Marxian class theory

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Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. In Marxism, Marxian class theory asserts that an individual’s position within a class hierarchy is determined by his or her role in the production process, and argues that political and ideological consciousness is determined by class position.[1] Within Marxian class theory, the structure of the production process forms the basis of class construction.

Marxian class theory has been open to a range of alternate positions, most notably from scholars such as E. P. Thompson and Mario Tronti. Both Thompson and Tronti suggest class consciousness within the production process precedes the formation of productive relationships. In this sense, Marxian class theory often relates to discussion over pre-existing class struggles.

Origins of Marx's theory

Karl Marx's class theory derives from a range of philosophical schools of thought including left Hegelianism, Scottish Empiricism and Anglo-French political-economics. Marx's view of class originated from a series of personal interests relating to social alienation and human struggle, whereby the formation of class structure relates to acute historical consciousness. Political-economics also contributed to Marx's theories, centering on the concept of "origin of income" where society is divided into three sub-groups: Rentier, Capitalist, and Worker. This construction is based on David Ricardo's theory of capitalism. Marx strengthened this with a discussion over verifiable class relationships.

Marx sought to define class as embedded in productive relations rather than social status. His political and economic thought developed towards an interest in production as opposed to distribution, and this henceforth became a central theme in his concept of class.

Class structure

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, he defines modern society as having three distinct classes:

i. Capitalists, or bourgeoisie, own the means of production and purchase the labor power of others

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.

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).

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 nature of class relations: conflict

"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles… Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstruction of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.... The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones. Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.” – Communist Manifesto

Marx established conflict as the key driving force of history and the main determinant of social trajectories (Kingston). However, in order to understand the nature of “class conflict,” we must first understand that such conflict arises from a unified class interest, also known as class consciousness. Class consciousness is an aspect of Marxist theory, referring to the self-awareness of social classes, the capacity to act in its own rational interests, or measuring the extent to which an individual is conscious of the historical tasks their class (or class allegiance) sets for them.

Moreover, by definition, the objective interests of classes are fundamentally in opposition; consequently, these opposing interests and consciousnesses eventually lead to class conflict.

Marx first saw the development of class conflict confined to individual factories and capitalists. However, given the maturation of capitalism, the life conditions of bourgeoisie and proletariat began to grow more disparate. This increased polarization and homogenization within classes fostered an environment for individual struggles to become more generalized. When increasing class conflict is manifested at the societal level, class consciousness and common interests are also increased. Consequently, when class consciousness is augmented, policies are organized to ensure the duration of such interest for the ruling class. Here begins the use of the struggle for political power and classes become political forces.

Since the distribution of political power is determined by power over production, or power over capital, it is no surprise that the bourgeois class uses their wealth to legitimatize and protect their property and consequent social relations. Thus the ruling class is those who hold the economic power and make the decisions (Dahrendorf).

Inevitability of socialist revolution

Marx assumes the inevitability of the revolution of capitalist society into socialist society because of eventual discontent.[citation needed] The socialization of labor, in the growth of large-scale production, capitalist interest groups and organizations, as well as in the enormous increase in the dimensions and power of finance capital provides the principal material foundation for the unavoidable arrival of socialism. The physical, intellectual and moral perpetrator of this transformation is the proletariat. The proletariat's struggle against the bourgeoisie inevitably becomes a political struggle with the goal of political conquest by the proletariat. With the domination of the proletariat, the socialization of production cannot help but lead to the means of production to become the property of society. The direct consequences of this transformation are a tremendous rise in labor productivity, a shorter working day, and the replacement of small-scale unified production by collective and improved labor. Capitalism breaks for all time the ties between producer and owner, once held by the bond of class conflict. Now a new union will be formed based on the conscious application of science and the concentration of collective labor.

He also extended this redistribution to the structure of power in families. Marx imagined that with socialism women’s status would increase, leading to the break-up of the patriarchal family...

"Modern industry, by assigning as it does, an important part in the socially organized process of production, outside the domestic sphere, to women, to young persons, and to children of both sexes, creates a new economic foundation for a higher form of the family and of the relations between the sexes… Moreover, it is obvious that the fact of the collective working group being composed of individuals of both sexes and all ages, must necessarily, under suitable conditions, become a source of human development; although in its spontaneously developed, brutal, capitalistic form, where the laborer exists for the process of production, and not the process of production for the laborer, that fact is a pestiferous source of corruption and slavery." (Capital, Vol. I, Chapter 13).

Transnational capitalist class

Globalization theorists, such as William I. Robinson, Leslie Sklair, Kees Van Der Pijl, and Jerry Harris, argue that today a transnational capitalist class has emerged.[2]

See also


  1. Parkin, F. Marx’s Theory of History: A Bourgeois Critique. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.
  2. Transnational Capitalist Class


  • Dahrendorf, Ralf. Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1959.
  • David McLellan, ed., "Capital." The Marx-Engels Reader, 1977. Oxford University Press: Great Britain.
  • Kingston, Paul W. The Classless Society. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000.
  • Marx & Engels. The Communist Manifesto. New York: Penguin group, 1998.
  • Parkin, F. Marx’s Theory of History: A Bourgeois Critique. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.
  • Youth for International Socialism-