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Bert Cochran

Classes in America

A Review Article

(April 1955)

From American Socialist, April 1955.
Copied from the American Socialist Archive created by Louis Proyect.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Class, Status And Power, A Reader In Social Stratification
edited by Reinhard Bendix and Seymour Martin Lipset
The Free Press, Glencoe, Illinois, 1954, $7.50.

THE concepts of a class division of society and a struggle between the classes as a motive force of history are considered as specifically Marxian by capitalist social scientists today, and as such naturally damned and rejected out of hand as a self-evidently outlived 19th Century dogma. As Joseph Schumpeter states in his chapter on The Problem of Classes, ‘The very term class struggle, let alone the idea behind it, has fallen into discredit among the best minds in science and politics alike.’ Actually Marx pointed out on many occasions that neither he nor Engels were the discoverers of either the existence of classes in society, or of the struggle between them furnishing the fuel for the fires of history. The great thinkers of bourgeois enlightenment, writing when capitalism was a great emancipating system and not a scourge threatening the very existence of humanity, have the credit for that. Before Marx, they had perceived these relationships at the foundation of society, and with this theory, had opened a window on the past history of peoples. What had been an unintelligible jumble of chronicles, myths, and romances was for the first time transformed into a coherent, systematic and rational explanation of man’s past.

Marx and Engels never systematically set down their theory of social classes. Their ideas can be found scattered through various of their writings dealing with other matters. The editors of this volume attempt to remedy this lack by gathering together in one short essay a number of the pertinent quotations. Their effort is commendable. Unfortunately, they are incapable of understanding what Marx is talking about. College sociology has become so stultified and formalistic that it is simply beyond our two professional sociologists to follow a dynamic mode of thought.

FOR Marx, a class is formed and derives its social position from its role in the social organization of production. Every individual belongs to this or that class by virtue of his place in the productive and social process, irrespective of his own opinions on the subject. But, as with all his concepts, Marx viewed classes, including the modern working class, an motion: He was interested in its origins, its development, and its future. In Poverty of Philosophy, Marx states:

‘The first attempts of the workers to associate among themselves always take place in the form of unions.

‘Large-scale industry concentrates in one place a crowd of people unknown to one another. Competition divides their interests. But the maintenance of wages, this common interest which they have against the boss, unites them on a common thought of resistance – unionization. Thus unionism always has a double aim, that of stopping the competition among themselves, in order to bring about a general competition with the capitalists. If the first aim of the general resistance was merely the maintenance of wages, unions, at first isolated, constitute themselves into groups as the capitalists class in their turn unite with the idea of repression, and in face of always-united capital, the maintenance the union becomes more necessary to them than that of wages. This is so true that the English economists are amazed to see the workers sacrifice a good part of their wages in favor of Unions, which in the eyes of the economist are established solely in favor of wages. In this struggle – a veritable civil war – are united and developed all the elements necessary for the coming battle. Once it has reached this point, unionism takes on a political character.

‘Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers. The domination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests. This mass is thus already a class as against capital but not yet for itself. In this struggle of which we have noted only a few phases, this mass becomes united and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests.’

Whether one agrees or not, Marx’s thought seems perfectly clear. The working class is formed and exists through the organization of the social process. It is an objective fact regardless of anyone’s understanding, or how various individuals picture to themselves their class position. But for a class to understand its own interests and engage in political battles in its own interests, it needs class consciousness. This consciousness is attained however in the course of its inevitable experiences and conflicts with the employing class.

But our authors simply cannot Marx’s distinction between objective class position and class consciousness, or follow his mode of thinking. They juggle a few more quotations to arrive at the incomprehensible conclusion that

‘It will be apparent from the preceding discussion that Marx did not simply identify a social class with the fact that a large group of people occupied the same objective position in the economic structure of a society ... Subjective awareness of class interests was in his view an indispensable element in the development of a social class.’

That this obfuscation derives not from personal obtuseness but from the social function of college sociology is driven home to the reader as he buckles on his armor and proceeds to fight his way through the sixty-odd essays of different authors that comprise this textbook, running all the way from theories of class structure to studies of social mobility among college graduates, to comparative social structures abroad.

THE fathers of American college sociology, writing in the pre-World I days, were still bound by the established concepts of class, were scientists in their field, at least in intention, if not in performance. Their works consisted of attempts at broad systematization and delineation of the role of class forces in American life. Responding to the mode of thought of American society, however, they increasingly stressed the unique ‘classlessness’ of American society, the allegedly harmonious cooperation between the different strata, and the embodiment of American virtue in the great middle class. Ward called for the creation of a ‘sociocracy,’ Sumner coined the phrase ‘the forgotten man,’ and Cooley predicted the growth of a greater ‘open democracy.

