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Class must now be replaced by new modes of analysis.

ZeroZero | 02.07.2002 14:54

Undergraduate essay: critique of Marxist approaches to class.

Class must now be replaced by new modes of analysis.

ZeroZero 2002

The social science approach to history of the nineteen-sixties recognised a complete break in the nature of the social order in the early nineteenth century due to the Industrial Revolution; many of the central features which still characterise British society were crystallised during the nineteenth-century including a highly productive economy, an integrated transport system and a system of popular government . The impact of these material and social changes of the industrial revolution were great enough to create a new vocabulary, the most of important of which was the language of class .
Whilst the development of the language of class does not imply that social conflict was new to British society, it does suggest that the nature of the conflict was changing, and that the manner about which contemporaries thought about and conceived of social conflict had changed. This essay examines arguments for and against the notion of class and class consciousness, and urges that whilst class analysis is of use to historians, its economically determinist basis is fundamentally flawed and requires modification of the term to incorporate concepts of hierarchy and domination.

Karl Marx saw the formation of the factory worker in nineteenth-century Britain as a new phenomenon: for the first time in history working people were developing into a homogenous mass of propertyless labourers (the proletariat), brought together in ever larger concentrations to share a common position at the lowest level of skill and income. By examining the development of technology, the relationship of production and capital (such as the rise in size of the labour force and degree of contact with owners), the legal and political superstructure (such as Parliament, and social consciousness), Marx articulated a theory of historical materialism which predicted that the deskilled operatives of machines in factories – the industrial proletariat – would organise and eventually rise against the bourgeois class that held them in bondage to capitalist society.
The proletariat was called into existence through the introduction of machinery: the expansion of industry required extra labour, wages rose as demand for labour rose and workmen migrated from the countryside from the agricultural districts. In unison with other urbanisation pressures, this resulted in larger cities with concentrated populations. Engels described the population of these cities as three-quarters working class, whilst the last quarter were made up by the lower middle class who consisted of small shopkeepers and handicraftsmen. As capital accumulated in greater concentrations, the lower middle classes and master artificer were forced into the proletariat and a two-tier population resulted: the capitalist and the worker . Engels describes the exploiters of the working class – the bourgeoisie – as demoralised, debased and hollow: for them “nothing exists in this world, except for the sake of money…It knows no bliss save that of rapid gain, no pain save that of losing gold. In the presence of this avarice and lust of gold, it is not possible for a single human sentiment or opinion to remain untainted” . The bourgeoisie consisted of magistrates, Justices of the Peace, owners of capital, the Liberal party, the Conservative party and the ‘holy’-Lords. In short, the bourgeoisie upheld the status-quo in the name of self-interest.
The actions of the bourgeoisie and the condition of the working classes led to the development of a class consciousness. This is a collective consciousness based upon an individual’s relation to the means of production making possible the development of revolutionary aspirations for that class that (for Gramsci, at least) “intervenes to transform structures, making possible the qualitative movement from capitalism to socialism” . The orthodox Marxist approach argues that class consciousness arising from proletarianisation in the nineteenth century led to repression by the ruling elite to prevent a revolution (Hobsbawm, 1949). The more widespread view argues that the trauma of proletarianisation created revolutionary possibilities, the actions of rebellious workers contained by the ruling elite (E P Thompson, 1963).

