type 1 subsumed class include, for example, the decision-making top levels of state-run police, military, administrative, legislative, and judicial organizations. The political effects—in terms of ordered social behavior—of their various activities secure private property and contracts. Certainly, innumerable commentators on capitalism have long understood the critical implications for the reproduction of capitalism of any inability to reproduce this security, these political conditions of the existence of the capitalist fundamental class process.
The Type 1 subsumed class of directors of cultural or ideological processes includes, for example, the administrators of state-run free education, of religious education conducted within the various denominations, of state-run free cultural programs, and of corporate counseling programs for employees.
The Type 1 subsumed classes of directors of the economic, political, and cultural processes comprising conditions of existence of the capitalist fundamental class process are financed by the distribution of the surplus-value extracted by capitalists from productive workers. However, the mechanism and the sizes of such distributions vary according to the organizational connections between the subsumed directors and the capitalists.
Those Type 1 subsumed classes that are not organized in privately owned enterprises subject to the competitive flows of investible funds fare differently. They dispose of no unproductive capital; they earn no rate of profit. Rather, church, public education, police, military, and other similar administrations receive in general portions of surplus value (extracted by productive capital elsewhere) just sufficient to cover the wage, salary, and materials cost associated with their particular processes. The mechanisms for transferring surplus value to these Type 1 subsumed classes include chiefly taxation and direct contributions.
Finally, those Type 1 subsumed classes directly employed by capitalists—managers of sales, advertising, personnel, etc.—require outlays for their salaries and associated materials costs. These are distributions from their employing capitalists’ extracted surplus values, conceptually similar to the taxes and contributions.
The Type 2 subsumed class occupies a position within the complex class structure of capitalism that is different from both the fundamental classes and the Type 1 subsumed classes. Members of Type 2 subsumed class are the actually directed performers of processes—economic, political, and cultural—which interact to overdetermine the capitalist fundamental class process. The wage and commodity costs necessary to their performance are paid for out of surplus-value produced in and distributed from the capitalist fundamental class process. They may function as employees of the capitalist class itself or of Type 1 subsumed class members.
What determines their subsumed class position is not who their employer is but rather the relation between the social process they perform and the capitalist class process of extracting surplus value. The following examples of Type 2 subsumed class derive directly from Marx or from the discussion in this chapter:
● Salesperson employed by the capitalist
● Secretary to advertising manager employed by a capitalist
● Bookkeeper employed by the merchant
● Bank-teller employed by bank-owner
● Rent-collector employed by land-owner
● Maintenance worker employed by a church
● Public primary or secondary school teacher
● Local firefighter
● Cashier at a retail store
● Office/clerical worker employed by a public welfare agency
● Foot soldier
Marx devoted considerable attention to the matter of productive and unproductive labor. He distinguished between them according to whether they were employed to produce surplus value or were not. His formal definition of productive labor is quite clear:
Productive labor is, therefore—in the system of capitalist production—labor which produces surplus-value for its employer. The result of the capitalist production process is neither a mere product (use-value) nor a commodity, that is, a use-value which has a certain exchange-value. Its result, its product, is the creation of surplus-value for capital.
Simply, unproductive labor is that which produces neither value nor surplus-value. Its wages are defrayed by the transfer to it of a portion of surplus value extracted by capitalists from productive laborers. Unproductive laborers are all Type 2 subsumed classes.
The notion of Type 2 subsumed classes as unproductive laborers rectifies certain ambiguities and generalizes certain of Marx’s basic definitions. Moreover, the inclusive concept of subsumed classes permits a direct, explicit integration of the non-economic conditions of existence of the capitalist fundamental class process under capitalism with the economic conditions (commodity circulation,
credit extension, etc.) upon which Marx focused. Finally, the specification of unproductive laborers as Type 2 subsumed classes highlights their contributing role as well as their cost to the extraction of surplus-value, capital accumulation, and, indeed, to the development of the capitalist social formation as a whole. Marx defines productive labor from the standpoint of its production of surplus-value for its employer, regardless of the use made by those who purchase the commodities embodying that surplus-value.
Unproductive laborers perform processes indispensable to the extraction of surplus value and, hence, to the accumulation of capital. Such performance is, after all, the condition for their existence as unproductive laborers, as recipients of a share of the surplus-value extracted elsewhere from productive laborers. By the same token, the unproductive labor performed is a condition of the capitalist class process of extracting surplus value in the first place.
Stephen A Resnick and Richard D Wolff; New Departures in Marxian Theory, 2006
Erik Olin Wright, Classes; 1985
Nicos Poulantzas, Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, 1975