You Might be a Marxist If ... You’re Class Conscious

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In the opening line of the Communist Manifesto Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote “[t]he history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

Marx and Engels were referring to struggles among social classes. It’s important for everyone to become conscious of and to think clearly about social class because 1) every member of society belongs to a class; 2) your class status has a tremendous influence on your social attitudes and life prospects; and 3) class struggle plays the key role in shaping our world politically, economically, and culturally.

What are classes? In the broadest sense, a class is simply a group consisting of members that share specific characteristics. The members of a class can be anything from human beings to inanimate objects, from concepts of any kind imaginable to entire belief systems. For example, the class of bicycles is made up of all two-wheeled, pedal-powered cycles; the class of religions contains all belief systems pertaining to worship of a supernatural power or powers; the class of teachers includes all who instruct pupils; and the class of all even numbers between 1 and 100 contains precisely that. In the case of social classes we are talking about groups of people who share specific social characteristics.

Marx and Engels were referring to specific kinds of social classes called economic classes. Unlike the innocuous examples of classes listed above, the subject of economic class can be as volatile as dynamite.    An economic class is made up of all people who share the same economic characteristics. So it is your specific economic circumstances that determine the economic class to which you belong. Which specific characteristics are most important in determining your economic class membership? You might be surprised to learn that Marx and Engels did not consider the size of a person’s income to be the characteristic that determines class membership. Instead, according to Marx and Engels, class membership is defined by your relationship to the means of production, that is, whether you are a capitalist or a worker.

In Marxist terminology, the means of production consist of the factories, farms, machines, and tools that are necessary for producing the essential goods that sustain life and other articles of social wealth. In a capitalist society the means of production are owned by capitalists (also called the bourgeoisie in some Marxist writings). Capitalists make up one of the two major economic classes in capitalist society. The capitalist class is defined by its relationship to the means of production, which is one of private ownership. The other major class in capitalist society is the working class (also called the proletariat in some Marxist writings). The working class is also defined by its relationship to the means of production, which is one of dispossession. Back in the early days of capitalism the emerging capitalist class succeeded in taking the means of production away from the vast majority of society. The capitalists became the private owners of the means of production and the members of the working class were and still are left with nothing but their ability to perform labor, which they must sell to the capitalists in exchange for wages. In other words, the working class must sell its labor power to the capitalist class just to gain access to the means of production that once belonged to the workers. The workers are not even permitted to keep what they produce when they are working for the capitalists because the capitalists appropriate everything the workers create. Instead the capitalists pay their employees a wage, which the working class must then use to buy the products that they produced for the capitalists in the first place.

In addition to being a dispossessed class, the working class is an exploited class. Capitalists want to maximize profits, and they do this by exploiting workers. The basic method of capitalist exploitation is very simple. Capitalists pay workers the lowest wage they can get away with (as close to bare survival as possible) while forcing their employees to do the maximum amount of work in any given period of time. More specifically, capitalists try to maximize the value they get out of workers by increasing the period of time that they must work beyond the time it takes workers to produce enough to cover their wage or salary.

For example, in a previous article we looked at an auto parts worker who was paid $50 per 8-hour day. That worker was able to produce $50 worth of product in approximately 3 minutes. Thus it took the worker an insignificant amount of time to produce enough value to cover the day’s wage. If you consider only those 3 minutes, it looks like an equal exchange between the worker and the capitalist. The worker produced $50 worth of product and will be paid $50 in return. But don’t forget, the factory worker has to stay on the production line for a much longer time—another 7 hours and 57 minutes— just to get the $50. If this had been an even exchange, in which the wage equals exactly what the worker produces, the workday would have ended after those 3 minutes. But if that happened the capitalist wouldn’t make any profit, and maximizing profit is the whole point of capitalist exploitation of the working class. Nearly $8,000 worth of surplus value was produced during the additional 7-plus hours that the worker was forced to remain at work. The capitalist steals this value from the worker; the worker is never paid for producing it. This theft of surplus value is what is meant by the term “capitalist exploitation.”

The fact that different classes have opposed and irreconcilable interests gives rise to class struggle. Class struggle results from the attempts of each class to advance its interests in the face of resistance from other social classes. In capitalist society, the fundamental source of class struggle is the conflict between the capitalist class and the working class.

The working class is dispossessed and exploited – in plain language, robbed – by the capitalist class. The working class is also oppressed by capitalists’ efforts to prevent workers from becoming class conscious, from understanding that they are oppressed under capitalism, and from successfully resisting capitalist robbery and oppression. The capitalist class has an interest in preserving and strengthening its grip on society and its dominance over the working class. Capitalists want to protect private ownership of the means of production and they want to continue to use their control over the means of production to keep stealing surplus value from the working class. By contrast, the working class has an interest in ending exploitation, dispossession, and oppression, in taking back ownership of the means of production, placing them under democratic control, and using them to benefit the vast majority of society. In short, workers have an interest in replacing capitalism with socialism.

The capitalists’ greatest fear is the spread of class conscious among the working class; that workers will awaken to their common interests and become aware of the enormous power in their numbers; that they will come to understand that the way forward for the working class and all humanity is to abolish capitalist exploitation, private ownership of the means of production, and capitalist oppression. In other words, nothing frightens the capitalists more than the threat that workers will gain a clear understanding of their class interests and unite to abolish capitalism. And that is why the capitalists will use any means necessary to keep workers ignorant and divided, to prevent them from becoming class conscious and from acting on that consciousness to liberate their class. Thus capitalists will use race, religion, gender, nationality, income level, immigration status, blue collar versus white collar, and any other type of exploitable difference to divide workers and keep them fighting with each other rather than against their common enemy: capitalism. And when these tactics fail, capitalists never hesitate to resort to the open violence, terrorism, dictatorship, and warfare against the working class that are the hallmarks of fascism.    

If you are a worker who understands that all workers must stick together and fight for their class interests regardless of any other differences; and, since capitalism is a global system, that working class unity must be forged not only on the national level, but globally as well, then you are a class conscious worker, and you might just be a Marxist.

Photo by MN AFL-CIO, cc by 2.0

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  • Truly an apt description of classical Marxist theory. The language is put into a more modern context, and properly explains Marx and Engels theory.

    Comrade Pena, I tip my hat to you.

    Posted by M L Hopp, 12/16/2010 4:12am (12 years ago)

  • After reading this article, I love the egalitarian principles of Marxism, adjusting the democratic principle for freedom and responsibility in a whole. I prefer Communalist to be called to Marxist.

    Posted by Joseph, 12/16/2010 3:43am (12 years ago)

  • Very nicely explained. Add some discussion questions and it would make a really good study guide. I really like running these basic Marxism essays, because we can't really understand the days' events without them.

    I did something similar, with simple questions, at
    http://tx.cpusa.org/school/clastruggle.htm.

    --jim lane

    Posted by jim lane, 12/08/2010 12:37pm (12 years ago)

  • Beautifully written! A perfect primer on class consciousness and the class struggle!

    Posted by Joseph Waters, 12/07/2010 3:07pm (12 years ago)

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