Serious questions have been raised about some of Marx’s assumptions however. Reid argues that the deskilling of workers has been exaggerated, and that new groups of skilled workers appeared to replace old skills; in addition, these groups of workers could not only rebel, but also attempted to delay and modify these pressures. For example, even after the introduction of the self-action mule of the nineteenth-century, which displaced the skilled physical effort previously required, spinners retained real autonomy because “they still had to use some physical aptitude in overseeing the routine operation of the equipment and supervise the labour of their assistants responsible for tying up the broken threads” . In industries where skilled workers were displaced “it was always accompanied by parallel increases in the need for other highly skilled workers to build and repair, to set up and supervise the new equipment” . In addition to the continued predominance of a wide range of types and levels of skilled labour were a complex hierarchy of wages; this highlights the unsatisfactory nature of division within the working class between a ‘labor aristocracy’ and ‘plebians’ or ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’ . Joyce notes that proletarianisation involved the “incorporation rather than the supercession of earlier forms of industrial organisation…The labour process is seen to involve not a linear process of ‘deskilling’, and a homogenous working class, but a multiplicity of outcomes, including continuity in the workers’ experience and outlook” . Contemporaries “recognised the broad divisions both material and in terms of consciousness which were to be found among the workers” and had quite varied conceptions of ‘class’ solidarity, in view of the fact that some industries like engineering and shipbuilding organised unions based on specific jobs whilst in coal mining and cotton spinning – careers in which workers could aspire to the top jobs – unions were organised in same industry unions.
Questions have also been raised over the historical development of class society. Marx believed that class was a fundamentally novel result of industrialisation; Perkin and Laslet are in agreement with Marx when they recognise class society as a fundamentally new phenomenon. Perkin (1969) states that class society formed in the five years after 1815 - prior to this Britain was in a state of classless hierarchy, ‘an open aristocracy based on patronage’ with class consciousness ‘latent but ruthlessly repressed’; Laslet identifies pre-industrial revolution England as a one-class society where the aristocracy was capable of concerted action over the whole of society. Hobsbawm (1984) has suggested that under industrial capitalism class was an immediate and directly experienced reality; under previous conditions it was more of an analytical construct that was hardly recognised by contemporaries but is useful for historians.
But if a class existed – based on an unequal distribution of wealth and power –, then a ‘one-class’ society is a contradiction in terms since two classes are required for one group to exploit and the other to be exploited. Indeed, prior to the industrial revolution, different sections of the ruling aristocracy competed amongst each other and the church, magistrates and artisans had quite different economic and political interests. The occurrence of grain riots, the mobs attacking markets for ‘fair prices’, riots against cider tax and militia levies, burial and sick clubs and the London public supporting Wilkes and the apprenticeship laws of the Spitalfield weavers are evidence of collective consciousness in sections of the British population .
Not only did class consciousness exist prior to the industrial revolution, but ‘populism’ – the rival to class – continued to flourish after industrialism. A study of the language used by contemporaries “involves attention to the language, to the means and content of human nature” ; it gives an indication of the development of ideas “which shape social realities in the first place and which drive societies and their history along a certain course” . Although Joyce acknowledges tensions evident in society – for example between the educated and uneducated or rich and poor – and the contemporary use of a tripartite division of society “dwelling upon the ‘energy’ of the middle classes, the idleness of the aristocracy, or the ‘morality’ and ‘industry’ of the workers” , he also notes that different social levels shared experiences in a broadly populist way, particularly in the industrial north . Here, evidence of dialect literature and the local and regional diversity of England with strong attachments to local tradition, the crusade against privilege, and notions of popular justice and equality show a greater affinity with a populist outlook than a class outlook. Although there was conflict between ‘vulgar’ and ‘polite’ culture, much of ‘liberal culture’ such as knowledge and political liberty fitted into the values of the labouring poor because the enlightenment origins of liberalism were “essentially classless” . In conclusion, the ‘development trajectory’ towards class consciousness “does not do justice to the range of experience involved, or to the great array of skills and statuses so clearly evident in what, in the singular, is a distinctly tenuous ‘working class’ ”.
Kirk has attacked this ‘revisionist’ approach, which he says is based on the “defeats and retreats suffered by the labour movement under Thatcherism and the political reassessment of the historical strength of class consciousness within the British working class” . He recognises class analysis of society inherent in the writings of Chartist leaders such as O’Connor, McDouall, Pilling and Leach, who expressed views that were bitterly opposed to the capitalist means of production. They stated for example that ‘free trade employers preached freedom and independence, but practiced slavery and dependence’, that in the place of the handloom weaver appeared not a free and independent worker, but a ‘wage slave’ - divorced from ownership of the means of production, reliant on the sale of his or her labour for an income, lacking due protection and the full reward for that labour, subjected to bouts of unemployment, insecurity and misery, and lacking control over the pace and duration of work: “the factory operative fully epitomised the indignities, exploitation, and inequalities endured by the worker under capitalism” .
For Kirk, what is “impressive about McDouall and others is the extent to which they grasped and fought against the new reified relation of industrial capitalism” ; although they advanced a non-revolutionary economic critique, the language they employed was nevertheless “saturated by notions of class pride and class exploitation” . Although Rule notes that “few linguistic clues are as indicative of the way in which language can reflect changing social realities as the taking over of the social description in the early nineteenth century by the language of class” , Gray comes to the quite the opposite conclusion and notes that the term ‘class’ actually performs a range of discursive functions, and that use of certain kinds of nineteenth-century public discourse “cannot be read as a simple validation of Marxist interpretations” ; the language of movements of mobilisation are articulated together, “very often around some kind of language of popular democracy and radical humanism…Chartism can be assessed as an attempt to build such a movement” . The class language of the Chartist leaders should be seen as part of an attempt to build a revolutionary class consciousness.

