Marx analyzed class in relation to the ownership of capital and the means of production.
He divided the population into those who owned property and those who were propertyless, the capitalist class and the proletariat.
He recognised the existence of groups that did not fit this framework e.g. peasants but suggested that these were hangovers of the pre-capitalist economy that would vanish with the maturation of the capitalist system.
Class was more than just a way of describing the economic position of different groups. Marx saw class as tangible collectivities and as real social forces with the capacity to change society.
However criticism refers to social class as no longer being relevant to the understanding of modern societies.
Jorgensen, (1997) suggests Marx saw the origins of a class society rooted in the change of agriculture. The earliest forms of society Marx refers to as a “primitive communism” where nobody owned property and the land belonged to everyone.
“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”, The Communist Manifesto, (1848).
The beginnings of a class system occurred with the development of sophisticated agricultural techniques. The notion of communal land changed and property boundaries were marked. Some people became more powerful than others did by acquiring and controlling the land. From this an increasingly powerful few owned the land and property and the rest worked for them.
With the Industrial Revolution, the ownership of agricultural land became less important then the ownership of business and industry. This “capitalist” society was based on the few owners who obtained the majority of the wealth relying on the workers to produce the goods that made the profits. Marx uses the term “bourgeoisie” or “capitalists” when referring to the owners and “proletariat” for the workers.
However, Marx’s model has altered dramatically with the appearance of a vast range of new occupations and the fragmentation of ownership.
According to Crompton, (1993), Marx believed that with the drive of capitalists to create profit, this would lead to the exploitation of the proletariat in work.
Marx suggested that the workers would develop “class-consciousness” and grow from being a class “in itself”, with no self-awareness of their economic category, to become a class “for itself” where the workers gain a class conscious view of the world and are ready to pursue class conflicts against the capitalists.
Giddens, (1971) notes that according to Marx, classes emerge where the relations of production involve a “differentiated division of labor” allows for the “accumulation of surplus production that can be held by a minority group”. This leads to an exploitative relationship with the mass of producers. Giddens, (1971), suggests that with the relationship between classes in society, Marx employed the terms, “rule” and “class rule”. However, these Marxist terms could be interpreted as being a deliberate imposition of power and it would be more appropriate to use the term, “domination” rather than “rule”.
Class analysis has been criticized by several sociologists on the grounds that social class is no longer relevant to the understanding of modern societies. It has been claimed that high rates of social mobility mean that class is a weak determinant of life-chances and that race and gender are more influential. It is considered that people are no longer thinking in a class-differentiated way, tat the old link between class and belief has largely disappeared and people no longer believe that class and class differences are important.
However, this view is disputed and class is still considered an influential factor in life-chances in industrial societies. In Britain, attitude surveys have shown that people still perceive class to be important in terms of social differences and social justice.
According to Pakulski,. (1996) Modern accounts of class have rejected the Marxist definition. Post war American sociologists saw their society as classless believing that individuals in modern society could be ranked on a whole variety of factors unrelated to economically defined class, e.g. occupation, religion, education and ethnicity.
A criticism of the way class analysis developed in the past is that it concentrated on men and wrongly ignored women. Working women are heavily concentrated in a handful of occupations, mainly in certain professions; in clerical and sales work among the non-manual occupations; and in unskilled factory work and services among the manual occupations. Their jobs have tended to be segregated from men’s, certain jobs being largely reserved for women, although segregation is declining within managerial and professional occupations. They also have lower market rewards than men.
Because women are not evenly distributed across the range of occupations, ignoring them would create a distorted image of the shape of the class structure, which would leave out whole occupational areas.
Marx’s various analyses of class domination are all primarily directed towards explaining the characteristic structure and dynamics of “bourgeois” society.
Marx rejects the claim made by John Stuart Mill that “distribution is controlled by manageable human institutions” and that “production is governed by definite laws”. Gidden’s suggests that this view underlies the assumption that classes are mere inequalities in the distribution of income and that class conflict can be “alleviated or eliminated” by the introduction of measures which minimise the differences between incomes.
According to Hughes et al, (1995), Marx retained his firm belief that class played a major role in the transformation of capitalism. In pre-capitalist production, producers would bring goods to the market, sell their goods for money and buy other goods to sustain themselves and their families. Money would not function as capital but be a means of exchanging commodities of equivalent values. However, Marx argued that in capitalist production, the general relationship between money and commodities differs. The capitalists use money to produce commodities and the commodities are then sold at a profit to produce more money.
However, according to Hughes et al, (1995), capitalists are drawn into two fundamental conflicts, competition from other capitalists and unavoidable conflict with the workers.
