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On the Marxian Theory of Class (O'Kane, Rutar)


The last chapter of the third volume of Marx’s Capital bears a promising title: ‘Classes’. Marx opens this chapter by listing ‘the three great classes of a modern society based upon the capitalist mode of production’: wage-labourers, capitalists and land-owners. He proceeds by posing an important question: ‘what constitutes a class?’ However, a couple of paragraphs later the chapter suddenly ends, leaving the reader without a satisfying answer. Unfortunately, Marx was unable to finish the third volume of Capital and the chapter on classes during his lifetime. Hence, even though Marx’s theoretical opus contains numerous sporadic references on classes and class struggle, it does not contain a coherent and elaborate theory of classes.

The first objective of the panel is to tackle the question that was left unanswered by Marx and ask, What constitutes a class in a capitalist society? Our intent here is not to inquire into what historically constituted the classes, by way of explaining their historical genesis and development, but rather to look into the peculiarities of the underlying social relations that structurally constitute classes within what Marx calls ‘the inner organisation of the capitalist mode of production, in its ideal average’. Particularly, we will be interested in the specific social form assumed by the antagonistic relations between classes in a capitalist society and in the distinct nature of class domination entailed by this form.

The second objective of the panel is to examine some of the contemporary notions of classes and class struggle in the works of post-Marxist theorists and bourgeois sociologists. The prevailing idea in these currents is that the Marxian concepts of class and class struggle are anachronistic and incapable of grasping the social relations in contemporary society. Moreover, Marx’s concepts of class and class struggle are seen as an integral part of his supposedly crude economic reductionism. By way of returning to Marx’s original texts, we will critically scrutinise these contemporary theories and ideologies.


Chris O’Kane – ‘The specific social characters that the social production process stamps on individuals’: On The Constitution of Classes in Capital as ‘products of these specific social relations of production’

Ralf Dahrendorf’s Class and Class Conflict in Modern Society provides a cogent, if overly dramatic, summary of the status of class theory in Capital: ‘Marx postponed the systematic presentation of his theory of class until death took the pen from his hand. The irony has often been noted that the last (52nd) chapter of the last (third) volume of Capital, which bears the title “The Classes,” has remained unfinished. After a little more than one page the text ends with the lapidary remark of its editor, Engels: “Here the manuscript breaks off.”’ While Darhendorf’s comment might be taken to demonstrate that Capital lacks a theory of class or that it remained unfinished, it can also be interpreted as alluding to two points that can be drawn on in order to provide a more in-depth perspective on this issue: the distinction that Marx draws between his systematic method of presentation and his method of investigation and the role that Engel’s played as the editor of Volume III.

Taking these points into account, while Marx did not provide a systematic presentation of class in Capital, or a coherent and elaborate theory of classes, elements of a definition can still be drawn from his account of ‘the inner organisation of the capitalist mode of production, in its ideal average’. This is particularly the case if one accepts Michael Heinrich’s point that ‘Engels Edition of the Third Volume of Capital’ made ‘significant modifications’ to the segmentation of Marx’s 1864–65 Manuscript. For, as Heinrich further notes, one of these modifications consisted in erroneously assembling what become Chapter 48 of Volume III on the Trinity Formula.

As I will try to show, reading this chapter in its correct order alongside other material from this section of Volume III – which draws on arguments from Capital as a whole – can thus be shown to provide non-systematic answers to the questions that Marx poses in the fragmentary chapter on ‘The Classes’ that follows these sections in Engels edition of Volume III. I will demonstrate that the answers to the related questions of what makes a class and what makes wage-labourers, capitalists and landowners the formative elements of the great social classes can be found by examining Marx’s account of the essential roles they play in the historically specific form of capitalist social production, wherein the preconditions that established it – ‘the expropriation of the workers from the conditions of labour, the concentration of these conditions in the hands of a minority of individuals, the exclusive ownership of the land by other individuals’ – are reproduced by the social relations which constitute these classes as ‘embodiments’ and ‘personifications’ of ‘this specific social form of the dominant production process’ of capital valorisation.

In part one of my paper, I will discuss the transhistorical aspects of Marx’s theory of social labour. In part two, I will turn to his account of the historically specific social form of capitalist production, how this account conceives of class as social relation, why wage-labourers, capitalists and landowners are the formative elements of the great social classes of the capitalist mode of production and what peculiar types of domination and antagonism these relations consist in. I will close with some thoughts as to what this non-systematic conception of class qua social reproduction leaves out.

Chris O’Kane recently completed his PhD in Social and Political Thought at the University of Sussex. He specialises in social and political philosophy and continental philosophy, with a particular focus on Marx, Marxisms and Critical Theory. He is currently writing a book on social constitution and social domination in Marx, Hegelian-Marxism and Value-Form Theory as well as several articles that develop points from his PhD thesis. He is also editing the selected writings of Alfred Sohn-Rethel. His other research interests include humanism, anti-humanism and negative humanism and critical theories of crisis.


Tibor Rutar – The Marxian Theory of Class: Recentring Exploitation and Class Struggle

Two decades ago, prominent sociologists Jan Pakulski and Malcolm Waters have irrevocably declared the death of class, claiming that ‘class theory and class analysis […] have come to an end. […] [I]t is simply, for us, an obvious truth that class can no longer give us purchase on the big social, political and cultural issues for the age.’ Pakulski and Waters are, sadly, not alone in their plea for social sciences without class. Not only influential poststructuralist theorists such as Barry Hindess, Paul Hirst and Gareth Stedman Jones, but also less radical sociologists such as Ulrich Beck are unashamedly proclaiming the emergence of ‘capitalism beyond class society’.

The purpose of my paper is threefold. First and perhaps most important, I will explicate Marx’s implicit theory of class in order to tease out its theoretical subtleties and political implications. I will explain the connection between social property relations, exploitation and antagonistic material interests. This will allow me to show how class, class struggle and class theory are still alive and well. Second, based on a brief critique of the post-Maxist rejection of the category of class I will defend the analytical distinction between (objective) material interests and the social agents’ (subjective) apprehension of these interests. And third, I will argue that Anthony Giddens’s influential dismissal of such a Marxian theory of class as economically reductionist is based on a fundamental misunderstanding which has not been pointed out by Marxian sociologists. I will conclude, contra Giddens, that we do not need to substitute a Weberian theory of class/status for the Marxian one when analysing pre-capitalist modes of production.

Tibor Rutar is a PhD student of Sociology at the Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana. He is a member of the Institute for Labour Studies and of the Initiative for Democratic Socialism.


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