Even if class-consciousness existed in a form that drowned out other (populist) forms of consciousness, has it now died out as Kirk implies above and why do Marxist scholars set so much store in the existence of class and class consciousness? The answer is of course that Marxist approaches to history legitimise a Marxist revolutionary strategy. The state developed out of economic necessity as “an organ for the oppression of one class by another; it is the creation of ‘order’ which legalise and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the conflict between classes” . The proletariat must “use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible” . For one to question the basis of class society and class consciousness is to undermine the foundations of a Marxian analysis and strategy for revolution.
There can be no question that certain groups of people make up the ruling elite (capitalists and politicians amongst others,) backed by a bourgeoisie who “manage us in the interests of the ruling class” and perform different roles and functions necessary for capitalist society to function. In a capitalist society such as Britain, extraordinary privilege is concentrated in a very small class who own wealth and property, with near total security, choices available to them and power exercised through principles of property, profit and the market. These people “have a common stake in one overriding cause: to keep the working classes of the society capitalist” . The use of singular terms like working-class or middle-class obscures the diversity of circumstance found amongst a multitude of classes. Capitalist society is extremely stratified and complex to analyse – a variety of rather uncertainly bounded intermediate groups exist between labour and capital. Individuals and groups need to be analysed based on their allegiance to the capitalist system: the police, middle-managers who care nothing for their workers, union leadership which does its utmost to prevent the radical rank-and-file from pushing for progressive policies in the name of ‘accommodation’ and ‘dialogue’ – these sections of society are wedded to the bourgeois ideal, as outlined by Engels. Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony may supply answers as to why a revolutionary consciousness has failed to emerge in the industrialised world, but doesn’t supply any easy answers as to how social historians should view the results of this hegemonic control by the ruling elite.
The problem with a strict Marxian analysis of society is, of course, that much of the working class has been co-opted into the social system of capitalism. Even by the 1960s the industrial proletariat could no longer be regarded as the leading force in a struggle for socialism: “the industrial working class is not even a majority of the population…it requires an act of high consciousness for the proletariat to achieve a social revolution” . Although in Marx’s day, “the industrial proletariat might easily have been regarded as the hegemonic class in the struggle for socialism, today the proletariat no longer regards itself as an oppositional class to bourgeois society” . Bookchin articulates this admirably when he states that the class struggle does not centre on material exploitation alone but also on spiritual exploitation: “the alienated and oppressed sectors of society are now the majority of people, not a single class defined by its relationship to the means of production” . Hence, ‘class’ and ‘class struggle’ are unable to articulate the universalisation of struggle against the capitalist order; the relative economic status of one individual to another within the state is simply one aspect of domination and hierarchy. Class society and class struggle have always existed in some form or another: ‘class’ and ‘state’ emerged out of an acceptance of ‘hierarchy’ as well as out of the division of labour . The debate over the exact date for the development of classes ignores a more fundamental issue: that of timeless struggle against the domination of hierarchy by the oppressed and exploited. Even if classes were abolished, “oppression might well remain in existence in the form of hierarchical domination” .
Marxism, a ‘theoretical corpus which was liberating a century ago is turning into a straitjacket today’ and has ‘ceased to be applicable to our time, not because it is too visionary, but because it is not visionary or revolutionary enough’ . As Italian anarchist Mosso has agued, Marxists have tended ‘to allow economics to colonise questions of morality and ethics’ , questions that need to be more fully addressed. The Marxian strategy of revolution – to raise the proletariat to the ruling class and to centralise all instruments of production – is a strategy that promotes hierarchy and domination, since centralisation of power is just an example of hierarchy and domination. Bakunin’s famous words that “liberty without socialism is privilege, injustice; socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality” are particularly illuminating of the failings of Marxism; he predicted ‘with wonderful acumen that Marx’s dictatorial propensities would spread out among his successors at some future and date, into what he called a red bureaucracy’ . A truly revolutionary strategy is for the exploited masses of the people to bypass (and ultimitely destroy) the functions of the state by creating new institutions and new social relations that promote a spirit of justice, fraternity, liberty, and renew the whole society, improve the material conditions of the poor and realise real autonomy for all groups and regions in a federally organised structure . Engels’s belief that running a ‘ship’ or ‘factory’ requires ‘subordination to power’ simply plays into the current belief system that hierarchy is essential: running a ‘ship’, ‘factory’ or a society for that matter requires voluntary cooperation and organisation, but organisation that rests on mutual aid, not on ‘power and authority’. It is this belief in hierarchy that allows classes to exploit and dominate other classes.

