Dimensions of ‘Class’


has been a powerful analytical category in explaining social dynamics. In
pre-classical ideas, class was identified in describing historical facts and
normative positions. It is the advent of classical theory with Smith and
Ricardo that made class an objective category in explaining distributions and
tensions independent of technological and natural characteristics. But it is
only in Marx that besides being mere distributional categories, class as a
concept becomes alive assuming the place of both the subject and object of

Marxist theory is class focused in the sense that it identifies the
crucial dynamics of production, appropriation and distribution of surplus as
one of the key social processes that earlier thinkers failed to take into
account while sympathizing with the cause of the underclass. This however does
not mean that Marxism recognizes only classes and class processes as the
determinant of historical change. Rather class is the entry point in Marxist
theory to see and find out how other social categories and processes influences
surplus generation and distribution. The dominance of neoclassical theory in
the discipline of economics abandons class as a unit of analyses. The ‘economic
man’ is a construct which is uprooted from his socially embedded existence and
acts as a representative individual claiming to maximize either subjective
utility or profit. The post modern theories on the other hand celebrates
‘difference’ and negates all meta-narratives giving rise to absolute relativism,
and therefore denounces class to be a defining mode of social organization. In
spite of the fact that class occupies a key position in understanding
socio-economic, cultural and ideological changes there had been involving
debates within the Marxist circles in conceptualizing class, how classes become
agents of change and hegemonic at certain historical points of time and
especially how in the current conjuncture class relations for quite obvious
reasons had become far more complex than that in Marx’s time. Ideas develop in
dialectical relation with praxis and as Gramsci remarked praxis is history:
Marxism as philosophy is history becoming conscious of itself. Therefore anyone
who is interested towards radical transcendence need to study class not as an
‘objective’ conceptual category but also the making of the class and the way it
emerges as the ‘subject’ of history.

concept of class in Marx’s writings has not been very categorical rather
attributed to various dimensions in different points of time. In The German Ideology, it is more in
relation to conflict between dominant and dominated where the hierarchies of
power are determined by ownership of means of production. In Poverty of Philosophy, it is in
reference to increasing polarization between poverty and wealth and finally in
the Communist Manifesto, Marx
proposes the dichotomous structure where the society is being increasingly
divided between two hostile camps: bourgeoisie and proletariat. As Bettelheim
and others pointed out, the Marxist idea of class varies depending on their
focus on: ownership of property; power/authority relationship;
production-appropriation-distribution of surplus value. The variation actually
reflects the fact that in Marx, class is neither an exclusive economic category
nor a political/cultural identity devoid of links with the economic process of
surplus production.

dominant notion of defining class on the basis of ownership of means of
production fails to explain the appropriation of social surplus by the
bureaucratic class in erstwhile socialist countries. At later stages they
amassed wealth having no formal ownership of means of production. On the other
hand ownership of properties does not necessarily ensure enjoying authority as
in the case of numerous share holders in a corporate structure. Therefore
ownership criterion does not necessarily explain the notion of class. Class has
also been defined as a process by Resnick and Wolff in Knowledge and Class. In this scheme class is defined as the process
of production, appropriation and distribution of surplus value and acknowledges
possibilities of multiple class positions of individuals in the complex web of
surplus generation. In other words the definition of class in Marxist
literature has not been uniform and this is precisely because dynamics of
capitalism involves multidimensional modes of dominance that influences class
process and also conditions the evolution of class.

defining characteristic of Marxist idea of class and class struggle however is
not fundamentally located within the intricacies of definitions but precisely
in the recognition of class struggle as the driving force behind history: as
the opening lines of the first section of The
Communist Manifesto
reads ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is
the history of class struggles.’ Class thus assumes a pivotal position in social
dynamics and Marx extends this analysis of dominant/ dominated to
pre-capitalist societies as well. Thus we get a more generalized theory of
social change, historical materialism that identifies phases of history
according to core structures of ‘mode of production’. The historical tendency
as recognized by Marx is towards a polarization and strengthening of the
proletarian class that finally emerges as the ‘universal class’ representing
the social cause. The notion of class in this case goes beyond the
‘economistic’ idea of class referring to objective locations in class process
or production relations; rather it signifies a qualitative change, of class
becoming ‘political’. The proletarian class in that case assumes a radical
position not merely to defend its class interests alone rather emerges as the
hegemonic class. Marx strongly believed on successful retaliation of the
deprived in the course of history and the rise of the proletariat was conceived
in the same token as a node of historical progression.
making of the proletariat as the hegemonic class can’t be a pre-determined
inevitability. Neither is the fact so evident that society is increasingly
being polarized as the ‘two-class’ model suggests. Rather we come across a
complex matrix of intermediate classes influencing and conflicting with each
other. Marx although recognized the ‘new middle classes’ but believed that such
classes align themselves depending on their positions in subsumed class process
involving distribution and sharing of accumulated surplus. But more important distinctions
were made by later Marxists in terms of class places and positions as well as
differentiating ‘class-in-itself’ and ‘class-for-itself’. Poulantzas in Classes in Contemporary Capitalism
talked about class ‘places’ that are structurally defined while ‘class
positions’ that emerge through concrete struggles. Class dominance in this
scheme works in three different spheres: economic, political and ideological
and only the capitalist class is dominant in all the three spheres. There are
intermediate classes that may have contradictory locations that is dominant in
one and dominated in the other. The precise point being made is that class
places can be different from class positions and secondly, there are
intermediate classes between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat that assumes
contradictory class locations.

