Marx Explained — How an Economic Class Becomes a Political Class

Karl Marx, one of the greatest philosophers and theorists of all time is often leveled the charge of economic determinism. Readers who read Marx’s works in secondary commentaries tend to miss out the fact that Marx did put a whole lot of emphasis on social action and how it can impact the results of his theory. A deeper more layered look at Marx is required.

For Marx, class is an objective reality as well as a subjective experience. The process of economic class becoming a social class occurs when class consciousness exists within a class. The three great classes of the capitalist mode of production were – capitalists, wage-labourers and land owners. These groups constituted a ‘class’ each because of a common source of income (profit, wage and rent respectively), common location in the production order and common economic situation determining common lifestyle and class experiences.

‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle’, is the opening line of The Communist Manifesto. Marx didn’t consider himself to be analyzing a static society. Many of the classes he spoke of were fast disappearing. Marx opined that at the height of Capitalism, all classes will be absorbed into the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. Even the landowning classes will dissolve into one of these polar classes. In Britain too, where the capitalist order was most developed, middle classes such as the petty-bourgeoisie or the peasants existed which could not be categorized into either of the great classes Marx described.

In Marx’s vision, for a revolution to occur, one class has to identify its oppression with the presupposition that the whole society is in the same situation. It is only when a particular class undertakes the general emancipation of society from its particular situation that revolution can occur. So if the proletariat starts feeling deep class consciousness and a commonness in their oppression that puts them as a hostile ‘other’ against the bourgeoisie, then the proletariat turns from an economic class to a social and political class that can bring about a revolution (dictatorship of the proletariat). On the other hand, if the proletariat is hostile among each other because of competition, it cannot constitute as a political class in opposition to the capitalists. It is only when a class in civil society acquires a universal character because of identifying its struggles as universal struggles, can the opposition between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat acquire a political character.

It is in the process of identifying a common class situation that a class in itself becomes a class for itself. This is why the finance capitalists and industrial capitalists form separate classes in Marx’s vision because they identify with separate class interests. Similarly, Marx feels that the Lumpen proletariat had no historical role to play in bringing about revolution as it was reactionary and ready to sell the services to the bourgeoisie.

The ideas of the ruling class in each epoch are the ruling ideas. So this means that Marx understood that the class owning the material force of production was also controlling the distribution of ideas of his age. The class owning material production also controlled mental production in terms of its intellectual force. The intellectual class is very problematic for Marx to classify as some intellectuals may be selling their services to the capitalists, some may be helping the proletariat understand the situation of oppression. Nevertheless, Marx maintained that the intellectual class to which he himself belonged was capable of doing an objective analysis rising above their own class experience.

Karl Marx didn’t declare himself to be the first to discover class or class conflict. He said that economic historians before him had already done that. What he claims to have discovered new was linking existence of classes to particular historical period as different binaries of oppressor and oppressed – Freeman and slave, Patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, landlord and peasant, capitalist and wage labourer—which would ultimately lead to dictatorship of the proletariat and a classless society.

In his theorization, an oppressed class is the vital condition for every society founded on the antagonism of classes. The antagonism between the proletariat and bourgeoisie is a struggle of class against class which will only culminate in revolution if it is carried to its highest expression. Social movement does not exclude political movement for Marx. There is never a political movement that is not at the same time social. It is only when classes cease to exist, that social revolutions no longer become political revolutions.

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