Marx's definition of class. It's strengths and weaknesses. - Although the concept of class has a central importance in Marxist theory, Marx does not define it in a systematic form. Marx left this problem of producing a definition of the concept of social class until much later. The manuscript of the third volume of Capital breaks off at the moment when Marx was about to answer the question: 'What constitutes a class?' Even without his definition of class, one can reconstruct how the term is to be understood in his writings. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx presents us with a theory of world history as a succession of class struggles for economic and political power. The main classes of pre-capitalist societies are stated as: 'freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman'1. But the dominant theme of Western society is the conflict between the exploiting bourgeoisie and the exploited proletariat. Thus it is the class structure of early capitalism, and the class struggles of this form of society, which constituted the main reference point for the Marxist theory of history. This is asserted by the Communist Manifesto's famous phrase, that 'the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of all class struggles'2. The history of 'civilized' society, for Marx, has been the history of different forms of class exploitation and domination. It is the form of class domination present which determines the general character of the whole social structure. For example, the growing of wheat using traditional, non-mechanical techniques is compatible with a wide range of social relations of production. A Roman citizen often owned slaves who worked his land growing wheat; a feudal lord would seize the surplus wheat grown by the serf on the lands; the early capitalist farmers began to employ landless laborers to do their manual work for a wage which was less than the total value of the product which they created. In each case, wheat is grown on land by the labor of men and women, but the social arrangements are totally different. There are totally different class relationships, leading to totally different forms of society: ancient, feudal, and capitalist. The one thing that unites these three arrangements is that in each case a minority class rules and takes the surplus away from the producers. Each society, says Marx, embodies class exploitation based on the relationships of production, or rather, the modes of production. The key to understanding - 2 -
a given society is to discover which is the dominant mode of production within it. The basic pattern of social and political relationships can then be known. Since Marx concentrates his attention on the class structure of capitalist societies, it is only proper to follow him. As stated before, the key classes in the capitalist mode of production are the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, or capitalists and landless wage laborers. While Marx recognizes that there are other classes, the fundamental class division is between this pairing of the exploiter and the exploited. The bourgeoisie derive their class position from the fact that they own productive wealth. It is not their high income that makes them capitalists, but the fact that they own the means of production. For example, the inputs necessary for production - factories, machines, etc. The ability of workers to work (labor power) is in itself a marketable commodity bought for the least cost to be used at will by the capitalist. In addition, the capitalist owns the product and will always pocket the difference between the value of the labor and the value of the product - referred to by Marx as 'surplus value' - purely by virtue of his ownership. His property rights also allow the capitalist the control of the process of production and the labor he buys. The proletariat in contrast, owns no means of production.
Because of this exploitation, Marx viewed the...
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