We have examined the main tenets of Marx’s thought, examined arguments against Marx’s conception of history, and questioned the basis of the rise of ‘class consciousness’ in the context of competition from other ‘populist’ attempts to win political arguments and gain hegemonic control of political ideas. In addition, we have seen that Marx’s beliefs give validation to-a-now abstract strategy of revolution, which not only fail to give account of current industrial society, but fails from the outset as being surprisingly non-revolutionary for a revolutionary strategy.
The question isn’t whether class must be replaced by other modes of analysis – this is a ridiculous assumption: without class based analysis social history would be left with individual histories, bereft of any wider context: “class is about opposition and antagonism – and of course power. But there are no simple lines of cleavage that can separate classes into opposing and antagonistic camps” . A class based analysis of history is flawed if it steamrolls over individual eccentricities, delegitimises or ignores the use of language by competing movements, and is used to legitimise one of a number of progressive revolutionary ideologies in the name of dogma. The point is that a class must be accompanied by other modes of analysis. It will continue to be one of the many ways in which the social order is envisaged; in the same instance, progressive historians should adapt an economically determined class based analysis to a critique of hierarchy and exploitation, of which class is but one example.


Boggs C – Gramsci’s Marxism; Pluto Press, 1976.

Bookchin M – Post-Scarcity Anarchism; Black Rose Books, 1986.

Bookchin M – Anarchism, Marxism, and the Future of the Left: Interviews and Essays, 1993-1998; AK Press, 1999.

Class War Federation - An Introduction to Class War; Class War, 1994.

Dolgoff S (ed.) – Banunin on Anarchy; George Allen & Unwin, 1971.

Engels F – The Condition of the Working Class in England; Penguin, 1845 (1987 edition).

Goodway D (ed.) – For Anarchism: History, Theory and Practice; Routledge.

Gray R – ‘The Deconstructing of the English Working Class’, in Social History, Vol. 11, 1986.

Hollis P (ed.) – Class and Conflict in Nineteenth Century England, 1815-1850; Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.

Joyce P – Visions of the People: Industrial England and the question of class 1848-1914; Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Kirk N – ‘In Defence of Class: A critique of recent revisionist writing upon the nineteenth-century English working class’, in International Review of Social History, 1987.

Lenin V I – The State and Revolution; Progress Publishers, 1949 (1984 edition).

Levy C – Gramsci and the Anarchists; Berg, 1999.

McLellan D – Karl Marx: Selected Writings; Oxford University Press, 1977 (2000 edition).

Morris R J – Class and Class Consciousness in the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850; Macmillan, 1979.

Nursey-Bray P – ‘Malatesta and the Anarchist revolution’, in Anarchist Studies, Vol.3 No.1, Spring 1995.

Reed M & Wells R (ed.) – Class, Conflict and Protest in the Countryside 1700-1880; Frank Cass, 1990.

