Class Theory

Marx's class theory rests on the premise that "thehistory of all hitherto existing society is the history of classstruggles."16 According to this view, ever sincehuman society emerged from its primitive and relativelyundifferentiated state it has remained fundamentally dividedbetween classes who clash in the pursuit of class interests. Inthe world of capitalism, for example, the nuclear cell of thecapitalist system, the factory, is the prime locus of antagonismbetween classes--between exploiters and exploited, between buyersand sellers of labor power--rather than of functionalcollaboration. Class interests and the confrontations of powerthat they bring in their wake are to Marx the central determinantof social and historical process.

Marx's analysis continually centers on how the relationshipsbetween men are shaped by their relative positions in regard tothe means of production, that is, by their differential access toscarce resources and scarce power. He notes that unequal accessneed not at all times and under all conditions lead to activeclass struggle. But he considered it axiomatic that the potentialfor class conflict is inherent in every differentiated society,since such a society systematically generates conflicts ofinterest between persons and groups differentially located withinthe social structure, and, more particularly, in relation to themeans of production. Marx was concerned with the ways in whichspecific positions in the social structure tended to shape thesocial experiences of their incumbents and to predispose them toactions oriented to improve their collective fate.

Yet class interests in Marxian sociology are not given abinitio. They develop through the exposure of people occupyingparticular social positions to particular social circumstances.Thus, in early industrial enterprises, competition divides thepersonal interests of "a crowd of people who are unknown toeach other. . . But the maintenance of their wages, this commoninterest which they have against their employer, brings themtogether."17 "The separate individuals forma class only in so far as they have to carry on a common battleagainst another class; otherwise they are on hostile terms witheach other as competitors."18

Class interests are fundamentally different from, and cannotbe derived from, the individual interests imputed by theutilitarian school and classical British political economy.Potential common interests of members of a particular stratumderive from the location of that stratum within particular socialstructures and productive relations. But potentiality istransformed into actuality, Klasse en sich (class initself) into Klasse fuer sich (class for itself), onlywhen individuals occupying similar positions become involved incommon struggles; a network of communication develops, and theythereby become conscious of their common fate. It is then thatindividuals become part of a cohesive class that consciouslyarticulates their common interests. As Carlyle once put it,"Great is the combined voice of men." Although anaggregate of people may occupy similar positions in the processof production and their lives may have objectively similardeterminants, they become a class as a self-conscious andhistory- making body only if they become aware of the similarityof their interests through their conflicts with opposing classes.

To Marx, the basis upon which stratification systems rest isthe relation of aggregates of men to the means of production. Themajor modern classes are "the owners merely of labor-power,owners of capital, and landowners, whose respective sources ofincome are wages, profit and ground-rent."19Classes are aggregates of persons who perform the same functionin the organization of production. Yet self-conscious classes, asdistinct from aggregates of people sharing a common fate, needfor their emergence a number of conditions among which are anetwork of communication, the concentration of masses of people,a common enemy, and some form of organization. Self-consciousclasses arise only if and when there exists a convergence of whatMax Weber later called "ideal" and "material"interests, that is, the combination of economic and politicaldemands with moral and ideological quests.

The same mode of reasoning that led Marx to assert that theworking class was bound to develop class consciousness once theappropriate conditions were present also led him to contend thatthe bourgeoisie, because of the inherent competitive relationsbetween capitalist producers, was incapable of developing anoverall consciousness of its collective interests.

The classical economists picture the economic system of amarket economy as one in which each man, working in his owninterest and solely concerned with the maximization of his owngains, nevertheless contributes to the interests and the harmonyof the whole. Differing sharply, Marx contended, as Raymond Aronhas put it, that "each man, working in his own interest,contributes both to the necessary functioning and to the finaldestruction of the regime."20

In contrast to the utilitarians who conceive of self-interestas a regulator of a harmonious society, Marx sees individualself-interest among capitalists as destructive of their classinterest in general, and as leading to the ultimateself-destruction of capitalism. The very fact that eachcapitalist acts rationally in his own self-interest leads to everdeepening economic crises and hence to the destruction of theinterests common to all.

The conditions of work and the roles of workers dispose themto solidarity and to overcoming their initial competitiveness infavor of combined action for their collective class interests.Capitalists, however, being constrained by competition on themarket, are in a structural positions that does not allow them toarrive at a consistent assertion of common interests. The marketand the competitive mode of production that is characteristic ofcapitalism tend to separate individual producers. Marx grantedthat capitalists also found it possible to transcend theirimmediate self-interests, but he thought this possible primarilyin the political and ideological spheres rather than in theeconomic. Capitalists, divided by the economic competition amongthemselves, evolved a justifying ideology and a political systemof domination that served their collective interests. "TheState is the form in which the individuals of a ruling classassert their common interests."21 "The ideasof the ruling class are. . .the ruling ideas."22Political power and ideology thus seem to serve the samefunctions for capitalists that class consciousness serves for theworking class. But the symmetry is only apparent. To Marx, theeconomic sphere was always the finally decisive realm withinwhich the bourgeoisie was always the victim of thecompetitiveness inherent in its mode of economic existence. Itcan evolve a consciousness, but it is always a "falseconsciousness," that is, a consciousness that does nottranscend its being rooted in an economically competitive mode ofproduction. Hence neither the bourgeoisie as a class, nor thebourgeois state, nor the bourgeois ideology can serve truly totranscend the self-interest enjoined by the bourgeoisie. Thebourgeois reign is doomed when economic conditions are ripe andwhen a working class united by solidarity, aware of its commoninterests and energized by an appropriate system of ideas,confronts its disunited antagonists. Once workers became awarethat they are alienated from the process of production, the duskof the capitalist era has set in.23

From Lewis A. Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideasin Historical and Social Context, 2nd Ed., Fort Worth:Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1977: 48-50.


  1. Selected Works, I, p. 34.
  2. Selected Writings, p. 186.
  3. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (New York, International Publishers, 1930), pp. 48-49.
  4. Selected Writings, p. 178.
  5. Raymond Aron, Main Currents in Sociological Thought (New York, Basic Books, 1965), Vol. I, p. 135
  6. Selected Writings, p. 223.
  7. Ibid., p. 78.
  8. In the preceding pages I have used a number of ideas first developed in "Karl Marx and Contemporary Sociology," by Lewis A. Coser, Continuities in the Study of Social Conflict (New York, The Free Press, 1967).

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