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Class is one way individuals organize to effect political change. Political scientists also use class to explain political phenomena. The long history of examining the relationship between class and politics in political science dates back to the ancient Greeks. However, explaining what class as a concept means, and how it affects political phenomena, has changed over time. Debates over the meaning of class are torn between notions of the term sourced either in the work of German political philosopher Karl Marx and the Marxist tradition or that by German sociologist Max Weber.
Class In Ancient Greek, Roman, And Medieval Times
The earliest uses of the concept of class date back to the ancient Greek political theorists. Plato’s Republic uses the concept to explain the trip art division of labor that he constructs for his idealized polis. In this community, he distinguishes among classes of individuals—the philosopher kings, guardians, and the artisans—as the three groups that would inhabit the republic. For Plato, class refers to a type of intrinsic quality of individuals.
In Plato’s Republic, the intrinsic distinctions among the three classes of individuals are revealed in an extensive educational process that breaks up families in order to determine who will be part of what class. The educational process, open to both men and women, determines which individuals have what aptitudes to do what in the republic. Thus, social class or roles are ultimately premised upon natural innate talents to reason and obtain true knowledge, and a just society is one where all individuals perform the functions for which they are best suited. In the Republic and his other writings, Plato also distinguishes among monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, with each defined by which class rules. Overall, Plato’s writings draw linkages among class, social roles, aptitudes, and political power, setting the stage for subsequent analysis of the concept.
Aristotle’s Politics employs a class analysis when it comes to politics. Aristotle adopts Plato’s conception of different types of governments, viewing monarchies, aristocracies, and democracies as types of polities governed by the one, the few, or the many. Aristotle’s typology of governments rests upon a class analysis in terms of who rules. Yet unlike Plato, who clearly linked class to intrinsic talents, virtue, or knowledge, Aristotle connects the term to economics. In fact, his concept of a middle class appears modern, defining it as those who are economically well off and deeming its stability as critical to a well-run polity.
During the Roman Republic and Empire era (extending roughly from 264 BCE–476 CE), class continued to be an important concept. The division of Roman society into patricians and plebeians (rulers and subjects) was a common distinction made by Roman writers and seen in the practical politics of the day. In On the Commonwealth and On Laws Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero devises his ideal republic, which consists of classes of individuals. Drawing upon Plato, Cicero describes some individuals or magistrates as more fit to rule than others, with fitness resting in the natural aptitudes of individuals as revealed through education. In his writings, Cicero draws upon the trip art monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy distinction, describing them and their perversions (tyranny, oligarchy, and mob rule) in terms of which class rules. This six fold distinction would remain tremendously influential throughout the Middle Ages as political thinkers employed it to explain political authority.
Class In Modern Political Thought
The beginning of more modern conceptions of class begins with eighteenth-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, he implicitly criticizes the social contract tradition of seventeenth century English philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke to explain the origins and legitimacy of political society.
Instead of seeing society resting upon the voluntary consent of individuals, either to protect themselves against the threat of anarchy (as with Hobbes), or to defend their natural rights against the inconveniences of the state of nature (Locke), Rousseau contends that political society finds its origins in private property and in the rich tricking the poor into believing that joining a political community would be to their advantage. Rousseau set the stage for describing political society as divided by class in economic terms, with the state serving the interests of the rich against the poor.
German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1820) describes the state in class terms, seeing it as a mediator of class conflict. However, his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) takes class analysis another step further, with self-consciousness becoming an important concept. Here, in his famous battle for supremacy between master and slave, each seeks to have the other recognize his superiority. It is not until the slave realizes that he is capable of seeing his own work as the source of his alienated existence that he becomes self-consciously aware of his role in society. This realization occurs as a result of his struggle with his master. Through struggle, in Hegel’s view, one becomes aware of one’s own existence, and with this self-consciousness, the slave can eventually subdue the master and reverse their roles.