Reid A J – Social Classes and Social Relations in Britain, 1850-1914; Macmillan, 1992.

Rule J – The Labouring Classes in Early Industrial England 1750-1850; Longman, 1986.

Samuel R & Stedman-Jones G – Culture, Ideology and Politics; Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.

South-Yorkshire Local Anarcho Syndicalist Groups – Class Is Dead: Are You Working Class; International Workers Association, 1992.

Thompson E P – The Making of the English Working Class; Penguin Books, 1963 (1991 edition).

Yarmie A – ‘Employers, Ideology and Social Conflict: A reply to Richard Rodgers’ in Social History, Vol. 11, 1986.

Westergaard J & Resler H – Class in a Capitalist Society: A study of contemporary Britain; Heinemann, 1975.


Reid A J – Social Classes and Social Relations in Britain, 1850-1914; Macmillan, 1992, p9-10.
Morris R J – Class and Class Consciousness in the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850; Macmillan, 1979, p9.
Engels F – The Condition of the Working Class in England; Penguin, 1845 (1987 edition), p61-62.
Ibid., p275.
Boggs C – Gramsci’s Marxism; Pluto Press, 1976, p63.
Reid A J, op.cit., p27-28.
Ibid., p29-30.
Ibid., p33.
Joyce P – Visions of the People: Industrial England and the question of class 1848-1914; Cambridge University Press, 1991, p2.
Rule J – The Labouring Classes in Early Industrial England; Longman, 1986, p386.
Morris R J, op.cit., p15-18.
Joyce P, op.cit., p1.
Samuel R & Stedman-Jones G – Culture, Ideology and Politics; Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982, p13.
Joyce P, op.cit., p56.
Ibid., p330.
Ibid., p342.
Ibid., p3.
Kirk N – ‘In Defence of Class: A critique of recent revisionist writing upon the nineteenth-century English working class’, in International Review of Social History, 1987, p3.
Ibid., p22.
Ibid., p30.
Ibid., p31.
Rule J, op.cit., p384-385.
Gray R – ‘The Deconstructing of the English Working Class’ in Social History, Vol. 11, 1986, p365.
Ibid., p373.
Lenin V I – The State and Revolution; Progress Publishers, 1949 (1984 edition), p11 (original emphasis).
Ibid., p26 quoting Marx K & Engels F – The Communist Manifesto; 1847, p31 & 37 of German edition (1906).
Class War Federation - An Introduction to Class War; Class War, 1994, p10.
Westergaard J & Resler H – Class in a Capitalist Society: A study of contemporary Britain; Heinemann, 1975, p346.
Bookchin M – Post-Scarcity Anarchism; Black Rose Books, 1986, p205. The Essay ‘Listen Marxist’ from which these quotes are taken was first published in 1969.
Bookchin M – Anarchism, Marxism, and the Future of the Left: Interviews and Essays, 1993-1998; AK Press, 1999, p264.
Bookchin M (1986) p251-252.
Examples of states that had class and class struggle include the ‘feudal’, the ‘Asiatic’, the ‘classical’ – such as that of the Romans and Greeks and the modern capitalist state; in all these examples, various groups of people were arranged hierarchly, resulting in a number of interractions, some mutually beneficial but often relying on some form of exploitation.
Bookchin M (1999) p272.
Bookchin M (1986) p199-201.
Levy C – Gramsci and the Anarchists; Berg, 1999, p197.
Guérin D – ‘Marxism and anarchism’ in Goodway D (ed.) – For Anarchism: History, Theory and Practice; Routledge, p117.
Broadly speaking, this is an anarchist-communist strategy of revolution. See Nursey-Bray P – ‘Malatesta and the Anarchist Revolution’, in Anarchist Studies, No.3 (Spring, 1995), p25-44 for Malatesta’s critique of Marxist and Leninist strategies of revolution and an anarchist-communist alternative to this.
Reed M – ‘Class & Conflict in Rural England: Some Reflections on a Debate’, in Reed M & Wells R (ed.) – Class, Conflict and Protest in the Countryside 1700-1880; Frank Cass, 1990, p23 (my emphasis).



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  2. The state and class — Antid Oto
  3. No... — mantrastic
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