Marx's Theory of Class

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Marx's definition of class. It's strengths and weaknesses. -

Although the concept of class has a central importance in Marxist theory, Marx does not

define it in a systematic form. Marx left this problem of producing a definition of the concept of

social class until much later. The manuscript of the third volume of Capital breaks off at the

moment when Marx was about to answer the question: 'What constitutes a class?' Even without

his definition of class, one can reconstruct how the term is to be understood in his writings.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx presents us with a theory of world history as a

succession of class struggles for economic and political power. The main classes of pre-capitalist

societies are stated as: 'freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and

journeyman'1. But the dominant theme of Western society is the conflict between the exploiting

bourgeoisie and the exploited proletariat.

Thus it is the class structure of early capitalism, and the

class struggles of this form of society, which constituted the main reference point for the Marxist

theory of history. This is asserted by the Communist Manifesto's famous phrase, that 'the history

of all hitherto existing society is the history of all class struggles'2.

The history of 'civilized' society, for Marx, has been the history of different forms of class

exploitation and domination. It is the form of class domination present which determines the

general character of the whole social structure. For example, the growing of wheat using

traditional, non-mechanical techniques is compatible with a wide range of social relations of

production. A Roman citizen often owned slaves who worked his land growing wheat; a feudal

lord would seize the surplus wheat grown by the serf on the lands; the early capitalist farmers...