Both Rousseau and Hegel argued that class underlines political divisions and that through struggle one group, the lower class, will acquire the knowledge or awareness of their servitude or subjection, paving the way for some liberation or revolution to free them. This is how Karl Marx came to understand the significance of the writings of Rousseau and Hegel.
Marx And Class
Modern conceptions of class analysis really emerge with Marx. Near the beginning of his 1848 Communist Manifesto, Marx states that the “history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (Tucker, 1978, 473). Here, as well as in the German Ideology, Marx develops a theory of history and politics rooted in class conflict, particularly analyzing such relations within an industrial capitalist society. In Marx’s model of society, material economic forces of production are the driving force of history. Changing modes of production lead to new forms of class alignments, dominant ideologies, and political structures. Consistent with Hegel’s master-slave struggle, Marx argues that class struggles produce dominant groups and ideologies. In capitalism, two classes have emerged—the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Bourgeois society sprouted from feudal society and the bourgeoisie from its burghers. Capitalism had produced the proletariat.
In his Grundrisse, Marx argues that, in capitalism, class can be understood relationally. The bourgeoisie own the means of production whereas the proletariat, as Marx states in Wage, Labor, and Capital, sells its labor power for wages. Class thus is an objective term that can be defined via one’s relationship to the ownership of the means of production. If, as Marx states in the Manifesto, the “history of all past society has consisted in the development of class antagonisms, antagonisms that assumed different forms at different epochs,” then class conflict in a capitalist society emerges in several ways. First, Marx asserts that the state serves class interests. The job of the state is to enforce bourgeois authority. Workers battle the bourgeoisie for state control. Second, the battle between workers and the owners of the means of production replicates Hegel’s master slave dialectic, with capitalism producing the seeds of its own destruction (i.e., proletarian class consciousness).
In Marx’s view, the bourgeoisie seek profit maximization by purchasing the labor power of workers, extracting the surplus value from them for their profits. For Marx, surplus value is the difference between the value the bourgeoisie pay the workers for their labor power and what it is really worth. The competitive drive for profits forces owners constantly to revolutionize the modes of production. Capitalists replace workers with machines and other labor–saving devices. But as capitalism matures, the drive for profit accelerates, and there is a need to replace organic or human capital with machines. This process results in an increasing loss of jobs, producing increased misery and poverty among workers. The decline in the use of human labor power also leads to a falling rate of profit because surplus value cannot be extracted from machines in the same way it can be from workers. To offset declining profits, even more machines must be employed.
According to Marx, the displacement and resulting misery of workers encourages the demise of capitalism. It forces ownership into fewer and fewer hands, thereby negating the concept of private property. The development of monopolies undermines market competition. Finally, the struggle with the proletariat will cause the workers, who have developed consciousness of their class, to organize as a party. At some point, the proletariat, with the Communist Party to lead them, will develop the revolutionary self-awareness as a class and use their political power to take political power from the bourgeoisie. This final battle between the workers and owners results in a victory for the former, with socialism and eventually communism structuring the new, classless society.
Class struggle is the heart of a Marxist analysis of political society. In Marx’s works, the economic struggle between workers and the owners of the means of production seems to produce the requisite class consciousness for revolution, but while Marx believed consciousness would emerge out of struggles and the changing modes of production, his use of the concept of class was more a tool of analysis than an iron law that history would follow. In the political views of Friedrich Engels, Marx’s chief collaborator, there is more determinism as to how class antagonisms would lead to a revolution. Engels viewed Marx’s claims about class struggles almost as if they were scientific laws that had to be followed. In his analysis, the class struggle of capitalism would necessarily produce a communist revolution.
Class And The Marxist Tradition After Marx
After Marx, Marxists such as Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein, and Rosa Luxembourg expressed differing views over whether parliamentary politics or revolution was the direction of class conflict. Yet among Marxists, Russian Communist leader Vladimir Lenin is among the most important.