These soap bubbles were exploded the first World War, and the college sociologists, as so many others, fell victim to the mania for specialization. The speculations of the founders had been pretty vapid. But all broad theorizing, and all integrated viewpoints, became suspect now. Sociology was chopped up into little compartments: the family, population growth, juvenile delinquency, etc., and the colleges began turning out like sausages monographs on a thousand-and-one unrelated subjects. ‘In this more ‘exact’ and ‘scientific’ treatment of social phenomena, the problems of class were largely neglected,’ writes Charles H. Page in his study on American sociology. The researchers operated on the basis of an eclectic jumble of half-baked ‘multiple-factors’ explanations for all phenomena, or simply limited themselves to an empirical gathering together of statistical data. They no longer aspired to be soaring eagles, but contented themselves with being burrowing moles and hired specialists.

With the social convulsions of the New Deal and the rise of the CIO, our sociologists felt constrained to rediscover the existence of classes in our society. Using the sampling-poll techniques and other new devices that have become popular in the past years, they set out with their sets of questionnaires and IBM machines to chart the social stratification which they could no longer ignore. Several highly valuable studies were written, notably the Lynds’ survey of ‘Middletown,’ and a little later, those of C. Wright Mills on the middle class and the white collar workers. It is not accidental that both these scholars were considerably influenced by Marxist thought. But the main trend is not with them, but with the so-called Warner approach.

W. LLOYD WARNER and a number of associates made elaborate studies of the class structure of three communities, a New England town of 17,000 (Yankee City), a Southern city of 10,000 (Old City), and a mid-Western city of 6,000 (Prairie City), in order to establish the social organization of the typical American community. While it was undoubtedly simpler for the researchers to gather data in small towns, these can hardly serve as examples of the typical American community of present days. Then Warner employed a purely subjective concept of class – determined by what class a person thinks he’s in and what others in town think about it in terms of prestige status (a favorite hobby horse of our college sociologists). After a lot of complicated weighing of indices and sub-indices, and totalling of the weighted ratings, Warner comes up with the earth-shaking division of the community into the following classes: upper-upper, lower-upper, upper-middle, lower-middle, upper-lower, and lower-lower. (Others have discovered 9, 11 and 16 ‘status-classes.’) Warner insists: ‘The social levels are not categories invented by social scientists to help explain what they have to say; they are groups recognized by the people of the community ...’ and that this same pattern of organization exists throughout the country.

Warner’s studies have become the basis for a host of derivative works. For example, Alison Davis and his collaborators have focused on child-rearing practices of middle and lower-class parents. The tenor of the studies and conclusions can be gauged by the following quotations from Davis:

‘Almost all the good things in American life ... are the achievements of middle-status persons: care of and pride in property, careful child-training with emphasis upon renunciation and sacrifice for future gains, long and arduous education, development of complex and demanding skills, working and learning one’s way up in the complex processes of business, industry, government, church, and education – all of them administered ... by the upper-middle class in the American status system ... In order to make low-status children anxious to work hard, study hard, save their money and accept stricter sex mores, our society must convince them of the reality of the rewards at the end of the anxiety-laden climb.’

Warner’s theories have been shot full of holes by a number of critics. C. Wright Mills and others demonstrated that his definition of class is a hopeless muddle, that the analyses of relations in a small town do not furnish a sufficient field for generalization, that even here the class structure is described through the eyes of upper-class residents, that his study is trendless, and an elaborate rationalization for the status-quo. (In Social Class in America, Warner writes: ‘It is the hope of the author that this book will provide a corrective instrument which will permit men and women better to evaluate their social situations and thereby better adapt themselves to social reality and fit their dreams and aspirations to what is possible.’)

NEVERTHELESS, we learn that ‘Warner’s studies have been accorded widespread acclaim and his concepts and methods have been adopted by a large number of investigators.’ And in the wake of Warner and the researchers come the slick salesmen of the status-quo like David Riesman. He asks the question, ‘Who Has the Power?’ in the United States, and answers: No one has the power, or if you prefer, everyone has the power.

‘In the amorphous power structure created by veto groups it is hard to distinguish rulers from the ruled, those to be aided from those to be opposed, those on your side from those on the other side.’

Such is the new wisdom coming out of the colleges, the research teams, the educational foundations. It is pathetically evident that their supercilious scorn for Marxism derives not from superior knowledge or methods that they have discovered, but from their clinging to the established capitalist society, where the center of power is only too clearly evident, and where its retribution is swift and certain upon all transgressors against its vested interests. This is not to say that the world has stood still since Marx’s time, that American society can be understood in all its complexities and tendencies by simply referring to classical works. Marx did not about many recent manifestations of capitalism, and it is possible to analyze more precisely, or more correctly, all sorts of things on the basis of knowledge and experience that we possess today. But all writing in sociology and related fields, if it is to be scientific, has to rest on the methods and contributions of Marx, just as all progress in biology perforce rests on Darwin and his epochal theory of evolution.

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