Craib (1997) suggests that Marx spoke little about social class but that when he did he referred to social groups as being classes, concentrating on only two social classes. The significance of social class is still debated. It is sometimes suggested that class has no relevance to everyday life in contemporary society and ethnicity, gender or other factors have replaced it. Craib, (1997), suggests that Marx’s analyses of class and class structure is useful but recognizes a problem understanding why conflict does not occur as indicated from Marxist analysis.
According to Marshall et al, (1991), class action is no longer an “automatic by-product” of the economic developments or change in the structure of occupations and income. They have argued that nowadays “decisive shifts in the structuring of social inequalities has generated forms of division to replace the solidarity’s associated with social class”, Accompanied with the shifts in values and life styles, this has encouraged “individualism” and “privatism”. Therefore, according to Marshall et al, class analysis will prove to be increasingly “bankrupt in the explanation of social inequalities”.
Sectionalism and privatism emerge as the obverse of “class consciousness”, and cannot be associated with “solidaristic” or “inclusionary” forms of class based conflict. The heterogeneous working class of contemporary Britain has absorbed capitalist economic values and as a result moved towards class organizations based on sectional self-interest and the undermining of worker solidarity. Social class and social class identities are no less noticeable today than during earlier periods and attitudes held amongst the working class.
According to Saunders, (1990), “Privatism” sees people living their lives less in public and more in private. It is clamed family life is more based on the home and involves parents and children only. There is less contact with neighbors, friends and wider kin. The result is that people have less control over their society while at the same time having little regard for other people beyond themselves or their immediate family. However, there is no general agreement as to whether this process of privatism is taking place, or what its causes might be.
Mann, (1973), has identified “class consciousness” in relation to what could be considered the “original spirit of the Marxist usage”. Mann identified four elements that represent the stages through which a developing “class consciousness” moves. Mann, (1973) begins with “Class identity” in which the individual recognises and defines himself as working class. “Class opposition” relates to the perception that capitalists and their managers constitute an enduring opponent. “Class totality”refers to the realisation that class identity and opposition defines one’s own social situation and the whole of society in which we live. Finally an “alternative society” is the desired alternative which will be realised when class conflict is successfully resolved.
Bradley, (1996), suggests the analysis of class as a sociological concept has historically taken the form of a set of debates, arising from the initial positions marked out by Marx and Weber. Bradley’s broad definition of class is that it is a label applied to the link between the “unequal lived relationships arising from the social organisation of production, exchange and consumption”. These include the allocation of tasks in the “division of labour” and the control and ownership relationships within production. Furthermore the unequal distribution of surplus e.g. state benefits and the patterns of consumption, e.g. lifestyle all imply that class is a much broader concept.
According to Bradley, (1996) Marx and Weber between them laid the ground for an account of what is called the “traditional class structure” that developed with industrialization. Marx’s theory of class refers to his belief that each “mode of production” produces characteristic class relationships involving a dominating and subordinate class. Capitalism produces a mutual relationship of dependence between the bourgeois and proletariat, which is antagonistic. The interests of the two main classes are opposed, Marx believing that the characteristics of capitalism would promote class conflict. This conflict would result in a social revolution. In Marx’s more descriptive writings he refers to many other classes in a capitalist society e.g. petite bourgeoisie but Marx and Engels suggest that these middle groups would be absorbed into the two major classes.
However, Bradley, (1996), criticises Marx for his failure to perceive the growing social and economic significance of new middle class, instead Marx concentrates on the relationship between capital and labour. Overall Bradley notes that the Marxist theory is useful but that insufficient attention is paid to other social grouping for example the unemployed and that Marx does not take into account gender or race and ethnicity.
Also Marx’s notion of class struggle and social revolution has been rejected by Weberians. Weber believed that social revolution would be an unlikely outcome and if did occur would not improve ordinary citizens lives but add to bureaucracy and tyranny. Weber also didn’t feel it was a simple matter of one class in conflict with another, but that it would be more complex, with conflicts occurring within classes as well as between them.
The “post-industrial” and “postmodern” frameworks inspire new approaches to class and criticise the Marxist Class theory. Bell, (1974), suggests that technological change would lead to the upgrading of the occupational structure. A new technical and professional elite would emerge, replacing the propertied capitalist class. Bell, (1974), suggests the general prosperity would be brought by post-industrial change and would mean that remaining manual workers would experience better working conditions, an increased standard of living and enhanced leisure time. Bell contradicts Marx’s theory of “proletarianization and revolution”.
Postmodernism offers a more flexible approach moving the analysis of class to a broader framework dealing with its relation to other aspects of inequality, gender, race and age. However it still has traces of the frameworks of industrialization and capitalism from which it evolved. It still remains “economistic” and prefers to use an occupational definition of class.