Lenin describes class struggle as a theoretical, political, and practical economic battle. In “What Is to Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement,” Lenin contends that the development of class consciousness is not automatic as Marx, or at least Engels, suggest. Without outside intervention, class consciousness may never rise beyond a level of trade union consciousness, and it was the role of party to become the dialectic of change to bring class consciousness to workers. Class consciousness can be brought to workers only from outside the economic struggle (economism). In “Two Tactics of Social Democracy,” Lenin proposes a role for the Communist Party: to transform the bourgeois revolution against the tzarinto a proletarian revolution. This involved workers taking over the battle and changing it into one that first fells the tzar and then the bourgeoisie. Leon Trotsky, in his Permanent Revolution, makes similar arguments.
In “State and Revolution,” Lenin contends that the state is the product and manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. State power is used to oppress classes. The vote is not enough to destroy capitalism; violent revolution is needed. The Communist Party, upon seizing control, would need to institute a dictatorship of the proletariat to suppress bourgeois relations and power. Finally, Lenin’s Imperialism depicts a new stage of international capitalism. The struggles for class control were not simply to be fought in one state at a time. If capitalism was to become international, so too would class battles.
Lenin’s employment of Marxism was critical for class analysis. It justified the development of a vanguard to lead the workers to revolution, and beyond, after victory over the capitalists had succeeded. Second, it emphasized revolution over parliamentary tactics. Third, it saw class battles as international, even though the establishment of the Soviet Union demonstrated that socialism would or could be built one country at a time. While the First and Second Internationals demonstrated a class solidarity in terms of workers across national boundaries, such unity ended with the nationalism of World War I (1914–1918).
After Lenin, Marxists continued to use class as a basis of their analysis of politics and society, often disagreeing over how, exactly, class consciousness emerges. Italian political leader and political theorist Antonio Gramsci, between 1929 and 1935, wrote in his Prison Notebooks that the state is the entire ensemble of relations and activities by which the ruling class maintains power and control. The state itself cannot simply achieve consent with force, but must convince workers to obey its rules. The state represents an unstable equilibrium of power among classes, with the ruling class achieving a hegemony in civil society via its laws. Class battles are also over ideas in an effort to capture control of the state. Georgy Lukács, in his 1920 influential History and Class Consciousness, also sought to understand what it would take for workers to be moved to revolutionary activity. He asserts that once workers have developed consciousness for themselves, they will act.
Lukács states, “For a class to be ripe for hegemony means that its interests and consciousness enable it to organize the whole of society in accordance with those interests.” Which class possesses consciousness at the decisive moment? This is the major question that determines who will secure political power. Theorist Nico Poulantzas asserts that social classes are not simply the product of the modes of production. They are part of superstructure along with the state. Only classes have power (ability to objectively realize self), and the state gets its power from classes. In the view of Poulantzas, the state is a power center, much like Gramsci asserts, and it represents the political interests of dominant class. The significance of these arguments by Gramsci, Lukács, and Poulantzas was not to deny class as a dominant force of conflict in politics, but instead to assert and analyze various ways this form of class conflict manifested and could be fought in capitalism. Specifically, class battles could be fought out ideologically, in the press and popular culture, and in other venues such as the arts or sporting events between the United States, the Soviet Union, and their allies.
Max Weber And Class As Social Status
While the concept of class in politics came to be dominated by a Marxist analysis from the middle of the nineteenth century, another conception of this term also emerged in writings of sociologists such as Émile Durkheim and Max Weber. Their use of class produced an analysis that conveyed more about life chances or social status than political action.
Max Weber’s discussion in his 1924 work “Class, Status, and Party” offers the strongest and most powerful contrast to the Marxist conceptions of class. Weber defines class as a number of people who have in common a specific causal component of life chances, defined exclusively by economic interests under the conditions of the commodity or labor markets. Class is still defined in relation to the market, but class is about status. It is about the overall prospects one has for life success, regardless of whether one works or owns the means of production. Class is about one’s social economic status (SES), which may include income, education, and other measures of status in a society.
