While socialism and communism have now been thoroughly discredited, many still maintain that Karl Marx's social theories, at least, remain relevant. While grudgingly acknowledging that Marxian economics, in particular the labor theory of value, is neither original nor correct, Marx's defenders claim that his social analysis — in particular, his theory of class conflict — remains a real scientific contribution.
The famous and dramatic opening lines of the Communist Manifesto boldly state that
the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles…. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight.The "distinctive feature" of capitalism, they say, is that in contrast to the "complicated arrangement of society into various orders," the "manifold gradation of social rank" that characterized all "earlier epochs of history," the
epoch of the bourgeoisie … has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: bourgeoisie and proletariat.According to Engels's notes to the 1888 edition, "bourgeois" refers to "capitalists, owners of the means of social production, and employers of wage laborers." Proletarians are defined as those "in the class of modern wage laborers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labor power in order to live."
The process by which capitalism simplifies class antagonisms is presented in detail in volume one of Capital. The bourgeoisie are able to pit worker against worker, thereby keeping wage rates at subsistence levels. And
The lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class.Their fight, however, is in vain: They are unable to compete with the large factories established by the capitalists. They go bankrupt and "are turned into proletarians." Thus, says Marx, "the other classes perish and disappear in the face of modern industry." In time, only two classes remain: the bourgeoisie, who "usurp and monopolize all advantages," and the proletariat, for whom "the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, [and] exploitation" continues to grow. Eventually, this class will become so numerous, and their misery so severe, that they will rise up and "expropriate the expropriators."
On the surface, Marx's definition of class is simple and clear. Yet its implications, as Marx himself came to realize, are devastating to his analysis. Marx assumed that those who owned or controlled the means of production were the rich and powerful, while those who sold their labor did so because they were weak and poor. While he acknowledged that these were "pure" types, Marx believed that as the capitalist system ran its course and the small and middle-class independent operators were gradually eliminated, the class system would become more and more pure.
In fact, the distinction between bourgeoisie and proletariat is neither clear nor simple. First, the characterization of the proletariat as those who work for a living and the bourgeoisie as those who hire others to work for them has an obvious and insidious implication: only one group in society, the proletariat, actually does any productive work, while the bourgeoisie live off or "exploit" the workers. Marx thereby reduces work to physical labor, glossing over the fact that income is earned by providing services to others, and that physical labor is merely one way of doing this. Nevertheless, Marx's definitional distinction between worker and owner was a master stroke of political propaganda. [More]