MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms
"In the process of production, human beings work not only upon nature, but also upon one another. They produce only by working together in a specified manner and reciprocally exchanging their activities. In order to produce, they enter into definite connections and relations to one another, and only within these social connections and relations does their influence upon nature operate – i.e., does production take place.
"These social relations between the producers, and the conditions under which they exchange their activities and share in the total act of production, will naturally vary according to the character of the means of production.
The notion of class, as it is used by Marxists, differs radically from the notion of class as used in bourgeois social theory. According to modern capitalist thinking, class is an abstract universal defined by the common attributes of its members (i.e., all who make less than $20,000 a year constitute a "lower" class); categories and conceptions that have an existence prior to and independent of the people who make up the class.
For dialectical materialism however, the notion of class includes the development of collective consciousness in a class – arising from the material basis of having in common relations to the labour process and the means of production.
Gender and Race: Gender and race issues are often compared to class, but gender and race struggle have their own material bases in society distinct from class, but exist within the class structure. The existence of the working class is created by the capitalist mode of production – capitalism could not survive without wage labor – therefore the political emancipation of the working class as a whole can only be achieved through revolution. Capitalism can survive, and in fact necessitates the need for completely free labor, with equality between workers of all races and genders; thus women and minorities, through tremendous and painful struggles, slowly gain political emancipation through reformist movements ("women's liberation", "civil rights", etc.). The struggle of gender and race are critical political and social issues, because without these struggles and victories there can be no real unity between workers. Unity is imperative for workers to free all humanity from exploitation, so long as workers are divided, we will continue to be conquered. For further readings see the subject section on Marxism on Women.
Class Struggle: Classes emerge only at a certain stage in the development of the productive forces and the social division of labour, when there exists a social surplus of production, which makes it possible for one class to benefit by the expropriation of another. The conflict between classes there begins, founded in the division of the social surplus, and constitutes the fundamental antagonism in all class. As capitalism was just beginning to create itself, Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels explained the processes they had witnessed:
"Modern Industry has converted the little workshop of the patriarchal master into the great factory of the industrial capitalist. Masses of laborers, crowded into the factory, are organized like soldiers. As privates of the industrial army, they are placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants. Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois state; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlooker, and, above all, in the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself. The more openly this despotism proclaims gain to be its end and aim, the more petty, the more hateful and the more embittering it is.
"The increasing improvement of machinery, ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious; the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeois take more and more the character of collisions between two classes. Thereupon, the workers begin to form combinations (trade unions) against the bourgeois; they club together in order to keep up the rate of wages; they found permanent associations in order to make provision beforehand for these occasional revolts. Here and there, the contest breaks out into riots.
"Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lie not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers. This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by Modern Industry, and that place the workers of different localities in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralize the numerous local struggles, all of the same character, into one national struggle between classes.
What is the breaking point? When does the class struggle reach such a height that the increasingly backward structure of capitalist production is overthrown?
"Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells. For many a decade past, the history of industry and commerce is but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against the property relations that are the conditions for the existence of the bourgeois and of its rule. It is enough to mention the commercial crises that, by their periodical return, put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on its trial, each time more threateningly. In these crises, a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. In these crises, there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity -- the epidemic of over-production.
"Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed. And why? Because there is too much civilization, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce. The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand, by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.
"The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage labor. Wage labor rests exclusively on competition between the laborers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the laborers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.
Class struggle underlies most political struggle. But class struggle certainly is not the only form of struggle in society! Race and gender related oppression and struggle are some of the foremost examples of struggle that is not based on class. While these struggles happen in a definite class environment, race and gender oppression is not always based on economic reasons, but also can exist as a result of archaic social understanding. For example, in the 18th-century United States, Negro slavery was imperative for the survival of the cotton and tobacco industry in the south – thus, racial discrimination had a definite class basis: the maintenance of a class of slaves. In the struggle for their emancipation, a Civil War was necessary to break Negroes out of slavery and into proletarian existence. Continuing racial discrimination in the 21st century in the United States, no longer based on economic necessity, stems from deeply ingrained social racism of the past.
Historical Overview: In “primitive communism” there may be a highly developed social division of labour and even social inequality, but no classes, because each appropriates the product their own labour in its entirety, and division of labour and distribution of the product is determined by kinship relations.
In Slave Society, the productivity of labour is such that a slave-owning class is able to hold in bondage another class of slaves who are themselves the property of the slave-owners. The status of the main class of producers themselves as property, is the characteristic of slave society; slaves are not citizens, have no rights and are not regarded in slave society as human beings at all.
In Feudal Society the Nobility expropriate a definite proportion of the product of the producing classes, such as the Serfs, according to a system of traditional obligations, which define the rights and responsibilities, most particularly in relation to the land, of all classes in feudal society. Although the peasantry own their own land, and are recognised as citizens with rights, they are not free to change their station in life which is determined by traditional systems based on kinship. The producers in feudal society own the product of their own labour, except labour given under a specific requirements determined by traditional obligations, such as having to work the Duke's estate every second Saturday, give one-tenth of their crop to the priest or fighting in the army when there's war, etc., etc.
In bourgeois society the producing class, the Proletariat, are “free labourers” in the sense that they are free from any compulsion on the part of any other person as to how, where and when they work. However, the means of production are the private property of the Bourgeoisie (or Capitalists), while the Proletariat (or Working-class) has nothing to sell but its own capacity to work (unlike the peasantry of feudal society who labour on their own land), and must sell their labour power to the capitalists in order to live. The slave-owner was obliged to feed his slaves even when he had no work for them; the peasant always had his own land to work; but the proletariat is entirely free of these restraints, and if there is no work or if wages are too low, she must starve.
In a future Communist Society private property in the means of production will be non-existent and will be used in common by the producing class, marking the dissolution of all classes. This is not, of course, to say that there would be no differences or conflicts or that there would be no division of labour – on the contrary. But the means and products of labour would not be private property, and consequently, the conflicts between different people and groups of people would not be antagonistic.
In all these social formations (and there are others, only the most classic forms are basically mentioned above) there are other classes apart form the two basic classes – the Owners of the Means of Production, and the Producers. These other classes may be intermediate between the two basic classes or may be dependent upon one or the other.
A notion begins to emerge when we 'identify' 'different' things and begin to observe the relations between them. Hegel points out that the natural science of his time was largely at that stage, 'classifying' things, and either identifying or differentiating, but not yet understanding Opposition and Contradiction, and thus missing Transition and real immanent relation. This stage of the development of natural science lends itself to abstract formal logic and methods of formal comparison.
The two principal methods of classification are Taxonomy and Typology.
Further Reading: Hegel on: Arbitrary classification, Division of the subject matter of science, 'the notion is not a mere sum of features common to several things, ... It is, on the contrary, self-particularising'. 'Difference and identity in natural science'