Marx and Weber agreed that class was based in unequal distributions of economic power, but for Weber economics was not enough. Weber linked class to status and honor to produce a status group. Moreover, Weber rejected the concept of class interest and of Marxists who argued that individuals may be wrong about interests. Weber also was critical of the notion of a class struggle, particularly the idea that all in the same class will react the same way. A similar SES does not necessarily produce the same outlook in life. The implications of a Weberian in contrast to a Marxist class analysis are significant. For Marxists, class is a structural institution that divides and organizes political power and individuals. For Weberians, class is potentially one variable, along with gender, race, or religion, that describes society and provides insights into individual attitudes.
Class In A Postcommunist And Postmodern Era
In addition to facing competition from Weberians, Marxist notions of class were threatened by three events after World War II (1939–1945): the emergence of identity politics, the collapse of Soviet Marxism, and the rise of postmodernism.
The civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States and around the world brought new and renewed attention to racism and sexual domination. While Marxists depicted class as the primary form of conflict in society, others began to analyze ways to reconcile class with gender, race, and other forms of discrimination and exploitation. Iris Young and other feminists saw patriarchy as a problem in capitalism and did not find class analysis sufficient in discussions regarding sexual exploitation and the market. Feminist theorist Sandra Harding went further in claiming that perhaps Marxism was blind to sexism. Both asked if sexual exploitation was inherent to capitalism, not for reasons that class could explain, but for others. Efforts to merge Marxism with feminism thus produced new lines of inquiry that suggested possible inadequacies in traditional Marxist analysis. Scholars who analyzed race, and eventually those examining sexual orientation, made similar criticisms.
Political events in the 1980s and 1990s also damaged class analysis. First, British and American voting based on class declined in the era of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. president Ronald Reagan. Second, the imposition of martial law in Poland to suppress the solidarity labor movement in the early 1980s demonstrated to many that class had not disappeared within socialist countries. Third, and conversely, the collapse of Soviet Marxism and the end of the cold war in the early 1990s dealt a serious blow to Marxist class analysis. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union suggested that Marx was wrong, and therefore his entire method of inquiry, including class analysis, was incorrect.
The rise of identity politics and the collapse of Soviet Marxism fed into supporting postmodern claims that grand narratives such as the analysis of class were dead. Postmodernism denied the objectivity of class interests and instead argued that the economy does not automatically produce this type of conflict. In Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe argue that politics constitute and determine the type of conflicts and interests that will be given at any time. Thus, the antagonisms of capitalism do not necessarily give rise to class conflict. According to Laclau and Mouffe, Marxists were confused in that not all antagonisms are contradictions: Antagonisms are external to society, not internal as are contradictions. Social or political antagonisms, such as racism or sexism, are limits on society, dictating the types of struggles that will or can occur. Moreover, the political struggles in late capitalism differ from those of the nineteenth century. Past successes in addressing some of the worst economic problems of capitalism have made the struggle against capitalism less popular. There is no longer a center for political struggle but, instead, many points of conflict beyond class, including the new antagonisms of race and gender identity. Radical or progressive politics must reorient around numerous struggles and not simply class if they are to remain relevant to the lives of the oppressed at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries.
Contemporary conceptions of class are closer to Weberian than Marxist notions of the term. UK sociologist Gordon Marshall contends that class is no longer a political concept in the Marxist sense, but it is still used as an explanatory variable. In the use of class as a research program, there is no Marxist theory of history, class exploitation, class-based collective action, and no reductionist theory of political action based on a theory of class interests. Class is employed in a far more limited fashion that examines its connections to mobility, education, and political partisanship. In research by scholars such as J. H. Goldthorpe, one now finds differentiation of classes based on market positions similar to classifications of occupations. Class thus remains a useful concept in political analysis but it is used far more in terms of SES than as a structural force dividing society.
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