more intriguing debate however is that between the structural and
politico-cultural notions of class. Cohen in Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense gives the structural definition
of class as a pre-given position according to the objective place in the
network of economic relations. In other words ‘class-in-itself’ is constituted
independent of the social, political and cultural engagements. It is the
objective location within a specific production process that defines class-in-itself.
Marx observes regarding the French peasantry in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that they do and do not
form a class at the same time. Since they endure specific economic conditions,
they are a class but at the same time it is mere aggregation, a mass rather
than class: ‘much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes’. On the other
hand in Poverty of Philosophy, Marx
identifies that the industrial working class because of its specific relation
to the process of production assumes an organic unity against capital. What
Marx was talking about is not to make a pre-determined idea of potential
classes rather hinted upon the complex fact that production relations or the
objectivity can only create favourable conditions in the process of class
formation. And these objective conditions vary according to the process of
production and the nature of engagement or relations of production in the
course of history. Marx makes a crucial distinction in reference to working
class. They are naturally united against respective capital in the terrain of
conflict between wages and profits and can identify their class interests
unlike others that have amorphous grievances. But this specific unity against capital
does not ensure becoming ‘class-for-itself’ which according to Marx essentially
evolves from a process of political conflict of a class against class.
Therefore even in Marx’s writings class positions are mutually constituted by structural
positions and political conflicts. The relative importance assigned to
structure and consciousness defines the divide between Marxist scholarships. On
the one side we find Cohen having class defined and pre-determined by objective
positions in production relations while on the other side we have E.P. Thompson
viewing class as constituted by a form of conflictive behavior that generates
conscious attempts to overthrow capital. In The
Making of the English Working Class
, Thompson defines class by ‘men as they
live their own history’.

moot point however in this debate is that classes and class parties are not
defined solely by their objective origin of ‘place’ but rather by their
positioning in the terrain of conflict. In other words the making of the class
and its becoming of ‘class for-itself’ is actualized by the act of struggle, a
struggle beyond the realm of ‘economic’, beyond specific ‘class interests’ and
representing the ‘universal’ as the harbinger of social emancipation. In this argument,
no class or political combination can be given a privileged position in the generic
sense only because of structural positions; the historical advantages are
realized only through praxis. Praxis creates the radical moment when the
proletarian class emerges as the revolutionary agent to deliver its historical

is in the moment of transcendence the proletarian class assumes a revolutionary
position and that is subject to a complex ensemble of factors. This complex
ensemble as Althusser pointed in For Marx
creates an accumulation and exacerbation of historical contradictions that are specific to time and space. How the
proletarian class attains such hegemonic positions either by a class
dictatorship or by emerging as a dominant class intellectually and morally
before becoming ruling class has been a point of difference between Lenin and
Gramsci. But Lenin, Lucaks and Gramsci held the view that the natural class
consciousness that the working class attains through defending their interests
against capital has to be transformed into ideological class consciousness. And
this is precisely because the immediate reality in capitalism appears to be the
same for both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The lived life is full of
contradictions and irrationality, but to transcend beyond this lived experience
demands a consciousness beyond ‘bourgeoisie immediacy’. This requires imputing
the theories of social change into the proletarian class from outside otherwise
the working class remains passive and submissive with fragmentary insights.

The making of the working class and the ‘becoming’
of a hegemonic class is a question that essentially belongs to the creative
realm of praxis and as a result gives rise to new questions that demand further
theoretical appreciation. We are increasingly drawn into a production process
where the working class is fragmented and segmented day by day; it is a process
that increasingly aims to de-materialize the essential objective advantages of
the working class to get united. There are both technological and political
economic dimensions to this and they mutually constitute each other. On the one
hand technological changes allow fragmentation through de-centered structures
of production and on the other, the defeat of global labour in the process of
globalization increases disposable labour at the behest of capital creating
serious challenge to the process of class formation. Segmentation and
differentiation by creating core and peripheral labour, sub-contracting,
casualization and so on allows capital to play the divisive trick. A new breed
of workers are also emerging in the so called ‘knowledge sector’ apparently
having greater autonomy over their production process. But how these ‘mind-workers’
are increasingly deskilled in the process of technological development with
increasing standardizations are some of the issues that require greater

The other important question of course is that the
social structure is far more complex and so also the class configurations. The
subsumed classes, that is, those that receive shares of surplus against
creating conditions for the systematic production and appropriation of surplus
value or non-class groups sometimes rebel from a sense of deprivation.
The complexity of class process need to be analyzed and the moments of creative
praxis bring other deprived sections of the society closer to the working
class. The other critical question in countries such as India is to match the
matrix of ‘oppressed’ with that of ‘exploited’. How to integrate the struggle
for ‘radical redistribution’ with the struggle for ‘recognition’? A large
overlap between the two exists but how social and cultural processes influences
the class process, how emancipation means different things to different people,
how economy, politics, culture and ideologies mutually constitute each other
and tends to fracture the natural overlap between those oppressed and exploited
—these are some of the questions that any project for social emancipation need
to address.

author is Associate Professor at ISID, New Delhi.